San Francisco North Beach
North Beach is an Italian-centric, crowd-pleasing neighborhood where picnicking and people watching are highly regarded pastimes. This noisy neighborhood is dotted with a motley mix of cute cafes serving perfect espresso, independent bookshops celebrating the Beatnik era, and sultry nightclubs whose performances are not intended for young audiences. North Beach’s diverse array of dining and entertainment options ensures an endless supply of characters for those enjoying the view from the neighborhood’s park benches.
North Beach is a neighborhood in the northeast of San Francisco adjacent to Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and Russian Hill. The neighborhood is San Francisco’s Little Italy, and has historically been home to a large Italian American population. Of all the waves of residents who lived their lives and left their mark on San Francisco’s North Beach, the most permanent and visible stamp has been Italian. For decades, Italian restaurants, delis and bakeries were abundant, and the smells of Italian cooking have perfumed the air in San Francisco’s “Little Italy”. It was also the historic center of the beatnik subculture. The American Planning Association has named it as one of ten “Great Neighborhoods in America”.
Here comes the History of the North Beach. Originally, the city’s northeast shoreline extended only to what is today Taylor and Francisco streets. The area largely known today as North Beach was an actual beach, filled in with landfill around the late 19th century. Warehouses, fishing wharves, and docks were then built on the newly formed shoreline. Due to the proximity of the docks, the southern half of the neighborhood south of Broadway was the home of the infamous Barbary Coast.
Following its reconstruction after the 1906 Earthquake, a large number of Italian immigrants created the Italian character of the neighborhood that exists even now. Prominent Italian Americans that came from the neighborhood include baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, who grew up in the neighborhood and briefly returned to live there with his wife, Marilyn Monroe during the 1950s, as well as former San Francisco mayor and politician Joseph Alioto plus others from the prominent Alioto family.
During the 1950s, many of the neighborhood’s cafes and bars became the home and the epicenter of the Beat Generation and gave rise to the San Francisco Renaissance. The term “beatnik” originated from the scene here and was coined in a derogatory fashion by famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Many of that generation’s most famous writers and personalities such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady lived in the neighborhood. Another poet from this generation, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founded the City Lights Bookstore that still exists today on the corner of Broadway and Columbus as an official historic landmark and serves as one of the main focal points of this generation.
During the 1960s a notable night spot was The Committee, an improvisational theatre group founded by alumni of The Second City in Chicago. It was opened on April 10, 1963 in the Broadway area. The Broadway area also created innovations for the strip club industry. The Condor Club was opened in 1964 as America’s first topless bar, which it is again today. The Lusty Lady was the first striptease club to be structured as a worker cooperative, which meant that it was managed by the dancers who worked at that peep-show establishment. Broadway strip clubs owe their legacy to the Barbary Coast, which was located just one block south on Pacific Street during the late 19th-century.
In the 1970s and 1980s Broadway was the location of many live music clubs, like the Stone, and a punk rock club called the Mabuhay Gardens. Since the 1980s, and much like Manhattan’s Little Italy, due to a decrease in emigration from Italy and gentrification, the neighborhood has seen its native Italian American population rapidly shrink, while neighboring Chinatown has been rapidly expanding north into the neighborhood causing a major demographic shift to a mix of mostly Chinese and young professional population, although some, albeit very few, Italian Americans remain.
Today, North Beach is one of San Francisco’s main nightlife districts as well as a residential neighborhood populated by a mix of young urban professionals, families and Chinese immigrants connected to the adjacent Chinatown.
North Beach boasts plenty of tourist attractions and is known for its Italian flavors. Follow up your blissfully bitter espresso with a glass of afternoon red wine. Wine in the daytime is natural here. Italian-style sidewalk cafes encourage customers to sip espresso and enjoy a slice of Italy’s finest. The somewhat compact layout of the neighborhood consists of apartments, duplexes, and Victorian homes dating from the 1920s. The neighborhood still retains an Italian character with many Italian restaurants, cafes, and bakeries that line Columbus Avenue and Washington Square. Columbus Avenue is North Beach’s main thoroughfare, and it’s enjoyable enough to just perform wandering, window-shopping, eating or stopping at a sidewalk cafe for some people-watching. The Transamerica Pyramid is visible in the background on Columbus Avenue.
Some of the most popular must-see tourist attractions include: Washington Square Park, Lombard Street, Coit Tower, City Lights Bookstore, Beat Generation Museum, Cable Car Museum and Grant Street. Washington Square Park is a small city park is located on Columbus Street at Union. It’s a popular place for locals and visitors alike to lounge in the grass and do some people watching on a nice day. This is also a top spot for neighborhood festivals like the North Beach Festival and the Italian American Heritage Festival. Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world is a major tourist attraction in North Beach. Coit Tower is a large tower that sits on top of Telegraph Hill, a subsection of the North Beach neighborhood that offers a terrific view of the city. The City Lights Bookstore is a famous bookstore, which is a great three-story place to browse for books. It is the home of a lot of history associated with the Beat Generation poets. The Beat Generation Museum is relatively a new San Francisco museum that is located close to the City Lights Bookstore. Next to this bookstore is Jack Kerouac Alley, named after the famous Beat writer, where additional readings and performances often take place. On the other side of the alley is Vesuvio’s, the historic bar associated with the poets. The Cable Car Museum is a free museum that houses a collection of historic cable cars. Grant Street is located at the south of Broadway. It is the heart of Chinatown, but north of Broadway it’s the heart of North Beach. Here, you can find shopping, dining and drinking options.
In addition, you can find Sts. Peter and Paul Church. This historic church sits right across from Washington Square Park on the north side. It is an off-the-beaten-path because a lot of visitors don’t realize that this church is where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio took their wedding pictures on the steps outside. The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi is a church and national shrine that provides information about the history and religion of this famous saint.
North Beach houses the San Francisco Art Institute, which is a local art school often hosts lectures, gallery shows and events. It also consists of the Academy of Art University that has several buildings in the area, including one along Columbus Avenue and one across the street from Pier 39.
In addition to the standard bars and saloons, It is home to some very great spots for live entertainment. Cobb’s Comedy Club is a Comedy Club located at Columbus and Lombard is one of the most popular comedy spots in the city. Bimbo’s 365 is a historic nightclub which has been around for a long time. It is a top spot for seeing live music. North Beach used to be part of The Barbary Coast, a Wild West neighborhood known for prostitution and crime. This history is celebrated in a cheeky and appropriate way with a series of adult entertainment clubs on Broadway.
North Beach is mellow during the day, but after dark, Columbus Avenue lights up and the atmosphere becomes festive. The watering holes on Grant Avenue get especially busy, too. North Beach Festival is held in June and it is an outdoor party featuring Arte di Gesso (Italian street chalk art), animal blessings, food and music. The North Beach Jazz Festival is held in late June and this music festival offers some great jazz music. Italian Heritage Parade is an October festival, the nation’s oldest Italian-American parade, celebrates North Beach’s Italian roots and includes a festive parade. The North Beach street fair on Grant Avenue on Father’s Day is one of the city’s largest fairs.
North Beach is a fantastic spot to have enjoyment. By 9 a.m. most weekdays, North Beach is as quiet as it will get all day long, which simply means that it is not packed to the gills. By 11 a.m., it is again coursing, first with the lunch crowd from the adjacent financial district and not long afterwards with tourists from Fisherman’s Wharf just to the north. By afternoon, the main action for locals tends to be either at Washington Square where sunbathers gather, or on Grant Street, with its many clothing boutiques and secondhand stores. By 3 a.m. the fog and cold have crept in and helped to empty out the streets and North Beach takes a short catnap in preparation for yet another day of pleasing all of her visitors.