Located in the heart of downtown San Francisco between Telegraph and Russian hills, North Beach is a neighborhood steeped in literary history and Italian flavors. This “Little Italy” was also once the epicenter of the West Coast's Beat Movement, a post WWII literary movement that rebelled against conventional mainstream America. This bohemian way of thinking still permeates the community, a buzzing place filled with cafes, restaurants, boutique shops, and plenty of nightlife.
A former hangout of Beat generation writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, City Lights is today a legendary independent bookstore and a designated San Francisco landmark. Centenarian Lawrence Ferlinghetti (he turned 100 in March 2019) co-opened the store back in 1953 and was himself a prominent figure in the city's “Beat” movement, which also including such names as Neil Cassady and William S. Burroughs. With three floors of literature ranging from fiction and poetry to cultural studies and politics, as as well as editions from City Lights' Pocket Poets Series, which gave rise to Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems—a collection that, once published, resulted in an obscenity trial—you can literally lose yourself among City Lights' books for hours. Another beautiful thing about the iconic space: it's open until midnight daily.
Let the Beat Go On
If you'd like to delve even more into the city's incredible Beat history, be sure and visit the Beat Museum. First envisioned in 2003, the museum is independently owned and features lots of memorabilia donated by friends and family of famous Beat figures. There's a permanent exhibit on “Women of the Beat Generation,” as well as items like Jack Kerouac's tweed jacket and Allen Ginsberg’s typewriter on display.
North Beach's permanent outdoor sculpture, Language of the Birds, draws from the neighborhood's literary history and offers a great add-on to the museum. The solar-powered work reimagines books as birds and lights the sky at the corner of Columbus and Broadway each night. It's also part of Illuminate SF, a festival of light that takes place each December.
There's perhaps no better place to experience San Francisco's bohemian coffee house vibe than the original Caffe Trieste, a neighborhood staple since 1956. Trieste is largely responsible for popularizing espresso on the West Coast, and for decades has been a magnet ground for creative types—artists, writers, musicians, and poets, as well as famous celebrities, many of whom are immortalized in framed photos upon the walls. Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of his screenplay for The Godfather in this cozy space, and acts as a de facto muse for the thousands who've spent hours here over the years, diligently scribbling away on what they hope will become their award-winning work of a lifetime. The cafe is known for its occasional live music, as well as its distinct Italian feel (which has entirely to do with founder Giovanni “Papa Gianni” Giotta, who passed away in 2016). Along with a wide selection of espresso drinks, offerings also include beer, wine, and pastries.
Browse Shops on Grant Avenue
Shopping's another popular North Beach pastime, especially along the charmingly narrow Grant Avenue, a stretch that epitomizes the neighborhood's independent spirit. You'll find a terrific collection of boutiques here selling locally-designed clothing and vintage wares. Don't miss the oddball curios at Aria Antiques, the antique maps (actual maps!) at Schein & Schein, and AB Fits' high-end denim. A bit further afield are the fedoras, floppies, and flatcaps of Goorin Bros hats, and mens and women clothing purveyor Rendezvous North Beach, which transforms into an event space on select evenings.
Indulge in Italian Food
From Neapolitan pizza pies to piled-high plates of linguine, gnocchi, and baked ziti, it's easy to eat your way through San Francisco's own “Little Italy.” The choices can seem a bit overwhelming at times, but for truly authentic eats you can't go wrong with the straightforward Sodini's Green Valley Restaurant, or Sotto Mare—a fun and narrow space serving up San Francisco's own fish stew, Cioppino, as well as some of the freshest seafood citywide. Savor a delicious sandwich on focaccia bread at the landmark Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store, then follow it up with gelato or a homemade cannoli at Caffe Greco, a local favorite.
There's surely plenty to eat in North Beach, but there are also ways to walk it off too. Perhaps the best is a stroll (or a run) up the Filbert Street Steps, which connect the neighborhood with Telegraph Hill and its illustrious tenants, including Coit Tower and the renowned parrots of Telegraph Hill. If you don't see the latter among the trees you'll likely still hear them, along these wild birds (they began appearing around 1990, the offspring of a pair of escaped pets) often take flight around the city, including to neighborhoods like the Haight and NOPA. The stairs themselves are a great workout that give rise past lushly landscaped gardens and historic cottages, with spectacular views along the way.
Attend the North Beach Festival
It's one of the country's oldest outdoor festivals, and also an integral part of San Francisco's summer street festival scene. June's North Beach Festival is a weekend-long neighborhood celebration complete with dozens of arts and crafts booths and loads of gourmet eats spread along numerous streets—including Grant Avenue and Green Street. There are poetry readings, a kids' chalk art area, and occasional circus performers. The festival is also known for its Blessing of the Animals, which takes place fittingly at North Beach's National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, known as the “patron saint of animals.”
Hit the Bars and Clubs
Even locals can’t resist the charms of Tosca Café, a San Francisco institution. The bar, unchanged since it opened more than a century ago, features cozy red vinyl booths, and a vintage jukebox. Although currently closed and awaiting a much-anticipated 2020 reopening under new ownership, there are several other North Beach venues that make the neighborhood an understandable night life hub. One of the best is Bimbo's 365 Club, with its cavernous interior, red velvet drapery, and checked floor. Although the club hosts a good deal of private events, it's also known for its performances by top-notch cover bands, like local '80s tribute band Tainted Love and Super Diamond—the ultimate Neil Diamond crowd pleaser. SF's oldest bar, The Saloon, is another North Beach hangout, as well as one of the city's most revered blues venues. There's also Comstock Saloon, a buzzing cocktail bar that serves up a delicious weekend brunch, and Vesuvio Cafe, the once-watering hole of Beat figures like Kerouac, Cassady, and Ginsberg.
Delve into Local Architecture
When it comes to its architecture, San Francisco may be best known for its collection of Victorians, but there are also some truly impressive stand-alone structures citywide, including the Castro Theater, Legion of Honor, and North Beach's Sentinel building—a wedge-shaped, steel-framed building with a striking green patina that stands on the cusp of Chinatown. Legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola now owns the mixed-used structure, built in 1907, and his Café Zoetrope bistro serves up antipasto and gourmet pizzas, as well as wine from the director’s own vineyards in Napa and Sonoma.
North Beach is also home to the Gothic Revival-style St. Francis of Assisi Church, another architectural gem.
While Away an Hour or Two in Washington Square Park
A central citywide gathering spot, Washington Square Park existed two years prior to the 1949 California Gold Rush and is one of the oldest parks in SF. The park recently underwent a $3 renovation to receive an irrigation-system upgrade, and reopened in December 2019 ready to re-welcome the masses, who come to sit in the sunshine with a slice of focaccia pizza from nearby Golden Boy or do a bit of people-watching. Saints Peter and Paul Church, which made an appearance in two Dirty Harry films and served as a photo backdrop for the wedding day pics of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, sits across from the square, as do numerous sidewalk cafes and eateries. One not to miss is Mama's, known for its delectable breakfast and brunch menu.