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About North Beach

First-time visitors to North Beach always have the same question: “Why is it called North Beach if it doesn’t have a beach?”

Ah, but long ago, there was a beach. The northeastern shoreline of San Francisco was just four blocks north of Washington Square, at what is now Francisco Street. Washington Square was constructed in 1847 – one of the City’s first parks – and a small, thriving community surrounded it.

The following year, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, and by 1849, the Gold Rush was on. More than 700 ships sailed into the harbor, disgorging thousands of would-be miners with plans to strike it rich in the Sierra foothills. In many cases, ships’ crews deserted their vessels, heading for the gold fields along with their passengers. The abandoned ships were eventually broken up and covered with landfill; San Francisco’s Financial District is largely constructed atop the bones of old clipper ships. Thus the City’s land mass grew, and the beach was no more.

With the sudden arrival of thousands of fortune seekers, North Beach became a raucous place, a lawless Barbary Coast comprised of saloons, opium dens and brothels alongside legitimate businesses. Early residents of the neighborhood included immigrants from many nations, who built wooden shacks around the square and up Telegraph Hill. But by the turn of the century, the Italian population was dominant, a family atmosphere prevailed, and North Beach had become a “Little Italy.”

When the 1906 earthquake destroyed North Beach and most of the rest of San Francisco, Washington Square became a refugee camp, with tents housing thousands of the newly homeless.  But within a few years, the resilient population was building anew, and North Beach began to thrive again, with an influx of new immigrants from Italy. By 1940, it was estimated that some 60,000 residents of Italian descent lived within a few blocks, and five separate Italian language newspapers were circulated. Prominent local Italian- Americans included baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, who grew up in a flat on Valparaiso and Taylor streets. He married his first wife, Dorothy Arnold, at Saints Peter and Paul Church. After their divorce (and because of it), he was not allowed to marry second wife Marilyn Monroe in the Catholic church, so after taking vows at City Hall, he and Monroe came to Saints Peter & Paul Church to pose for photographs.

In 1953, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the most influential of the Beat Poets, arrived in San Francisco and founded the City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue. City Lights soon became the preferred gathering spot of other writers of the Beat Generation, such as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure and Jack Kerouac, for whom the alley next to the store is named.

The San Francisco Renaissance launched by the Beats eventually led to other non-traditional businesses joining their Italian-American neighbors in North Beach. The Condor Club, the nation’s first topless bar, opened in 1964 on Broadway, and The Stone, a leading nightclub of the 1970s punk music scene, beckoned a new crowd on Columbus.

North Beach’s Italian flavor was diluted somewhat in the last decades of the 20th century, as older residents moved out, and adjacent Chinatown grew, blurring the borders between the two districts.  Today the population is a mix of many ethnicities. You’ll see Asian residents practicing Tai Chi in Washington Square. But at the same time, new Italian businesses continue to move into the neighborhood, the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club still offers Italian language classes, and the annual Italian Heritage Parade is still a big draw.

When you sip your espresso to the strains of live accordion music at Caffe Trieste on Saturday afternoon, you will know the Italian heart still beats in North Beach.





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