Ask a Canadian: Decoding Bay Area Locations

Your choice of where to live in the Bay Area will likely be largely driven by work location and the need to manage your commute, which is sensible.  Nonetheless, it is wise to develop a sense for what each area in the Bay offers; there are an amazing variety of places and ways to live: urban and gritty (SF Mission), rural and bucolic (Far East Bay, Far North Bay, Gilroy), Marine (the coast).  Each area has its own vibe, micro climate and aficionados.

It is a tall order to detail the differences, tones and cultures in the myriad of locations you can choose in a region as diverse as the Bay Area; we can only provide a limited summary here, so let’s get started on a whirlwind tour.

North Bay

The North Bay, North of the Golden Gate Bridge, includes some of the wealthiest counties in the country and has a steady, vintage-suburban, bucolic feel about it.  This is where a lot of the current environmental movement got started and where mountain biking grew into a major outdoor sport.  Living here means that you can have a leafy, green life with only a 30 minute commute into the City across the Golden Gate bridge.

Marin County, with towns like Corte Madera, Larkspur and Mill Valley is closest to the City with access via the GG bridge, ferry and express bus.  It is super quaint with an outdoorsy feel and houses come with a hefty price tag.  It has easy access to Mount Tamalpais (Mount Tam), The Headlands and Point Reyes, three incredible outdoor areas just North / Northwest of the City.

Further North you’ll find Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Novato where things turn more suburban and rural, with great access to the ocean and countryside.  North of here gets rural fast: horses, chickens and bees anyone?  To the East of 101 is the fabled wine country (Napa, Sonoma, Calistoga) a great spot to live if you can work remotely or do not have to work at all (lucky you!).  Some folks commute from here to the City but that takes fortitude.

There is only one major highway access in and out of the North Bay (Highway 101 which crosses the Golden Gate bridge into the city).  This gets busy (and backed up) during rush hour.

The City

San Francisco isn’t really that big ( just under 900,000 occupants) but offers a lot of variety in neighborhoods and lifestyles. On the one hand, you have access to a huge variety of restaurants and food sources (good grocery stores, farmers markets, specialty food shops), music (highbrow and not so high) and events (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the Bay to Breakers run) and parks (Golden Gate, The Presidio, Fort Funston) on the other, you have to put up with super entrenched homelessness, a high level of petty property crime and cold, heavy fog at the most inopportune times.  Karl the Fog has his own Instagram account and is lovingly tracked by locals - after all he is part of what makes the City amazing.

The Western side of the City - Richmond and the Sunset , also known as “The Avenues” - is somewhat more affordable that other parts of the City but can be foggy and cool (cold!) in the summer, when the Central Valley heats up and sucks cool air in from the Pacific over San Francisco.  Access to South of Market (SOMA) is via public bus and streetcar (“Muni”), which can bring new meaning to the words “patience” and “long suffering”.

Cow Hollow, The Marina and North Beach, along the Bay, in the sun and with views of Golden Gate bridge and access to the Bay, are charming, active and more expensive locations to live.  These neighborhoods wrap around Pacific Heights, home to a mix of older apartments, single family homes and mansions for the wealthy.

You’ll find sunny new housing - predominantly mid rise condos and apartments - in SOMA and Mission Bay, and classic older apartments and houses in the Mission, Potrero Hill and Noe (pronounced “know-ee”) Valley.  If you’re looking for a place to live in the City, you’ll likely be working in this area or downtown, in which case you’ll tangle with San Francisco’s intense homeless population, whose locus is the Tenderloin district around Market Street, adjacent to the Civic Center.  Even for the travel hardened, the site of folks splayed out unconscious on the sidewalk or shooting up in plain view can be unnerving.

It is unfair to relegate the rest of the City (e.g. Glen Canyon, Lake Merced, Ingleside) to a short paragraph but suffice it to say that there is more to the City than I have described here.  Keep your eye on commute travel times and weather when looking at a neighborhood: the exhilaration of closing on a cute home during a sunny month, and figuring out six months later that the location is foggy and cold and your commute into the City is complicated and slow, can be a downer.


East Bay

What we’ll call the “Inner East Bay” consists of the towns directly across the Bay from San Francisco and easily accessible from there.  These include Berkeley, Oakland, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, Alameda and Berkeley. The Inner East Bay feels semi urban, with good restaurants, parks (along the hills that border the eastern side of this area) a mix of housing - by price, type, condition - and tends to be sunnier and warmer than the City.  Oakland and Berkeley have their own funky, urban vibe and good mix of single family homes and apartments.  Commuting from here into the City, down the East Bay or to points further East is manageable but getting to the Peninsula or South Bay is a haul.

Further down the East side of the Bay is Hayward, Fremont and Milpitas.  Historically, this was where hardware was made  - Tesla’s manufacturing facility is here - and some parts retain a blue collar, industrial feel.  It provides good access to the Central Valley and points East.  There is some good housing here and commuting from here to the South Bay or Peninsula is manageable.

East of the East Bay are Walnut Creek, Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore, with pleasant, higher end suburbs, BART and easier access to Tahoe and the Sierras.  It is 5 - 10 degrees warmer here in the summer than the Bay and 5 - 10 degrees cooler in the winter (You’ll get frost some winter nights which almost never happens in the Bay proper.). Livermore has some fine wineries that are worth checking out regardless of where you live.

Finally off I-80 on the way to Sacramento you find Vallejo, Benicia, Pittsburgh  and Hercules, heavily influenced by their refining and manufacturing roots.  A ferry runs from Vallejo to the City and folks (lots of them!) do commute by car but the traffic on 80 can be arduous.


The Peninsula is where Google, Apple and Facebook’s campuses are located and in some ways is the heart of Silicon Valley.  It is made up of a string of interconnected towns starting with Daly City, adjacent to San Francisco, and continuing South with Burlingame, Millbrae, Hillsborough, San Mateo, Los Altos, Palo Alto and Mountain View.  Each of these towns has a distinct downtown with a nice mix of restaurants and shops.  You’ll find older suburbs with a mix of small original and renovated dwellings and a lot of larger, higher end homes.  And because this is California, a lot of smaller, higher end homes - public school systems tend to be good and there is a network of pricier private schools to choose from.  The area is served by highway 280 and highway 101, Caltrain and BART as far South as Millbrae so commuting is manageable from here. The cost of living in these communities goes beyond the pale for some; with tech companies mushrooming in these parts in the last two decades, the cost of housing and associated services has gone up exponentially, making living close to work unattainable for some. We suggest doing your homework on the location of your office relative to the location of your home before making any decisions.


South Bay

The South Bay is comprised of Cupertino (home to Apple’s campus), Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Campbell and San Jose, the latter being far and away the largest of these municipalities.  San Jose has put a lot of thought and money into developing its downtown over the last 20 years (it used to be a ghost town on weekends and still verges on this) which now has a growing restaurant scene, museums and galleries and (yes) it’s very own homeless population. The San Jose Sharks play at the SAP Arena here and the city has a Major League Soccer team - the Earthquakes. The San Francisco 49ers play at Levi's stadium in Santa Clara, adjacent to the Great America amusement park.  

If you feel like laying out some serious pesos for a property tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains, check out the towns of Saratoga and Los Gatos. These two towns have zip codes that rank in the top ten most expensive places to live in the US. They are gorgeous with their own charming main streets, and that charm comes with a price. But there is no cost to visit. The South Bay feels solidly “California Suburban” with a mix of lower density 50 year old suburbs and newer, medium density infill housing.


The Coast

The last area in this hyper summarized tour of the Bay are the communities along the Pacific coast.  Pacifica and Halfmoon Bay, south of the City, are like a world apart, moderately difficult to get to, on the ocean, cool and foggy a good portion of the year, this area couldn’t be more different from the Peninsula or East Bay.  Beautiful beaches, sailboats, surfing and seafood.  Folks do commute from Pacifica up 1 to the City and from Half Moon Bay on 92 over the hills to the Peninsula but the latter is heavily trafficked.  Scott’s Valley and Santa Cruz, west of San Jose on the coast, feels like a true California beach town and is accessible via the serpentine and busy highway 17.

The Bay Area has so much to offer, so whatever corner you end up inhabiting, make sure you take time to go beyond your neighbourhood or route to work and explore the region. The best part of being new to this area of the world is you legitimately get to call yourself a tourist.

Hugh Morgan grew up in Calgary and has lived in the Bay Area for 27 years.  He’d be delighted to answer any questions you have about life in the Golden state: you can reach him at

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author (s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies or positions of the Digital Moose Lounge.