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San Francisco, California, United States

A Beatnik Walk through North Beach

Experience the remnants of Beat culture in one of San Francisco's great neighborhoods

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Length: 0.6 miles / 1.0 km
Overview: Beyond the aroma of cappuccino and focaccia, the café tables spilling onto the sidewalk, and the convivial air, North Beach is alive with the spirit of the Beatniks, those revolutionary artists who electrified San Francisco and shocked the country in the 1950s and '60s. Listen for the rhythm of Beat poetry, of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which still pulses in the city's Italian neighborhood.

Starting Point:
In front of City Lights Books, the heart of Beatnik San Francisco.

3 hours, including time to peruse the bookstore and museum and imbibe at either Vesuvio or Caffè Trieste. About half a mile.

Ending Point:
A seat at Caffè Trieste.

Best Time to Go:
On sunny weekend afternoons you'll feel like you've been transported to Italy, but browsing City Lights at night and downing a nightcap at Vesuvio will take you back to the Beat days.

Saturday afternoon opera at Caffè Trieste; a postcard view of Francis Ford Coppola's green-patinaed Sentinel Building on Columbus; Grant Avenue's glorious jumble of boutiques.

Points of Interest


City Lights Bookstore

Take a look at the exterior of the store: the replica of a revolutionary mural destroyed in Chiapas, Mexico, by military forces; the poetry in the windows; and the sign that says "TURN YOUR SELL [sic] PHONE OFF. BE HERE NOW." This place isn't just doling out best sellers. Designated a city landmark, the hangout of Beat-era writers—Allen Ginsberg and store founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti among them—remains a vital part of San Francisco's literary scene. Browse the three levels of sometimes haphazardly arranged poetry, philosophy, politics, fiction, history, and local 'zines, to the tune of creaking wood floors. †Be sure to check their calendar of literary events.
Back in the day, the basement was a kind of literary living room, where writers like Ginsberg and Kerouac would read and even receive mail. Ferlinghetti cemented City Lights' place in history by publishing Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems in 1956. The small volume was ignored in the mainstream…until Ferlinghetti and the bookstore manager were arrested for corruption of youth and obscenity. In the landmark First Amendment trial that followed, the judge exonerated both, saying a work that has "redeeming social significance" can't be obscene. Howl went on to become a classic.

Address: 261 Columbus Ave.
Phone: 415/362–8193
Hours: Daily 10 AM–midnight

Jack Kerouac Alley

Kerouac Alley, branching off Columbus Avenue next to City Lights, was rehabbed in 2007. Embedded in the pavement are quotes from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Maya Angelou, Confucius, John Steinbeck, and of course, the Kerouac himself.


If you're only hitting one bar in North Beach, it should be this one. The low-ceiling second floor of this raucous boho hangout, little altered since its 1960s heyday (when Jack Kerouac frequented the place), is a fine vantage point for watching the colorful Broadway and Columbus Avenue intersection. Another part of Vesuvio's appeal is its diverse, always-mixed clientele (20s to 60s), from neighborhood regulars and young couples to Bacchanalian posses of friends.

Address: 255 Columbus Ave.
Phone: 415/362–3370

Beat Museum

It's hard to tell whether the folks who opened this small museum in 2006 are serious—what would the counterculture say about the $18 "Beat beret"? But if you're truly Beat-curious, stop by. Check out the "Beat pad," a mockup of one of the cheap, tiny North Beach apartments the writers and artists populated in the 1950s, complete with bongos and bottle-as-candleholder. Memorabilia includes the shirt Neal Cassady wore while driving Ken Kesey's Merry Prankster bus, "Further." An early photo of the legendary bus is juxtaposed with a more current picture showing it covered with moss and overgrowth, labeled "Nothing lasts." Indeed. There are also manuscripts, letters, and early editions by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Address: 540 Broadway
Phone: 415/399–9626
Admission: $5
Hours: Mon. and Tues 10–6, Wed.–Sun. 10–10

1010 Montgomery St

A block down Broadway brings you to Montgomery; Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl” while living at No. 1010.

Cafe Trieste

The Giotta family celebrates the art of a good espresso as well as a good tune at Caffè Trieste. Every Saturday (as they have since 1971) from noon to 2 PM, the family presents a weekly musical. Arrive early to secure seats. The program ranges from Italian pop and folk music to operas, and patrons are encouraged to participate. If you're one of the few people in creation who haven't gotten started on a screenplay, you may take inspiration from the fact that Francis Ford Coppola reportedly wrote the screenplay for The Godfather here.

Address: 601 Vallejo St.
Phone: 415/392–6739

Grant Avenue

Originally called Calle de la Fundación, Grant Avenue is the oldest street in the city, but it's got plenty of young blood. Here dusty bars such as the Saloon and perennial favorites like the Savoy Tivoli mix with hotshot boutiques, odd curio shops like the antique jumble that is Aria, atmospheric cafés, and authentic Italian delis. At no. 1398, the Co-Existence Bagel Shop served as the living room of the Beat generation in the days when cops arrested kids for sandal-wearing. While the street runs from Union Square through Chinatown, North Beach, and beyond, the fun stuff in this neighborhood is crowded into the four blocks between Columbus Avenue and Filbert Street.
Pictures in this guide taken by: tomaszdunn, amandawu

© 2010 by Fodor’s Travel, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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