North Beach, San Francisco, CA, is loved by locals and tourists alike for its character, variety, and beauty. It was even recognized as one of America's Top 10 Great Neighborhoods by the American Planning Association in 2007. You can walk everywhere, including nifty side trips, which is definitely the best way to experience this fabulous scene. Also see our North Beach map, walking tours, and restaurants for additional information and ideas.
Many best fun things to do are listed below. They make excellent starting points from which you can adventure out on your own.
In North Beach you will find:
This much-loved park at Columbus/Union is the community center of Little Italy. On the north side is beautiful Saints Peter & Paul Church where an Italian wedding may be in progress. Every morning older Chinese practice their tai chi exercises at the northeast end. Neighbors hang out with their dogs on sunny days. It is the venue of many events such as art fairs large & small, Italian festivals, parades particularly the Columbus Day Parade, and musical performances including the North Beach Jazz Festival.
Washington Square Park is also surrounded by good eating places. For breakfast, if you can stand the wait, Mama's at the northeast is considered to be the best in town. Cafe Divino, at the southeast corner, is another pleasant breakfast option with usually no waits. The focaccia at Linguira Bakery, across the street from Mama's, is so good it often sells out early. We like the coffee, panini, and people watching from Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store at the Park's southwest corner. The chef at Tony's Pizza, Union/Stockton, has won several international pizza competitions.
From Washington Square walk southeast on Columbus Ave about 5 blocks to the intersection of Columbus/Broadway. More walks.
Along here you will see the highest density of interesting Italian cafes and coffee shops in San Francisco. We enjoy sitting outdoors to people watch in front of Caffe Puccini and Caffe Greco. Across the street from Cafe Puccini is well-known Italian bakery Stella Pastry and Calzone's Pizza Cucina (good people watching from the outside tables but the food quality varies).
Here are some neat Italian stores to check out as you walk. Molinari Delicatessen, 373 Columbus/Vallejo, opened in 1896 and is still one of the best delis in town. At Biordi Art Imports, 412 Columbus/Vallejo, find unusually beautiful, hand-painted ceramics imported from a small village in Italy. We first ran across their ceramic Rooster wine pitchers when dining at Michelangelo Cafe up the street many years ago. We still like the roosters but Michelangelo Cafe has gone a little downhill.
Side Trip: Stockton St
From the intersection of Columbus/Green/Stockton take a quick 1-2 block walk south on Stockton to see the very strong Chinese influence in North Beach. It is interesting how the old Italian neighborhood interfaces with its slightly newer Chinese neighbors. More walks.
Side Trip: Other side streets
Definitely check out the many other side streets along the way. More adventures are to be found nearby in all directions. More walks.
From Washington Square climb east on Filbert St for about 6 blocks to the top of Telegraph Hill.
Coit Tower in Pioneer Park on top is a favorite tourist stop. This Art Deco tower was built in 1934. Inside are murals, funded by the WPA, telling the history of San Francisco. For $7 you can take the elevator to the top though we have never bothered.
Telegraph Hill got its name during the 1849 Gold Rush days when it was used as a signaling post. A "visual telegraph" on top of the hill had windmill-like arms; different positions of these moveable arms alerted city merchants as to what type of cargo ships were just arriving through the Golden Gate. As an aside, the cargo from these sailing ships was replaced by rocks (used for ballast) quarried from the east side of Telegraph Hill. Today the hill including the now steeper east side is a nice residential area with excellent views in all directions.
We prefer walking to Pioneer Park at the top rather than driving. This is much more pleasant than sitting in a long slow line of tourists' cars. It is about a 6-block walk from Washington Square via Filbert St.
While walking look for flocks of feral parrots made famous in a book and movie The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. They are mostly cherry-headed Conures, natives of Peru & Ecuador, which escaped from or were released by their owners. You'r likely to hear their loud squawking before you see them fly by or sitting in the trees.
Side Trip: Filbert Steps
& Greenwich Steps
There are two famous stairways going down the steep, quarried, east side of Telegraph Hill the Filbert Steps and the less famous Greenwich Steps. Both are fairly long and steep, have superb views, and are surrounded by historic cottages and beautiful gardens. More walks.
Good walkers will enjoy taking a round trip via both stairways. Go down/east on the Filbert Steps to Filbert/Sansome, go north one block to Greenwich/Sansome, go west/back up the Greenwich Steps. The author of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill lived near these stairs so look/listen for his famous flock of feral parrots. Also, near the Greenwich Steps you can see the now closed Julius Castle restaurant; it once was considered to have the most romantic dining views in the City.
Side Trip: Levi Strauss Plaza & Park
One block east of the Filbert Steps is the Levi Strauss Corporate Headquarters. It has store and a little museum telling how Levi initially started by making canvas jeans for the 49er miners. Across Battery St is the small, well maintained Levi's Plaza Park. Nearby we like the atmosphere at Il Fornaio Restaurant's outdoor patio and at Fog City Diner. To walk to Fisherman's Wharf from here just head north to The Embarcadero and then on north 2 long blocks. More walks.
Look in all directions from the most interesting intersection in town, Columbus Ave & Broadway St, for things to see and do. Several of our walking tours start from here.
There are many more sights nearby than those mentioned above. Like, perhaps, the shabby but somewhat interesting Beat Museum, 540 Broadway/Columbus. Just start walking towards whatever catches your attention.
Side Trip: SF's Barbary Coast
From the Broadway/Columbus intersection walk southeast on Columbus Ave to see parts of the Barbary Coast. Also see more walks.
During the California Gold Rush (1848-1858) Barbary Coast (named after the Berbers who arrived from northwest Africa's Barbary Coast) became the most infamous redlight district in the world catering to miners, sailors, & other sojourners. It was rampant with crime and prostitution (in 1849 there were about 25,000 men and 300 women in SF). Police would avoid going inside businesses because they were so dangerous. Sailors had to be especially careful because this is where Mickey Finns were invented and the art of shanghaiing was perfected.
The SF Barbary Coast was located south of Broadway St. to Washington St. and east of Stockton St. to Montgomery St. At that time it was in fact a coast. Yerba Buena Cove, a large bay filled with ships bringing in 49ers, extended east and south of TransAmerica Pyramid down to the Bay Bridge (Rincon Point). See map showing original coastline.
Immediately after the 1906 earthquake most of the illicit businesses burnt down though some drinking and dancing establishments did rebuild. Today much of Barbary Coast has been overlapped by other neighborhoods such as Chinatown and the Financial District.
A quick walk through is still entertaining for the history-minded. Some of the City's oldest establishments, mostly built after the 1906 earthquake fires, can still be found here.
In rough order, heading southeast down Columbus Ave look for the following:
Side Trip: Jackson Street
It is interesting to look at the geographical terrain around Jackson St and the Transamerica Pyramid. Here is where the hills stopped and the shoreline from the old harbor started. Of course, now there is landfill (and the financial district) located where the old harbor used to be.
From the Columbus/Jackson intersection walk east only one block on Jackson St to glimpse another part of the Old Barbary Coast. Now, rather than a redlight district of the worst sort, Jackson St and Pacific St now feature old brick buildings filled with interior designers, art dealers, and antiques. Most of these businesses are closed on weekends.
From the Broadway/Columbus/Grant intersection walk north about 4 blocks to Filbert St. Then either west 2 blocks to Washington Sq or east to the top of Telegraph Hill.
This, the oldest street in San Francisco, has been known by several names: "Street of the Founding" when laid out by the Spanish (1845), Dupont St following the Mexican-American War (1848), and Grant Ave (1906) after the earthquake.
As you head north on Grant Ave from Broadway check out the small cafes, shops selling vintage wares, botiques, and side streets. As you will see, several cater to the local community rather than to tourists and though they seem to come and go depending on the economy.
Just a block north of Columbus Ave is Cafe Trieste, the most famous and best coffee shop in town. Across the street see The Saloon, the oldest bar established 1861, and The House, featuring Asian fusion cuisine. Near Union St is Cafe Jacqueline, one of our very favorite restaurants.
Side Trip: Vallejo St Stairway
From Cafe Trieste, Grant/Vallejo, walk east up Vallejo St about 3 blocks. At the top of the hill Vallejo St stops at the Vallejo St Stairway (actually 3 different stairways leading down through gardens). From here you get a beautiful view of the Bay Bridge and get a better feel for how locals live. On the way, look south down steep Kearny Street which dead ends at Vallejo.
Side Trip: St Francis of Assisi National Shrine
From Cafe Trieste, Grant/Vallejo, walk 1/2 block west on Vallejo St to look into the St Francis of Assisi National Shrine (1849), 610 Vallejo St. This Norman Gothic style church has a beautiful interior including a Schoenstein manual pipe organ on the balcony. The organ has 1,301 pipes and was installed in 1926. We've enjoyed hearing the church's free Sunday organ recitals several times when one of our friends was the guest artist.
Here are additional details about places we enjoy for food and drink. Check the addresses given or our North Beach map for exact locations
To survive the tough restaurant competition in SF most restaurants need to appeal to residents as well as tourists. This is generally true even in North Beach. We recommend walking up to the front door of a prospective restaurant to check prices, who is eating there, and what the food they are eating looks like. Plenty of locals eating there is a good sign.
Historical North Beach is located on a higher "saddle" of land between Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill/Nob Hill. Originally, what is now Fisherman's Wharf was underwater and the old shoreline was approximately four blocks further south/inland at what is now Taylor & Francisco Streets, near where Columbus Ave crosses them both.
At the southeastern end of Columbus Ave, at about Columbus & Montgomery where the Transamerica Pyramid is located, was the Yerba Buena Cove shoreline. This old shoreline is approximately seven blocks east of the current shoreline which is now along The Embarcadero. Montgomery St was roughly the western edge of the Yerba Buena Cove and Jackson St was roughly the northern edge.
Yerba Buena Cove itself was fairly shallow and even mudflats at some spots during low tide. However, it was deep enough that on July 8, 1846, John Montgomery's sloop-of-war, the H.M.S. Portsmouth, could land at what is now Montgomery/Clay to seize the pueblo then called Yerba Buena and now San Francisco from Mexico. California Landmark 81, at the southeast corner of Montgomery and Clay Streets, marks the spot.
When you physically investigate these old shorelines it is easy to see where the hills stopped and the landfill begins. The following topographic map and 1890s landfill map also help make it clear. Another one of the earliest landing points was at Clark's Point, a part of Telegraph Hill (now Broadway & Battery) that jutted out into the Bay at the northern end of Yerba Buena Cove.
These things to do provide a great start to exploring this wonderful neighborhood on your own. Many soul has "left their heart" right here in North Beach.Back from North Beach SF to SF Neighborhood Guide