North Beach Garage: 735 Vallejo. Park your car here, if you have one, or not. If on foot, take the elevator to the 5th floor of the lot, which has the best free overhead view of North Beach, from all sides.
City Lights: 261 Columbus. This high end bookstore, once a hangout for the beats of the 1950s like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, is still going strong today and will keep you busy for hours.
Mora’s Italian Pastries: 503 Columbus. Like cannoli? (“Take the gun, leave the cannoli” is a line you’ll hear a lot in North Beach. It was used in the classic 1970s film “The Godfather.”) By my research, Mara’s, a little hole in the wall bakery, has the best creamy cannoli in town. The gelato isn’t as good–we recommend going next door to the full service gelato parlor, Alimento for more.
Tony’s Pizza Napoletaria: 1570 Stockton. Also said to have the best pizza anywhere. Long lines usually stop you from going in, so Tony opened a small take-out place for slices next door. But many swear by another take-out joint, Golden Boy Pizza, across the street from Tony’s at 542 Green Street, where “it’s hip to be square.” Golden offers Chicago style, deep dish pizza, sold in square pieces. You’ll see long lines here too.
Liguria Bakery: 1700 Stockton. Even more long lines here, which stretch for blocks on any given morning for this classic Italian flatbread, like a cold pizza. That’s all this bakery sells, albeit in ten different varieties. The lines are so long, this will be a great opportunity to meet some locals and hear Italian being spoken.
Saints Peter and Paul Church: 666 Filbert. The church, in the heart of Washington Square, has dominated the skyline of North Beach since 1924. It’s a stunner, and worth seeing, no matter your view on religion. This is where Marilyn Monroe married baseball great Joe DiMaggio back in the 1950s. Photo tip: this is one big church. Your best spot for a great shot is from the Vallejo Street parking lot. And it looks especially cool at nighttime.
Luisa’s: 759 Columbus. The aforementioned home of the best spumoni ever, a wonderful Italian restaurant that’s been in business since 1959.
Columbus Inn: 1075 Columbus Avenue. Free parking, comfy rooms and location, location, location. Also affordable. You’ll need to stay somewhere in the city–why not in the heart of North Beach?
Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s honky tonky, full of tourist shops and chain restaurants. That’s at first glance, however. You can also pick up a water taxi or boat ride for an unbelievable song (around $20) to catch a nice ride under the Golden Gate Bridge (now that’s a photo opp!) On the right side of the Wharf is the famous Boudin’s, home to fresh-made sourdough and to the left is the Buena Vista Cafe, known for inventing Irish Coffee.
Forget that claim to fame, and get in line for the Powell/Hyde cable car line that starts directly across the street. This is where, for $8 one-way, you’ll get your best, unobstructed shot looking down at Alcatraz Island, from Hyde and Lombard. Speaking of the world’s crookedest street, you’ll also get a great shot of the street from the car, without having to climb to the top of the hill, which can be grueling.
Beyond eating great Italian food and sipping Italian sodas and coffees, many tourists like to visit Coit Tower, a 210-foot art deco tower that offers a 360-degree view from the top of the city, from the Golden Gate Bridge that leads to Marin County to the Bay Bridge leading to Berkeley and the East Bay.
I go to Coit every time I’m in San Francisco, and love walking up the hilly streets to get up there. The views are that incredible. If you don’t like climbing, public transportation can take you up there.
Remember I told you that the best free overhead views are at the Vallejo parking garage? This is true. But if you can spare $10, I highly recommend taking the elevator to the top of the tower–which is where you’ll really see the views. Shrubbery covers much of it from the parking lot.
In my travels around San Francisco, I have picked up my best shot of the city skyline from up here.
Whether it’s an afternoon, evening, weekend or even longer, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy in North Beach. Sadly, several of the old-line Italian restaurants have passed on in recent years, but the good news is, there’s still so many others still going strong. Go support them and help them get to the next century!