Take This Beat-Era North Beach Walking Tour
On the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, explore the subculture that gave rise to the hippie movement with this North Beach walking tour. You can see everything within about two hours, but we recommend starting after lunch and spending a whole afternoon walking in the Beats' footsteps.
Although the Beat movement was not born in San Francisco, the artists claimed the North Beach neighborhood as their stomping grounds early on. They were attracted not only by the area's affordability, but also its cultural vibrancy and wild nightlife.
The Beat Museum, founded by a couple of Beat-fanatics who turned their Monterey bookstore into this North Beach institution, is an homage to the artists of the Beat Generation. It offers a curated look at artists such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, housing original manuscripts and other important texts, as well as photos, personal effects and memorabilia.
Book a walking tour at the Beat Museum to get some context about the emergence of the Beat movement, their ideals, their haunts and, of course, their influence on 1960s counterculture.
After visiting the museum, refuel at Caffe Trieste, a favorite haunt for writers. This was often the writing spot of choice for the most well-known Beat figures, like Kerouac and Ginsberg, as well as Alan Watts, Gregory Corso, Richard Brautigan and others. In more recent times, it also hosted the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, who reportedly wrote much of "The Godfather" there.
Said to be the first true espresso bar on the West Coast, Caffe Trieste is the perfect place to grab a classic Italian-style espresso while you browse the photos of famous writers that adorn the walls. You may even see some real Beat poets scrawling in a corner.
Language of the Birds
As you take the short walk from the Beat Museum to Caffe Trieste, stop at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenues. Look up, look down, and feel the ethereal magic of "Language of the Birds," North Beach’s celebrated flock of 23 "flying" illuminated books. You’ll also notice words and phrases embedded in the plaza floor, which appear to have fallen from the pages above. This text is in English, Italian and Chinese, and was selected from the neighborhood’s rich literary history.
A must-see for Beat enthusiasts, City Lights Books is famous as a meeting place for the Beats. It was co-founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 as the City Lights Pocket Book Shop. As a publisher, City Lights was responsible for Allen Ginsberg's infamous poem "HOWL," which was the subject of a much-publicized obscenity trial in the '50s.
The first all-paperback store in the country, City Lights maintains its progressive, sometimes anarchic values while also offering more mainstream fare to modern shoppers. However, the entire upstairs is devoted to poetry. The walls are plastered with posters and memorabilia of its history, so you can't help but remember where you are.
Jack Kerouac Alley
On your way out of City Lights, be sure to duck into Jack Kerouac Alley. Dedicated to the late writer, it's short, sweet, and certainly worth a peek. The alley is right between City Lights and Vesuvio's, the famed bar and former Beat hangout, and connects North Beach with Chinatown. The ground and walls are decorated with a number of plaques and artworks, most of which concern the Beats. It makes for a great photo op whether you're a fan of the Beats or just visiting for kicks.
Many heavy-drinking Beats frequented this bar. Its convenient location right next to City Lights made it the perfect spot to congregate and throw back a few (or a lot). Vesuvio's claims that Neal Cassady, the inspiration for protagonist Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's novel On the Road, stopped by on his way to Allen Ginsberg's now-legendary reading at Six Gallery (which sadly does not exist anymore), sparking the Beats' years-long infatuation with the establishment.
Kerouac was especially well-known for many nights at the bar. In one particular incident, he supposedly got extremely drunk instead of going to Big Sur to meet writer Henry Miller as planned.
Right across the street from Vesuvio's and City Lights is Spec's, a bar that's been at various times everything from a speakeasy to a lesbian bar. Officially called Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, this dive bar, named for its bespectacled owner Richard "Specs" Simmons, is more famous for its history and characters than its quality. The drinks are cheap and the crowd is composed of long-time North Beach residents. A bastion of the old North Beach among the new wave of young adults, you're likely to find some older stalwarts nursing drinks amidst the collection of curios that adorn every available surface. Go on a weekend night if you're feeling a bit livelier.
The third-oldest bar in the city, this classy old-fashioned joint was a favorite of the Beats, who set a precedent for celebrity clientele such as Sean Penn, who saved it from extinction in the mid-2000s. Nowadays, the menu's to die for courtesy of Chef April Bloomfield, so get dinner here before closing out the night with a House Cappuccino: steamed hot chocolate with brandy, and no coffee whatsoever. Tosca's been known for many a wild night, so stay late and see what happens.