The Top Things to Do in North Beach, San Francisco

The Saints Peter and Paul Church is a focal point in Telegraph Hill
The Saints Peter and Paul Church is a focal point in Telegraph Hill | © jonathan nguyen / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Hope Corrigan
5 August 2021

Overlooking the San Francisco Bay, between Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown, North Beach is a lively, music-loving neighborhood with a distinctive Italian flavor. Gelato shops and trattorias sit alongside rock’n’roll bars and vintage stores, as well as a cluster of tourist attractions such as Coit Tower and the ferry to Alcatraz. Here’s our pick of the best things to do in this vibrant area in San Francisco.

Take in the views from Coit Tower

Building, University, Bridge, Park
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Coit Tower San Francisco California in a blue sky day USA.
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An iconic part of the San Francisco skyline since its completion in 1933, the Coit Tower offers 360-degree views of the city, Golden Gate Bridge and surrounding Bay Area. The murals at the base of the tower date back to the Public Works of Art Project and depict scenes of the Great Depression, city life and social issues. Its location on Telegraph Hill involves a fairly steep hike, but once inside the tower, you can take the elevator to the top.

Browse City Lights Booksellers and Publishers

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City Lights Books is an independent bookstore-publisher combination in San Francisco, California.
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Perhaps one of the most famous bookstores in the United States, City Lights was a hub for the 1950s Beat Generation, which influenced the 1960s counterculture movement. Today, the bookstore is a bustling tourist destination and an independent publishing press, regularly hosting author signings and talks. It’s a perfect place to pick up souvenirs and learn a little about the historical significance of the Beat movement.

Stop for a cannoli in Little Italy

Architectural Landmark
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Mara's Italian pastry shop in North Beach, San Francisco, California, USA
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North Beach is synonymous with Little Italy, so it’s no surprise this neighborhood has an abundance of family-run cafes and restaurants cooking up traditional Italian goods. Mara’s Italian Pastry arguably makes the best cannoli in the city. For the uninitiated, cannoli are tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough stuffed with a creamy ricotta filling – Mara’s dunks the tips in chocolate, too. The cafe is open well into the evening should you want to pick up some sweet treats on your way back to base.

Climb the Filbert Street Steps

Architectural Landmark
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Your climb to the base of Coit Tower will most likely involve Filbert Street, which runs from the Presidio to Telegraph Hill, where it ends in steps flanked by flora. They may look like a slog, but this staircase is a destination in itself, thanks to its urban jungle feel. If you’re lucky, you might spot the wild parrots who have made their home in the branches of the Telegraph Hill trees. Also, spin around to soak in the sweeping views of the coastline below.

Drink boilermakers at Comstock Saloon

Cocktail Bar, Pub Grub, American, $$$
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One of the oldest bars in San Francisco, the Comstock Saloon has been the site of much merriment since 1907. Its old-school decor, including wooden booths, antique ceiling fans and a long mahogany bar, make you feel like you’ve stepped into a different era. But there’s nothing old hat about the bar food (oysters, poutine and shakshuka) and its boilermakers, such as the Boot to the Head (a duo of Four Roses Bourbon and Anchor Steam beer).

Visit the Beat Museum

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The exterior of the Beat Museum, San Francisco, California, United States
© Jenny Jones / Alamy Stock Photo
At the intersection of Broadway and Romolo Place, this renowned museum preserves the memory of the Beat Generation, a literary and artistic group of the 1950s that rejected economic materialism. On permanent display are manuscripts, books and rare artefacts such as Allen Ginsberg’s typewriter and memorabilia from Jack Kerouac’s funeral. It’s a fascinating look at how the city helped shaped the highly influential movement across America.

People-watch in Washington Square

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San Francisco, California, United States - Saints Peter & Paul Church at Washington Square.
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The dual spires of Saints Peter and Paul Church (dubbed the Italian Cathedral of the West) mark Washington Square Park – which movie buffs might recognize from the 1971 classic Dirty Harry. On warm days, you’ll find a diverse mix of locals relaxing here in a good-time atmosphere that’s quintessentially San Francisco. Join them with a bite to eat from one of the sidewalk cafes, such as home-made focaccia from Liguria Bakery.

Browse antique rock’n’roll posters

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San Francisco’s Summer of Love lives on at the hippie shops in the city – and they’re not all confined to the bohemian Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. SF Rock Posters and Collectibles in North Beach sells an impressive range of posters, handbills (promotional flyers) and memorabilia from the 1950s to the present day. Entering this emporium is quite the trip, with posters of Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead on display, showcasing the best from the birthplace of psychedelic poster art.

Listen to live music at Maggie McGarry’s

Music Venue
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Live music is in the lifeblood of North Beach, and its music heritage lives on at local-favorite Maggie McGarry’s (Janis Joplin, the Doors and Robert Plant have all performed at the venue’s previous incarnations). This Irish pub is always packed, as it hosts live cover bands almost every night, with the shows usually free to attend. If you want to have a go at belting out a tune of your own, Wednesdays are karaoke nights.

Tour Alcatraz at night

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Inside the Alcatraz Prison at dusk.
© Michael Mouritsen / Alamy Stock Photo
The most notorious former prison in America is an eerie sight, looming behind the fog and lapped by the chilly waters of the bay. If you’re planning a visit, you can up the creepiness factor by venturing there after dark. Departing from Pier 33, tours start with a live narration on the ferry as it chugs to Alcatraz Island. After being led to the cellhouse, you’re free to take an audio tour, explore the prison and take in views of the Golden Gate Bridge lit up at night.
These recommendations were updated on August 5, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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