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North Beach and Coit Tower
Years ago there really was a beach in North Beach. At the time of the Gold Rush the bay extended into the hollow between Russian and Telegraph Hills, though today landfill has pushed the waterfront farther north. The name North Beach stayed behind and came to denote a one-square-mile area settled by Italians who came to San Francisco after the gold rush and went into the fishing and produce business.
Today North Beach is one of the city's most cosmopolitan neighborhoods, blending its traditional Italian heritage with the bohemian influence of the Beat Generation, the Oriental influence of nearby Chinatown, and the sophisticated style of modern San Francisco. On a sunny afternoon these cultures all come together in Washington Square Park: elderly Italian gentleman sitting on the benches enjoying the sun; Chinese men and women practicing t'ai chi; children of all ages and cultures running around on the grass; young neighborhood residents crossing the square on their way to a favorite cafe; and tourists looking for the best angle for a photograph of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.
There's always something to do in North Beach, and much of the activity involves eating. The area is jam packed with cafes, restaurants, delicatessens, and bakeries, each one more appealing than the next. This is the place to find focaccia still warm from the oven, lasagna like you wish your mother made, and some of the best espresso and cappuccino outside Italy. You can pick up cheese, coldcuts, and salads for a picnic at Molinari's (373 Columbus at Vallejo, 421-2337) or at Florence Italian Delicatessen and Ravioli Factory (1412 Stockton between Green and Vallejo, 421-6170); homemade sausage at Little City Market (1400 Stockton at Vallejo, 986-2601); four kinds of focaccia at Liguria Bakery (1700 Stockton, 421-3786); luscious sacripantina cake at Stella Pastry (446 Columbus Ave between Green and Vallejo, 986-2914); and aromatic freshly roasted coffee beans at Graffeo Coffee Roasting Company (733 Columbus at Filbert, 986-2420).
Just about every coffee house in North Beach serves good coffee and pastry, but Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe (566 Columbus Ave., 362-0536) may have the best focaccia sandwiches. Other local favorites include Caffe Greco (423 Columbus between Green and Vallejo, 397-6261) and Caffe Puccini (411 Columbus between Green and Vallejo, 989-7033).
While you're in North Beach you should also visit Coit Tower at the top of nearby Telegraph Hill. You can walk up to the tower via steps at the end of Filbert St. or take a No. 39-Coit bus from Washington Square. At the summit of this 180-foot Art Deco tower you are treated to a panoramic view of the entire Bay Area, from Mt. Tamalpais in the north to SFO in the south and from the Bay Bridge to the Pacific. The base of the tower features wonderful murals of California workers painted by local artists as a Works Project Administration project when the tower was first built. If you head east after your visit to the tower, you can follow the Filbert Street steps down the side of the hill through a charming community garden, but be forewarned: it's a long walk back up to North Beach from the bottom.
Open daily from 10 am to 6:00 pm
Admission is $3
Free parking is available but limited, and there are often traffic jams on the way. Walking or taking public transportation is recommended.
North Beach Parking
Street parking is available but limited in the North Beach area. Some streets have meters, some are unmetered but with a two hour limit for non-residents. The Vallejo Street Garage at 766 Vallejo between Stockton and Powell has reasonable rates.