North Beach in a sentence: strange history, charm and some of the best Italian food in San Francisco.
The following article is a guest post by Kara Harms of Whimsy Soul.
Disclosure: This North Beach neighborhood guide contains affiliate links. If you click on a link and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. This will not affect your price.
Dubbed Little Italy of San Francisco, North Beach is one of my favorite areas in the city to visit for an afternoon stroll before a date night of stuffing my face with pasta and cocktails. This area is one of the oldest parts of San Francisco, so you can find super cool history (like underground tunnels) and some of the oldest buildings in the Bay Area.
In this North Beach neighborhood guide, come take a tour of some of the gems in this special neighborhood, featuring my favorite spots to eat and things to do.
North Beach is located in the Northeast corner of San Francisco right above Chinatown and the Financial District. Parking can be hard to find here, so I recommend you take MUNI, walk or ride share to the neighborhood to save yourself a parking headache.
It’s a walkable neighborhood so pack comfy shoes and plan on walking everywhere! This side of the city is generally sunnier and warmer than other parts, but San Francisco is called the foggy city for a reason. Bring a sweater or jacket with you for when the fog rolls in during the afternoon or evenings.
Barbary Coast History in North Beach
Before we dive into all my favorite things to do and places to eat in this North Beach neighborhood guide, let’s chat about that strange history I mentioned earlier. During the California 1848 Gold Rush, North Beach was the epicenter of the “Barbary Coast” aka the Red Light District in San Francisco. Here you could find brothels, bars, gambling, dance halls and markets, but don’t let that description fool you. This area was rough.
It was common for miners to go out drinking, pass out drunk and wake up on a ship bound for Asia or South America as forced crew labor. There was a lot of violence on these streets and, during the Prohibition era, lots and lots of booze smuggling. The latter was completed via tunnels and there just happens to be a couple left standing that you can visit. And that brings me to my first recommended thing to do when visiting North Beach: a historical walking tour.
North Beach Historical + Food Walking Tour
Normally I’m not a tour sorta gal (I like to explore things on my own) but when my husband and I first moved to San Francisco years ago, we did a North Beach historical and food walking tour and it was the best tour I’ve ever done. Obviously, I was pretty sold on the eating part of it, but the tour I took also got me access to the historical tunnels used during the Barbary Coast era.
There’s something very very cool about seeing them in person while learning about the Gold Rush history of the city. And then strolling over a block to eat a bunch of freshly made cannolis from a local cafe. It lasted a couple of hours and I would absolutely book this again.
Check out this 3-hour North Beach food tour on GetYourGuide.
Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is the heart of North Beach; you literally can’t miss it. The Saint Peter and Paul Church towers over the park and makes the whole area feel very European. I usually find myself grabbing gelato from Caffe Greco and bringing it to a bench in the park to enjoy while people watching.
Tony’s is arguably the best North Beach pizza spot (maybe even one of the best pizza spots in San Francisco!) It’s founded by Tony Gemignani who is a world class award-winning pizza maker (Who knew that’s a thing? But it is!). If you can sit outside, I recommend doing so because this joint is kitty-corner to Washington Square and the people-watching is top-notch.
Golden Boy Pizza
If you’re on the hunt for a late-night pizza-by-the-slice spot, Golden Boy Pizza is my favorite. On Grant Avenue, this hole-in-the-wall restaurant has a little window you can order pizza from to take on the go. I once had an oyster pizza here that I still sometimes dream about.
San Francisco Sentinel Building
The Sentinel Building is one of my favorite historical buildings in the city. It’s painted this amazing shade of green and it POPS against the skyline in just the most whimsical way. You get the perfect Insta-worthy view from the corner of Columbus Avenue, Kearny Street and Pacific Street. The Transamerica Building is behind it and it’s my favorite North Beach spot to take visitors for photos.
If you’re on the hunt for a happy hour drink, head to Comstock Saloon, which is one of my favorite North Beach San Francisco restaurants and bars. This saloon dates back to 1907 and you can almost feel the history when you walk in. Think: colored floor tiles, old school wallpaper and vintage decor. My husband and I love to kick off our North Beach date night with a drink or two here before heading off to Tony’s for dinner.
Réveille Coffee Co
Réveille Coffee has a couple of locations around San Francisco and I love their brew if I’m in need of a little afternoon kick to help explore North Beach. Their coffee shops are always decorated so dang well, sometimes they even have the cutest pink tables out if you’re searching for an aesthetically pleasing cup of coffee (that’s actually really good.)
Ok, technically I think Lombard Street is in Russian Hill, but it’s like two blocks from North Beach and a spot I always visit when I’m in the neighborhood. Lombard Street is known as the crookedest street in the world. It features eight hairpin turns in a single block!
It’s a complete hike up the steps from North Beach, but the view from the top is impeccable. You can see the San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge from up here! At night all the downtown city lights twinkle below you. Turn to the North and you can spot the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day and sometimes even Alcatraz. Lombard Street is one of those “touristy” San Francisco things to do but is absolutely worth visiting. My favorite time to visit is at sunrise or sunset.
The other must-do lookout point in North Beach is Coit Tower. Built in 1933, Coit Tower sits on top of Telegraph Hill and features 360-degree views. The observation deck is ticketed ($7 for SF residents, $9 for visitors) but if you also swoon over sweeping views of San Francisco as I do, it’s a small price to pay for views on views on views of what I think is the prettiest city on the West Coast.
(Note from Rachel: Coit Tower is also painted inside with murals from the New Deal era. They’re fascinating and accessible for free, even if you don’t pay for the elevator to the top. Read my article on the walk up to Coit Tower and back down here. )
After eating your way through North Beach, most visitors choose to walk the few blocks over to Fisherman’s Wharf, usually for an evening cruise around the Bay or shopping. Myself? Heading back to the Inner Sunset neighborhood to snuggle with my cat and digest the sheer amount of carbs and cheese I consumed while over in North Beach.
Bio: Kara Harms is the gal behind Whimsy Soul, a San Francisco-based lifestyle blog all about inspiring womxn to find their everyday magic. Kara grew up in Wisconsin but hated the winters, so she and her husband ran away to California (with their cat in tow). Follow her adventures on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and TikTok @whimsysoul.