Beats, beatniks, Sicilian sailors, history lovers, gourmands, and club-goers are all drawn to this North Beach, San Francisco Italian neighborhood that lays beneath Coit Tower and is adjacent to Chinatown. The Beat poets once gathered here for java and inspiration. Local nightclubs like the Purple Onion and hungry hosted top talent over the years — a young Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, and Lenny Bruce.
In the 19th century, Italian immigrants landed in San Francisco in search of streets paved with gold. They gathered in what they called Little City — North Beach (by the way, you know there is no beach in North Beach, right?). Since those days, North Beach in San Francisco has become a favorite with visitors and locals and somehow has managed to keep its funky, bohemian spirit alive.
Top Things To Do
Visiting North Beach San Francisco
Come to North Beach for a taste of literary magic at the City Lights Bookstore, a grilled panini at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store, relaxation in Washington Square, and then head to Telegraph Hill.
From its highest point at Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill you overlook the entire neighborhood, and also have great views of San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz. Walk down the hill to the central meeting point of North Beach, the park at Washington Square, and the church dedicated to Peter and Paul (but not Mary).
Or, walk in the other direction from Telegraph Hill for a lively jaunt down the Filbert Steps to Levi’s Plaza.
Little Italy & North Beach Walking Tour
This 3-hour walking tour will certainly awaken your senses. Geared to food lovers it takes you behind the scenes to the best-hidden cafés, delis, family bakeries, and local restaurants.
Delve into North Beach life as you visit family bakers kneading bread, drink espresso from freshly roasted beans, taste white Italian truffles, artisan bread, Italian olive oil, salamis and prosciutto as you learn about the history of North Beach, SF’s own Little Italy.
North Beach Pub Crawl
Explore the vibrant district of North Beach and discover the legendary watering holes that shaped San Francisco.
On this small-group walking tour, you’ll hear the stories and legends and visit hidden bohemian hangouts. The pub crawl starts at Vesuvio Café, then visits a number of bars and cafés including the city’s oldest pub. The casual walking tour ends at Washington Square, where you can continue on your own to Coit Tower, or have dinner at a local Italian restaurant.
Evening Food and Wine Tour in Little Italy
Go deep into North Beach’s food scene on this culinary evening walking tour.
Sample cheeses, wood-fired pizza, delicate handmade cannoli, and gourmet sweets paired with wine. You meet the owners, learn local tips, and hear stories about this neighborhood’s interesting history. Expect an easy evening walk to popular and hidden spots along with your local guide. This small-group tour is limited to 12 people.
North Beach at Night Segway Tour
As the city lights begin to blink on following your guide on a Segway for a tour North Beach plus the best of San Francisco,
In North Beach, you wind your way down the nearly deserted nighttime streets pass bustling Italian restaurants and cruise through Washington Square Park to see Saints Peter & Paul Church. Your swift two-wheel steed gives you the chance to see it all in a short time. Meanwhile, the tour leader regales you with trivia, facts, and stories about the city.
You cruise over to Chinatown along its lantern-lit streets, past dim sum houses, and temples. You finish up by heading to the waterfront from Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, the piers, and harbors.
Urban Hike – Including Coit Tower and North Beach
Get ready to climb! This challenging 5-mile walking tour takes you to Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill and North Beach, San Francisco’s bohemian district.
Ascend the Filbert Steps for a close-up view of Coit Tower and a glimpse of the wild parrots. March the crooked Lombard Street and discover hidden gems like a tiny park with a view of Alcatraz. Go where few tours can, to the top of Telegraph Hill to take in commanding views of the glistening blue waters below. While you burn calories, your local guide will share facts about the sights you see and historical anecdotes.
What To See
The Beat Museum
Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, and the whole Beat literary gang’s memorabilia can be found at this nifty San Francisco Museum on Broadway.
Go for the hodgepodge collection of original manuscripts and memorabilia from the days when beat poets, bohemian artists, and artsy writers made their way to the beatnik scene in North Beach. 540 Broadway.
North Beach Museum
This free museum has a collection of pictures and artifacts to give you a better understanding of the neighborhood’s diverse culture.
Did you know Joe DiMaggio is a native son of North Beach and married Marilyn Monroe in this neighborhood? Or that the first rush of Italian immigrants goes as far back as the Civil War. This museum is well hidden on the second floor of the US Bank branch (in the Eureka Bank Building) on Stockton Street. Unbelievably, there is no website for the North Beach Museum. 1435 Stockton Street, 415-391-6210.
On the southeastern slope of Coit Tower at Telegraph Hill Boulevard are the extremely steep steps of Filbert. If you can, you must make your way down the steps past lovely gardens, poppies, bougainvillea, lilies, palms, and fruit trees.
Be on the lookout for the flock of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. Expect dazzling views of the Bay all the way down.
The Filbert Steps take you from Telegraph Hill down to Sansome Street, directly across from Levi’s Plaza, the HQ of Levi Strauss & Co. The plaza opens onto a large, sunny, brick and granite courtyard.
If you arrive around mealtime, cross the street to eat at the classic Fog City Diner, or dine on the same street at Il Fornaio and admire the gardens over lunch.
Columbus Avenue & Grant Avenue
Columbus Avenue is the street that leads directly into the heart of North Beach. It starts at the foot of the TransAmerica Pyramid (where this photo was taken), cutting diagonally across Broadway.
It’s best to get around North Beach without a car, parking can be tricky to find and expensive. Instead, opt for the bus system (#15, #30 and #45) or the cable cars. Remember, all your transportation needs are included with the San Francisco CityPASS.
The center of North Beach’s social world is found along Grant Avenue. Family-owned Italian restaurants and delis are wedged between art galleries, boutiques, funky bars, shops and Chinese markets.
Coit Tower & Telegraph Hill
At the top of Telegraph Hill is Coit Tower, a magnificent giant fluted firehose! Go here for the views of the city and also to see the famous murals from the Depression Era of the 1930s inside the tower.
The murals were the first art project to be commissioned by the New Deal Public Works of Art (PWA). (The murals are currently being restored.) The tower was built in 1929 by the famously eccentric Lillie Hitchcock Coit who had a fetish for all things fire protection (she was famous for wearing fireman’s clothes).
City Lights Bookstore
A national literary landmark, the City Lights Bookstore opened its doors in 1953 when it was founded by writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Revolutionary at the time, City Lights sold only paperbacks and achieved national prominence in 1956 when they published Allen Ginsberg’s infamous poem, Howl. It became the unofficial headquarters of “beatniks” and today is still an important literary force.
Wander around the neighborhood and you’ll see that many North Beach alleys have been named in honor of famous writers. The tiny street that divides City Lights from Vesuvio is Jack Kerouac Street. City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue (at Broadway).
Vesuvio Café & Tosca
Next door to City Lights Bookstore is another beatnik haunt, the Vesuvio Café. Adorned with stained-glass windows and with the famous quote “we are itching to get away from Portland, Oregon” painted over the entrance.
The off-beat bar is decorated with an eclectic collection of memorabilia from local sailors and dock-workers, Inuit carvings, vintage posters, wartime propaganda and, to top it off, a dried whale penis. 255 Columbus at Jack Kerouac Alley.
Just a few doors down is Tosca Café, with its original red Naugahyde booths, opera selections on the jukebox and signature coffee drinks. 242 Columbus Avenue.
When you’re ready for a break, head to Washington Square to stretch out on the grass and watch the slow movements of tai chi practitioners.
Keep an eye out for the flock of colorful, wild parrots in the treetops. San Francisco being San Francisco, the statue in the square is not of Washington but of Ben Franklin. Also look for the statue dedicated to the city’s volunteer firemen, bequeathed to San Francisco by the eccentric heiress, Lilli Hitchcock Coit (she’s also responsible for the Coit Tower). At 600 Columbus Avenue.
- Top Things To Do
- What To See