9 San Francisco

PopulationMetro: 4,572,807
Beautiful, smart and increasingly influential, San Francisco just keeps getting more vital as a global capital.

In California’s dense urban heart, history repeats. The young, untethered and ambitious have always coveted the enlightenment that San Francisco’s fog- and mist-diffused light seems to bestow: they came here for gold, and then they came to change the world (2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love). Most recently, they came to reinvent it. Long a vanguard of global counterculture, San Francisco is now defining the mainstream—often with the innovation dreamt up in Silicon Valley, 45 minutes south, first tested on its streets.

It’s because San Francisco has always written down its dreams, penned an action plan and gotten to work. The Golden Gate Bridge, glowing against the shifting Pacific fog, is a reminder that engineering makes even the formidable possible. Here, even the geography seems to have an algorithm, with 49 hills distilled in the city’s seven-by-seven-mile grid.

Dreamers have long sought their fortunes here, and the city is Top 10 in the world in our Prosperity category, with the world’s sixth-highest per capita GDP.

CITY PERFORMACE
Place
Place 72
Product
Product 26
Programming
Programming 24
People
People 92
Prosperity
Prosperity 67
Promotion
Promotion 26

Head offices continue to ratchet up the price of talent as companies stream into a city with the same velocity as the world’s future business leaders. The city ranks third best on the planet in our People category—a combination of foreign-born residents and educated citizenry. As they grow roots and forge networks in their new home, expect San Francisco’s cultural and economic clout to increase even more.

It’s why SFO, the city’s airport, is a hive of renovation, build-out and innovation that will welcome new talent and their families.

The Moscone Center, San Francisco’s convention center—the host of everything from Apple launch events to Comic Con— is also getting an overdue overhaul. Scheduled for completion at the end of 2018, it will improve the city’s current #62 spot for the planet’s convention centers.

The Golden Gate Bridge Maarten Van Den Heuvel

Of course, cities with such mercurial growth are bound to be hobbled with growing pains. It’s why traffic has never been worse and why locals are scheming around the nation’s highest rent (at an average of $3,700 per household according to local numbers), to say nothing of the million-dollar row houses in “up and coming” neighborhoods cut off from any form of transit.

Sure, San Francisco could have bigger problems than the average local tech worker earning almost $200,000 and competing for housing with a teacher making a third of that. But it’s a displacement story unrivalled in the U.S.

The hills surrounding the city Christian Lunde

Happily, nature is still mostly free and resonates more than ever, with the city’s strong Top 20 finish in our Place category, led by great weather, plenty of parks and a bounty of outdoor activities teed up for all manner of athletes and explorers. There’s even free humpback whale watching from the Golden Gate Bridge. Investment in the city’s outdoor and cultural icons continues, with the reopening of a renovated Alcatraz in 2018 and the ongoing build-out of the oceanfront former military barracks of The Presidio. Here, visitors can learn to mountain climb in an old airplane hangar and sip with a view of the Golden Gate at the new Fort Point Beer Co. venue before walking the bridge by foot to the wilds of the Marin Headlands to the north.

This perfectly balanced natural urbanism is not lost on curious visitors, who continue to stream into this bucket-list destination in record numbers with every passing year, eager to catch some of that old magic while being the first to sample new cultural beacons like the newly reopened (and partially free) SF Museum of Modern Art.