Your Destination Guide to San Francisco

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North Beach / Little Italy

North Beach / Little Italy
North Beach / Little Italy

© Daniel Schwen

North Beach – San Francisco's Little Italy – has undergone some major changes from the days when Italian fishermen first settled in the area, and while the area still retains its Italian spirit, North Beach can entice just about any palate.

The most recognizable feature of North Beach is Coit Tower, which looms over the area from atop Telegraph Hill. Accessible by road and a steep set of stairs on Filbert Street, Coit Tower offers a 360-degree view of San Francisco and the Bay. Unfortunately the tower closes at 5 PM, so not too many sunsets are viewable (except in the winter), but watching the fog roll in through the Golden Gate is just as impressive. Another option for those scared of heights or saving your pennies is to take in the beautiful murals that adorn much of the inside of the structure. Free to view, the series of murals, which were painted by 25 local artists as part of a '30s Works Projects Administration, colorfully depict life in California during the Depression Years. While parking can be a nuisance in the small lot atop the hill, the invigorating climb up the stairs is just the beginning of the reward once you make it up to Coit Tower.

Starting at Filbert Street, a stroll southeast on Columbus Avenue will take you through the heart of this old Italian neighborhood. While most of the Italian immigrants have long since left for the suburbs, North Beach still embodies the soul of its original settlers. The major draw is the food, and it is, without a doubt, the best place in the city for authentic Italian. Red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and Chianti are still the norm at the numerous eateries along Columbus Avenue. For the best Italian sausage in this hemisphere, be sure to stop into Molinari Delicatessen, where the tantalizing links hang in abundance from the ceiling. When you inevitably eat too much and get a little sleepy, a recharge is waiting for you at Caffe Trieste where the cappuccinos and lattes are just the perfect jolt to get you back on the street and eating your way through another one of North Beach's festive ristorantes.

North Beach can lay claim to being the literary heart of the city. The intersection of Columbus and Broadway avenues is home to City Lights Books, one of America's first independent publishers and bookstores. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights in 1953, and it quickly became the cradle for a group of writers and thinkers that would later be coined the "Beat Generation." Iconic "beats" such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Dylan Thomas all spent time in the area and frequented the bar Vesuvio that is across the alley (now Jack Kerouac Alley) from City Lights. An urge to shout couplets and limericks often overcomes visitors to Vesuvio when they spy the remarkable literary kitsch on the walls – consider yourself warned.

Today's North Beach is also a lively and spirited nightlife destination. Grant Street, which intersects Columbus just past Broadway, is home to a myriad of bars and nightlife hotspots. A local favorite and reputedly the oldest bar in the city, The Saloon serves up cheap libations and hosts Blues shows most nights of the week. But if the crowds are too raucous on Grant Street, which they periodically are, don't be afraid to search down alleyways because there are gems to be found. One amazing place worth finding is 15 Romolo (also the address). This unique establishment offers artisan cocktails and delicious bar fare in a quieter setting. Scott, the proprietor of 15 Romolo, is an absolute magician behind the bar and in the kitchen.

And finally, if the food, booze, and books aren't enough, North Beach also has the honor of having the highest density of strip clubs in the city, including the Lusty Lady – the nation's first and only unionized topless bar. So if you are having trouble digesting your Pasta Carbonara or William S. Burroughs - no need to worry - North Beach can satisfy any appetite you might have.

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