When visiting San Francisco, be sure to get to know some of the city’s most prominent cultural history by visiting its famous literary landmarks. From the establishments frequented by Beat writers to a haunted hotel that housed the writing of famous novels, these spots are sure to intrigue any lovers of literature.
Probably the most famous literary landmark in San Francisco, City Lights Bookstore is located on Columbus Avenue in the North Beach neighborhood. The bookstore is owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and is famous as a meeting place for the generation of Beat writers, including the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. City Lights is also a publishing company, known for publishing Ginsberg’s Howl, a poem that took the company through a widely publicized obscenity trial. Today, browse through the bookstore’s crowded stacks to find a variety of new and used treasures.
Adjacent to City Lights Bookstore, you can find Jack Kerouac Alley, an alleyway between Columbus and Grant Avenues which has been closed off to automobile traffic since 2007. This colorful alley is covered with a vibrant mural reminiscent of Kerouac’s travels through Mexico. Other wall space features poems and quotations from Kerouac and other famous Bay Area authors, including John Steinbeck and Maya Angelou. The alleyway also touches Vesuvio Cafe, a space where a number of Beat writers spent their time.
After visiting City Lights Bookstore and Jack Kerouac Alley, be sure to pop over to the nearby intersection of Broadway and Romolo to continue your North Beach Beat education. There you will find The Beat Museum, a small museum that features memorabilia, bios, photos, first editions, manuscripts, and personal effects from the Beat writers and the movement they inspired. Kerouac is most prominently featured here, as evidenced by the museum’s domain name of ‘kerouac.com.’ General admission will cost you eight dollars.
From North Beach, head over to the heart of the adjacent Chinatown neighborhood, where you will find Portsmouth Square. There, you will find a monument dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scotsman who moved to the Bay Area in 1880, famous for writing the novels Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The monument features a small statue of the ship from Treasure Island, as well as an engraved quotation offered in honor of Stevenson.
Although Robert Frost has a reputation as a New England poet, he was actually born in San Francisco. He lived here until his father’s death in 1885, when his mother moved the family to Massachusetts. Unbeknownst to most locals, Frost’s time in San Francisco is commemorated in Robert Frost Plaza, which features a small, unassuming plaque dedicated to the poet. The plaza is located quite centrally, standing just outside of Embarcadero BART at the corner of Drumm and Market Streets in downtown San Francisco.
Hotel Union Square is known for its relationship with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, famous for writing the 1930s classic The Maltese Falcon. After spending the night before his wedding at the hotel, Hammett came back frequently to spend much of his time writing detective novels there. After the dissolution of that marriage, Hammett carried on a 30-year love affair with Lillian Hellman. Their relationship was volatile and fiery, and it is rumored that Hellman’s ghost still haunts the hotel, specifically in room 207, as strange events have been cited there, including doors opening and closing of their own accord and small items appearing from thin air.