North Beach, north and east of Columbus Avenue, was the place that first turned San Francisco into the counterculture capital of the U.S. Established in the early 20th century by the city’s Italian community, it came to attract leagues of writers and artists, drawn not only by the European aura but by the low rents. The Beat Generation reigned here in the 1950s, and their trailblazing path of individualism and artistic endeavor carried into the early 1960s, when nightclubs such as the Purple Onion and the Hungry i showcased boundary-pushing comedians such as Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. Later, punk venues like the legendary Mabuhay Gardens solidified the stamp of hipness.
Today, North Beach’s mellow streets are still home to elderly Italians playing bocce, reading Neapolitan newspapers and nibbling biscotti at sidewalk cafés. Locals largely ignore the brash strip joints along Broadway, frequenting neighborhood treasures such as literary landmark City Lights bookstore, Vesuvio bar (the favorite haunt of Jack Kerouac), and iconic coffeehouse Caffe Trieste. The patinated copper Columbus Tower at the corner of Columbus and Kearny streets houses director Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios and wine bar. Just above it, Grant Avenue is lined with one-of-a-kind boutiques, antiques and curiosity shops. Further east atop Telegraph Hill, landmark Coit Tower was the site of the West Coast’s first marine telegraph.
On the northern waterfront edge of the neighborhood, Fisherman’s Wharf dates back to the Gold Rush, when Italian and Chinese immigrants plied the Bay for crab and other seafood and sold it right off their boats. Famous families included the DiMaggios (kin of late baseball great Joe). Today the wharf is a conglomeration of mostly novelty attractions, souvenir shops and tourist traffic, but you can still glimpse real fishermen in Fish Alley, off Leavenworth Street. Aquatic Park (between Hyde St and Van Ness Ave) offers one of the best strolls in the city, with panoramas of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, and a fleet of historic ships docked at nearby Maritime National Historical Park. It’s also the beginning of the Golden Gate Promenade, which continues for three miles along the shoreline of Crissy Field to Fort Point.
Things to do in North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf
Covering the length of three football fields along the Embarcadero waterfront, the Exploratorium is a science nerds' mecca, with more than 600 interactive exhibits that test the boundaries of physics and human perception. The museum was founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer (brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the A-bomb), who was dedicated to the idea of getting people to explore, experiment with and test their notions of scientific principles. Every aspect of the Exploratorium is hands-on—from the storage lockers that play tones when you touch them, to the outdoor “fog bridge” by artist Fujiko Nakaya that shrouds visitors in mist created by more than 800 high-pressure nozzles. New exhibits are introduced regularly, but the most popular mainstays include the Sweeper's Clock, a fascinating movie on a loop in which two street sweepers keep time by pushing around piles of trash; a marble maze you build from hardware store odds and ends; a mind-blowing parabolic mirror; a diorama of San Francisco made from 100,000 toothpicks; and the Tactile Dome, a crawl-through maze navigated in complete darkness using your sense of touch (advance reservations required). The steel-and-glass Bay Observatory on the second floor offers a spectacular perch to observe the geography, history and ecology of the San Francisco Bay. The in-house restaurant, Seaglass, showcases sustainable seafood and sushi, as well as small regional farms—and (note to parents) there's a full bar fea
Part museum, part old-fashioned arcade, the Musée Mécanique houses Ed Zelinsky's collection of more than 200 coin-operated games and amusements dating back to the 1880s. The result is a love letter to the era before video games, as well as to turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Gypsy fortune tellers, giant mechanical-circus dioramas, can-can girl stereoscopes, carnival strength testers, player pianos, and a looming Laughing Sal (a cackling mechanical relic salvaged from San Francisco's defunct Playland at the Beach amusement park) are among the games that delight kids and adults alike. Along the walls, photos of early San Francisco and earthquake memorabilia set the mood for a time when the city was still something of a western outpost on the edge of the Pacific. Step out back and you'll find the USS Pampanito, a restored World War II submarine that's open for tours.
Celebrating its 40th year in 2014, wacky, saucy, and uniquely San Franciscan Beach Blanket Babylon lays claim to the title of longest running musical revue in theater history. Its pun-laden send-ups of a shifting array of public figures, pop icons and dubious celebrities are loosely tied together under the auspices of a Snow White tale, but really this is just a vehicle to poke fun at everyone from Kim Kardashian and Hillary Clinton to the British Royal Family and Lady Gaga—all while sporting hats the size of small zeppelins.
Alcatraz is hands-down one of the best bets for your tourist buck, starting with the scenic ferry ride from Fisherman's Wharf to the island. The formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay known as “The Rock” started out as a lighthouse station in 1854, but its isolated location made it an ideal spot for a penal colony. Converted to a military prison in the 1870s, it became a maximum-security penitentiary in 1934, housing some of the country's most notorious and incorrigible criminals, among them Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. A tour of Alcatraz offers a fascinating look at local history and lore, including the Native American occupation of the island in the 1970s, a protest sparked by activists who, based on a treaty between the Sioux and the U.S. government, believed the island rightfully belonged to its original native inhabitants. Be sure to get the audio cellhouse tour, narrated by former inmates and guards, which offers harrowing accounts of prison riots and escape attempts. Tours sail daily from Pier 33, 8:45am–3:50pm. March–Nov; check schedule for winter hours. There's also a very popular extra-creepy night tour, which leaves in the late afternoon. Plan to spend at least two to three hours on the island and be sure to bring a warm jacket—the place is notoriously windy and fog-shrouded year round.
Clear, acrylic underwater tunnels offer visitors a diver's-eye view of the Bay, while moving walkways take you through 300 feet of water, and past more than 30,000 aquatic creatures, including swirling schools of anchovies, spiny dogfish, and sevengill sharks. Upstairs, Touch the Bay offers a number of touch tidepools with leopard sharks, bat rays, and skates; Otters: Watershed Ambassadors features three playful North American river otters. If you've got time, combine your visit with the San Francisco Magic Show, an all-ages comedy and magic show at the Bay Theater, or an island hop or Bay cruise (Blue & Gold Fleet, 415-705-8200, blueandgoldfleet.com).
Located atop Telegraph Hill, the fluted 1933 tower is the legacy of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric who left San Francisco a $125,000 bequest “for the purpose of adding beauty to the city I have always loved.” Though many believe the tower is a hose-shaped homage to San Francisco firefighters (Coit had been saved from a fire as a child and became a lifelong fan and mascot for Knickerbocker Engine Co. #5), it's merely an expression of her esteem; a memorial to firefighters lies down below in Washington Square Park. Inside the base of the tower are impressive and somewhat radical (by 1930s standards) Depression-era WPA murals depicting California agriculture, industry, and the city's leftist leanings (check out the socialist references in the library and on the newsstands). Recently restored, the frescoes are the collaborative effort of more than 25 artists, many of whom studied under Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. From the top, the observation tower offers panoramic views of the city and the bay.
While the restaurants, boat rides and souvenir shops of Fisherman's Wharf clearly cater to out-of-towners, there are plenty of uniquely San Francisco moments to be had at the Wharf, including Musée Mécanique, a charming vintage arcade, the USS Pampanito submarine, Ghirardelli Square, home of the renowned chocolatier, and National Maritime Historical Park at Hyde Street Pier where you can tour a fleet of restored historic sailing ships. Don't miss the sidewalk crab stands around Fisherman's Grotto near Pier 45, the only place in San Francisco to see the fishing fleet bringing in its daily catch. Grab a shrimp or crab cocktail and a hunk of sourdough bread and watch the boats sail in and out of the harbor.
Restaurants and bars in North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf
Eating at Gary Danko is like dinner and a night at the theater rolled into one. The superstar chef, winner of numerous culinary awards including a Michelin star, is a fanatic about details—from the perfectly spaced white-clothed tables, arrangements of fresh flowers, and amazingly well-informed and attentive staff, to the flawless presentation of signature dishes such as his trademark glazed oysters with lettuce cream, salsify and osetra caviar. Danko's French-California cuisine changes seasonally, but often includes variations on juniper-crusted game, lobster salad and desserts flambéed tableside. It's pricey, but worth ponying up for the five-course tasting menu—a gastronomic spectacular that includes a swoon-inducing cheese cart (wine pairings extra). Reservations are essential.
Open since 1919, this legendary North Beach bar and restaurant has drawn a shifting cast of celebrities from Hunter S. Thompson and Francis Ford Coppola to Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. In 2013, renowned Anglo-American restaurant duo April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman took the spot over and started serving modern Italian fare that reflects chef Bloomfield's trademark passion for offal. Yet Tosca has maintained much of its original charm with an impressive front bar and a jukebox blaring eclectic tunes. Rising mixology star Isaac Shumway, previously of Bourbon and Branch and Heaven's Dog, is behind the perfectly executed classic cocktails (and riffs thereon). Of special note is the bright and refreshing Polo Cup (served with a choice of gin or vodka and a wide ribbon of cucumber), the rich and boozy Scotch-based Old Grampian, and the deep and complex Trouble in Paradise (a jammy, frothy drink with spicy notes made from bourbon, Campari, basil, lemon juice, grapefruit juice and black pepper tincture). Order a House Cappuccino, and you'll get a hot, Armagnac-and-bourbon-spiked after-dinner drink frothed in the antique espresso machine. For the indecisive or adventurous, ask for the “Dealer's Choice”: The bartender will quiz you on your tastes and mix you a custom quaff.
A recent entry on the Neapolitan pizza scene with a location smack in the center of bustling Little Italy, Il Casare is rapidly developing a loyal and devoted following. The brief menu focuses on pizzas from the coal-fired oven that are made before your eyes by the pizzaiolo, and emerge in minutes achingly thin, light and bubbling to chewy perfection. The prosciutto pizza, made with San Daniele prosciutto, arugula, tomatoes, mozzarella, and raspa dura (a shaved Italian cheese) is a marvel of flavor. Sharing star billing is the mozzarella bar, featuring appetizer plates of buffalo, fior di latte and burrata cheese, and antipasti such as panuozzo—a kind of pizza-dough sandwich stuffed with cheese, sausage and broccoli rabe.
This small bakery on the corner of Washington Square Park in North Beach was founded on this spot by three brothers from Genoa in 1911 and is still run by members of the family. Liguria does nothing but turn out about ten kinds of focaccia bread—onion, raisin, olive, mushroom—every day from its old-fashioned brick ovens. Customers line up around the block for it, and when the shop runs out, they close. Your still-warm bread comes wrapped in butcher paper and tied up with string. Cash only.
Some say Roma serves the strongest coffee in the city—the café is certainly among the most atmospheric, with beans roasted on the premises in the heart of North Beach by three generations of the Azzollini family. Espressos and other coffees, and a range of gelati and Italian pastries (don't miss the tiramisu) are served in a large, airy space, perfect for sipping, thinking and explaining your latest conspiracy theory.
Trieste is one of the city's original Italian coffeehouses, which came of age in North Beach at the center of the 1950s Beat movement. A former hangout for Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and their pals, it's also the spot where Francis Ford Coppola is said to have written the screenplay for The Godfather. Trieste still roasts its beans in San Francisco and arguably produces some of the best espresso in town—available packaged for purchase from their shop next door. Inside the café, the dark walls are plastered with photos of opera singers and famous regulars, and on select Saturdays, members of the extended Giotta family continue their longstanding tradition of performing popular Italian songs and operatic arias.
On a street awash in knock-offs, this tiny osteria stands out for its humble authenticity. The room is the size of a postage stamp, but two Italian ladies and their oven deliver big time. The focaccia (and focaccia sandwiches) and thin-crust pizzas are top notch, and the singular roast of the day (pray for the roast pork braised in milk) is a labor of love and tenderness. The menu also features salads, soups and fresh pastas (try the penne baked in Bolognese and béchamel sauce). Baskets of warm focaccia keep you going while you wait for entrees, which you should accompany with a glass of Italian red. There's a full bar, with a nice selection of grappas as well. Cash only.
Don't come here looking for New York–style pizza. This is Tony Gemingnani's paean to Napoli, complete with ten different kinds of pizza baked in seven different ovens, ranging in temperature from 550 to 1,000 degrees. Gemingnani has an impeccable pedigree: He's the first American to win the World Champion Pizza Maker title in Naples, and the sometimes epic wait for a table in this busy corner of North Beach attests to his star power. Heavenly Tomato Pie made with hand-crushed tomato sauce and cooked in a 1,000-degree coal-fired oven, and the award-winning Margherita, with handmade San Felice-flour dough and San Marzano tomatoes (limited to 73 per day)—are just the tip of menu. Among the other dizzying choices are Detroit and Sicilian styles, stromboli and calzone.
The ‘wow' factor here is not necessarily on the menu, but in the festive atmosphere that prevails at this mainstay North Beach brunch spot, run by the Sanchez family for more than 50 years. Even the (sometimes epic) weekend queue is part of the fun. Once seated, you'll be faced with such temptations as a giant made-to-order 'm'omelette', huevos rancheros, or the Monte Cristo, a gargantuan sandwich of ham, turkey, cheddar, and gruyere dipped in egg batter and grilled. Service is swift and familiar.
Despite the fact that you can't buy a cigar at Mario's (or smoke one), you shouldn't miss this classic North Beach café, which drips with as much atmosphere as its fabulous oven-baked meatball focaccia sandwiches. Wedged like a slice of pie onto a prominent corner in North Beach overlooking Washington Square Park, it's the perfect perch to sip an Italian soda or a cappuccino and watch the world go by.
With its original mahogany bar intact, this saloon dates from 1907, but Comstock, which debuted in the space in 2010, is no fusty relic of a bygone age. Under bar manager Johnny Raglin, who was at the vanguard of the SF craft cocktail movement, the place brings fresh twists to classic cocktails, such as the Sazerac, Manhattan, Blood and Sand and Pisco Punch. Or put your fate in the bartender's hands by ordering a “Barkeep's Whimsy.” A full menu of hearty pub food includes dishes like roast chicken, oysters and cheese plates. Jazz bands often take to the small stage, complete with upright piano, overlooking the main bar. It's worth stopping by on Friday afternoons, since Comstock has resurrected the old saloon tradition of providing free lunch with the purchase of two cocktails.
Music and nightlife in North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf
Bimbo's began life as a Market Street speakeasy in 1931, moving to North Beach two decades later. The venue is still owned by the descendants of Agostino “Bimbo” Giuntoli, one of its original proprietors, and has been nicely preserved, with a mermaid theme running throughout. It's one of the most elegant places to see a show without an orchestra or opera singers present. Rita Hayworth once appeared here as a dancer, but these days you're more likely to see edgy acts like Zola Jesus, international pop heroes like the Raveonettes and tribute bands such as Tainted Love or Super Diamond working up the crowd.
Shopping in North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf
Since 1953, City Lights has been a San Francisco institution. Situated in North Beach, just off the seedy strip of Broadway, the shop feels like a small piece of history. The Beats are the shop's patron saints, and quotes and photos of Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg are displayed throughout the store. (Quotes also gleam underfoot in the adjacent alleyway, like a counterculture yellow brick road). It's a beautiful space, with arched doorways, vintage art and light filtering in through large east-facing windows. It's not uncommon for regulars to settle into a sunny corner with a book. Beat literature and poetry is housed upstairs, while current literature, fiction and nonfiction is shelved on the main floor. Many of the staff picks have progressive political leanings, as you might expect from a shop where posters read “Eat, sleep, read, provoke,” and “A literary Habitat for Humanity.” It's not just a bookstore—it's a legacy.
Tucked away on a slow-moving strip of North Beach, Schein & Schein is worth the detour. Owners Jim and Marti Schein specialize in antique maps, particularly those of San Francisco and greater California, but you'll also find a variety of printed treasures including hotel and travel brochures; lithographs; scientific, medical, astrological and anatomical illustrations; rare atlases; and copper and steel engravings. Stepping into the quiet, sunny shop feels like entering a time warp. The walls are adorned with cartography, and maps and prints are organized in vintage produce and shipping crates and letterpress-type cabinets. Jim is a history buff and can offer up tidbits on the history of San Francisco and the art of map-making for any print you purchase. Though rare maps can run into the thousands, you can find prints for as little as $5 in the discount crates near the entryway.
Hotels in North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf
The top hotel at Fisherman's Wharf occupies a behemoth former Del Monte cannery, built in 1908 of giant timbers and red brick salvaged from the 1906 earthquake. It sits smack on the bay and overlooks the tall ships moored at the Hyde Street Pier and the San Francisco National Maritime Park. Geared toward families and ready made for a game of hide-and-seek, the 252-room hotel has an enormous lobby adjoining a Parks Service visitor center, with glorious displays of model yachts, lighthouse lenses and a recreation of the Gold Rush-era San Francisco waterfront. Rooms are fittingly decorated in a nautical theme, with anchor prints, porthole-shaped mirrors, and plush indigo carpets that evoke the deep blue of the sea. Standard rooms face a quiet interior courtyard and get lots of light, but it's worth splurging on a bay-view room for views of either Alcatraz or the Golden Gate Bridge. Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30am, National Park Service rangers guide free tours of the park and wharf, beginning in the hotel's lobby.
Built after the 1906 earthquake, and transformed into a boutique hotel in 1995, the Hotel Bohčme brims with North Beach history. Hallways are lined with black-and-white photos from the Beat era, and fragments of poetry and sheet music are découpaged onto lampshades. You may even sleep in Allen Ginsberg's room (no.204): In his last years he often sat in his bay window, tapping away on a keyboard. Rooms are small, but smartly decorated in vintage color schemes, and beds have iron frames and gingham bedspreads that match the draperies. Though correct and colorful, this is a simple place—you stay here for the location. The quietest rooms face a light well, but those on Columbus Avenue overlook a colorful street scene including sidewalk cafés. Parking is a nightmare; take taxis or public transit.
It's hard to believe one of San Francisco's best bets for a view is actually a hostel. Perched on cliffs above the Bay, with the Golden Gate and Alcatraz rising in the background, the HI Fisherman's Wharf sits on a former military base turned national park. Built as Civil War barracks, the 1863 building is now a spiffy 180-bed hostel, flooded with natural light. Private rooms are a steal, but share a bath. Dorms vary in size, with between four to 22 wooden bunk beds. Breakfast is included in the rate, and there's an onsite café that serves three meals a day, plus beer and wine. Extras include a giant kitchen, a 25-seat movie theater, spacious common areas with a fireplace, laundry facilities, internet kiosks, nearby hiking trails and bragging rights to the city's best real estate.
Built in 1906 to house dockworkers displaced by the Great Fire, the San Remo Hotel is one of the city's best bargains, but you'll have to share a bath. The spotless Edwardian-era property has 64 simple rooms, with brass or iron-framed beds, pinewood furniture, Oriental-style rug and optional sink. Be forewarned that some rooms face interior hallways: If you value fresh air, book an exterior room (all rooms with sinks face the outdoors). The decor skews Victoriana, and though some pieces are old, everything is scrupulously maintained. For a splurge, book the Penthouse Room, a freestanding hideaway rooftop shack with ensuite bath and knockout views. There are no TVs and no elevator—plan to climb stairs.