North Beach is one of the most tourist-friendly neighborhoods in San Francisco. It is rich with history, filled with attractions and provides numerous shopping and dining opportunities. It is also located within close proximity to other popular tourist hot spots. This guide can help you figure out what’s worth seeing in this busy part of San Francisco.
Location of North Beach
North Beach is located in a great spot for visitors. Columbus, a main street, runs right through North Beach so it’s easy to get here by car or bus. To the north of this neighborhood you’ll find Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, a very popular spot for tourists. To the south of North Beach you’ll find Chinatown, another great neighborhood to visit. From North Beach you’re only a short walk to the Embarcadero as well as the Financial District of the city and you’re a quick bus ride away from the shopping center of Union Square.
Little Italy History...
North Beach got its name from the fact that a long time ago it used to actually be a beach on the northern end of the city. The city’s borders have been extended today so it’s not a beach anymore but the name stuck. If you’re looking for information on actual San Francisco beaches then check out our guide to the top five San Francisco beaches.
When it was an actual beach, it was home to fishing wharves and boat docks that drew in Italian American immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. The neighborhood became known as Little Italy and still retains this feel today with restaurants, cafes and gelato shops that are reminders of Italian towns.
In more recent history, Little Italy was home to the Beat Generation of poets. These people filled the cafes, bookstores and bars of the area during the 1950’s and 1960’s. This history is celebrated in the area today.
Top North Beach attractions
Some of the most popular must-see tourist attractions in North Beach include:
Washington Square Park. This small city park is located on Columbus Street at Union. It’s a popular place for locals and visitors alike to lounge in the grass and do some people watching on a nice day. This is also a top spot for neighborhood festivals like the North Beach Festival in June and the Italian American Heritage Festival in October.
Lombard Street. This so-called “crookedest street in the world” is a major tourist attraction in North Beach. Learn more from our Lombard Crooked Street article.
Coit Tower. This large tower sits on top of Telegraph Hill, a subsection of the North Beach neighborhood. It offers a terrific view of the city. Get detailed information from our complete Coit Tower guide. Make sure to see the backyard gardens of the Filbert Street steps and look out for the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill while you’re here.
City Lights Bookstore. This famous bookstore is a great three-story place to browse for books. More importantly, it’s the home of a lot of history associated with the Beat Generation poets. Literature and poetry readings regularly take place in the upstairs poetry room. Next to this bookstore is Jack Kerouac Alley, named after the famous Beat writer, where additional readings and performances often take place. On the other side of the alley is Vesuvio’s, the historic bar associated with the poets.
Cable Car Museum. This free museum houses a collection of historic cable cars along with a lot of information about this important transportation option in the city.
Grant Street. This street south of Broadway is the heart of Chinatown but north of Broadway it’s the heart of North Beach. Here you will find shopping, dining and drinking options.
Restaurants. This area is filled with restaurants, most of which are Italian restaurants. Some are more well known than others but you pretty much can’t go wrong with any of them. Make sure to plan on enjoying a meal in this area if you really want to get a sense of what North Beach is all about.
Off-the-beaten path North Beach attractions
Sts. Peter and Paul Church. This historic church sits right across from Washington Square Park on the north side. For that reason, most visitors do see it. However, it’s off-the-beaten-path because a lot of visitors don’t realize that this church is where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio took their wedding pictures (on the steps outside).
Beat Generation Museum. This relatively new San Francisco museum is located close to the City Lights Bookstore. For a small fee you can learn a lot of information about the Beat Generation poets either before or after you check out the famous bookstore.
San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). This local art school often hosts lectures, gallery shows and events. Even if you don’t go check out the events, you should wander around the grounds, which provide a great view of the city and bay.
Filbert Street. If you’re driving in the area then you might want to be daring and take a trip down this one-way street in North Beach. It’s the steepest street in the city that you can drive on.
Macondray Lane. One of the best book series to capture the spirit of life in San Francisco is Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (which was also a TV show at one point). Early on in the series, the main characters lived on Barbary Lane. This lane was based on the real life Macondray Lane where you can go to see beautiful backyard gardens, historic staircases and a good view of the city. Look for the stairs up to this lane just off of Taylor Street on the north side between Union and Green.
North Beach hot spots for entertainment
In addition to the standards bars and saloons, North Beach is home to some very great spots for live entertainment:
Cobb’s Comedy Club. This Comedy Club located at Columbus and Lombard is one of the most popular comedy spots in the city.
Bimbo’s 365.This historic nightclub has been around for a long time. It is a top spot for seeing live music.
Broadway adult entertainment. North Beach used to be part of The Barbary Coast, a Wild West neighborhood known for prostitution and crime. This history is celebrated in a cheeky and appropriate way with a series of adult entertainment clubs on Broadway.
North Beach transportation
People who want to use public transportation to get to and from North Beach will have several options. MUNI buses that run through this area include the #30, the #41 and the #45. People who want to bus up to Coit Tower from North Beach can take the #39. Another popular form of transportation is the cable car; the Powell-Mason Line runs right through the North End of North Beach. Alternatively, it is very easy to find taxis to flag down on the street here; Columbus and Grant are the best streets to find them.