North Beach Walking Tour, San Francisco

North Beach Walking Tour (Self Guided), San Francisco

North Beach is one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco, known as San Francisco's Little Italy. Bursting with history, culture, and diverse attractions, this fun area features a great mix of architecture, museums, restaurants, and old shops.

Perhaps the most iconic landmark here is the Transamerica Pyramid, a distinctive skyscraper that has become a symbol of the city's skyline. A couple of blocks away from it stands the Columbus Tower, also known as the Sentinel Building, with its peculiar design that adds a great deal to the neighborhood's charm.

Cultural enthusiasts often flock to North Beach to visit City Lights Bookstore, a historic independent bookstore that played a pivotal role in the Beat Generation literary movement. Nearby, the Beat Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into the counterculture movement of the 1950s and 60s, celebrating the works of influential writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

For those seeking live music and a taste of the neighborhood's lively atmosphere, The Saloon is a popular destination. Caffe Trieste, on the other hand, is a renowned coffeehouse where you can savor a cup of espresso while enjoying the bohemian ambiance.

Religious and historical sites are also abundant in North Beach. The National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saints Peter and Paul Church stand as notable landmarks that add to the neighborhood's spiritual character.

Food lovers will find plenty to indulge in as well. Molinari's is a beloved Italian deli offering a delectable selection of sandwiches, while Tony's Pizza Napoletana serves up some of the best pizza in town. Washington Square, at the heart of North Beach, is a lovely park where locals and tourists gather to relax and enjoy the surroundings.

For those with a taste for adventure, the Filbert Street Steps lead you on a picturesque journey up the hillside, eventually bringing you to the stunning Coit Tower, which offers panoramic views of San Francisco and the bay.

Come to think of it, there's always something new to discover in this vibrant corner of San Francisco, whether you're a local or a visitor. So, if you're looking to immerse yourself in the unique charm of North Beach, be sure to explore its diverse attractions, savor its gastronomic delights, and soak in its history on our self-guided walk!
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North Beach Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: North Beach Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » San Francisco (See other walking tours in San Francisco)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 13
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.7 Km or 1.1 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Transamerica Pyramid
  • Columbus Tower
  • City Lights Bookstore
  • Beat Museum
  • The Saloon
  • Caffe Trieste
  • National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi
  • Molinari's
  • Washington Square
  • Tony's Pizza Napoletana
  • Saints Peter and Paul Church
  • Filbert Street Steps
  • Coit Tower
Transamerica Pyramid

1) Transamerica Pyramid

The Transamerica Pyramid stands as a monument of modern architecture and design in the almost Victorian landscape of San Francisco. Today, the building stands as a unique symbol of the city with its sharp and well-defined lines and ultra-modern architecture while demonstrating the merger of the old with the new.

Although the Transamerica Pyramid does seem to blend in with the city’s landscape, initially it did not go very well with many of its denizens. The architect of the building William L. Pereira faced much opposition, regarding the radical structure of the building which would clash with the Victorian style of surrounding architecture. However, Pereira believed that the structure would be a statement of architectural brilliance, and very much so, the Transamerica Pyramid today is one of the modern day symbols of San Francisco.

The Transamerica Pyramid was constructed in 1972 and for years held a position among the top 5 tallest buildings in the world. Measuring up to 260 meters, the Transamerica Pyramid is still the tallest building in the city of San Francisco. This structure was built as the headquarters of Transamerica Corporation, but no longer houses the company. Despite that, the building is still strongly linked to Transamerica since it is incorporated in the company’s logo.

Why You Should Visit:
While the views from further away (e.g. Coit Tower) are probably more interesting, up close you can easily see the curves as the building rises.
Columbus Tower

2) Columbus Tower

The Columbus Tower, also known as the Sentinel Building, was constructed between 1905 - 1907 with funding and guidance from Abe Reuf, a lawyer and politician from San Francisco. However, the devastating earthquake of 1906 and subsequent fire left only the steel framework of the building standing. In 1907, the tower was reconstructed with a copper exterior and included Reuf's offices on the top floor. Unfortunately, Reuf's involvement in bribery led to his conviction in 1909 and a 14-year prison sentence. During his incarceration, the copper cladding oxidized, resulting in the green appearance that the building retains today.

According to legend, the Caesar salad was initially served at a restaurant named 'Caesar's,' located within the Columbus Tower. However, the restaurant was forced to close down in compliance with the Eighteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution in 1919, which prohibited the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. In the 1960s, the building was owned by 'The Kingston Trio,' who utilized a studio they built in the basement for recording their songs. By the 1970s, the tower had fallen into disrepair until it was rescued by Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the Godfather movies. Coppola purchased the building, renovated it, and established his American Zoetrope studio there. Today, the Columbus Tower holds the distinction of being landmark number 33 on the list of San Francisco landmarks. Additionally, it houses the Zoetrope Café, a bistro that offers wine from the Napa Valley.
City Lights Bookstore

3) City Lights Bookstore

City Lights began operations in 1953 as a small paperback bookstore and in 1955 it launched a publishing company in order to help upcoming Beat poets who had to struggle to get their work published.

The bookstore located in the Artigues Building on Columbus Avenue, near the Broadway intersection at North Beach. Initially, City Lights shared this building with many other shops. However, it gained more store space when it occupied the adjacent shops which closed down over time. The Artigues Building, with its beautiful clerestory windows and a small balcony, was a popular city landmark in the earlier days. It was built on the ruins of a previous building that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

City Lights is considered to be a literary monument that reminds of the city’s Beatnik past. However, the charm of this store lies in the poetry room located upstairs. City Lights Bookstore contains a wide collection of poetry books featuring almost all the American poets till date. It even boasts of having poems, features and write-ups that were never published.
Beat Museum

4) Beat Museum

Located on the Broadway Street, the Beat Museum is more of a cult museum. A visit to this museum is like traveling back in time to the age of the Beat movement. From personal belongings of the heroes of the movement to the perception of the society, as seen from newspaper cuttings, you can find it all under one roof at Beat Museum.

Earlier located on Californian Coast between Big Sur and the city of San Francisco, the museum was relocated to the birthplace of the Beat Movement, the North Beach area. It was here in 1955 that Allen Ginsberg first read ‘Howl’. Other Beat writers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac made North Beach a platform for free speech. Other than the memorabilia of the movement like posters, artwork, books and Kerouac’s tweed jacket, the museum tells you about the movement's begining, its significance, the arrest of Ferlinghetti, the Howl Trial and what happened to the women who participated in the movement. To top it off, the museum also houses Ginsberg’s copy of Howl, which he had sent to other writers for review. It also shows you how the movement was influenced by events like space programs, demands for gay rights, etc.

You can also collect your own piece of San Francisco history in the form of souvenirs like T-shirts, sweatshirts, books, CDs, posters, artwork from the gift shop and make your visit truly memorable.
The Saloon

5) The Saloon

Located on Grant Avenue in North Beach, The Saloon holds the prestigious title of being San Francisco's oldest saloon, offering patrons the opportunity to dance and enjoy live music. Since its opening in 1861, this iconic establishment has maintained its operations uninterrupted. Originally known as Wagner's Beer Hall, it was proudly owned by Ferdinand E. Wagner, the son of a liquor merchant hailing from Studweiller, France.

Remarkably, The Saloon's exterior remains strikingly similar to its 19th-century photographs. The exquisite wooden bar, currently in use, was installed during the 1860s and was meticulously crafted overseas before being transported to San Francisco.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, Grant Avenue flourished with various blues clubs, and The Saloon stood among them, hosting nightly live music performances. While many of these blues establishments have faded away with time, The Saloon stands resilient, providing a dance floor and daily shows by locally renowned musicians. Despite its intimate size, this cherished venue has attracted an array of exceptionally talented artists, some of whom have achieved notable fame.
Caffe Trieste

6) Caffe Trieste

Caffè Trieste is a renowned chain consisting of four coffeehouses and one retail store with a strong Italian influence, located in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas of California. Established in 1956 by Giovanni Giotta, also known as "Papa Gianni," Caffè Trieste holds significance as the first espresso house on the West Coast. Giotta, who migrated to the United States from Rovigno D'Istria, Croatia, after World War II (when the region was part of Italy), longed for the espresso houses of Trieste, Italy. Consequently, he decided to open his café, giving birth to Caffè Trieste.

Situated in San Francisco's North Beach, the original Caffè Trieste swiftly gained popularity among the predominantly Italian residents of the neighborhood. Giotta fondly recalled, "It was all Italian people," referring to the community, "But I managed to introduce cappuccino to the American people."

Caffè Trieste also served as a gathering spot for renowned writers associated with the Beat movement, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who continues to be a regular visitor. Other notable literary figures such as Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Brautigan, Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, and Neeli Cherkovski frequented the café during the 1950s and 1960s when they resided in North Beach.

The café's prominence extended beyond its local reputation, as it featured in numerous films, television shows, radio programs, magazines, and various books related to photography, tourism, and more. Its influence transcended national boundaries, garnering attention both domestically and internationally. Notably, Francis Ford Coppola found inspiration while sitting in Caffè Trieste, where he penned a significant portion of the screenplay for the iconic film, The Godfather.
National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi

7) National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi

San Francisco, earlier known as Yerba Buena, was a sparsely populated place in California. With less than 500 residents, the area was far from any importance or popularity until the year 1849. That year saw the beginning of the Gold Rush and the news spread like wild fire attracting people from far and wide.

People started pouring into the city to grab a bite of gold and within no time the population of San Francisco quadrupled. However, with the growing population there was no place of worship in the newly habitat areas. The Catholics had to walk over three miles to the docks just to attend their daily mass at church.

A new committee was then formed to tackle the issue and the first church that was built in the honor of Saint Francis of Assisi after whom the city was christened San Francisco. Built on the North Beach adjoining San Francisco, it was commissioned on the 12th of June 1849. The first mass took place here five days later on 17th of June. The Church was later officially declared the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. It now contains the relics of Saint Francis, Saint Clare and Saint Anthony of Padua and is no longer under the parish.

8) Molinari's

Molinari's, located in San Francisco's North Beach District, has a rich history dating back to 1896, making it a cherished delicatessen and one of the oldest in the United States. Renowned for their exceptional craftsmanship, they proudly produce their renowned brand of salami under the name P.G. Molinari and Sons, Inc., which has garnered national recognition and even earned a prestigious gold medal award in Italy.

The visionary behind Molinari was P.G. Molinari himself, an Italian immigrant who arrived in San Francisco from the Piedmont region in 1884. In 1895, a year after his marriage, he ventured into entrepreneurship, establishing his business on Broadway. However, in the aftermath of the devastating 1906 earthquake, he relocated the deli to its present-day home on Columbus Avenue in the heart of the vibrant North Beach District.

Over the years, Molinari Delicatessen has become a beloved destination for locals and tourists alike, earning a well-deserved reputation as one of the most sought-after delis in San Francisco. Its popularity is evident, with customers often queuing up, eagerly awaiting their turn to indulge in the impressive selection of 35 delectable Italian sandwiches available, each meticulously crafted and served on a choice of eight delectable bread varieties.
Washington Square

9) Washington Square

Filled with the chitter chatter in Italian, children playing about, people basking lazily in the sun and families enjoying a sunny morning, the Washington Square is a typical town square. Being one of the most accessible places in the city, the Washington Square is a popular place for community gatherings, festivals and picnics.

Having been laid out half a century ago, the Washington Square is located in the midst of a North Beach neighbourhood, which is predominantly Italian. Overlooking the Washington Square is the church of Saints Peter and Paul, which is known as the Italian Cathedral of the West.

In the centre of the park is a small bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin which was donated in 1879 by the first millionaire of San Francisco, Henry Cogswell to honour the fire fighters of the city of San Francisco. An interesting fact is that when the statue was erected at the site, a time capsule with Henry Cogswell’s belongings was also buried. It was excavated a century later in 1979 and was replaced by a new time capsule will be opened in 2079.

The park is a favourite spot for the locals who come here to do tai-chi, walk their dog or just relax.
Tony's Pizza Napoletana

10) Tony's Pizza Napoletana

Tony's Pizza Napoletana is a renowned pizzeria nestled in the vibrant city of San Francisco, specifically located on Stockton Street. This beloved establishment specializes in serving authentic Neapolitan-styled pizza, capturing the essence and flavors of Italy's renowned pizza capital.

In 2015, the pizzeria was honored with the distinction of being the 5th highest-rated pizzeria in the entire United States by TripAdvisor, a testament to its exceptional quality and delectable offerings. Tony's reputation extends far beyond this recognition, as the restaurant holds a special place among San Francisco's culinary landscape. San Francisco Eater, a prominent food publication, considers Tony's Pizza Napoletana to be one of the top 20 essential San Francisco pizzas.

At Tony's, pizza perfection is achieved through the expert use of three different types of ovens, each suited for specific pizza styles. This dedication to craftsmanship and attention to detail showcases the commitment of Tony Gemignani, a pizza connoisseur who has been passionately involved in the art of pizza-making since 1991. In 2009, he opened Tony's Pizza Napoletana, bringing his expertise and world-class creations to the heart of North Beach, San Francisco's Little Italy.

Tony's Pizza Napoletana proudly boasts the distinction of being the home of Tony Gemignani, a 13-time World Pizza Champion. With his extensive experience and passion for the craft, Tony ensures that each pizza served at his establishment is a masterpiece in its own right. Whether you opt for the timeless classic of Pizza Margherita or savor the savory delights of Cal Italia, Tony's promises a culinary experience that will surpass your expectations.
Saints Peter and Paul Church

11) Saints Peter and Paul Church

The Saints Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco holds a captivating blend of rich history and magnificent architecture. Situated across from Washington Square Park, this Roman Catholic Church has fostered a devoted community encompassing various cultural groups, including the Chinese, Italian, Hispanic, Japanese, and Indian populations. It is overseen by the Salesians of Don Bosco.

Originally established in 1884 at the intersection of Filbert Street and Grand Avenue, the church succumbed to the destructive forces of the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire, leading to its complete demolition. However, in 1924, a new structure emerged in its place, boasting two towering spires soaring approximately 191 feet high. These impressive spires have since transformed the Saints Peter and Paul Church into a renowned landmark in San Francisco.

Beyond its striking exterior, the church's interior is equally awe-inspiring. The grand altar, meticulously crafted from various types of marble and stone, serves as a captivating centerpiece enhanced by a backdrop of exquisite frescoes. For those exploring North Beach, a visit to the Saints Peter and Paul Church is an unmissable opportunity to behold its captivating beauty.
Filbert Street Steps

12) Filbert Street Steps (must see)

Filbert Street Steps is a stairway extension of Filbert Street which starts at Lyon Street and goes all the way to Telegraph Hill at Kearny Street. With a gradient of 17.5o, Filbert Street is one of the steepest streets in the western hemisphere. The acclivity of the Telegraph Hill would have rendered the street non-motor-able, which is why the Filbert Street Steps were made.

The Steps rise in three sections and are seemingly never-ending if you take a small trek. However, as you climb you can see sculpted gardens with flowers all year round, some neatly tucked away hidden cottages and a breathtaking view of the Bay Bridge. Art deco buildings adorn the view of these steps and the immaculate parking of cars on this steep hillside is sure to amaze you. A picture perfect hideaway in a city like San Francisco, most homes here can only be accessed via the steps. The wild parrots of the hill, which featured in the 2005 documentary, are good company as you walk along these steps towards Coit Tower.

A steep but brief climb, you must take the Filbert Street Steps at least once when you are in San Francisco and leave the concrete jungle for a while. Even if you hate walking up the stairs, you can surely walk them down!

Why You Should Visit:
Pretty garden views and an exhilarating hike off the beaten path!
If you're still on your feet at the top, all of SF lies at your feet: North Beach (with another climb to Coit Tower), Russian Hill with its charming bistros, and Polk Street Gulch/Aquatic Park beyond.

Bring water for sure.
Coit Tower

13) Coit Tower (must see)

Standing tall in the neighborhood of the Telegraph Hill, in San Francisco is The Coit Memorial Tower. This 64 meters tall tower was built in honor of the firefighters of San Francisco Bay area. Built with respect to the art-deco style in architecture, The Coit Tower is quite noticeable and instantly attracts one's attention in the serene landscape of the San Francisco sky. The Coit Memorial Tower receives a lot of visitors around the year and mainly due to the breathtaking view of the city the Tower offers.

Not only does it stand for a noble cause, the reason for the erection of the Tower is also worth notice. The Coit Tower was built in 1933 upon request from a devoted patron of the firefighters of San Francisco- Lillie Hitchcock Coit (1842-1929). So much was her love for her city and its inhabitants that she donated one-third of her wealth to San Francisco city. She shared a special bond with the firefighters and on many occasions had volunteered to shoulder the responsibility of putting off a fire. She was also reported to chase fires around the city and it was this eccentric and brave nature that made her the mascot of the Engine Co. and now is the Matron Saint of the San Francisco firefighters.

The views are just as good from the base as they are from the tower itself so if the elevator queue is too long then you can skip it and enjoy the free views and walks around the neighborhood.
Also note the tower closes at 5pm and is cash only.

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