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North Beach: Historic, Cultured & Fun
North Beach is one of San Francisco’s most storied and picturesque neighborhoods. It’s chiefly known nowadays for being our ‘Little Italy’ and most visitors want to see it while they’re in the city, to eat at one of the many Italian restaurants and cafes that line its streets. It was also the west coast epicenter of the literary movement known as the ‘Beat Generation’, and several landmarks from those years, such as the City Lights Bookstore, still survive. Finally, it has a thriving late-night bar and club scene, making it that comparative rarity, in today’s world, of a neighborhood that’s equally popular with both locals and visitors. The North Beach is cookin’, daddy-o, and we’ve noodled it out so you can get your kicks there!
In this article I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of North Beach and some of its important figures, and then make some recommendations for things to do, historic sites to visit and some places to eat and drink there.
Early History of North Beach
You’d be forgiven for being a little confused by the name – if you look at a map you’ll be struck by the fact that there isn’t a beach in North Beach (in fact it’s land-locked). However, there was once and that’s where the name originates. Until the late nineteenth-century the neighborhood ended at the water’s edge, on Bay Street. At that time the city employed the same techniques as it had elsewhere, and used landfill to move the shore out to what’s now Fisherman’s Wharf.
The streets in the southern part of North Beach were central to the early California Gold Rush. 56 Gold Street, opposite Balance Street, was the address of the Office of the Assay, which was the Government representative in charge of weighing and verifying the purity of the gold that was pouring into San Francisco from the Sierra. The Assay’s building was on the water’s edge and in front of it, in 1848, a ship was abandoned by its crew, like hundreds of others at the time, who’d all disappeared to make their fortune in the Gold Fields. The ship was called the Balance and so the street took its name and it’s now buried below.
A little later the warehouses and docks of the port of San Francisco that were constructed, around the Battery, led to the development of the infamous Barbary Coast from the 1870’s to the 1890’s. This subsection of the neighborhood may have been small – but it had a big name, known and feared by sailors the world over. Murder, robbery, prostitution, shanghaiing – and dance halls – were all commonly to be found on the Barbary Coast during this period.
During the late nineteenth-century the neighborhood became a home for working-class dock-workers. The Great Fire of 1906 destroyed most of the homes though and, with its subsequent redevelopment a large number of Italian immigrants began to move into the area, creating the ‘Little Italy’ that it remains to this day. Prominent Italian families that lived in North Beach included those of Joe DiMaggio and Joseph Alioto (San Francisco Mayor 1968-1976). Many of the restaurants and cafes still operating in the neighborhood, such as Liguria Bakery, Fior D’Italia and Gino & Carlo, date from this era. Italians operated most of the fishing fleets out of Fisherman’s Wharf, so the cuisine was renowned for its fresh seafood.
One of the most distinctive buildings that you can see in North Beach is Coit Tower, looking down on it from the top of Telegraph Hill. The tower was built with a bequest from Lillie Coit, after whom it’s named, a wealthy lady who grew up in the neighborhood. As a teenager she formed a bond with local firefighters and after she died, in 1929, she donated a third of her will for a monument. Opening in 1933 Coit Tower is dedicated to the firemen who lost their lives in the five major fires in San Francisco’s history. The stunning murals inside were created as a pilot for the Public Works of Art Project, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program.
The Beat Generation
As the 1950’s dawned North Beach became the epicenter of the Beat Generation literary movement, anchored by the City Lights Bookstore, on Columbus Avenue (which is also still open). Lawrence Ferlinghetti, another Italian immigrant, opened the shop in 1953 and he published several works by Beat authors, such as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Many of the writers, such as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Ginsberg lived in the area and the Caffe Trieste, on Vallejo Street, became one of their favorite hang-outs, where they would drink coffee and discuss their work. In fact, it was Herb Caen, column-writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, who coined the term ‘beatnik’ – which he intended as a derogatory name for members of the new movement. Much of the terminology of the later, 1960’s, hippie movement actually originated with the Beat Generation, including the term hippie, which was derived from hipster – a young, fashionable guy.
But why did North Beach become home to so many figures of the Beat Generation?
(In the 1950’s) North Beach . . . was a much more of a European atmosphere, because primarily most of the real estate was managed by Italians and often first-generation Italians, so there was more than one language spoken. And the Italians never felt uncomfortable with the idea of somebody being an artist or a poet. They thought it was a legitimate job—the same as being a plumber. And in fact they had a high regard for this. So rents were low and the atmosphere was conducive to productive work.David Meltzer, Beat poet
North Beach Today
Nowadays Barbary Coast has long since disappeared, to be replaced by the upscale Jackson Square Historic District, although some remnants remain, such as the Old Ship Saloon, which is considered the oldest continuously operating bar in San Francisco and there are tony wine bars on Gold Street. Most of the raunchier action has moved over to Broadway and Columbus, where there are several historic bars, such as Specs, and a few strip-clubs.
The main drag of Columbus, which bisects the neighborhood, is full of Italian restaurants and cafes, as well as shops like the City Lights Bookstore, so it’s a great place to while away half-a-day. Dotted throughout North Beach are cool bars, such as the Saloon (dating from 1861) and Vesuvio Cafe, which became a key location for the Beat authors and is still popular today. Washington Square, with the impressive Saints Peter and Paul Church, is a great open-air spot to relax – if the weather allows – and has a really great program of events and concerts.
These are all personal recommendations, since – unlike many other writers and bloggers about North Beach – I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the area (I stayed in the neighborhood for several months).
Breakfast and lunch: Cafe Francisco and Pat’s Cafe.
Lunch and dinner: Sotto Mare, Fior D’Italia, Portofino and Cafe Zoetrope (owned by Francis Ford Coppola).
Bear in mind that San Franciscans eat early, so a lot of restaurants have last orders at 9.30 pm, and some even as early as 8.30 pm, so don’t leave it too late!
Vesuvio Café, Specs Adler Bar, Tony Nik’s Café, 15 Romolo, Caffe Trieste, Sweetie’s Art Bar and the Old Ship Saloon.
Coit Tower (not technically in North Beach, but rather on Telegraph Hill, it has some fantastic murals inside and great views of the area), the Beat Museum and the San Francisco Art Institute (again, not in North Beach, but close by and well worth a visit).
City Lights Bookstore and Cobb’s Comedy Club
Washington Square (be sure to check if they have an event in the park when you’re in the area), Pioneer Park (it surrounds Coit Tower) and Jack Early Park (one of SF’s best kept secrets). Filbert Steps run down to the waterfront from just below Coit Tower and are well-worth checking out for the views of the waterfront and the Bay.
This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.
Our daily SF in a Day tour finishes with a walk through North Beach to Chinatown and is a great jumping off point to explore the neighborhood in the evening. Also, every Saturday night, our Notorious SF: Scandal & Crime tour passes through the area, finishing at the Old Ship Saloon. Guides can make further recommendations for things to see and do.
If you have any feedback on North Beach: Historic, Cultured & Fun, please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.
– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)
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