(Note: This is part of my San Francisco neighborhood guide to be published individually, then in its entirety at completion. Also, be aware that as a result of the ongoing business restrictions during the pandemic, some of the restaurants and retail businesses I talk about in the guides may close shop with little warning.)
North Beach Like the perfect picture postcard of San Francisco, there’s no mistaking what city you’re in on a stroll through North Beach, and why it’s so popular with visitors. Another reason: its supreme walkability, one of the best in the city (despite four lanes of Columbus Ave); there’s something interesting at every turn. It’s also the most traditional and established of San Francisco’s neighborhoods – residents have lived here for decades and Italian families for generations – and with the richest history. From the Barbary Coast to the beats, jazz to punk rock, the North Beach scene was instrumental in all of those eras. It’s also home to the first club in the U.S. to go topless (The Condor). Back then, if you were young and hip and seeking excitement, you went to North Beach. Yes, these days it’s a tourist magnet, but it’s not ‘touristy’, and anyway the tourists bring some bustle, and stay mostly to Columbus Ave and the Italian eateries along it. Venture off the main drag and things quiet down a bit, and that’s where you’ll find some of the quirkiest shops in the city, especially along Grant Ave. (or could until recently). The family-run coffee shops and cafés might not be hipster favorites, but there’s no better place to nurse a cappuccino and watch the city pass by. Caffe Trieste is not only filled with characters – on both sides of the counter – it’s the OG of west coast coffeehouses, while Caffe Greco would be my daytime home if I lived anywhere near the area. The same holds for some of the city’s best and most colorful old-school bars, like Vesuvio’s, Mr. Bing’s and The Saloon (the city’s oldest bar and best for live blues). And while restaurants along Columbus are often dismissed as tourists traps, they can be a fun and truly Italian experience (e.g. playful banter with the maître d’). You’ll find the city’s best old-school Italian eateries in North Beach, and the best pizza (Capo’s and Tony’s). Washington Square (state’s oldest park), Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, Saints Peter and Paul Church, City Lights bookstore, exquisite architecture (the Malloch Building), fantastic views, North Beach has a lot to offer and tops my list as the best neighborhood to visit.