Discovering the San Francisco Marina
and Cow Hollow

Do You Know Which is the Marina and Which is Cow Hollow?

San Francisco's Marina neighborhood vs the Cow Hollow neighborhood: Even people who know the neighborhoods well are sometimes confused about these two - they think the former includes everything from the edge of the bay to Broadway. In reality, half that area belongs to Cow Hollow.

Sundown, CC BryanSundown, CC Bryan

When I was a 20-something newcomer to San Francisco, I lived on Steiner near Union. I said  I lived in San Francisco's Marina district because I thought I did, but it was really Cow Hollow.

Not that it mattered to me - I was having a grand ol' time, living in the greatest city in the world!

Now, I grant you, there doesn't seem to be a nickel's worth of difference between these two San Francisco neighborhoods in terms of neighborhood flavor.

The Marina district is closer to the Bay than Cow Hollow because it was created out of former marsh land by landfill - just in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.

Cow Hollow had previously been at the water's edge and was named after the grazing cows from the dairy farms that were the primary industry of that area around the turn of the century.

But, even though they are different neighborhoods with different historical backgrounds and time frames, these two San Francisco neighborhoods are very similar in character today.

Marina vs Cow Hollow
So, What's the Big Difference? Not Much!

They're both inhabited by well-to-do postgraduates, whether single or stroller-pushing, who are on the cusp of promising careers and lives filled with chic fashion, fine dining, and upward mobility. Lucky them!

And the two neighborhoods are well known for their trendy shops, marvelous restaurants, and lively nightlife, as well as their excellent examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture.

But the two are not the same age and have quite different histories, so I think it's only fair to look at them as individuals, albeit they're nearly identical twins nowadays.

Cow Hollow: The Elder Twin

Edwardians in Cow Hollow, © R. BeatyEdwardians in Cow Hollow, © R. Beaty

Long before that other neighborhood was born, in the mid-1800s, a few settlers arrived in Yerba Buena Cove with the idea not of mining for gold, but of farming - specifically, dairy farming.

They soon discovered a lovely little area of freshwater springs and grassy meadows on the shores of a pretty lagoon. It wasn't long before the area, previously known as Spring Valley, came to be called Cow Hollow.

As the whole of San Francisco began to explode in population thanks in large part to the '49ers and the results of their labors, prominent city folk began to move into Cow Hollow, building their expansive Victorian mansions and complaining about the cows.

By 1891, the cows were ordered out and the lagoon was filled in to make room for more housing. And thus was born one of the earliest San Francisco neighborhoods.

Today Cow Hollow comprises a rectangle of city blocks bordered by Van Ness Avenue to the east, The Presidio to the west, Lombard to the north, and Broadway to the south.

And, as I discovered much later, Cow Hollow is the neighborhood that is home to the famous Union Street Shopping District.

The Younger Twin

Palace of Fine Arts in SF, PDPhotos.comPalace of Fine Arts in SF,

Though plans were being made for creating more acreage for development in the 1800s, and a seawall was built to begin the process, the filling in of the shallow water city-side of the seawall didn't actually take place until 1915 - just in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

After the Exposition - the Palace of Fine Arts is the only building left from that event - San Francisco's Marina district became a magnet for wealthy movers and shakers just as Cow Hollow had done before. Homes, apartments, and businesses went up at a rapid pace. The neighborhood had become the latest San Francisco neighborhood in which to live!

Unfortunately, that was temporarily shattered with the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 - like San Francisco's more famous earthquake of 1906, Loma Prieta brought not only a life-changing quake and aftershocks, but fire as well.

Between the less-than-adequate construction in the area, the unstable ground, and the inferno of the Marina Fire, there was little left of the neighborhood to enjoy for the next few years.

But not to worry - all is well again! Like any true San Francisco neighborhood worth its salt, the community has rebuilt and refurbished, coming back better and stronger than ever.

Today you'll find fashionable shops, beautiful homes on the maze-like streets, the San Francisco Marina Yacht Harbor, luxurious spas, and wonderful places to dine.

So - Cow Hollow or The Marina? I wouldn't stress much about it - in fact, why not do both! After all they're next-door neighbors. And, if you're walking through the area, you'll be hard-pressed to know when you've crossed from one to the other anyway.

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When you've finished your visit to The San Francisco Marina and Cow Hollow- here are some more San Francisco neighborhoods for you to discover:

  • Chinatown
    I'll bet you think Chinatown's full of touristy stuff. Well, you're right! But it's also a neighborhood.
  • Fisherman's Wharf
    Fisherman's Wharf is another huge surprise when you find out it's an actual working neighborhood as well as a tourist attraction!
  • North Beach
    Want a virtual tour of San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood? I guarantee you'll find it interesting!

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