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Top Things to Do in San Francisco’s North Beach Neighborhood

Andrew is a freelance writer and substitute teacher from Redwood City. He has a B.A. in Literature from San Francisco State.

Sunrise over North Beach

Sunrise over North Beach

An Introduction to North Beach, San Francisco

San Francisco’s North Beach is a vibrant community with a rich history. The district’s eclectic range of attractions reflects this history. This neighborhood is sometimes known as “Little Italy” due to its historical connection with Italian immigrants.

North Beach was traditionally an international district. It was home to the Latin Quarter in the 1850s, while Italian-Americans have called it home since the 1880s. Other immigrants settled in the area over the years in addition to artistic and alternative subcultures. North Beach was home to the Bohemian Movement at the turn of the century and the Beatniks during the 20th Century.

Today the cosmopolitan North Beach tradition continues. This legacy includes lively nightlife, a thriving art scene, hip shops, quirky architecture, and an abundance of cafes.

1. Do a Walking Tour of North Beach

North Beach is an eclectic and picturesque community. Be sure to make time to simply walk around. San Francisco City Guides offers volunteer-led walking tours in neighborhoods throughout San Francisco, including North Beach. Check the City Guides website for tour details as they change seasonally and according to volunteer availability.

If an organized walk doesn’t appeal to you, consider a self-guided walk. North Beach is home to boutiques, bookstores, record stores, and artisan food markets. If you like browsing shops, you'll stay entertained for hours.

If you fancy a little exercise, be sure to climb the outdoor stairs in North Beach and on Telegraph Hill, including the Vallejo St. Stairway, the Filbert Steps, and the Greenwich Steps. The outdoor stairways make the hills of San Francisco a little easier for pedestrians to navigate.

Pastrami goodness from Little Vine

Pastrami goodness from Little Vine

2. Buy Gourmet Delicacies and Picnic in the Park

Little Vine is an artisan grocer that sells delicious sandwiches, cheeses, wines, and other tasty provisions. Pack a picnic basket, fill it with delicacies, and then head to Washington Square Park or one of the other area parks. Locals and visitors love the old-world feel and the delicious offerings at Little Vine.

Find them @ 1541 Grant Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133. Note that they are closed on Mondays.

3. Visit the North Beach Parks

Washington Square Park was one of the first parks built in San Francisco. Though relatively small, it offers a welcome respite from the hustle of the city. Its proximity to cafes and markets like Little Vine makes it the perfect place to relax while enjoying a picnic. The park borders the picturesque Saint Peter & Paul’s Church which is a popular location for wedding pictures. The steps of this church are where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio posed for photographs after their 1954 civil ceremony.

Levi Strauss Plaza & Park is another lush park where North Beach visitors can unwind in a lovely green setting. The plaza was originally intended as a place where Levi Strauss, Inc. employees could relax on the company’s campus. The plaza features a grassy knoll where visitors love to relax.

No visit to North Beach is complete without a trip up to Coit Tower at the top of Telegraph Hill! The tower offers some of the most breathtaking views of San Francisco. The tower was named after Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a local millionaire who supported the area's firefighters. When he passed away, he left a sum of money to the city for beautification. San Francisco used that money to build Coit Tower and a monument to firefighters in Washington Square.

A San Francisco cable car

A San Francisco cable car

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4. Ride the Cable Cars

Riding the San Francisco Cable Cars might seem hokey, but it is still a fun way to travel. Since 1873, cable cars have helped San Francisco residents and visitors get around the city. Some call them the “city's only moving historic landmarks.” The Powell-Mason line travels through the heart of North Beach. Unfortunately, the usual wait for the Powell-Mason tends to be long since it connects Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf, two major tourist hot spots.

Sourdough chowder heaven

Sourdough chowder heaven

5. Chow Down on Sourdough Bread Bowl Chowder

San Francisco is a foodie's paradise, and North Beach is no exception! North Beach is home to cafes, bistros, bakeries, restaurants, and pubs. You can find an abundance of Italian restaurants and just about any other cuisine. Bistro Boudin is a local favorite where you can find seafood and regional cuisine. While you are there, be sure to visit the Bakery Museum and take a tour. Tour highlights include an all-access bakery tour where you can even roll bread with one of the professional bakers!

And of course, be sure to try an iconic San Francisco delicacy, the Sourdough Bread Bowl Clam Chowder!

The Beat Museum

The Beat Museum

6. Learn About Local History at a Museum

Several museums in North beach celebrate the colorful history of North Beach and San Francisco.

Attractions include:

  • Beat Museum @ 540 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133
  • The North Beach Museum @ 1435 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94133
  • Lyle Tuttle Tattoo Studio & Museum @ 841 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133
  • The San Francisco Cable Car Museum @ 1201 Mason St, San Francisco, CA 94108
SF icons

SF icons

7. Browse a Famous Bookstore

Since 1953 City Lights Booksellers and Publishers has been a literary landmark. The City Lights masthead proclaims the store is “A Literary Meeting place since 1953.” Founders Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin published the famous Pocket Poets Series. They continue to publish a range of books in addition to those original books of poetry. City Lights currently publishes over 100 titles. You can buy these and other books in their iconic bookstore.

City Lights frequently hosts readings by writers and poets. Check the City Lights website for their events schedule.

8. Enjoy the Nightlife

North Beach has historically attracted a diverse group of people, including several artistic subcultures. A byproduct of that legacy is exciting nightlife. The North Beach and Telegraph Hill boast numerous bars, clubs, and nighttime entertainment destinations.

Broadway St. is home to San Francisco's notorious "red light" district and also features some of the city's hottest clubs.

9. A Truly "Only in SF" Experience

Beach Blanket Babylon may be the world’s longest-running musical revue. It is also one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions, so be sure to get tickets and plan accordingly. The revue includes hilarious spoofs of pop culture and spectacular costumes.

North Beach festival

North Beach festival

10. Attend a Local Festival

The North Beach neighborhood hosts multiple festivals throughout the year. Locals and visitors enjoy the local scene, typically featuring arts, music, and great food. Some festivals to watch for include the Art in the Alley in the Spring, North Beach Festival during the Summer, and the Oyster and Beer Festival in the Summer. Check local listings for current details on these festivals.

Summing Up...

This list just scratches the surface. North Beach boasts many attractions, so you will always find something to do. This is especially true if you are interested in American history. Think we missed something? Let us know in the comments section below!

© 2017 Andrew Armstrong

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