Sixty years ago, a group of friends put together an outdoor festival celebrating poetry, music and dance. Six decades later, the party’s still going strong and you’re invited! If you’re looking for a great summer escape, scribble “North Beach Festival” on your June calendar, and get ready to make some terrific plans in San Francisco.
The North Beach Festival is beloved by locals because it has not lost its earthy soul throughout the decades. Conceived in the Beat Generation, it has grown immensely, but the neighborhood vibe remains. They still reserve blocks of sidewalk for your kids to put down some serious chalk, they still recite original poetry and they still bless your animals … twice. You can have them anointed both Saturday and Sunday at St. Francis of Assisi National Shrine, from 2 to 3 p.m. They still post a pile of event photos on the website and encourage you to share them with family and friends.
While folksy, this is no small-stakes affair. The festival gathers 125 artists packed with the best-of-the-best juried pieces. Two music stages and two entertainment areas ensure the beat goes on from noon to 6 p.m. both days. If you haven’t caught the Marshall Law Band at hot North Beach hangout Tupelo, you can fill your ears with their grooves at 2 p.m. on Saturday. Don’t miss Buckaroo Bonet for good, clean guitar and fabulous vocals on the Main Stage at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Also worth a listen are Marin County’s Ned Endless and the Allniters, and the Bay Area’s James Moseley Band’s Motown, jazz, R&B and reggae covers.
Twenty gourmet food booths, with plenty to drink from the beverage gardens, will please your palate. Yes, there will be corn dogs. There will also be barbecued oysters, crabcakes, souvlaki, seafood dolmades, jambalaya, banh mi and chicken tikka masala. To finish it off, you’ll find baklava, funnel cakes and, as expected in this paisano neck of the woods, Italian ice.
You might expect a crowd here, and you’re sure to find one, but after 60 years, the parking is well worked out. There are lots at 735 Vallejo between Stockton and Powell, at 766 Vallejo above Central Station and on Filbert between Columbus and Mason. If you’d prefer not to drive, public transit can get you to North Beach for a relatively inexpensive fare. Between BART trains, MUNI buses, cable cars and regional transit, schedules have extensive reach and timing. There are also ferries headed in several directions from the Embarcadero Ferry Terminal.
While you’re staying in San Francisco, make sure to head over to Mama’s on Washington Square for breakfast. It has a 50-year tradition of serving everything fresh and made to order. Be sure to try the Dungeness Crab Benedict, or the signature Kugelhopf Baked Brioche French Toast, or simple eggs and a short stack. Do Crawfish Beignets and Hangtown Fry with Oysters sound more your style? Head to Brenda’s at Polk and Eddy. Stoked for the festival, you’re ready to dive into the exhibitors, entertainment and vendors. They are listed on the website, so previewing can streamline your path if you’re an organizer. You’ve got two eight-hour days ahead of you, so pace yourself, and try to take it all in.
If you find yourself with an extra day to burn before or after North Beach, head over to Coit Tower, 1 Telegraph Hill Blvd., for a peek from the top and a look at the 1933 Diego Rivera-style murals. If you’ve got kids in tow, your next stop should be the Exploratorium at Pier 15. Kids of all ages will have fun here, with its fine combination of art, science and technology scaled to normal human comprehension.
If you’re up for a downhill hike after the Coit, head down the 400 steps of Telegraph Hill to the Embarcadero, on the lookout for the wild parrots along the way. At the bottom, hop a cable car and rumble over to the Wharf, or stay on along the busy main line on Market Street to the historic Castro neighborhood. Then hop on Bus 33 or walk the mile to Haight-Ashbury for a flashback to the famous 1960s counterculture center. Today, gentrified Victorians, chic shops and upscale tables mark the spot where psychedelic rock ruled and hippies hung out. Continue walking down Haight to Golden Gate Park for a refreshing romp through the Conservatory of Flowers.
Looking for a good spot for dinner? There are many in North Beach as well as other parts of the city, but if you’re out and about, gawking at the bridge or riding cable cars, consider the Presidio Social Club, located at 563 Ruger Street. As San Francisco as you can get, this brass, glass and hardware icon is tucked behind the Lombard Gate, next to the famous bridge. More than 230 years old, it once housed Spanish and Mexican soldiers. Today, white-jacketed waiters serve up fabulous cocktails from the 45-foot marble bar, delicious comfort food dinners and a host of basics from mac and cheese to burgers, with all the respect and decorum of a club.
Come for the North Beach Festival, but stay for the city, the food and the atmosphere. You will, like the song says, lose your heart to San Francisco, but the good news? You can come back anytime you’d like to find it again.