San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods, each distinct and enticing in its own way. Step into the city’s North Beach neighborhood, and the enticements increase. San Francisco’s Italian district, never known as “Little Italy,” is named for the beach that once touched its northern border. Situated in the northeastern portion of the city and intersected by the busy Columbus Ave., North Beach’s eponymous beach was eventually filled in to create greater land space for the growing city. As the neighborhood grew, it became a draw not only for Italian culture, but in the 1950s, for the arrival of the Beat Generation.
Walking through North Beach today, you’ll find the same enticing smells of freshly brewed espresso and roasting garlic wafting through the air while having the opportunity to visit some of the city’s most well-known cultural sights, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s famous City Lights Bookstore.
Read on to see the entire walking tour!
Self-Guided North Beach Walking Tour
This tour begins at San Francisco’s iconic “Pyramid Building” on Montgomery St., then moves northwest along Columbus Ave. and ends at Washington Square Park.
Begin the tour at the Transamerica Pyramid, located between Washington and Clay Sts. You can begin either on the Montgomery St. side (west) or the Sansome St. side (east).
Stop A. Transamerica Pyramid (1972)
Look up. And up and up and up. You’re currently staring at San Francisco’s tallest building, the Transamerica Pyramid. Completed in 1972 and topping out at 853 ft. (260 meters), architect William Pereira’s unique design contrasts sharply with the rest of downtown San Francisco. Initially, city residents did not like the mammoth tower; yet, over time, it has become almost as recognizable as the Golden Gate Bridge. Some even say that without the Transamerica Pyramid, the San Francisco skyline would be pointless!
Though the tower is no longer owned by Transamerica Corporation (it is now under the ownership of AEGON USA, Inc.), Transamerica’s roots in San Francisco run deep. In 1928, San Jose born Amadeo Peter Giannini created the Transamerica Corporation in conjunction with his growing banking empire. Over two decades earlier, Giannini founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco with the goal of helping out the “little fellows,” including immigrants like his own Italian parents. Immediately following the 1906 earthquake, Giannini’s banks were some of the first in the city to begin the rebuilding process. In 1928, he changed the name from Bank of Italy to Bank of America, and his bank was soon the top in the country. Not only did it help finance many local projects, including the Golden Gate Bridge, but also assisted the growing movie industry in Hollywood.
The Transamerica Pyramid and the former Bank of America building (now owned primarily by Vornado Realty Trust) on California and Kearny Sts., are the two tallest buildings in San Francisco. What a legacy for Giannini to leave behind!
*Marc Benioff’s Salesforce Tower is currently under construction south of Market St. and, when completed in 2017, will be the tallest building in San Francisco at a projected 1,070 ft.
**Fun Fact: Architect William Pereira won an Academy Award in 1942 for Best Special Effects for the film Reap the Wild Wind. He created special effects for many other movies and even directed a Hollywood film. He also designed the University of California, San Diego’s library, built on a donation from Theodor Geisel (who you might know better as Dr. Seuss).
The Transamerica Pyramid is not open to the public, though you may visit the Transamerica Pyramid Center on Clay St. It is open Monday - Friday from 10am - 3pm. For more information, visit their website here.
If you are on the Montgomery St. side of the building, head down Clay St. toward the opposite side of the building. You will see a black gate. If it is Monday - Friday during working hours, it should be open for you to enter. You will walk into the Transamerica Redwood Park.
Stop B. Transamerica Redwood Park
Before you leave the Transamerica Pyramid, walk around to the east side of the building. You’ll see a gate enclosing a peaceful tree-filled rest area. Open weekdays during working hours, this redwood forest offers a tranquil lunchtime respite for downtown workers, as well as visitors to the area. Take a moment to stroll through. The fountain, located closer to the Clay St. entrance, is a nice hat tip to Mark Twain who spent many of his formative years as an author in San Francisco; when you look at the fountain, you’ll know why it’s in reference to his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” As you continue to walk through, you may also notice the alley that cuts into the park is called Mark Twain Alley.
Exit the park on the Washington St. side. Head back toward Montgomery. Follow Montogomery as it merges left onto Columbus Ave. The next stop is a triangular white building, now owned by the Church of Scientology.
Stop C. Former Transamerica Building/Church of Scientology
Though the building has been owned by the Church of Scientology since 2003, one look at the upper facade gives you a clear idea of who was in there before. The Church of Scientology has preserved the Transamerica Corporation wording on the Columbus side of the building, as well as much of the historic interior and exterior. Following the 1906 earthquake, businessman John Fugazi had the building built to house the Banca Popolare Operaia Italiana. In the late 1930s, A.P. Giannini changed the building from a bank to headquarters of Transamerica Corporation. The name and the third floor were then added to make it official.
Begin walking up Columbus Ave. The next stop is also a triangular building, this at the intersection of Columbus and Kearny.
Stop D. Cafe Zoetrope (1905)
This historic flatiron building, formerly known as the Sentinel Building, has been owned by Francis Ford Coppola since 1973. The famed director of The Godfather trilogy named the cafe after his own production company, American Zoetrope. On the outside of the building, you can see posters of movies that American Zoetrope has produced.
Long before it was associated with Coppola, the Sentinel Building had a unique history of its own. Notorious political boss Abe Ruef (as colorful a character as many in The Godfather) commissioned the building in 1905. It is one of the few buildings in the area to have survived not only the 1906 earthquake, but also the tremendous fires that wiped out the city immediately after. Ruef was unable to move into the building as planned, though, because of an unforeseen appointment at San Quentin, the local state prison. Ruef was held in prison for almost a decade but, upon his release, began using the Sentinel Building as previously planned.
Continue walking up Columbus (on the same side of the street as Cafe Zoetrope) until you reach Vesuvio Cafe.
Stop E. Vesuvio Cafe (1948)
For anyone interested in the Beat Generation, Vesuvio Cafe remains a lasting link to a bygone era. Opened in 1948, the joint was a regular hangout for many of the Beats, including Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. The cafe is quirky and unique, and always happy to poke fun at even its own past. For example, it’s said that for a period the cafe promoted a “Beatnik Kit” in its window display, including dark sunglasses and a black beret; by purchasing these, the cafe said, you could officially become a Beat. Go inside to check out some of the cafe’s more interesting artwork.
The next stop is the alley adjacent to the entrance of Vesuvio.
Stop F. Jack Kerouac Alley
For many years, this little alley was not only just another nondescript alley in a big city, but also one of the dirtiest in the city. It wasn’t until City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti and members of a Chinatown renewal project began making strides several years ago that the alley was finally cleaned up and refurbished for everyone’s enjoyment. Now, as you walk through the alley from Columbus toward Grant Avenue, you’ll experience a joining of cultures that Marco Polo would’ve approved. On the Columbus side of the alley, you’ll find quotes from various authors and poets; after the halfway point, the sayings leading to Grant Ave. are those of Confucius and Li Po. Exiting the alley on Grant, suddenly you’ve made your way from North Beach to Chinatown. Take some time to enjoy the alley and the various murals and quotes throughout.
After enjoying Jack Kerouac Alley, your next stop will be right next door at City Lights Bookstore.
Stop G. City Lights Bookstore
Founded in 1953 by the aforementioned Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights is a must stop in North Beach. Though San Francisco is still blessed with many bookstores, City Lights serves as more than just a shop. It was a beacon during the Beat era, a favorite hangout of authors and poets, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It was Ginsberg’s poem Howl, published in the mid-1950s by City Lights, that brought national attention to the bookstore. After publishing Howl, considered too obscene for the times, Ferlinghetti was arrested on the charges of corrupting America’s youth. The ensuing trial became a historic moment for First Amendment rights and resulted in Ferlinghetti’s release and greater overall freedom for publishers. The history of City Lights is vast, colorful, and special to San Francisco. Be sure to pay a visit!
Because the history of City Lights is so unique, we recommend you visit their website for even more stories and fun facts. Just click on this link.
After leaving City Lights, walk up to the corner of Columbus and Broadway. As you cross Broadway, you will be facing the next stop, the Jazz Mural.
Stop H. Jazz Mural
Hard to miss, Bill Weber's 1987 mural on the corner of Columbus and Broadway gives a look into the history of both North Beach and neighboring Chinatown. With jazz musician Benny Goodman in the top forefront, you will also see scenes of life as an Italian fisherman, an imperial dragon, and some of San Francisco's well-known political figures (including former SF Mayor and current California Senator Diane Feinstein). When standing in front of the Jazz Mural, turn and look diagonally across the street to a wall above E' Tutto Qua - there, you will see an original work by British street artist Banksy.
Stop I. Molinari’s
One of the last remaining "authentic" Italian delis, Molinari's has been around since 1896. From delicious sandwiches to tasty pastas, you can purchase a nice picnic lunch here to eat in Washington Square Park.
Stop J. Caffe Trieste
Another link to North Beach's past, this small cafe is both a local favorite and a tourist's delight. The walls are covered with photos of the owner's family, friends, frequenters of the cafe, and more. Fans of The Godfather will be excited to know that this was one of the locations where Francis Ford Coppola worked on the legendary movie script. Stop in for a coffee and stay for the atmosphere.
Stop K. St. Francis of Assisi National Shrine/La Porziuncola Nuova
Connected with St. Francis Church, this small chapel actually features a chapel within a chapel. Go inside and you will see a small stone structure, an exact replica of the chapel St. Francis of Assisi prayed in in Italy. Important to both Italians and San Franciscans, this chapel links the city to its Italian namesake.
Stop L. Cavalli Cafe
One of the oldest businesses in North Beach, this building is the second location. Originally opened as an Italian bookstore, Cavalli was transformed into a cafe as demand for Italian language books decreased. Visit today and you will still here Italian being spoken behind the bar. The owner claims his cannoli are the best in town, so if you need something sweet, we recommend these!
Stop M. Sts. Peter and Paul Church
Known as "the Italian Cathedral of the West," this church was completed in 1924, though an earlier Sts. Peter and Paul's had been built in 1884, only to burn in the 1906 fire. Sts. Peter and Paul is one of the major churches in San Francisco's Italian community, and those of Italian descent continue to have baptisms, weddings, and funerals here. One famous wedding that almost happened here was between New York Yankee and San Francisco native Joe DiMaggio and film star Marilyn Monroe. Because both had been divorced, their nuptials took place at San Francisco's City Hall, but they later took photos in front of Sts. Peter and Paul.
Stop N. Washington Square Park
Opened in 1847, this was one of the city's first public parks and remains one of its most visited. Though the statue in the center of the park is of Benjamin Franklin (there is no reference to George Washington aside from the name of the park), walk around the park to find a plethora of monuments. A perfect spot for people watching, this is a great spot to take a break, eat some lunch, or play a game of catch. Thanks for joining our tour and have a wonderful time in San Francisco!!