The Best Things You Will Love to Do in North Beach San Francisco
San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood is called "Little Italy, " and it's no wonder. Although waves of residents have lived their lives and left their mark on the neighborhood, the most permanent and visible stamp has been Italian. For decades, Italian restaurants, delis, and bakeries were abundant, and the smells of Italian cooking perfumed the air.
You can still find that Italian heritage in North Beach, but things are changing.
Today's shoppers on Grant Avenue find the old shops replaced by locally-owned boutiques. But at the same time, the Soracco family makes focaccia bread the same way they have for more than a hundred years at Liguria Bakery. Caffe Trieste holds its own against those fancy-pants, newer coffee shops after more than five decades in business.
On Columbus Avenue, you'll find the legendary City Lights bookstore, an Italian pottery shop, a scrumptious-smelling Italian deli. And something not Italian but utterly delicious: handmade, French style chocolate truffles.
North Beach is mellow during the day, but Columbus Avenue lights up after dark, and the atmosphere becomes festive. The watering holes on Grant Avenue get especially busy, too.
This guide will get you oriented and help you find out more about the area. If you want to explore Little Italy in detail, keep reading.
A Quick Trip to North Beach
Columbus Avenue is North Beach's main thoroughfare, and it's enjoyable enough to wander up and down, window-shopping, eating or stopping at a sidewalk cafe for some people-watching.
If you take the time to wander off the beaten track, you'll find some of the area's most interesting sights. You can also walk up to Coit Tower from North Beach, a steep climb up Filbert Street that rewards you with fantastic city views.
North Beach Festivals
If you're in San Francisco in June or October, it's well worth your time to go to North Beach just for these celebrations:
North Beach Festival: Held in June, it's an outdoor party featuring Arte di Gesso (Italian street chalk art) and the blessing of the animals. It's also one of San Francisco's largest street fairs with more than 125 arts and crafts vendors, food and beverage booths, and live entertainment.
Italian Heritage Parade: The October Columbus Day parade is the nation's oldest Italian-American parade. It celebrates North Beach's Italian roots and the famous explorer Christopher Columbus. The parade starts at the foot of Jefferson and Stockton Streets in Fisherman's Wharf goes west to Jones Street, where it turns to reach Columbus Avenue. It ends in Washington Square in front of Saints Peter and Paul Church.
Where to "Go" in North Beach
I can't count the number of times someone on one of guided my tours has sidled up beside me to whisper: "Where is the nearest restroom?" It's a good question, but with a sometimes disappointing answer.
Facilities are scarce in North Beach, but you'll find public restrooms at the corner of Filbert and Columbus in Washington Square. There's also a coin-operated public toilet on Union Street at the park. Local restaurants are often unsympathetic to your plight, posting signs that their potties are for customers only. If you're desperate, buy a cup of coffee at one of the cafes to gain access to their toilet.
Get Into the Sights of North Beach by Walking Around
As a San Francisco City Guide, I took visitors on a 1.5-hour walking tour of North Beach, focusing on its Italian heritage and the people who made it what it is today. Now I'm sharing that tour with you.
Before you get started, check the note about where to "go" on the previous page. Take care of your primary needs, then go to Washington Square Park on Columbus Avenue between Union and Filbert Streets.
Washington Square: San Francisco's Oldest Park
This grassy park is North Beach's center. It was one of three parks set aside by San Francisco's first mayor in 1848, an unpretentious place that is an official Historic Landmark. In the morning, Chinese women often do tai chi exercises on the lawn, a visible symbol of the area's ever-changing ethnic balance.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote of Washington Square: "...its heart is Washington Square, which isn't on Washington Street, isn't a square, doesn't contain a statue of Washington but of Benjamin Franklin." The central statue stands atop a (now closed) water fountain erected by Henry Cogswell, a crusader for temperance.
Inside the old fountain is a time capsule, placed there in 1979 when the original 1879 capsule was opened. I have heard that among its contents are a pair of L'Eggs pantyhose, a pair of Levi’s jeans, a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a bottle of wine — a fact which may be making teetotaler Cogswell turn over in his grave.
Watch out for doggy deposits as you walk toward the park's northeast corner, near Mama' Restaurant.
Memorial to a Fascinating Pioneer Woman
At the corner of Stockton and Filbert, you'll find what looks like an oddly constructed concrete bench. It's actually a monument to Juana Briones, an extraordinary pioneer woman who was the area's first settlers. Breaking free of an abusive husband in the late 1700s, she moved to the settlement that was then called Yerba Buena.
Briones was a good businesswoman, a healer and a tenacious fighter. When others lost their land after California became a state, she used her connections and savvy to hold onto her ranch. And to maintain title to another San Francisco property, she waged a twelve-year battle went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where she won.
Turn toward the church and continue.
Saints Peter and Paul Church
Saints Peter and Paul Church a 666 Filbert boasts twin spires 191 feet tall. It's beautiful enough as it is, but try to imagine what it would have looked like if the congregation had completed their original plans to cover its facade with mosaics.
Built in 1924 to celebrate the prosperity of a generation of Italian immigrants, the church is an area landmark. A quick look at the boards outside reveals the area's changing ethnic mix. Inside, it's a delight, with a Carrera marble altar.
Mama's is at 1701 Stockton on land that once belonged to the church and may have been part of Juana Briones' rancho before that.
The crowds that patiently wait outside its door every weekend morning — and most weekdays too — are all you really need to know about their food. Take cash or pay a surcharge to use your ATM, but they don't take credit cards.
While you're waiting in line, send someone from your group across the street to Liguria Bakery to pick up some focaccia before they run out.
This small shop at 1700 Stockton across from Mama's has been baking focaccia bread and nothing else since 1911. Go early. When they run out, they go home.
It's a family-run bakery that has been around for more than a century, and they still do things the old-fashioned way. Watching your purchase get wrapped in white paper and tied with a string is almost as much of a pleasure as eating the contents will be later.
Walk uphill on Filbert from here.
Side Trip to Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower
As you walk up Filbert Street, you will see Coit Tower straight ahead. If you keep going, you will walk up a block of Filbert Street on a sidewalk so steep it that it needs steps to keep walkers from accidentally sliding down
A flock of wild parrots makes their home on Telegraph Hill just below Coit Tower. You may hear them squawking noisily as they fly overhead.
Coit Tower, the white monolith atop Telegraph Hill boasts some nice views and a notable collection WPA-era murals in its lobby.
You can climb up to it now, or save that for later. I would recommend doing it later and then doing the downhill walk described among these 5 Great Walks in San Francisco.
Whether or not you go up, turn onto the section of Grant Avenue that's lined with businesses.
Shopping on Grant Avenue
Some people call the sometimes-gritty block of Grant between Filbert and Union a barometer of San Francisco's economic health. When times are good, shops extend all the way up to Filbert. When the economy is bad, they move back down toward Columbus.
Anytime, it's a neighborly street, lined with laundromats and nail parlors mixed among the trendy boutiques and restaurants.
Near the corner of Grant and Union is Cafe Jacqueline. Jacqueline may not be Italian, but she whips up delectable French soufflés from her tiny kitchen, just like she has been since Steve Jobs was dating Joan Baez. The restaurant doesn't have a website, so you'll have to go old school and call them for a reservation at 415-981-5565. To get an idea of what it's like, see their Yelp Reviews.
You'll find lots of cute little boutiques along the street, and some restaurants, too.
Caffe Trieste: Coffee and Opera
The West Coast's first espresso coffee house Caffe Trieste at 601 Vallejo is an excellent place for a cup of coffee. On Saturday afternoons, they serve up generous portions of opera with their Italian-style coffee. It's standing room only, and there's a cover charge.
While you're standing at the corner of Grant and Vallejo looking at Caffe Trieste, take a look at the manhole cover in the middle of the intersection, and you see it's marked "Cistern." In fact, it's one of many water storage tanks buried under San Francisco's streets. They're part of the city's multi-pronged approach to fire prevention, implemented after the 1906 earthquake and fire when pipes broke, and the fire hydrants failed.
As you walk around North Beach, see how many kinds of fire hydrants you can find. If you come across a hydrant with a ball on top, it was made to give firemen a place to tie up their horses. A green-topped, small hydrant is connected to a cistern. Hydrants with large, bluebonnets are connected to a pair of reservoirs atop Twin Peaks.
Continue on Grant to Broadway past San Francisco's oldest Saloon at 1232 Grant Avenue and turn left.
Corner of Broadway and Columbus
There's something to see on every corner at the intersection of Columbus and Broadway
This is where "it all began," according to a fake historical marker on the front wall. "It" was topless dancing, which started here when a manager persuaded former prune picker Carol Doda to don a topless swimsuit and dance for patrons.
The large sign outside once sported a woman outlined in neon, with two blinking lights. We'll let you guess where they were. In the film Dirty Harry, Inspector Callahan looks at the people on the street here and quips: "These loonies. They ought to throw a net over the whole bunch of 'em."
After a period of less sexually-charged operations, the club is once again a topless watering hole. You can almost hear Dirty Harry muttering: "These loonies, they ought to throw a net over the whole lot of them" as he drives past in his 1968 Ford Galaxie 500.
If you wonder why a place called North Beach has no beach, look down Columbus toward the Transamerica Building — the tall, pointy one – and you'll see where the waterline once was. It's just where the street flattens out.
The triangular-shaped, green building to its right is owned by Francis Ford Coppola. The Grateful Dead recorded their first album in its basement.
North Beach Mural
Across Columbus is a mural celebrating of North Beach history. Look for the lateen-sailed fishing boats used by early Italian fishermen. The figures in the lower left (from left to right) include former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, former Mayor Art Agnos, former Mayor Willie Brown (whose likeness was painted over Senator Barbara Boxer in a recent restoration) and Senator Diane Feinstein.
Banksy Was Here
Look for a white-painted wall above street level and diagonally across from the North Beach mural to see one of the last remaining works of enigmatic street artist Banksy. It says "If at first, you don't succeed – call an airstrike."
During the 1950s and 60s, North Beach was at the center of the so-called "Beat" movement. To commemorate that, The Beat Museum at 540 Broadway features a collection of writings, photographs and other materials from the "Beat Generation." (Note: As of May 2019, The Beat Museum is planning to undergo a city-mandated retrofitting of the building, which would close the museum for six months. Check the website for updates.)
You'll also see a row of strip joints a clubs along Columbus, with photo-worthy neon signs that are worth a return look at night.
Cross Columbus to take a closer look at the mural and stand under the light sculpture called The Language of the Birds, then cross Broadway and walk toward the Transamerica Building.
City Lights Bookstore
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore at 261 Columbus is one of the truly great independent bookstores. City Lights is a place of pilgrimage for serious readers and fans of Beat Era literature. The section nearest the corner of Columbus and Broadway was once a topless shoeshine parlor.
In Jack Kerouac Alley next to City Lights, you'll find a humorous mural on Vesuvio's wall. Take the time to read the whole thing.
You'll also find a more serious reproduction of a mural painted by Mexico City artist Sergio Valdéz Rubalcaba. The original was painted in a Mayan community in Chiapas, Mexico. The mural was destroyed when the Mexican Army raided the village in April 1998.
This San Francisco reproduction was painted to express solidarity with the indigenous people’s fight for justice and dignity. Other reproductions are in Oakland; Barcelona, Madrid, and Bilbao, Spain; Florence, Italy; and Mexico City.
Across Kerouac Alley from City Lights at 225 Columbus, Vesuvio is a Beat-Era hangout that's little changed. Just across Columbus are two other famous San Francisco bars.
In a mini-alley just off Columbus Avenue, Specs Cafe has been home to an odd lot of misfits ranging from poets to striptease dancers, since 1968.
Tosca is a favorite watering hole for locals and incognito celebrities. You may recognize the red leather upholstery from the film Basic Instinct which was filmed here.
The signature drink at Tosca is brandy-spiked cappuccino made with Ghirardelli chocolate, but be sure you hit the ATM before you go in. They don't take credit cards.
Go back on Columbus, staying on the same side of the street as City Lights.
Columbus Avenue Stroll
Walking away from the Transamerica Building on Columbus, you'll pass restaurants and coffee shops. Any of them is a good place to take a little break.
Molinari's Deli (373 Columbus) is famous for their house-made salami and imported Italian delicacies, and it's a great place to get a sandwich.
Diagonally across the intersection from Molinari's is the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. This former parish church has a beautiful interior and often hosts free concerts.
Green Street Mortuary and Chinese Funerals
The Green Street Mortuary may be the only funeral home to ever make it onto a list of things for tourists to see. Most of the time it's quiet, but as you approach Green Street listen for a brass band playing.
Traditionally Italian North Beach is where a unique San Francisco happening often originates. Chinese funeral processions kick off from there, often on Saturday mornings.
The Chinese Funeral is a cultural mash-up that features an American-style brass band. Next comes an open convertible bearing a large photograph of the deceased. After that, there will be an automobile procession. Most of the processions go straight down Columbus toward the Transamerica Building, but a few make a detour through the streets of Chinatown.
Continue on Columbus, passing the small, triangle-shaped park at the corner of Union Street. It was once part of Washington Square but got cut off when Columbus Avenue was built.
XOX Truffles at 745 Columbus is a terrific place to end your tour. Just keep walking down Columbus until you see their blue and yellow awning. This homey little place produces some of the country's best chocolate truffles, and you get one free with a cup of coffee.
XOX is profiled in detail along with San Francisco's other great chocolate makers, and you can find them all in the Guide to Chocolate in San Francisco.
Where to Go Next
After you finish walking around North Beach, you can go to Coit Tower and do the downhill walk described among these 5 Great Walks in San Francisco.
You can also walk through Chinatown on Grant Avenue using our self-guided Chinatown Tour. Or continue on Columbus to Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman's Wharf.
Best Guided Tours of San Francisco's "Little Italy"
San Francisco's North Beach area, sometimes called "Little Italy" is a question-provoking place. These are just a few: "Why is it called North Beach when there's no beach anywhere?" "Why is there a statue of Ben Franklin in the middle of Washington Square?" "If this is Little Italy, why does the Catholic church offer masses in Chinese? And where did those women practicing tai chi in the park come from?"
One of the best ways to get the answers to those questions and find out more about one of San Francisco's most historic, multicultural and fascinating neighborhoods is by taking a guided tour. In just an hour or two, you'll get a much better idea of what the place is like - and you'll like it even more than you already did as a result.
Best North Beach Tours
If you want to tour North Beach with a guide, you'll find fewer options than nearby Chinatown, but there are plenty of ways to experience the neighborhood.
The best tour for you depends on a lot of factors, including how much time you want to spend, when you want to go, how much you want to pay and what your interests are. The tours in this list are among the best rated, listed in order of price from low to high.
- City Guides: Meet them on the steps of Sts. Peter and Paul Church on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, or in front of Coit Tower on Saturdays for an informative (and free) walking tour. Learn about local history and explore places you couldn't see on your own: go behind the scenes in an Italian bakery, or see the upstairs murals at Coit Tower. They also offer a tour of North Beach at night - which I took several years ago. All I can say about the evening version is that I hope it has improved.
- Barbary Coast Trail: This insightful, self-guided walking tour features highlights of San Francisco history, and part of it passes through North Beach. It's available as an audio tour or a printed guide.
- Free Tours By Foot: These walking tours take you all over the city of San Francisco. In the Little Italy and North Beach tour, you'll learn all about how a rich Italian culture has shaped North Beach over the past century.
- Local Tastes of the City: Visitor reviews of Local Tastes vary, but they're one of the few companies that offer a tour of North Beach. It includes coffee, chocolate, fresh-baked Italian bread, and pizza. Tours last about 3 hours run every day, and reservations are recommended.
- Foodie Adventures: Talk about a cultural mash-up? Guide Chris Milano hosts a combined Chinatown/North Beach tour that's well-rated. It lasts about for 3 to 3.5 hours. These popular tours sometimes sell out, making reservations a must.
North Beach Map
Getting to North Beach
North Beach is roughly bounded by Columbus Avenue, Broadway, Bay Street and Telegraph Hill. Most of the shops and restaurants are along Grant and Columbus Avenues.
The Powell-Hyde cable car stops at Columbus Avenue and Mason, and the #30 Muni bus runs down Columbus.