San Francisco’s North Beach is a hidden treasure of great literary and political history. It’s probably best known to tourists looking for great food as it is best known as San Francisco’s Little Italy. Dozens of checkered-clothed sidewalk tables tucked away on narrow streets with old world charm. Besides great Italian food, North Beach is the home to literary legends Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg, the founders of the Beat Generation literary movement.
1. Washington Square
Washington Square is one of the first parks designated in San Francisco. It was established in 1847 and is bordered by the world-famous Mama’s restaurant, the Liquria Bakery and Saint Peter and Paul’s Church.
2. City Lights Booksellers
City Lights is still one of the most best-known bookstores worldwide. Founder Laurence Ferlinghetti was the original publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s controversial poem, “Howl” when no one else would. The store still resides at 261 Columbus Avenue. Ferlinghetti opened the store in 1953 as an all-paperback bookstore and stocked many of modern and controversial progressive political views.
Grant Avenue is the oldest street in San Francisco. It has had other names prior to becoming “Grant.” It used to be known as the “Street of the Founding” when originally plotted by the Spanish in 1845. It also had the name of Dupont Street after he Mexican-American War of 1848. Then, shortly after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, it finally became Grant Ave. The street is the center of many cafes and vintage boutiques. Some historical shops that are still around from 1861 include Café Trieste and The Saloon.
3. Barbary Coast
When gold was discovered in Northern California, San Francisco became the commerce center for supplies and trade. After 1849, the population exploded from fewer than 500 people to almost 25,000 in two years. The townspeople were mostly made up of politicians who specialized in corrupt activities, brothel owners and criminals. It was not unusual for crimes to be committed in broad daylight with no punishment. It was a lawless time. The area is a three block stretch of Pacific Street, now Pacific Avenue, between Montgomery and Stockton
4. Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower
Coit Tower was built in 1933 as a memorial to the volunteer firemen dedicated by Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Ms. Hitchcock was honoring the firemen when, as a little girl, her house burned down and she was so impressed with the fireman and dedicated her life and her fortune to commemorate the San Francisco volunteer firefighters. Visitors can tour the inside of the tower and see the many murals which were funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of 1933.
5. Bill Webber’s Jazz Mural
Artist Bill Weber painted many murals for public and private clients throughout Northern California. The Jazz Mural, located at 606 Broadway St. in San Francisco, is his largest which expands at more than 100 feet long. The mural marks the point where Chinatown, North Beach, and the old Barbary Coast sections of the City meet. The mural highlights the likes of Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and with the legendary Bill Weber shown to be explaining the Jazz Mural to Herb Caen, Emperor Norton, and San Francisco mayors.
6. Graffeo Cafe
Graffeo Café, at 735 Columbus Ave, is one of the oldest coffee roasters in the United States. Graffeo produces just three varieties of coffee: Dark, light and decaf. The specialty company began in 1935 on the streets of San Francisco’s Italian community, North Beach. It is an institution for coffee connoisseurs and sought after by visitors to the Bay Area to try this unique specialty coffee only available in San Francisco.
7. Beach Blanket Babylon
Beach Blanket Babylon, a San Francisco musical tradition, is known around the world as a “must see” when visiting North Beach. The pop culture satire is the perfect San Francisco experience. The San Francisco Chronicle says the show is a tribute to the city and a zany extravaganza! It spares no one it is current spoofs of pop culture and politics of the day. The show takes place at Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard (Green Street), San Francisco, CA 94133
8. Saint Francis of Assisi Church
The historic landmark, Saint Francis of Assisi Church at 610 Vallejo St, San Francisco, CA 94133, is the cities National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi and the namesake of the city, San Francisco. The National Shrine is the property of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and it consists of the historic Church built in 1849 and our beautiful Chapel (La Porziuncola Nuova, or Little Portion) built in 2008.
9. Liquria Bakery
Liquria Bakery bakes only Focaccia bread, and it sells out every morning before 10 Am, at which time they close. Liguria Bakery, 1700 Stockton Street, at the corner of Filbert Street and across from Washington Square Park in North Beach, began specializing in focaccia in 1950 after facing heavy competition in other types of bread from larger bakeries. By 1984, it had stopped baking anything but focaccia, and sells it to local stores, restaurants and to individual customers at its own facility.
It is easy to see why North Beach in San Francisco holds much history that reaches well beyond San Francisco and US history. From the early Gold Rush days to the Beat Generation and beyond, visitors will find much to marvel at in this unique corner of the City by the Bay.