First-time visitors traveling south through San Francisco’s Mission District may feel as if this famed hub of burritos, boutiques, and beautiful murals goes on forever. However, those who choose to venture across the vast neighborhood’s southern border at Cesar Chavez and up the dauntingly steep streets on the other side will be rewarded with one of San Francisco’s most underrated neighborhoods perched atop an imposing hill.
The Cool Kid on the Block
Bernal Heights residents have many reasons why they love it here. They enjoy the tight-knit community, sunny weather, jaw-dropping views, and the many restaurants, bars, and shops. One of the biggest draws to this quiet neighborhood sitting high above the southeastern corner of San Francisco is its effortless, unassuming charm. You probably won’t find Bernal Heights on many lists of must-visit San Francisco attractions, but residents are okay with that. The city is a patchwork of distinctive neighborhoods with their own personalities, and Bernal Heights is confident in who it is.
An Oasis in the Heart of the City
Families looking to buy are attracted to Bernal Heights. The area allows residents escape the noise and chaos of downtown, the Mission, and surrounding neighborhoods. However, they don’t sacrifice convenience by moving further west. As one of San Francisco’s many “urban villages,” Bernal’s precipitous streets are flanked by modest, single-family houses. Thanks to strict height restrictions, multi-family apartment buildings are largely prohibited. As a result, Bernal Heights residents – or “Bernalese” as they sometimes refer to themselves – tend to feel part of a more self-contained community.
Commuting via car from Bernal Heights to downtown San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area is a breeze. Residents without a vehicle can use Muni’s 67 Bernal Heights bus, which connects the neighborhood to the 24th & Mission BART station. Or, they can take the 24 Divisadero bus, which whisks riders up and down hills through Noe Valley, the Castro, the Western Addition, and Pacific Heights.
Not a fan of driving or bussing? Exploring Bernal’s narrow, tree-lined avenues and garden-flanked staircases on foot is a lovely way to get some exercise on a sunny afternoon. That being said, walking as a daily means of transportation can be challenging. Some of the steepest streets in San Francisco can be found in Bernal Heights, including the steepest of them all: Bernal’s Bradford Street which is set at a dizzying 41% grade.
Bernal Heights Park: The Crown Jewel
Quite literally crowning Bernal Hill, Bernal Heights Park is a 26-acre hilltop paradise replete with hiking trails and astounding 360-degree views of downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, Sutro Tower, San Bruno Mountain, and the surrounding Bay Area. Recognizable from many parts of the city by the cluster of trees and microwave tower clinging to its summit, the entire park is also a designated off-leash area, making Bernal a popular destination for dog owners.
Like the neighboring Mission District, Bernal Heights is protected from the fog by Twin Peaks. The neighborhood is basked in sunshine while the western half of the city is shrouded in fog. In the spring, Bernal Heights Park’s native grasslands dramatically transform into an emerald green, dotted with bright orange California poppies. During summer, visitors can check out the park in the evening to watch the sunset over Karl the Fog as he creeps over the top of Twin Peaks.
A Haven for Small Businesses
While many other neighborhoods have succumbed to the Whole Foods Effect, small businesses along Cortland Avenue (Bernal’s charming commercial corridor on the south side of the hill) continue to thrive. Longtime staples like The Good Life Grocery helped transform the neighborhood into what it is today. Restaurants such as Little Nepal, Vega Pizzeria, Moki Sushi, and Piqueo’s add a delightful variety to the Bernal restaurant scene. Head to Bernal Star or Progressive Grounds for brunch and coffee on their cozy backyard patios, or grab a drink at a number of popular local watering holes like The Lucky Horseshoe or Holy Water. Wild Side West, San Francisco’s last remaining lesbian bar, harkens back to Bernal’s history as a lesbian enclave in the 80s and 90s.
Down the hill, the Alemany Farmers’ Market springs to life every Saturday, bringing local goods and fresh California produce to its permanent facilities on the south side of the neighborhood. The first farmers’ market in California and the only one run by the City of San Francisco, it is often referred to as the “people’s market” for its affordability and vibrant community atmosphere.
The Hill of Hidden Treasures
Visitors may flock to Bernal for the hilltop views or an IPA at the dog-friendly Barebottle Brewing Company taproom on Cortland, but residents will be the first to tell you that Bernal Heights has an abundance of hidden treasures off the beaten path. On the southwestern side of the neighborhood, Holly Park and St. Mary’s Park offer recreational facilities galore. Both have yet another off-leash spot for the dogs. Crest the hill and take a stroll down Folsom Street to the north for takeout. Or, make a picnic from one of the handful of restaurants surrounding Precita Park with its shaded lawn, gated playground, and butterfly garden.
While it may fly under the radar for most tourists, Bernal Heights has become a popular destination for families looking to enjoy all that San Francisco has to offer without the hustle and bustle associated with living in a big city. Whether you’re taking one of the many hidden staircases winding to the top of the hill or a slide back down to the bottom, one thing can be said for certain: Bernal Heights is worth the climb.
Curious about some of the homes we’ve done in Bernal Heights? Check out the property websites below!