North Beach, SF
best fun things to do for locals & tourists
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:
- An amazing quality, quantity, and density of good cafes, coffee shops, & restaurants.
- Ethnic culture galore. The hearts of Little Italy and China Town intertwine here.
- Unmatched diversity. For example, big concentrations of both Italians and Chinese … locals who rarely leave and first-time tourists … office workers and free-spirit poets … homeless and multi-millionaires all mixing and happily enjoying the scene together.
- Great walking. The neighborhood is quite compact and close to other interesting neighborhoods as well. For example, see walks.
- Visually entertaining storefronts and architecture, several with historical significance.
- Both busy sidewalks & quiet views of fabulous SF Bay, big flat parks & and steep hills
- Beautiful relaxing days along with an active night life including lots of bars and girlie shows.
- Excellent weather, generally year round and clock round. This is one of the most temperate parts of San Francisco.
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’re likely to hear their loud squawking before you see them fly by or sitting in the trees.
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 Hilllived 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.
- West on Broadway: Strip clubs. Carol Doda, one of the America’s first topless dancers in America during late 1960s (1964), was featured in the Condor Club at this very corner.
- North on Grant Ave: The oldest street (1845) in town. See The Saloon, the oldest surviving bar (1861), and Cafe Trieste, where Italian espresso was introduced in 1956 to the West Coast.
- Northwest on Columbus Ave: The heaviest concentration of Italian restaurants, coffee houses, and shops in North Beach.
- Southeast on Columbus: The famous City Lights bookstore is right across the street; there you can read in the footsteps of some of American’s the best known authors. Further down Columbus Ave is the old Barbary Coast, the green Sentinel Bldg(SF Landmark 33), and theTransamerica Pyramid.
- South on Grant: This is the heart of tourists’ Chinatown. Just go south to Jackson and circle the block back, either direction, to get an excellent overview of Chinatown.
- West on Broadway: A less exciting but still very real portion of Chinatown. South on Stockton, the next street west on Broadway, is where most local Chinese actually shop.
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:
- City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave. A favorite of famous Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg (author of “Howl”) and Jack Kerouac (author of “On the Road”). As an aside, the term “beatnik” originated from the North Beach scene in the 1950s.
- Vesuvio Cafe, 255 Columbus Ave, across revamped Jack Kerouac Alley. This old lounge is filled with memorabilia. Upstairs is an interesting place to hang out though it does stink of age a bit.
- Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, 12 William Saroyan Place, across Broadway is yet another old bar with many strange momentos to ponder.
- Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus Ave. This perhaps classier old-school bar comes complete with jukebox and vintage red booths. Get classic cocktails here or their house speciality, hot chocolate and brandy.
- Sentinel Building, 916 Kearny St/Columbus. This unique green “copper” wedge-shaped 7-story building built in 1907 is a SF landmark. Francis Ford Cuppola now owns it and his impressive-looking Cafe Zoetrope is on the bottom floor.
- House of Nanking, 919 Kearny St/Columbus. A popular Chinese restaurant or the far eastern edge of Chinatown. It has good food but is down, dirty, and often packed.
- Transamerica Pyramid, Columbus/Washington/Montgomery, at the end of Columbus Ave. Here is where the Financial District starts. Inside its beacon cone at the very top is a “book” signed by the few people lucky enough to venture there via ladder.
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.
- William Stout Architectural Books, 804 Montgomery St 1/2 block north of Jackson. An outstanding source of books on architecture, landscaping, and graphic design. Closed Sun-Mon.
- Eden and Eden, 560 Jackson St/Columbus. A boutique for womens wear and home decor. It is not big but women seem to love it.
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.
- Caffe Trieste, 601 Vallejo St/Grant. The first expresso house on the West Coast and probably the best and most famous in America! Since Papa Gianni Giotta opened Cafe Trieste in 1956 the authentic atmosphere has attracted many well-known writers and artists including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, Bill Cosby, Michael Douglas, and Vincent Price. Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of The Godfather screenplay while sitting right here.
- The Saloon, 1232 Grant/Fresno St. This historical landmark opened in 1861 and is the oldest surviving bar in SF. Some say it is still the best. This is a Dive bar with smelly bathrooms,an older (55+) crowd of characters, good prices, good live blues music.
- The House, 1230 Grant Ave/Broadway Asian Fusion restaurant which is a favorite of young discerning Japanese couples on a date.
- Cafe Jacqueline, 1454 Grant/Union Great but slow. Make reservations. They specialize in souffles and you can often see Jacqueline herself working in the kitchen.
- Mama’s, 1701 Stockton St/Filbert Many consider this the best place to eat breakfast in town. However, the wait in line can be as long as two hours.
- Linguria Bakery, 1700 Stockton/Filbert – Linguria as been selling only focaccio (a flat seasoned oven baked Italian bread used for sandwiches or as a snack) from this original storefront since 1911. It usually sells out and the crusty service ladies close shop early. Show up by noon to increase the odds they are still open. pic sold out sign 240 … on rhs
- Cafe Divino, Union/Stockton. A pleasant place to go to breakfast, overlooking Washington Square, when you can’t get into Mama’s.
- Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store, 566 Columbus/Union. A unique comfortable place to have a drink or good meatball sandwich while people watching.
- Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, 1570 Stockton/Union Several different pizza offerings for those looking for something unique. You can also buy just a slice next door. Tony has won several awards in Europe including the Best Pizza Romana at the World Championship of Pizza Makers in 2011.
- Caffe Puccini, 411 Columbus/Green. A classic Italian coffee shop good for people watching while enjoying coffee and a treat.
- Caffe Greco, 423 Columbus/Green. Similar to Cafe Puccini but upgraded with a larger food selection, more outdoor seating, and higher prices.
- Stella Pastry, 446 Columbus/Green Italian Bakery across the street from Caffe Puccini; Cafe Trieste sells their bear claws. Known for their tiramisu.
- Cafe Roma Coffee Roasting Co, 526 Columbus/Union. Yet another Italian coffee shop but with a less classic feeling.
- The Stinking Rose, 325 Columbus Ave/Broadway A touristy place for those who love garlic.
- Golden Boy Pizza, 542 Green St/Grant local’s favorite place for a quick slice of inexpensive, good, filling pizza perhaps with a beer. You can see the pizza slices in their front window.
- Tommaso’s Pizza, 1042 Kearny St/Pacific Old school Italian food and pizza. Difficult to get into.
- Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus/Pacific The bar is a San Francisco institution that hasn’t changed since it opened in 1919. It has red vinyl booths, a real jukebox, and serves brandy hot chocolate along with classic cocktails.
- Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, 12 William Saroyan Place/Columbus Expect strange sights and strange people.
- Vesuvio Cafe, 255 Columbus/Broadway Old and quite unique. Hang out on the second floor. Some of our suburban friends don’t like the old smells which probably came from Jack Kerouac and other original beatniks.
- House of Nanking, 919 Kearny St/Jackson It is crowded with little decor but many locals eat here. Ask the waiter what to order rather than attempting on your own.
- Fog City Diner, 1300 Battery St/Embarcadero Neat 1950s railroad “dining car” decor is its thing. Somewhat expensive for the food.
- Il Fornaio Cafe, 1265 Battery St/Greenwich A chain restaurant. Has good cookies and a nice patio adjacent the Levi Straus headquarters.
Parking is always a challenge. Here are a few options to try:
- One decent lot is North Beach Parking Garage, 735 Vallejo St, across from the Police Station. Open 24 hrs/day. As a backup try across the street at Vallejo St Parking, 766 Vallejo St. It is old, closes in the wee hours, and the turns are extremely tight but the view east from the 5th floor roof is surprisingly good. :)
- Drive around North Beach looking for a flat rate lot. Sometimes you can find one for as low as $10/day. Most city garages charge $3/hr.
- Portsmouth Square Garage, Kearny/Clay on the east side of Chinatown. Open 24 hrs/day, costs $3/hr, and some merchants will validate for two hours.
- Try parking in various commercial lots in the general area northwest of Embarcadero/Broadway. These lots fill up with office parking during week days but on weekends seem fairly empty; on Sundays you can sometimes even find street parking. At night skip this area to avoid walking by the strip joints and through empty streets.
- When walking to or in your vehicle keep aware and stay on busy streets, especially late at night. Of course this is just common sense in any big city.
Comment: North Beach Geography
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. More early San Francisco History.
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.
- North Beach map: Precise locations and details (click icons on maps).
- Chinatown & map and Fisherman’s Wharf for locals & map: Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf are only a short walk from North Beach. Double your fun by seeing the best of all of them. This way you will only have to park once.
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