North Beach is San Francisco‘s Italian neighborhood and home of the Beat movement. To say that Jack Kerouac “lived” in San Francisco would be inaccurate, as he was more prone to crashing on couches during his time as a Southern Pacific brakeman.
What is surely known is that the On the Road author spent his leisure hours in the North Beach district, drinking in bars like Vesuvio Cafe and Specs’ with his fellow beat poets. The heart of their haunts are immortalized today at Jack Kerouac Alley, a small side street in North Beach at the border of Chinatown, as well as at the Beat Museum, a gallery devoted to the influential American movement of the 1950s.
One of the city’s most renowned bookstores, City Lights Books, still offers an impressive collection of texts, proving it hasn’t lost its literary edge since the days its founder and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s then-controversial Howl and Other Poems in 1956.
North Beach’s distinction as a haven for the arts doesn’t end here, as San Francisco’s Italian district hosts other notable sights like Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope film studio inside Columbus Tower, a towering flatiron building at the end of Columbus Avenue. Smaller art galleries and boutiques can be found on Grant Avenue, located under the gaze of Coit Tower at the foot of Telegraph Hill. Once the playground for Barbary Coast thugs, the now posh neighborhood features some of the city’s most notable restaurants and nightlife venues, including the Saloon, the oldest bar in San Francisco, opened in 1861.
The heart of North Beach is Washington Square Park, a grassy area in front of the impressive Saints Peter and Paul Church. Locals gather here on weekends to enjoy the sun, as the tranquil park provides the perfect setting for consuming take-out orders from the area’s many bistros.
Located inside the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi along Columbus Avenue, one finds La Porziuncola Nuova, a to-scale replica of St. Francis’s Porziuncola in Assisi, Italy. Admission is free, so it’s worth a quick detour inside to admire some religious architecture and Italian art.
It is, however, the Italian cuisine that draws many visitors here, and North Beach offers a wide variety of culinary offerings from traditional Italian fare to coal-fired pizzas. Pastry shops prepare rich delights like authentic cannoli and flaky sfoglietelle, while artisan coffee shops brew some of the best coffee in the city.
Purveyors of the stage can check out concerts at Bimbo’s 365, comedy acts at Cobb’s Comedy Club and the outrageous Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest running musical revue in live theater history, at Club Fugazi. For outdoor entertainment, be on the lookout for street fairs like the North Beach Festival (in June) and the Festa Coloniale Italiana (in August).
Located between the Financial District and Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach is a short walk from most downtown locations. From Union Square, an easy stroll through Chinatown leads one directly here, making it a convenient must-visit on any San Francisco trip.
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