Getting to Know North Beach
Start: Intersection of Montgomery Street, Columbus Avenue, and Washington Street.
Public Transportation: Bus no. 10, 12, 15, 30X, or 41.
Finish: Washington Square.
Time: 3 hours, including a stop for lunch.
Best Times: Monday through Saturday between 11am and 4pm.
Worst Times: Sunday, when shops are closed.
Hills That Could Kill: The Montgomery Street hill from Broadway to Vallejo streets; otherwise, this is an easy walk.
Along with Chinatown, North Beach is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. In the 1800s, one of its main thoroughfares, Pacific Avenue, was considered to be the spine of the notorious Barbary Coast area. Think of a wooden shantytown leading down to a bustling, curved wharf. Over time, the settlement grew, but it always retained its male-heavy population and its rough profile. Respectable men with families didn’t come out West to seek their fortunes during the Gold Rush; that was the province of drifters, opportunists, and poor laborers. And San Francisco was founded by these men.
North Beach (especially Pacific Avenue) was a den of sin, pleasure, and crime. Routinely, young men on a night of carousing at the saloons and opium dens would pass out and wake up the next day on a ship already well out to sea, where they’d be forced to join the crew for months on end until they’d be able to return home. This impression-by-kidnapping method was called being “shanghaied,” it often involved drugs slipped surreptitiously into beer, and it was so common that the police barely kept track of incidents. The brilliant underworld journalist Herbert Asbury, famous today for his book “Gangs of New York,” wrote in his “Barbary Coast”that the period was “the nearest approach to criminal anarchy that an American city has yet experienced.”
Because of the fire, the Barbary Coast is now gone and barely a plank of the original place remains. The land is also no longer on the coast, thanks to subsequent landfilling. But the Barbary Coast’s 70-odd year reign gave San Francisco its reputation as a devil-may-care town of hedonistic inclinations, a reputation it no longer deserves but which persists among people who have never actually visited.
North Beach became the city’s Italian district when Italian immigrants moved “uphill” in the early 1870s, crossing Broadway from the Jackson Square area and settling in. They quickly established restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and other businesses familiar to them from their homeland.
The "Beat Generation" helped put North Beach on the map, with the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg holding court in the area's cafes during the 1950s. Although most of the original Beat poets are gone, their spirit lives on in North Beach, which is still a haven for bohemian artists and writers. The neighborhood, thankfully, retains its Italian village feel: it's a place where residents from all walks of life enjoy taking time for conversation over pastries and frothy cappuccinos.
If there’s one landmark you can’t miss, it’s the familiar building on the corner of Montgomery Street and Columbus Avenue (take bus 30X or 41 to get there):
1. Transamerica Pyramid
Petitions and protests greeted the plan to build this unusual skyscraper, but once it was completed it immediately became a beloved fixture of the skyline. Noted for its spire (which rises 212 ft. above the top floor) and its “wings” (which begin at the 29th floor and stop at the spire), this pyramid is San Francisco’s tallest building. You might want to take a peek at one of the rotating art exhibits in the lobby or go around to the right and into half-acre Redwood Park, which is part of the Transamerica Center.
The Transamerica Pyramid occupies part of the 600 block of Montgomery Street, which once held a historic building called:
2. The Montgomery Block
Originally four stories high, the Montgomery Block was the tallest building in the West when it was built in 1853. San Franciscans called it “Halleck’s Folly” because it was built on a raft of redwood logs that had been bolted together and floated at the edge of the ocean (which was right at Montgomery St. at that time). The building was demolished in 1959 but is remembered as the power center of old San Francisco. Its tenants included artists and writers of all kinds, among them Jack London, George Sterling, Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain. This is a picturesque area, but there’s no particular spot to direct you to. It’s worth looking around, however, if only for the block’s historical importance.
From the southeast corner of Montgomery and Washington streets, look across Washington to the corner of Columbus Avenue to 4 Columbus Ave which is the:
3. Original Transamerica Building
A Beaux Arts flatiron-shaped building covered in terra cotta, this old-fashioned beauty was built in 1909 as a bank. Today, the building houses a Church of Scientology.
Cross Washington Street and continue north on Montgomery Street to no. 730:
4. Golden Era Building
Erected around 1852, this San Francisco historic landmark building is named after the literary magazine “The Golden Era,” which was published here. Some of the young writers who worked on the magazine were known as “the Bohemians”; they included Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) and Bret Harte (who began as a typesetter here). Backtrack a few dozen feet and stop for a minute to admire the exterior of the annex, at no. 722, which, after years of neglect and lawsuits, has finally been stabilized and is going to be developed. The Belli Annex, as it is currently known, is registered as a historic landmark.
Continue north on Washington Street and take the first right onto Jackson Street. Continue until you hit the:
5. 400 Block of Jackson Square
Here’s where you’ll find some of the only commercial buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire. The building at 415 Jackson St. (ca. 1853) served as headquarters for the Ghirardelli chocolate company from 1855 to 1894. The Hotaling Building (no. 451) was built in 1866 and features pediments of cast iron applied over the brick walls. At no. 441 is another of the buildings that survived the disaster of 1906. Constructed between 1850 and 1852 with ship masts for interior supporting columns, it served as the French Consulate from 1865 to 1876.
Cross the street and backtrack on Jackson Street. Continue toward the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Jackson Street. Turn right on Columbus and look across the street for the small triangular building at the junction of Kearny Street and Columbus Avenue, Columbus Tower (also known as the Sentinel Building).
6. Columbus Tower
Also known as the Sentinel Building, it survived the Quake by virtue of being under construction at the time. The Kingston Trio owned it in the 1960s, when it went to seed; at the time, the basement contained a recording studio where the Grateful Dead recorded its second album. The movie director Francis Ford Coppola owns the building now; upstairs are the offices for the production company he started (now co-owned by his son Roman and his daughter, “Lost in Translation” director, Sofia). Downstairs, he sells his Napa and Sonoma county wines and there’s also a little slightly overpriced but good European-style bistro, Café Zoetrope.
Continue north on Columbus Avenue and then turn right on Pacific Avenue. After you cross Montgomery Street, you’ll find brick-lined Osgood Place on the left. A registered historic landmark, it is one of the few quiet—and car-free—little alleyways left in the city. Stroll up Osgood and go left on Broadway to:
7. 1010 Montgomery St.
This is where Allen Ginsberg lived when he wrote his legendary poem, “Howl,” first performed on October 13, 1955, in a converted auto-repair shop at the corner of Fillmore and Union streets. By the time Ginsberg finished reading, he was crying and the audience was going wild. Jack Kerouac proclaimed, “Ginsberg, this poem will make you famous in San Francisco.” He underestimated the poem’s impact, obviously.
Now head back to:
The old Barbary Coast frolic hasn’t completely died out—it limps along here, along Broadway between Columbus and Montgomery Street, where a fleet of XXX stores and go-go houses continue to attract men at all hours. Strange to think of a porno-shop block as having a long and established heritage, but this one does.
Keep walking west on Broadway and a little farther up is the current location of the:
9. The Beat Museum
You can purchase “Howl” and other Beat works and memorabilia at this museum, which has among its collections a $450 first edition of “On the Road” and a replica of Kerouac’s 1949 Hudson. The car was featured in Walter Salles “On the Road” film adaptation (2012) and is on permanent loan from the director. Tickets to the museum within the store are $8 ($5 students and seniors).
Continue along Broadway to:
10. hungry i
Now a seedy strip club (at 546 Broadway), the original hungry i (at 599 Jackson St., which is under construction for senior housing) was owned and operated by the vociferous “Big Daddy” Nordstrom. If you had been here while Enrico Banducci was in charge, you would have found only a plain room with an exposed brick wall and director’s chairs around small tables. A who’s who of nightclub entertainers performed at the original hungry i, including Lenny Bruce, Billie Holiday (who sang “Strange Fruit” there), Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, and Barbra Streisand.
At the corner of Broadway and Columbus Avenue, you will see the:
11. Former Site of the Condor Club
The city’s topless scene got its start in 1964 in this tan building with green cornice and a lower floor of arched brick. The owner, looking for something to liven up his club, asked the chief of police if his waitresses could loosen their bikini tops. They did, and toplessness wasn’t far behind. The mayor at the time tolerated it by saying “fun is part of our city’s heritage.” Within days, every club in the vicinity had also gone topless.
But the person who gets the most credit, to this day, is the copiously chested Carol Doda, who danced a dozen shows nightly at the Condor and was profiled in Tom Wolfe’s “The Pump House Gang.” Only around 20 at the time, Doda is still a fixture on the San Francisco scene, now as a chanteuse and the owner of a store in the Marina district (at 1850 Union St.). What does she sell? Bras.
Note the bronze plaque claiming the Condor Club as birthplace of the world’s first topless & bottomless entertainment.
When you leave the Condor Sports Bar, cross to the south side of Broadway. Note the mural of jazz musicians painted on the entire side of the building directly across Columbus Avenue. Diagonally across the intersection from the Condor Sports Bar is:
12. City Lights Booksellers & Publishers
Founded in 1953, this is one of the best and most historic bookstores in the country, a triangular building stuffed with volumes, particularly hard-to-find ones by fledgling presses. Back in the 1950s, its owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, decided that good books didn’t have to be expensive, and he set about publishing new writers who he thought deserved to be read. One of his choices was “Howl and Other Poems” by Allen Ginsberg. The book’s homoerotic overtones scandalized some, and the resulting obscenity trial (which the poet won) made Ferlinghetti’s bookstore nationally famous among both literary types and civil liberties defenders. By the 1960s, the Beat writers, a restless lot, had moved on, mostly taking their jazz-and-poetry evenings with them, but North Beach was indelibly stamped with their reputation.
Upon exiting City Lights bookstore, turn right, cross aptly named Jack Kerouac Street, and stop at 255 Columbus Ave., where you’ll find:
Because of its proximity to City Lights bookstore, this bar became a favorite hangout of the Beats. Dylan Thomas used to drink here, as did Jack Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg. The building dates from 1913, but maintains the same quirky decor it had during the beat era. It is an excellent example of pressed-tin architecture.
Facing Vesuvio across Columbus Avenue is another favorite spot of the Beat Generation:
14. Spec’s Twelve Adler Museum Cafe
Located at 12 Saroyan Place, this is one of the city’s funkiest bars, a small, dimly lit watering hole with ceiling-hung maritime flags and exposed brick walls crammed with memorabilia. Within the bar is a mini-museum that consists of a few glass cases filled with mementos brought by seamen who frequented the pub from the [']40s and onward.
From here, walk back up Columbus Avenue across Broadway to Grant Avenue. Turn right on Grant and continue until you come to Vallejo Street. At 601 Vallejo St. (at Grant Ave.) is:
15. Caffe Trieste
Generally acknowledged to be the king of the North Beach cafés, Trieste makes a mean espresso—in fact, it claims to have served the first one in the neighborhood back in the 1950s when it opened. Its paneled dining area is the kind of place where you’re encouraged to linger for hours, and many do. Some of the Beats hung here, shaking off their hangovers, and Francis Ford Coppola is said to have fashioned the screenplay to his “The Godfather” at the tables.
Look across Columbus where you’ll see the famed:
16. Molinari Delicatessen
This deli, located at 373 Columbus Ave., has been selling its pungent, air-dried salamis since 1896. Ravioli and tortellini are made in the back of the shop, but it’s the sandwiches and the mouthwatering selection of cold salads, cheeses, and marinades up front that captures the attention of most folks. One Italian sub is big enough for two hearty appetites.
Continue in the same direction on Columbus until you reach 412, home of:
17. Biordi Art Imports
This store has carried imported hand-painted majolica pottery from the hill towns of central Italy for more than 50 years. Some of the colorful patterns date from the 14th century. Biordi handpicks its artisans, and its catalog includes biographies of those who are currently represented.
Walk north to the lively intersection of Columbus and Green St. and go left to no. 678, the home of:
18. Club Fugazi
For many years, Fugazi Hall has been staging the zany and whimsical musical revue “Beach Blanket Babylon.” The show evolved from Steve Silver’s Rent-a-Freak service, which consisted of a group of partygoers who would attend parties dressed as any number of characters in outrageous costumes. The fun caught on and soon became “Beach Blanket Babylon,” now the longest-running musical revue in the nation.
If you love comedy and enormous hats, you’ll love this show. I don’t want to spoil it for you by telling you what it’s about, but if you get tickets and they’re in an unreserved-seat section, you should arrive fairly early because you’ll be seated around small cocktail tables on a first-come, first-served basis. (Two sections have reserved seating, four don’t, and all of them frequently sell out weeks in advance; however, sometimes it is possible to get tickets at the last minute on weekdays.) You’ll want to be as close to the stage as possible. This supercharged show is definitely worth the price of admission.
19. O’Reilly’s Irish Pub
Head back the way you came on Green Street. Before you get to Columbus Avenue, you’ll see this pub, at 622 Green St., a homey watering hole that dishes out good, hearty Irish food and a fine selection of beers (including Guinness, of course) that are best enjoyed at one of the sidewalk tables. Always a conversation piece is the mural of Irish authors peering from the back wall. How many can you name?
As you exit O’Reilly’s, turn left, cross Columbus Avenue, and then take a left onto Columbus. Proceed 1 block northwest to:
20. Washington Square
The Romanesque church on its northern side, Saints Peter and Paul Church (1924), is most often cited as the background of some shots of Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio (who grew up about a block from here) after their wedding in 1954. (They actually got married at City Hall—the images were just for publicity.) In true literary North Beach style, the Italian motto on the façade quotes not the Bible but Dante’s “Paradise,” from “The Divine Comedy.” About a third of the congregation these days is of Chinese extraction.
The statue of Ben Franklin in the square—why are there so few statues of Ben in America, by the way?—was a gift (1879) from a dentist named Henry Cogswell, who made a mint in the gold rush. An avid teetotaler, he built such statues, fitted with fountains, across the country in an effort to get people to drink water instead of beer or liquor. North Beach was lucky; usually, the statue was of him, glass of water proffered in an outstretched hand.
So where’s the beach of North Beach? Gone. When sailors first got here, the shoreline was actually around Taylor Street, 2 blocks west. So deep beneath your feet, North Beach’s beach, now dry, still lies. Landfill erased it, but the name stuck.
Your walking tour is over, but your tour of North Beach can be just beginning, if you like, for this park is its unofficial heart, and there are dozens of shops, bakeries, and restaurants in the blocks around here. Enjoy!
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.