Exploring North Beach
If you are looking to explore a neighborhood that is off-the-beaten-track, North Beach in San Francisco is not that neighborhood!
That said, there are good reasons for why it's so popular among tourists, and you should know that locals love to come here too.
So what's so great about it?
- It's charming and rich in history.
- It's close to several worthy attractions, for example, Coit Tower and Lombard Street.
- There is cute boutique shopping along Grant Avenue.
- There is a lively nightlife scene.
- There are tons of Italian restauants, bakeries and espresso cafes to satisfy nearly any savory or sweet craving you may have!
- There is an old-world, European feel in this neighborhood that is quite different from anywhere else in San Francisco.
- It's the only place in San Francisco with year-round dining outside.
- It's excellent (perhaps one of the best) places for people watching.
Places to Eat |
Places to Stay
A bit of North Beach, San Francisco History...
Known to locals as "little Italy", the Italian mark of North Beach was left by large numbers of fishermen who immigrated here from Genoa and Sicily, due to the neighborhood's close proximity to the docks and wharves. They first arrived in the 1870s, but increased in numbers during the reconstruction of the neighborhood, following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Joe Dimaggio is one of the famous Italian-Americans who came from North Beach. He married his first wife at the St. Peter and Paul's church next to Washington Square Park, and took photos there after his second wedding, to then wife Marilyn Monroe!
There aren't as many Italians living in North Beach today, but you will still hear some Italian spoken as you walk through the neighborhood.
Another aspect of influence within North Beach is the mark that was left behind by the Beat Movement writers. Undoubtedly attracted to the vibrant cafe and bar scene, the beats made this neighborhood their hang-out in the 1950s. Their legacy is felt in relevant spots such as the adored City Lights Bookstore, Vesuvio's (a bar that the beat writers frequented) as well as the Beat Museum.
A couple blocks of Broadway, east of Columbus, is famous for its flashing, neon, stretch of strip clubs. It's a bit of a contrast to the rest of the neighborhood which otherwise feels quite family-friendly, but it's a tip-of-the-hat to the seedy, old Barbary coast days, when men who came to California looking for gold outnumbered women 75 to 1, and gambling, prostitution and crime were the norm of the day.
North Beach, San Francisco Attractions:
This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a selection of places that are favorites among San Francisco locals.
Coit Tower and the Filbert Steps:
This is one of San Francisco's most popular lookout spots for sweeping views of the bay, as well as fun perspective of the surrounding city.
City Lights Bookstore:
Owned by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights is deservedly considered one of the best bookshops in the city.
Made famous for being the first to publish the controversial (for its time) book "Howl and other Poems" by beat writer Allen Ginsberg, today there is an entire upstairs section dedicated to the writers and books of the Beat Movement. It's definitely a worthy stop if you are a lover of books. The creaking wooded interior is comforting, and there are chairs planted in various corners inviting you to stay a while.
Entrance to the Beat Museum is just $5, and if you are a fan of the movement, there are some worthy artifacts to check out.
Washington Square Park
Since North Beach is often sunny, Washington Square Park is a lovely place to stop for an afternoon rest, and is also usually a great place for people-watching. Saint Peter and Paul's Church faces the park, adding an extra touch of loveliness to the scenery.
Columbus Tower (aka Sentinel Building)
The copper-green FlatIron building that sits at the corner of Columbus and Kearny, is a designated SF landmark, and excellent photo opportunity, especially if you can catch the towering Transamerica Pyramid behind it.
Boutique Shopping on Grant Street
The stretch of shops is just a couple of blocks long on Grant Street, mostly between Union Street and Greenwich, but there are definitely a few little boutique gems. I love Therapy, which is retro and affordable, Ooma which has unique, designer dresses, and Alla Prima which sells fine lingerie. Al's Attire, has a reputation for creating quality, custom clothing, and rumor has it that celebrities such as Santana and Tom Waits have had clothing designed here.
Beach Blanket Babylon
The longest running musical revue in San Francisco, it's first show took place in 1974. The show is held in the small Club Fugazi in North Beach, and performances are offered Wednesday-Sunday, with two shows on both Saturday and Sunday. There is a loose plot around Snow White trying to find her Prince Charming, and during her search she runs into various current day characters, ranging from President Obama, to Lady Gaga, to Susan Boyle, for example. The characters and jokes are changed to reflect current events, and one of its main defining features are the giant hats and wigs that performers wear. The songs and jokes are satirical and campy, and although the show is a bit cheesy, many people really get a kick out of it. It's less of a local thing-to-do, and tends to be more popular with folks visiting from out of town. Tickets range in price from $25-$130 depending on which section you sit in, and what night you go. Go early (about an hour) to get good seats. Although seating sections are assigned, seats within each section are on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Saint Peter and Paul's Catholic Church
The architecture at this church is lovely both inside and out, and it stands as an attractive landmark within North Beach. That said, now (in 2011) the entire exterior is undergoing renovation and is covered with scaffolding, making it difficult to see much. Noteworthy historical tidbits are that Joe Dimaggio held his first wedding ceremony here, and after his second marriage to Marilyn Monroe, they came to the steps here to have their wedding photographs taken. The address is a bit ironic - you'll find it at 666 Filbert. Hmm...
North Beach, San Francisco Restaurants
One of the things that I love about North Beach is that it's the only neighborhood in San Francisco where you can dine nearly year-round in the European "al fresco" tradition, with tables and chairs spilling out onto the sidewalk. This makes it inarguably one of the best places in the city for people-watching, and I am convinced that it's what gives the neighborhood such a warm and social air.
That said, North Beach restaurants aren't known among city dwellers for being especially amazing. In fact, many of the places that line Columbus are mostly considered to be tourist traps offering mediocre pasta dishes at not-great-value prices. That said, there is good food to be had, but you have to know where to go...
Molinari's Delicatessen ($)
Delicious Italian sandwich on the go.
Another important North Beach landmark, this delicatessen has been serving up imported Italian food goods and traditional sandwiches since 1896! You pick out your own sandwich bread (it's thick), and they pile on the toppings. If you aren't a meat lover, they also serve an amazing vegetarian sandwich.
Caffe BaoNecci ($$)
Super-thin-crust, Italian pizzas in a casual environment.
A mom-and-pop shop owned by an Italian family that opened this casual cafe just a few years ago, this place makes perhaps some of the thinnest pizza in the city. Light and made with simple ingredients, it's a good bet for lunch or dinner. Pizzas are around $15, and feed one person if you are very hungry, or two if your appetite is lighter.
Rose Pistola: ($$$)
For a special night out.
A casual, fine-dining establishment, this is an excellent North Beach restaurant. The pasta dishes are delicious and always fresh, and the bruschetta appetizers are creative. I personally prefer to sit either in the bar area (at one of the tables by the window), or at the counter where you can watch the cooks in action as they prepare your meal.
Albona Ristorante Istriana ($$$)
Not your typical Italian dishes, but a joyful mouthful with every bite.
If you are looking for good food, this is one of North Beach's neighborhood gems. It's not inexpensive, but it's also not quite like any other Italian restaurant in the city. You'll find things like cumin, sauerkraut, rabbit and lamb on their menu, delicious fish specials, as well as classic dishes like mushroom risotto or penne arrabbiata.
Mama's on Washington ($$)
For a great breakfast IF you don't mind waiting in looong lines to sit down.
Unless you get there right when they open at 8am, it's not unusual to wait at least 45 minutes for a table. The breakfast is good though, and they have several variations of benedict, french toast, omelette and pancake dishes on the menu. I always have a hard time choosing between the Swedish Cinnamon French Toast with seasonal berries (not sure how Swedish it is!) the Monte Cristo (a ham and cheese sandwich on french toast bread, served with a side of jam and country potatoes) or the Apple Pandora (long slices of sour-dough french-toast served with lemon butter and apples). Yum!
Don Pisto's: ($$)
When you don't want Italian food.
A rare non-Italian restaurant in North Beach, this stylish, but casual restaurant has a small, simple menu of quality, yet affordable Mexican food. They serve tacos, tortilla soup and a shrimp and calamari cocktail, just to name a few items. I personally love any of their tacos, the oysters on the half shell, or the lime, garlic and cilantro seasoned lamb ribs. Mmmm!
Golden Boy Pizza ($)
Filling, budget, fococcia-style pizza slice.
A San Francisco landmark. This pizza place is where locals go to get a quick, cheap, greasy (but delicious!), slice of focaccia-style pizza.
La Boulange ($)
Soups, sandwiches and salads.
La Boulange is a cozy, French-inspired bakery that actually has several locations in San Francisco. If you are in North Beach, I rather suggest you try something Italian, since you are here after all, and also because you can dine at La Boulange elsewhere in the city. That said, I mention it because it is one of my favorite places to have lunch. If you are in the mood for affordable and satisfying soups, salads and open-faced sandwiches, this might just be the place for you.
Cafe Greco ($)
Cappuccinos and delicious sweet treats!
Come here for incredible gelato (yes, I think it's better than the place down the street that serves only gelato!) and other amazing desserts, such as decadent chocolate-raspberry cheesecake, fruit tarts, biscotti, cannoli, and quality espresso drinks. It's clean inside, and there are plenty of tables to sit and rest your feet for a bit.
Cafe Trieste ($)
Coffee and conversations.
This place is well-known because it was the first espresso bar to open in North Beach (or on the West Coast for that matter!), and also because they developed a reputation for providing excellent coffee. Popular among the beat poets, it remains a favorite hangout for locals today. Rumor has it that Francis Ford Coppola wrote most of his screenplay for the movie, "The Godfather" here.
Nighttime entertainment in North Beach, San Francisco
There are tons of places in North Beach to enjoy a cocktail or three. If you are up for a big night out, try visiting several of the places that I recommend here. If you want just one place to spend the evening, read some of the descriptions below to get a sense of what will suit you best.
Charming, laid-back bar to catch up with old friends.
It's easy to understand why this place was a favorite among the beats, and why it continues to be a popular San Francisco bar today. It's well-designed for conversation, feeling a bit like you're sitting inside someone's den, with tons of little nooks to huddle up with a couple of friends. There are stained-glass, tiffany-style lamps and framed wall-art covering nearly every inch of space, that can serve as inspiration should conversation be slow. There is also a second level seating area, where you can either look out the windows over Columbus Street or peer over at folks hanging out at the bar on the main floor. Beer is well-priced, and the selection is good.
Classy, old-school, North Beach bar.
Having a drink at the Tosca Cafe feels a bit like stepping back in time. The vintage cash registers, the dark checkered floor, the long wooden bar, the red-1950s-style-vinyl booths, the impeccably dressed bartenders, and the Wurlitzer jukebox cranking out tunes the likes of Frank Sinatra at a quarter per song, all help to create this atmosphere. There are several tables and chairs in the back of the bar making it an ideal place to catch up with friends. Order their "house cappuccino" (really a hot chocolate with brandy) to warm you up on a cool San Francisco night.
The Comstock Saloon
A local's favorite! A vintage saloon with well-mixed cocktails and a sharp-dressed crowd.
This is definitely a local's favorite, and it's relatively new to the neighborhood. What you'll find here are amazing cocktails, a menu inspired by turn-of-the-century saloon fare, and a newly renovated interior to match. Although the Comstock just opened in 2010, the space it occupies has been here since 1907, and owners and renown bartenders Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin took special care to preserve that look when creating their new space. It's yet another spot in North Beach that will transport you to another era, however, this place does it with some serious finesse. Since it's popular, evenings can get quite loud. If you prefer a quieter setting, try earlier in the week, or a weekend afternoon.
Live, boot stompin' blues at the oldest bar in town.
This place survived the 1906 earthquake, and doesn't look like it has changed much since then. It's an unpretentious place (perhaps even a touch surly at times) with an old-timer crowd, cheap, stiff drinks and live music that will tempt you to get off your rear-end, and on to the dance floor.
Bimbo's 365 Club
A historical SF concert venue providing high-quality entertainment.
You can't really tell from the outside, but this swanky, retro establishment, opened in 1931, is one of the more beautiful venues in San Francisco to see live music. The interior is decorated with lots of sensual, red-velvet drapery and art-deco touches, and shows can range from intimate, seated settings, to lively and loose dance-athons.
400-seat comedy club presenting the nation's top comedians.
Cobb's Comedy Club has been a North Beach institution for 25 years, with shows 4 nights a week, Thursday-Sunday, starting at 8pm, and a second show at 10:15 on Fridays and Saturdays. They offer a full restaurant and bar menu, and require a 2-drink minimum per show.
Hotels in North Beach, San Francisco
If I was planning a stay in San Francisco, I would definitely consider choosing a hotel or B&B in North Beach. It's a lovely, charming neighborhood, it's walking distance to downtown as well as several attractions, and you have tons of cafes, restaurants and bars nearby to choose from. It's a great option for people who prefer to stay in a neighborhood, rather than downtown.
In North Beach there are only a few places to choose from, and none of them are your modern, hip, swanky types of places (for that pick a hotel in SOMA or downtown). If you have a car, parking can be a bit of a hassle in North Beach, but that tends to apply to most places in San Francisco.
Here are three suggestions of places to stay in order of least expensive to most...
Clean, European-style, budget hotel in a convenient location.
A quaint and historical hotel, located close to Fisherman's Wharf, this is a simple place for people who don't mind doing without certain amenities like telephones and TVs in their rooms. Bathroom facilities are shared (however they are clean and private), and rates for rooms range from roughly $55-$95/night (inexpensive for San Francisco). My sister and her husband enjoyed a stay in the penthouse for a weekend (which does have a private bathroom), and loved the view and the location.
Cute boutique hotel located in the middle of the action.
This place has a lot of personality, the rooms are charming and unique, and the location is in the heart of everything. Situated right on Columbus, the minute you step out the door, you are surrounded by cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs. Week nights won't stay loud too late, but that said, since this place is right on a main thoroughfare, if you are sensitive to street noise, it might not be the best fit. Room rates range from $145-185/night.
Washington Square Inn
Small, luxury B&B on a quiet corner in North Beach, overlooking Washington Square Park, Coit Tower and St. Peter and Paul's Church.
The Washington Square Inn is a lovely B&B with almost everything you would want from a home away from home. There is wi-fi, nearby garage parking, cozy robes, and complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea, and evening wine and hors d'oeuvres! Room rates range from $179- $329/night, or $395/night for their nearby vacation rental.
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