North Beach is a neighborhood with stories to tell.
As the home of San Francisco’s Little Italy, a strong literary history, and some good old-fashioned gold rush roots, there are plenty of things to do in North Beach.
If you want to take in as much as North Beach has to offer in a day, a walking tour is the way to go. As the name suggests, North Beach enjoys direct water access at the north end of the San Francisco peninsula. The neighborhood is bounded to the south by Broadway, to the west by Columbus Avenue, to the northwest by Hyde Street, and to the east by the Bay. While it shares some of the same Gold Rush roots that shaped the SoMa neighborhood, it has a vibe all its own.
Begin your morning by the water
You can’t embark on a tour of San Francisco’s North Beach and not take in the sights, smells, and sounds of the piers. Fisherman’s Wharf is a popular tourist spot, but its history goes way back. The area now known as North Beach used to be an actual beach. That is, until it was filled in in the late 19th century. This newly formed shoreline was the perfect spot for warehouses, fishing wharves, and docks. With the influx of people in search of gold came an increased food demand, and Italian immigrant fishermen were there to heed the call. Fisherman’s Wharf was where wholesale fish sellers kept their fleets of boats, and there are still a few around today.
If you’re hungry, stop by Boudin Bakery Cafe to grab breakfast or lunch. Here you can indulge in sourdough waffles (yes, that’s a thing), crab benedict, or one of their many sandwiches.
About a half mile east of Fisherman’s Wharf is Pier 39. This is a popular (i.e. crowded) tourist attraction, but don’t act like you don’t want to see some sea lions lounging in the sun.
You can see Alcatraz Island from Pier 39, and you can take a ferry to the famous prison from nearby Pier 33. However, we’ll save that tour for another day. We’ve got some stairs to climb.
Take in all 360 degrees of North Beach views
Coit Tower is a 210-foot tower that sits atop Telegraph Hill. You’ll climb a ton of steps to reach the tower, but the views are worth it. To get there, head south on the Embarcadero along the coast, pass through Levi’s Plaza (yeah, those Levi’s), and arrive at the base of the Filbert Steps. Climbing the steps will give you an excuse to skip leg day for the next month, and you’ll be rewarded with views galore and maybe even a wild parrot sighting.
Coit Tower came to be when Lillie Hitchcock Coit, matron saint of San Francisco firefighters, left a portion of her fortune “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.” Take an elevator to the top and enjoy 360-degree views of the city. If stairs aren’t your thing, Coit Tower has a specific wheelchair entrance. Those who aren’t fans of heights can explore Pioneer Park at the base of the tower, instead.
The San Franciscan that inspired Coit Tower had a deep love for her city, but North Beach hasn’t always been a leader in wholesome family fun.
Much like its neighbor SoMa and the rest of San Francisco, North Beach’s history is entangled with the Gold Rush. All that glitters is not gold, though. North Beach had its fair share of characters and criminals.
North Beach was called Barbary Coast in the mid to late 1800s, after the region in Africa known for piracy and slave trading. You see, prospectors had to do something with the money they were earning. And they chose gambling, drinking, and prostitution. If the fact that an area in the neighborhood was referred to as “Devil’s Acre” doesn’t clue you in on the debauchery, I don’t know what would.
There were attempts to turn the area around, including the formation of The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, which aimed to be a “shadow justice system” in a time when gangs like the Sydney Ducks and corrupted officials ruled the streets.
Unfortunately, it took a real tragedy to turn the town around. A serious earthquake shook the city in 1906, bringing down many of its lumber-framed buildings and resulting in fires across the city. San Francisco’s citizens, particularly close-knit immigrant communities, were quick to rebuild.
While Germans, Russians, and Eastern Europeans moved out of the neighborhood after the earthquake, the Italians set down serious roots. Between the two World Wars, the neighborhood was home to 60,000 Italians and there were five Italian newspapers in circulation. To this day, you’ll still find plenty of Italian history and heritage in North Beach. From the cafes and bakeries to pizzerias and delis, there’s a reason it’s San Fran’s Little Italy.
Slow down and enjoy the flavors of Little Italy
After climbing the Filbert Stairs and taking in the sights from Coit Tower, I think you’ve earned a little wine and cheese break, no? Little Vine on Grant Avenue is a modern specialty shop with European charm. Pick up a sandwich with your favorite Italian meats and cheeses, or pick up some cheese, bread, and wine for a picnic. Then, take your delicacies over to Washington Square Park and enjoy a relaxed lunch. The park, founded in 1847, has great views of Saint Peter & Paul’s Church. Ironically located at 666 Filbert Street, the looming cathedral has been a cultural center for the neighborhood’s Italian-American population.
After strolling through the park and indulging in your picnic (or on a pizza at nearby Tony’s Pizza Napoletana) you may be in need of an afternoon pick-me-up. If you head south on Columbus Avenue, you’ll come upon Caffe Trieste, which claims to be the first espresso shop on the west coast.
This little cafe also has ties to another North Beach element: writers. Caffe Trieste is where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for The Godfather. As you enjoy your espresso, you may find yourself surrounded by other writers deep in thought.
Immerse yourself in literary history
In the late 1940s, a group of poets set the wheels in motion for San Francisco becoming a great progressive city. “Beat Poets” were a group of writers that took on “American culture in the post World War II era.” These writers were non-conformists who embraced, among other things, sexual freedom and exploration. One such writer, Allen Ginsberg, penned “Howl,” a poem that eventually landed the writer in the courtroom.
You see, Howl talked about illegal drugs plus both heterosexual and homosexual activity. That trifecta was simply too much for some people at the time to handle, and a customs official confiscated 520 copies of the poem from the City Lights bookstore. The police backed him up, and the “obscenity” case went to court. On October 4th, 1957, the judge declared that Ginsburg’s work was not obscenity, and the North Beach crowds cheered.
Just a few minutes south of Cafe Trieste, City Lights Booksellers and Publishers still stands. Browse the shelves of books or attend an author event. If you want to learn even more about Beat Poets and how they shaped the city, the Beat Museum is practically a stone’s throw away.
After dinner at Cafe Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s eatery, you can end your night at The Saloon. This cash-only bar is the oldest in town, having been around since 1861. As you listen to the bluesy live music that The Saloon serves up every night, you can reflect on how the history and cultures of North Beach have evolved over time.
The rowdy gold prospectors gave way to resilient immigrant communities and progressive writers, but you can never say that North Beach residents haven’t lived their lives to the fullest.