In my opinion, one of the best experiences to understand the soul of San Francisco is to stroll through its most significant neighborhoods in search of history and real life, and North Beach it really has many stories to tell: from its Italian origins (it is considered the Little Italy of the city), in the past of beat movement, up to ancient times Barbary Coast.
So let's find out more and understand how to organize a visit that enhances the many souls of this district.
- Where is it and how to get there
- Historical notes
- What to see in North Beach
- Places related to the Beat Generation
- Little Italy: historic cafes and restaurants
- Barbary Coast
- Churches, squares, and buildings
- Panoramic points
Where is it and how to get there
North Beach is located innorth east area of San Francisco, bordered by Fisherman's Wharf to the north, the Embarcadero to the east, the Financial District to the south, Chinatown to the southwest, and Russian Hill (Lombard Street Hill) to the west.
However, delineating the perimeter of this neighborhood in a precise way is not easy, and the locals themselves, when asked: "what are the borders of North Beach?" they might answer you differently. Many will likely identify in Columbus Avenue its western end, but others will also tell you that the bars and restaurants located a few blocks across the border are still considered part of the neighborhood.
A further complication arises from the fact that, at least in part, the districts of Telegraph Hill and North Beach overlap, creating further confusion in those who try to rationally distinguish the neighborhoods of San Francisco.
One thing is certain: Columbus Avenue and its immediate surroundings are a nerve center for understanding the soul of the neighborhood and, as we shall see, it is in this area that many attractions are concentrated, but there are also other areas of interest. Before deepening, let's make a brief historical excursus that will help us to enhance our visit.
It may seem strange that a neighborhood called North Beach is not actually on the sea, but there is an explanation. In the nineteenth century, in fact, this area it actually stood on the sea, but over the years the shoreline has been artificially enlarged with the addition of new land.
During the second half of the XNUMXth century, a portion of what is now North Beach was part of the famous red light district Barbary Coast, an area with dance halls, bars, clubs and brothels, which was created following the gold rush and the consequent population growth.
The Italian vocation of the neighborhood, still testified today by many Italian restaurants, is due to the reconstruction following the 1906 earthquake, which led many of our compatriots to move to this area, among them there was among other things the family of Joe DiMaggio who, in addition to having grown up in these streets, lived here for a few years together with Marilyn Monroe.
Another moment of great importance for North Beach was that between the 50s and 60s, when the neighborhood became the de facto headquarters of the Beat Generation, with personalities of the caliber of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady.
Of all these stories North Beach still bears glaring traces. Let's try to discover them ...
What to see in North Beach
In the description that follows the places of interest are divided by thematic category, to be sure to include them in your itinerary, refer to the interactive map below.
Places related to the Beat Generation
As is well known, North Beach has been the cradle of alternative culture for years, experiencing its peak during the era of the Beat movement. The traces left here by Kerouac, Ginsberg and companions are lasting and still indelibly mark the streets of the neighborhood: the City Lights Bookstore became the operational center of the Beat Generation, from which some of the most important and controversial works of the period were published (Howl & Other Poems by Ginsberg cost the publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti the arrest).
Right on the corner between the bookshop and the Vesuvio Caffe is located Jack Kerouac Alley, an alley entirely covered with murals dedicated to the great writer.
Continuing on Broadway you will meet instead The Beat Museum, a small museum with records, books, posters, photographs and magazines dating back to the period of the Beat movement. There are also other places that served as an important meeting point for the Beat authors, I talk about it in the paragraph below.
Little Italy: historic cafes and restaurants
You can't help but notice how the neighborhood is literally littered with Italian restaurants and cafes; well know that some of them have a certain historical importance and you still breathe an atmosphere of other times: for example the Vesuvio Coffee, inaugurated in 1948 right next to the City Lights Bookstore and a frequent meeting point not only for members of the Beat Generation but also for artists such as Bob Dylan, Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane) and Francis Ford Coppola.
Of the same importance we can consider the Caffe Trieste, opened in 1956 and considered the West Coast's first espresso house. Here, too, the intellectuals of the Beat Generation were at home and many artists continue to frequent it assiduously (in this place Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for The Godfather).
More recent, but no less singular and characteristic, it is Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, a place inaugurated in 1968, known for its particular clientele (legends speak of strippers and sailors, as well as the usual and inevitable writers), its unlikely decor (which includes the lower parts of a petrified walrus) and the spontaneity of the barristers ( they may decide not to serve you for any reason!).
You never expected to find one Genoese focacceria on the corner of Washington Square Park? Well, right here it is Liguria Bakery, founded in 1911 by Ambrogio Soracco, who arrived a few years earlier in San Francisco from Chiavari.
Opposite is located Mama's, one of the most popular places in town to do breakfast (but be prepared for a long queue!). Instead, for a classy dinner based on nostalgia for the Bel Paese, the North Beach Restaurant enjoys an excellent reputation in the city.
For other good restaurants (or even just to take a leisurely stroll) pop up Green Street, where there is another historic venue, the Columbus Cafe, founded in 1936, where you will find more than 20 different types of draft beers, and Gino and Carlo, an informal pub where you can taste a slice of pizza or play a game of billiards with the patrons.
The 1906 earthquake wiped out all evidence of the old red light district, however some of the city's oldest buildings dating back to reconstruction are found in this area.
The red light vocation of this area has been maintained at times, just pass by the intersection of Columbus Ave and Broadway to notice a series of nightclubs and strip clubs such as Condor Club, Big Al's and Roaring Twenties, while turning onto Grant Avenue , you will meet The Saloon, the oldest live music venue still in business (opened in 1861).
Many tend to incorporate Chinatown, or at least parts of it, into the North Beach conglomerate; actually the boundaries between the 2 districts are rather blurred and, given the proximity, it is advisable to visit them together.
To find out more, you can read our in-depth study dedicated to the Chinese quarter of the city: Chinatown in San Francisco: what to see to immerse yourself in Asian culture.
Churches, squares, and buildings
Within the district you will also find churches, squares and recognizable buildings that are of some importance for the city:
- Columbus Tower / Sentinel Building: elegant historic green building dating back to 1907 located at the crossroads between Columbus Avenue, Kearny Street and Jackson Street. The photo together with the Transamerica pyramid (see cover) is a must for anyone visiting this area.
- Washington Square Park: it is one of the three oldest parks in the city and, during a beautiful sunny day, bustling with activity (starting with the dozens of Chinese who practice tai chi on the lawn). Along the perimeter there are several cafes and restaurants (some already mentioned above).
- Saints Peter and Paul Church: built in 1924, used in many films and known as “the Italian cathedral of the West”, it is the spiritual point of reference for the Italian-American community of the neighborhood. It is located on Washington Square Park.
- National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi: inaugurated as a Catholic parish church in 1849, it suffered extensive damage in the 1906 earthquake. The external walls, the only ones to have been saved, were reused for the reconstruction of 1919.
North Beach's quintessential viewpoint is undoubtedly Coit Tower, the observation tower on Telegraph Hill. You can get there in various ways but the most fascinating is undoubtedly to use i Filbert Steps o Greenwich Steps, of the steps that go up along the beautiful private gardens and houses; an interesting insight into residential life in San Francisco. To find out more, read our article on how to visit Coit Tower.
Some accommodation can be found around Broadway and Columbus, but North Beach does not actually boast a large concentration of hotels. Unless you have specific needs you can search recommended neighborhoods for accommodation in San Francisco; if, on the other hand, you want to sleep in the district where Kerouac and his companions roamed, I recommend that you look at this page on Booking.
Our tips for sleeping in San Francisco