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Key to the City

An Artist's Guide to Doing San Francisco's North Beach Right

Key to the City BY courtney conway 03/12/2019


If you’ve ever wanted to get a more historical take on San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, Mary Finlayson—the artist behind Painted Mary and a very plugged-in local—is your girl. Her most recent painting was actually inspired by the locale’s backstory, and she spends her weekends hanging out in the area’s old-school cafe and fifties bookshops. Follow along, huh?


First: A Bit of History

“North Beach is in the center of San Francisco. It was home to beatniks and some of America’s best-known writers during the fifties and sixties. North Beach is also home to Little Italy, so it’s full of great cafes and eateries. It is in a relatively flat area, but there are many hilly streets nearby with secret walkways and staircases that further add to its charm. The streets are busy and full of color. You can still see many of the old neon lights from when it was a red-light district during prohibition. I always feel like a tourist in this part of town because there’s always more to explore, and I never notice the same things twice.”





Coit Tower is an Art Deco building built in 1934 at the top of Telegraph Hill. Inside, there are murals done by Diego Rivera, telling the history of San Francisco. There are 26 murals in total that have recently been restored. Entrance is $7 to go to the top of the tower. If you don’t go inside, it’s still worth the walk up just to see the view of the city and the flocks of wild parrots. It’s pretty cool walk to come down the other side where you weave on little boardwalks between houses and gardens. You eventually reach a steep staircase that leads you down toward the Ferry Building.”



“If you’re a tourist and don’t have a chance to make too many stops to test out all the good eateries, I recommend stopping at the Ferry Building Marketplace where many of the best restaurants have mini offshoots. You can also take a ferry to Sausalito for the day from here or hang out and eat oysters and watch the bay.”


Paintedmary northbeachframedprint 1
North Beach Framed Print
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“In particular, I like the view from the co-working space Canopy in Jackson Square—it is where I painted my North Beach print from. It has a great vantage point where you have a view of all of North Beach in every direction. My favorite building of all is the white apartment building with the blue, round roof you can see if you’re facing Pacific Ave. I’d love to know more about it!”



“A beautiful green building in Jackson Square, Columbus Tower is reminiscent of the Flatiron Building in New York because of its triangular shape. Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope studio is here.”



Washington Square is a great spot to sit and read a book or people-watch. It’s surrounded by blocks of good restaurants, cafes, and shops on each side.”



This bookshop was a favorite of famous Beat poets. It was opened in 1953 by Laurence Ferlinghetti, a beat poet, painter, and socialist activist. Here you’ll find a great selection of books and some cool ‘howl’ hats that reference Allen Ginsberg’s controversial poem by the same name, which was published here. Great book selection and a rich history of supporting writers and political activism.”



“First of all, this store has a great selection of art supplies, so I recommend stocking-up here. While you’re there, though, ask someone at the front desk to let you downstairs to the secret prohibition tunnel. I’m not entirely sure of its history, but I think the store started off as a saloon back in the day, and the tunnel was a secret spot for parties that went all the way down to the ocean. You can ask someone who works there who will know better!”




“I highly recommend spending a night having drinks at Vesuvio Cafe. It was built in 1916 but opened as a bar in 1948. It was a favorite hangout spot for beatnik writers like as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Neal Cassady, as well as other writers like Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan. When you step foot in the bar, it's like stepping through a vortex in time, and it’s not hard to imagine that Jack Kerouac is still there. It's full of knick-knacks, and the walls are covered in photos and drawings of artists and writers that used to hang out there.”



This was another favorite haunt of the beats and is the third-oldest bar in the city. It’s been revived recently and is a great spot for dinner—and is another place where you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a time vortex.”



“Everyone loves the pizza here, tourists and locals alike. There’s two sections to this restaurant—one for sitting and one for take-out. The sitdown one can get a pretty big line, so it's worth going to the take-out shop a door over where the line goes quickly.”



“Francis Ford Coppola reportedly wrote much of The Godfather here. One of the earliest espresso bars on America’s West Coast, it’s a great spot to refuel and check out the photos of famous writers on the walls.”



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