With a European flair and an aroma of roasted coffee in the air, Italian cafés, bakeries, delis and restaurants are plentiful along the streets of North Beach. Residents needn’t walk far to reach a favorite bookstore, a family barber, a bench in a pocket park or a pew at church. It’s an authentic, walkable neighborhood that’s well liked by visitors, too.
Start at Washington Square
Given this name because the water of San Francisco Bay bordered the district 150 years ago, landfill has changed the map. Still only a mile square around its center at Washington Square, North Beach’s Little Italy heritage is retained, but intertwined with influences from bordering neighborhoods, Chinatown and the Financial District.
To appreciate the essence of North Beach, pause for a cappuccino and cannoli before wandering into the local landmark, Saints Peter and Paul Church. Note that the internet is sprinkled with errors as liberally as the sugar on your Italian pastry; Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe didn’t wed here in 1954. They married at San Francisco City Hall, but took photos on the steps of this church, where the ball player had been an altar boy.
Beatniks and Bookstores
References to the history of North Beach must touch upon the Beat Generation of the 1950s. Post-World War II poets and writers with roots in North Beach and Greenwich Village connected across the miles to carve out a bohemian philosophy that is credited as the precursor to the hippie movement. For publishing support, for readings and gatherings, the center of the West Coast scene was City Lights Bookstore, operating since 1953 at 261 Columbus Avenue, still owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and well worth a visit.
Saloons and Poets
Jack Kerouac Alley, Vesuvio Café is a historic saloon once considered ground zero as a hangout for the Beat Generation. Covered in murals and retaining its circa 1948 Bohemian vibe, poetry readings and Art in the Alley events take place where black and white photos of the one-time literary regulars Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Neal Cassady, Francis Ford Coppola, look out at current day patrons.
Cafés and Coppola
In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of his screenplay for “The Godfather” while sipping espresso at Caffè Trieste, San Francisco’s oldest coffee shop. Opened in 1956, it’s still a North Beach fixture where Papa Gianni was the first to introduce espresso and cappuccino to the West Coast.
Presiding over the North Beach scene, illuminated by night, is the simple white concrete tower atop Telegraph Hill. The names derives from an 1849 semaphore telegraph placed here to alert residents to incoming ships. Since 1933, Coit Tower has been a fixture of the San Francisco skyline. An eccentric philanthropist, Lillian Hitchcock Coit, donated one-third of her fortune in the amount of $118,000, "to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved,” she wrote. To decorate the ground floor interior walls, more than two dozen artists of the 1930s created stunning wall murals depicting California life, all recently restored. An elevator takes visitors to the observation deck at the top of the fluted tower, improving upon the fine views from its base.
Such commanding views of San Francisco are worth the effort. It’s said to be 378 steps up the Greenwich Street Steps and (only) 377 steps down via the Filbert Street Steps...but most everyone loses count. Of the two stairways located one block apart, the Greenwich Steps are the more scenic. Make your way carefully along uneven and steep steps, through lush floral gardens beside picturesque cottages hugging the hillside. Some say a highlight of a visit to Coit Tower is the hike itself.
On occasion, resident wild parrots call out from their perches on overhead wires and trees or regal visitors in a vociferous flock fly-by overhead. Take the #39 Muni bus to the Christopher Columbus statue in Pioneer Park if the steep walk is beyond a reasonable challenge.
Did You Know?
- Small is welcome. By order of the city supervisors, any retailer with more than 11 store locations is not allowed to open one in North Beach.
- Stand near the southwest corner of Washington Square to capture a photo that includes both Saints Peter and Paul Church’s bell towers and Coit Tower.
- Pioneer Park, in front of Coit Tower, was built to commemorate America’s centenary in 1876.
- Lillian Coit was a patroness of San Francisco's volunteer firefighter brigade, yet architects claim Coit Tower wasn’t designed to resemble what many say it looks like: a fire hose nozzle.
- “Beach Blanket Babylon”, the longest running musical revue in theater history, is presented at Club Fugazi, 678 Green St., in the heart of North Beach.