If you’re moving in the San Francisco Bay Area, you’ve got a lot of ground to cover when you’re deciding where to live – whether it’s a neighborhood in the heart of town or outside the city in one of the many eclectic communities that surround the bay.
The SF Bay Area is a sprawling metropolis of almost 8 million people and nine counties, with stunning water views, hiking and biking trails, and a mélange of neighborhoods and cultures.
You’ll find that living in the SF suburbs outside the city proper has a lot of benefits – including cheaper apartments and homes (in some places), more access to nature, and plenty of commuting options if you work in downtown San Francisco or Silicon Valley.
Since choosing the right Bay area neighborhood can be quite the challenge, this guide focuses on the areas outside the city itself. For quick reference, we’ve included average rent and median home prices from Rent Jungle and Zillow, respectively. Interested in living in the city? We’ve got you covered with our guide to the best San Francisco neighborhoods. And while you’re shopping for your next home, you can start planning for a smooth relocation with our tips on everything you need to know about moving in San Francisco.
San Francisco Bay Area Map
The main areas to live outside San Francisco are the North Bay, the East Bay and the South Bay, often referred to as The Peninsula. Where you decide to live depends on where you work, whether you want to live in a single-family home or apartment, your commuting situation, and if you’re looking for the best San Francisco schools.
Another factor to consider is the nightlife scene. Some San Francisco Bay area neighborhoods have a rollicking variety of live music and dive bars, while others go completely quiet after 6 p.m.
The North Bay:
Sausalito, Mill Valley, and San Rafael
Nature lovers will rejoice in the North Bay, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. You’ll catch incredible views of the Bay, Alcatraz, and sparkling San Francisco in the distance from coastal towns like Sausalito and Tiburon.
Mill Valley, an upscale town right next to Muir Woods National Monument and Mount Tamalpais State Park, boasts a variety of high-end restaurants and boutiques.
And you can’t go wrong the further north you go – you’ll be even closer to California’s famous wine country. However, if you relocate north of San Rafael you’ll be in the thick of traffic to and from San Francisco.
The North Bay, especially Marin County, is still an expensive place to live in the San Francisco Bay Area – rent and home prices rival San Francisco itself. However, you’ll find great transportation options, both with the Golden Gate Ferry system and Golden Gate Transit with plush buses and Wi-Fi to downtown San Francisco.
Looking for good San Francisco schools in the North Bay?
If you’re considering moving to the North Bay with your family, there are plenty of good schools to choose from. In fact, Redwood High School is ranked #20 in the United States, with other Marin County schools routinely scoring A and A+ grades on Niche.com. There are a mix of public and private schools in Marin County, with schools in Sausalito and San Rafael ranking a little lower than Mill Valley and Larkspur.
This tourist destination is perched on a hill between Richardson Bay and Highway 101, and features a variety of apartment complexes, houseboats for rent, and single-family homes.
Stroll down Bridgeway Avenue to find iconic waterfront restaurants like The Trident and Spinnaker, live music at No Name Bar, and hoppin’ brunch spots. Sausalito is also home to one of the best sushi spots in the entire region: Sushi Ran.
If you work in San Francisco, living in Sausalito makes for an easy commute.
Commuting and Transportation: 30-40 minutes driving depending on traffic, a 30-minute ferry ride to the Embarcadero and Market Streets, 45 minutes by bus.
Average Rent: $3,632
Median Home Value: $1.4 million
Tucked within stands of second-growth redwood trees and nestled between several hills, it’s hard to imagine Mill Valley is just a 40-minute drive from San Francisco. Downtown is a mix of trendy and boho chic, with cafes, restaurants, and a town square punctuated by The Depot Bookstore & Café, where families hang out on weekends.
This small North Bay community is mostly family-oriented —probably not a great match for singles looking for an exciting nightlife. Mill Valley’s close proximity to nature trails and the ocean makes this a popular destination for hikers and bicyclists.
Commuting and Transportation: 40 minutes by car, 45-60 minutes on the bus
Average rent: $2,500
Median home value: $1.6 million
Even though average rents seem high, you can find more affordable gems under $2,000 in San Rafael, which has a mix of single-family homes and apartment complexes. This city has a more middle-class vibe than its fancy neighbors and offers a family-friendly farmer’s market with live music and vendors every Thursday night during the summer months.
A stroll down 4th Avenue brings you to breweries, ethnic restaurants, and coffee shops, and a short drive east takes you to the trails of China Camp along San Pablo Bay.
Commuting and Transportation: 45 minutes by car, 60 minutes by bus
Average rent: $2,700
Median home value: $1.1 million
Other North Bay neighborhoods to check out: Larkspur, Corte Madera, Novato, and Petaluma
The East Bay: OAKLAND, Berkeley, and Alameda
If you’re looking for walkable neighborhoods, ethnic food, and a hip crowd, the East Bay might be for you. With popular cities like Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda, East Bay is a vibrant, artsy, and eclectic mix of neighborhoods. Thanks to gentrification in San Francisco, many artists and musicians now call the East Bay home.
Not only do you have access to hiking and biking trails in Tilden and Redwood Regional Parks, getting to San Francisco is easy via BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit. People who live in downtown Oakland or Alameda can also hop on a ferry for a peaceful commute across the Bay.
Looking for good San Francisco schools in the East Bay?
Public schools in the Oakland Unified School District score below average on Niche.com and Good Schools, so you may want to consider private schools. The College Preparatory School in Oakland ranks as the best private high school in the entire San Francisco Bay Area.
Berkeley and Alameda do better on the public schools ranking. Berkeley has a graduation rate of 81%, while Alameda schools score mostly 9s and 10s with Great Schools.
While parts of Oakland are safer than others, there are many wonderful places to live for singles and families alike.
The bustling Lake Merritt area is home to high-rise apartment buildings and a 3-mile paved path around the lake. In this ‘burb, you’ll have access to Grand Avenue, with outdoor patios, coffee shops, and the historic Grand Lake Theater.
Rockridge’s streets are lined with beautiful craftsman homes, with eateries and shopping along College Avenue.
In the mood for a view? You’ll find plenty of large homes in the hilly Montclair neighborhood, which boasts gorgeous vistas of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge.
Commuting and Transportation: 15-30 minutes on BART, 30-60 minutes driving, 30 minutes on the ferry
Average rent: $2,700
Median home value: $800,000
The University of California Berkeley is the centerpiece of this liberal-leaning city in the San Francisco Bay area. There’s plenty of outdoor access here, as Berkeley is bordered by Tilden Regional Park to the East, and is home to the Berkeley Rose Garden and Indian Rock Park.
Berkeley has a vibrant college culture along University and Shattuck Avenues. The “Gourmet Ghetto” is a part of north Berkeley with the storied Chez Panisse, and other delicious eateries like the Cheese Board. This San Francisco Bay area neighborhood maintains a community feel, with walkable, tree-lined streets.
Commuting and Transportation: 30-40 minutes on BART, 35-60 minutes driving depending on traffic
Average rent: $3,038
Median home value: $1.3 million
The island of Alameda boasts a bustling downtown corridor, craftsman homes on tree-lined streets, and a wide swatch of sand with Bay access and incredible views of San Francisco. You almost don’t feel like you’re in an exciting metropolis when you’re in Alameda, which is family- and community-oriented.
If you’re expecting a vibrant nightlife for singles, this may not be the right San Francisco suburb for you. However, the western tip of the island, which used to be a Naval Air Station, is a fun afternoon spot, home to breweries, distilleries, and a monthly antique fair. You can also tour the U.S.S. Hornet, an aircraft carrier with a reputation for being haunted.
Commuting and Transportation: 35-60 minutes driving to downtown San Francisco, 20 minutes on the ferry
Average rent: $2,591
Median home value: $1 million
Other East Bay neighborhoods to check out: Hayward, Walnut Creek, Danville
The South Bay (The Peninsula): San Mateo, Palo Alto, San Jose
The South Bay/Peninsula is home to tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Apple, and prestigious Stanford University. If you’re looking for ZIP codes cheaper than San Francisco, this probably isn’t the place to be. Atherton, in San Mateo County, is the most expensive place to live in the entire country, with average home prices topping $7 million.
The Peninsula boasts luxury shopping centers, upscale hotels, and fine dining, but it also has a quieter and more laid-back feel than San Francisco.
Despite its pockets of fanciness and expensive homes, there are affordable and family-friendly places to live in the South Bay. There are more trees, more places to park, and farmers markets on weekends.
Looking for good San Francisco schools in the South Bay?
The South Bay and Peninsula have the top-rated public schools in the entire San Francisco Bay area, according to Niche.com. Los Gatos Unified, Palo Alto Unified, and Mountain View Unified take the top three spots. San Jose Unified is a bit lower than the other three but still above average, with a B+ overall grade on Niche.com.
San Mateo was ranked as the 29th best place to live in the United States, and features a sunny climate, casual vibe, and great public schools. Plus, you’re only about a 30-minute drive from San Francisco and San Jose.
Downtown San Mateo has plenty of eateries and bars to choose from, like Ramen Dojo and the sandwich shop Mr. Pickles.
Coyote Point Park, a rocky outcropping that juts into the San Francisco Bay, is a great place for a picnic or a walk. If you’re craving the beach, the Pacific coastline is less than an hour away.
Commuting and Transportation: 20-minute drive to Facebook and Google, 30-45 minutes to San Francisco, 40 minutes to San Francisco on Caltrain
Average Rent: $3,202
Median Home Value: $1.4 million
Palo Alto is at the heart of Silicon Valley and is also home to Stanford University. You’ll find a college vibe along this town’s beautiful tree-lined streets in this vibrant, safe community.
Residents love the community feel, the sunny weather, and the variety of coffee shops and restaurants. The famed Coupa Coffee was even featured in the movie “The Social Network.”
Palo Alto is in a rain shadow because it’s located next to the Santa Cruz Mountains, which block rain-producing weather systems. As a result, the city has an incredible 261 sunny days per year. If you love biking, Palo Alto is for you, with its variety of bike lanes and easily accessible mountain biking trails.
Commuting and Transportation: 10-minute drive to Facebook and Google, 40-60 minutes to San Francisco, 1 hour to San Francisco on Caltrain
Average Rent: $3,799
Median Home Value: $3.1 million
San Jose offers a mix of suburban and urban feel with 300 sunny days per year. Outdoorsy types will love this city’s proximity to the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Diablo Range, and Castle Rock State Park. Sports fans can catch a rousing game of hockey with the San Jose Sharks at the SAP Center.
This Silicon Valley city has its own character, with the iconic architecture of the historic Winchester Mystery House, a 120-acre flea market, and upscale mall Santana Row.
With prices a little lower than other South Bay communities, this is a popular spot for families and young professionals.
Commuting and Transportation: 20-30-minute drive to Facebook and Google, 60-90 minutes driving to San Francisco, 90 minutes to San Francisco on Caltrain
Average Rent: $2,985
Median Home Value: $1 million
Other South Bay neighborhoods to check out: Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Saratoga
Wherever you end up relocating in the Bay area, it’s bound to be an adventure of a lifetime, with so many distinctive neighborhoods and scenic views at every turn – especially if you’re moving from another state. Here’s a handy moving checklist so you don’t waste a moment getting settled.
Kristin Hanes is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in SF Gate, Marie Claire, and Realtor.com, among other publications.