Editor’s Note: Due to the current situation with COVID-19 involving travel restrictions and ordinances, please note that some of the locations mentioned in this itinerary may be temporarily closed. It’s best to call ahead, and contact information has been provided below where applicable.
San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States and draws visitors from all over the world. From the glorious Golden Gate bridge to funky Haight-Ashbury to forbidding Alcatraz, there is always something to see and to explore. San Francisco is crucial in the history and development of American culture, including some of the more progressive campaigns.
One of the more consistent neighborhoods is the area of North Beach, an Italian-American haven that continues to thrive. Here, we explore historical points of interest and the best places to eat and drink in North Beach for a full day’s worth of noshing glory. Mangia!
Points of Interest
The Barbary Coast Trail is a self-guided tour of historic points of interest butting up against North Beach. The Barbary Coast refers to the openly tolerated Red Light District of days of yore and maybe we can give that credit for the city’s progressive ideals. It’s worth exploring the Barbary Coast Trail before diving into a day of food & drink because you can work up a hefty appetite while learning about San Francisco’s unique history. It was one of the important cities during the rapid growth of the United States in the early 1900s, and the Barbary Coast Trail is a fun, engaging way to learn why.
Although San Francisco may be best known as ground zero for the Summer of Love, the free-spirited roots go back several decades. City Lights Bookstore was established in 1953 by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and expanded into publishing avant-garde works in 1955. And, despite changing times, City Lights still remains on the forefront of progressive politics and social movements, often creating elaborate window displays in support of its clientele’s beliefs. The COVID-19 shutdown hit City Lights hard but a very successful GoFundMe campaign has ensured its future.
Located on the northern edge of the historic Washington Square Park, the Roman Catholic Saints Peter and Paul Church is the historic hub of Italian religious ceremonies since the 1880s. More recently, the growing Chinese population has expanded service offerings to include those in Cantonese. The architecture alone is worth a gander but a fun fact worth noting is that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio used the church for photo ops after their civil wedding in 1954.
We’re not suggesting you actually join the Italian American Athletic Club, but it’s such a throwback that it’s worth visiting. Members can work out in its gym, take Italian language lessons, hang out in the members-only bar, or throw a wedding worthy of Don Corleone himself.
Recommended Restaurants in North Beach
Let’s get to the good stuff: food! That’s why you’re in North Beach, after all. Start off your day – whether that is in the morning or afternoon – at Caffe Trieste. Serving up proper espressos since the 1950s, Trieste will fire you up and give you a dose of what you came for: history and amazing eats.
Caffe Sport is … well, it’s kind of beyond words. It’s a magical combination of cuisine and chaos that somehow works and you’re guaranteed to have some of the best noshes you’ve ever tasted. There’s a good chance it will be as packed as the décor is – every square inch taken up – but grab a seat at the bar for the best view in the house.
No matter what your opinion is of Francis Ford Coppola, his dedication to Italian-American culture is undeniable. Café Zoetrope is named after his production company and the café is home to many of his creative brainstorming sessions. The building alone is an architectural gem, but Italian-American treats like the New Orleans muffuletta make this a must-stop on your nosh crawl.
Now, if you’re like us and find yourself Googling “Where are the best linguine and clams in this city?”, we understand and we have your back. If you’re not – ok, cool, no harm, no foul. But if you are curious, it’s here at Sodini’s in San Francisco. Portions are huge so if you’re on a nosh crawl, split a dish with friends. Or, make this your last stop on the eating portion because you probably won’t be able to eat anything else, ever. It’s worth it.
We admit we’re breaking rank here by going non-Italian but Bask is so worth it! Grab a few tapas like pan con tomate or gambas al ajillo for some fantastic Spanish nibbles. If it’s your last stop for the day, end it with churros and port.
Where To Grab a Drink
There isn’t a San Francisco guidebook around that doesn’t include Vesuvio, and for good reason: from its famous mural to its history as a gathering place for authors and poets, Vesuvio is guaranteed to be entertaining at the very least. Settle in for a drink and a read with a book you just scored at neighboring City Lights.
Maritime is wine heaven. With an incredible inventory of wines from around the world, Maritime offers creative flights, wines by the glass, and bottles to take home in a lovely, open space concept. Maritime also has several wine clubs that are worth joining since you’re guaranteed to experience wines you might otherwise not encounter.
Although the fervor of craft cocktails has died down a bit, there’s still something comforting about classic cocktails in an equally classic environment. Thankfully Comstock Saloon is here to serve those needs! Order inventive twists on classics, like Death in the Gulf Stream, or stick to a classic Blood & Sand – you won’t be disappointed. The throwback ambiance is often heightened with jazz on the balcony.
It ain’t pretty but it sure is fun. Mr. Bing’s is a classic dive bar in every sense of the word. That sign alone is worth a peep! Always bustling with activity, it became a tourist destination after an Anthony Bourdain visit. Purists lamented a little touch up after a 2016 sale, but the heart is still the same. Don’t bother with cocktails – get a beer or a shot or go home.
Claiming to be San Francisco’s oldest continuously operating bar, the bare-bones moniker “The Saloon” seems very fitting. “The”, after all – do you need any others? The Saloon lives up to its Old West-ish name in both décor and entertainment, boasting live blues on a regular basis.
Like so many big cities, this covers only a portion. There’s so much to see, taste, and drink in San Francisco that you can spend months exploring and still not have seen it all. However, North Beach is a great neighborhood to explore for a dose of both old and new. Like the rest of the city, there’s a respect for history and a thirst for innovation that makes it uniquely Californian. Enjoy!