The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.
The North Beach District has deep Italian roots and this influence imbues the culture of the area.
Columbus Avenue is the major thoroughfare through North Beach, it is lined with restaurants, coffee houses, and a bookstore name City Lights, the first stop on our exploration of this section of the Barbary Coast Trail.
City Lights is an excellent bookstore packed in a small space. Here you can find secluded nooks and squeaky staircases that take you to hallowed areas where free speech is cherished. In the mid-fifties, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti published a work by author Allen Ginsberg named, “Howl”. In 1957 the written work was deemed ‘obscene’ by the U.S. Government and confiscated by officials. A legal battle over free-speech ensued; later the Court ruled in favor of the author and Mr. Ferlinghetti. In modern times, such a poem would not raise eyebrows, but in the 1950s this short literary work was ground zero for the national debate on censorship. You can find copies of Howl and an interesting book titled, “Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression,” upstairs in the small and quiet poetry room. Also on the shelves are a number of books from Beat poets and writers. At other levels of the bookstore, you can find titles that both challenge and expand the perceptions of the reader. Kids will enjoy the wonderful cave-like section of the basement that houses the children’s books.
Continuing up Columbus Ave. is Molinari’s Delicatessen. They have mouthwatering sandwiches too; grab a number as you enter the store, grab your choice of bread from the bread bin and place it on the counter when you place your order. (Note: They do make a great vegetarian sandwich that you can customize with no cheese, just ask for an extra topping in its place). It might take a few minutes for them to call your number but it is worth the wait. We have never been disappointed here and are always impressed with the quality of service, friendly staff, and excellent sandwiches. Several sidewalk tables and chairs are just outside, you can sit and enjoy some great food while you people watch. We finished half a sandwich and packed the rest for later. Now, coffee was needed, but where to go? Unlike other places in the city, in North Beach you will not find the typical cookie-cutter coffee stores; the community fiercely defends local businesses and does not welcome national chains. This was fine because I wanted a genuine cup of coffee with character and knew just where to look. In two minutes we stood outside a small coffee house called Caffe Trieste.
Caffe Trieste opened in 1956 and has been a fixture in North Beach ever since. Opening the door your nose is greeted with the pungent aroma of coffee. The tables and chairs are clean but show the wear of many patrons. The dark colors of the interior warm the senses and provide a home-like atmosphere. At the counter, I placed an order for two coffees for my wife and cocoa for my daughter. In a minute several earth colored cups topped with white frothy milk foam were placed in front of me. An aromatic cup of cocoa quickly joined the coffees. In the back of the coffee shop, my family sat among cramped tables that are inlaid like an old Italian mosaic. Some of the tables were very colorful and our cups gently rocked from the slight imbalance of the tiles. My daughter dug into the whipped cream that floated on her cocoa and she offered some to both of us – the whipped cream was real and very delicious. A juke-box filled with CDs played several selections that included: opera, jazz, folk, blues and the deep sensuous voice of a woman singing in Italian. A couple sat next to us and conversed. As they finished their coffee one glanced at the time – in shock stated to her friend they were late. They both grabbed their jackets and left. The experience was comforting, unpretentious, but mostly the experience was like the coffee …genuine.
North Beach has a number of side streets to explore but on this trip, we returned to the main thoroughfare, Columbus Avenue. Our first stop was the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi to see the three-quarter replica of the original chapel built by St. Francis called, La Porziuncola Nuova. It is a beautiful reconstruction of the chapel located in Italy and honorably pays respect to the San Francisco’s namesake, Saint Francis.
We continued down Columbus exploring the shops, bakeries, restaurants and coffee houses. We also stopped outside Club Fugazi. If you have the opportunity to see a performance here of Beach Blanket Babylon it is a fun experience. The show is known for pop culture and political spoofs and for the gargantuan sized headdresses worn during the show – which can feature the entire skyline of San Francisco. At Washington Square take a peek the St. Peter and Paul Church before heading up to Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill.
The walk to Coit Tower offers great views of the North Beach, but it is steep. One hill was so steep that grooves had been etched into the sidewalk to allow for foot traction. Autos that parked on the street could only park perpendicular to the curb, this was to reduce the risk of an out of control car on the steep grade. Climbing the steep terrain you appreciate the 495 feet to the summit of Telegraph Hill. Some folks drive to the top and during busy times of the year making the trip by car or tour bus can be a real headache. If you can, make the walk.
Crowning the top of Telegraph Hill is the fluted body of the 210-foot tall Coit Tower. Set against the sky it resembles a solitary Roman column overlooking the city. When we arrived at the tower we were surrounded by the cool shade of trees. We rested on a green lawn that overlooked downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge to catch our breath. Then we walked to the opposite side of the tower to enjoy views of the rest of the bay. Here the trees had grown and a number of people were clogging the best viewpoints making viewing difficult. We made a trip to the top of the tower.
We entered the building and were greeted with colorful murals along the walls of the lobby. The artists were influenced by the times of the Great Depression and the artwork reflects this time. The murals can be viewed for free, but you need to pay a small amount to visit the top. We made a quick ride to the top of the tower and were greeted with the most inspiring view; our eyes enjoyed a singular and delicious vista of many miles that included the immense San Francisco Bay and the sights of Alcatraz Island, the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, the rugged Marin Headlands, Angel Island State Park and the waterfront – the next section of our trip along the Barbary Coast Trail.
After our visit to Coit Tower we made several detours exploring the fun, but strenuous, Filbert and Greenwich stairs. This allowed us to get our heart rate up and work off that sandwich and coffee. These stairways curve along the steep eastern face of Telegraph Hill to secluded gardens, small walkways, old Victorian and art-deco buildings. After these side trips, we walked down the western side of the hill to rejoin our original path.
Just ahead were more vistas of the northern waterfront and the next section of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail.
Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.