Where I Went Wednesday: North Beach

Each Wednesday I leave my office in Levi Plaza with camera in tow and explore a new neighborhood in the city of my birth.

Although I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life, I am a suburbanite through and through, and it wasn’t until I started working in San Francisco (a half-hour subway ride from my current suburb) that I started spending time there regularly.

I see myself as part tourist, part local; an introvert who naturally seeks out the less-traveled places but an amateur photographer who is drawn to the vibrancy and hard lines of the bustling areas as well.


My walking route from Levi Plaza today took me south on Sansome St. until I reached Broadway, where I turned right (west) and walked uphill until I hit Columbus St., considered one of North Beach’s main drags. North Beach is our Little Italy, historically a place home to recent Italian immigrants and second-generation Italian-Americans.

Italian flag colors abound, but the streets are multilingual: the babble of tourists of all tongues, as well as the chatter of local Chinese immigrants, fill the ear

Italian flag colors abound, but the streets are multilingual: the babble of tourists of all tongues, as well as the chatter of local Chinese immigrants, fill the ear

Starting at the iconic City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, I walked northwest on Columbus St. and explored various side streets on my way to Washington Square Park, where I turned around and navigated toward the Montgomery St. BART station, photographing other sights (such as Belden Place, an alleyway replete with various eateries with cozy sidewalk patios shielded from the wind). By following this path, I only touched upon the southern part of North Beach, and I plan to see the northern part on another day, when I am on the way to Russian Hill.

A word that comes to mind when exploring this part of the city on foot is juxtaposition. Although the North Beach title suggests it is distinct and discrete, in fact the area is pressed upon on all sides by other local neighborhoods and hotspots: Chinatown, Russian Hill, and the Financial District all border the historical Little Italy. (In fact, North Beach is seeing a major decline in its Italian population and a huge increase in its Chinese-American and young professional demographics.)

Right across the street from a Chinese elementary school is a strip club, highlighting one of the many disparate features of North Beach

Right across the street from a Chinese elementary school is a strip club, highlighting one of the many disparate features of North Beach

You can see a blending of cultures here, as well as the close proximity of incongruous places, such as the Chinese primary school in the red light district. One of the best places to get tiramisu and an espresso is Caffe Greco, appropriately named after the oldest bar in Rome but with a name that translates as Greek Café, appropriate because Caffe Greco in Rome was opened in 1760 by Nicola della Maddalena, who was Greek. 

A quintessential representation of blurred culture lines: an Italian flag and a Chinese/English bilingual shuttle stop sign adorning the same pole

A quintessential representation of blurred culture lines: an Italian flag and a Chinese/English bilingual shuttle stop sign adorning the same pole

Beatnik culture is also heavily represented, and provides endless photography opportunities.

Urban architecture and its adornments can often serve to welcome or to repudiate; I was fascinated by all types.

Inviting tiles beside an unwelcoming barred doorway

Inviting tiles beside an unwelcoming barred doorway

I feel that I've barely scratched the surface, but about two hours after enjoying my North Beach tiramisu, I realized that the extra walking had burned those calories and made me hungry for dinner, so I headed home.

Saints Peter and Paul Church, my last stop before turning around; Sam's Grill at the end of Belden place, en route to Montgomery Station

Saints Peter and Paul Church, my last stop before turning around; Sam's Grill at the end of Belden place, en route to Montgomery Station