San Francisco might be a small city in terms of square miles, but what it lacks in size, it definitely makes up for in its sheer volume of culture and history. Take for example the stretch of Mission Street between the 16th Street and 24th Street BART subway stations: in those few blocks, all of your senses are bound to be tickled by something interesting, tasty, eye-opening, and even tastier, and you’ll experience the strange sensation of feeling like you’re definitely in San Francisco but that you could also be in Latin America.
The Mission District’s mixture of old school and new cool goes all the way back to World War II when Mexican families settled here and opened up markets, clothing stores and bakeries. Many of the storefronts have remained unchanged throughout the years, and they survive alongside modern eateries and bars where San Francisco’s young and hip head on sunny weekends. This makes for an eclectic, colorful cacophony of murals and mariachi music; dark coffee shops and eateries with food from everywhere from the American South to the South of India; and a fascinating collection of people on the sidewalks.
Once you get out of the 16th Street BART station (catch BART from the Civic Center or Powell stations if you’re staying at HI San Francisco City Center or HI San Francisco Downtown, respectively) you’ll be right in the thick of Mission Street. Within the first block you’re met by at least three taquerias, but avoid the temptation for now, because there are iconic murals to explore first. Just after the 17th Street intersection, you’ll find Clarion Alley, a lane famous for its kaleidoscope of wall art painted by a collective of artists from the Mission known as the Clarion Alley Mural Project. Bright depictions of modern day life and local history line the walls along with quirky cartoon creatures and slogans in bubble letters creating a world that even the most road-tested travelers won’t be able to resist putting on Instagram.
From Clarion Alley, carry on half a block down Mission Street for a browse through the stacks at Bolerium Books. True to its form as a San Francisco bookstore, Bolerium specializes in literature around American and international social movements, and studies around African American, Hispanic, and Asian communities in the U.S. They also have leaflets, pamphlets and posters from protests and movements of the past, as well as out-of-print rarities. Even if you don’t end up buying anything, it’s still an enriching experience to be surrounded by the products of activism from all over the world. You can also find new and rare books from Latin America and the Caribbean next door at Libros Latinos for a deeper sense of the roots of the Mission community.
For something a little different, pop into Mission: Comics & Art for a look at modern and classic comics and graphic novels, as well as art from local creatives.
Now that you’ve earned it, you can stop for some tacos or a classic Mission burrito at Taqueria Cancun where they serve straightforward Mexican food at a good price, making it perfect for the hungry traveler. From there, it’s a dive into another quintessential Mission activity: thrift shopping. Mission Thrift is a favorite spot for vintage connoisseurs and fun costume seekers, and picking up a fun piece of clothing here makes for a better souvenir than a standard I Heart SF shirt. The best part is that a portion of your purchase goes towards charity, so you get to contribute to a good cause too.
After a fruitful day of exploring, you can plop down for a good couple of hours a few blocks down at Doc’s Clock, a sweet little local joint that serves up strong cocktails and generous happy hour specials six days a week. The kitschy dive bar has arcade games and a jukebox, fun activities (like a Barbie mutilation night) and also happens to be a San Francisco Green Business, which means this is a great spot for mingling with locals and making friends.
From there, take the four-block stroll to the 24th Street BART, taking the last opportunity to fill your eyes, ears and nose with the colors, sounds and scents of this beautiful piece of San Francisco.
HI USA tip: See more of the Mission neighborhood on Saturdays during the Mission Walking Tour offered at our San Francisco hostels. Also check out another iconic San Francisco street if you’re up for more exploring.