It’s easy to imagine why Herb Caen called San Francisco “Baghdad by the Bay” in late 1940’s (the same witty fellow invented the term “Beatnik” as well). By then the city felt like Babylon with its mix of cultures, nightclubs like screaming minarets, and cramped streets filled with wild adventures.

Luckily it’s still possible to “feel the beat”, as surprisingly vast array of the original 1950’s Beat hangouts are happily alive. The most famous ones are clustered around the legendary City Lights Bookstore (261 Columbus Ave), so let’s start from the heart of it all.

Travel in Time in City Lights Bookstore

Graffiti and street musicians welcome you to the most iconic Beat landmark in town. The oldest all-paperback store in the US is still owned by its founder Laurence Ferlinghetti: a poet, bohemian and philosophical anarchist. Ferlinghetti was Ginsberg’s loyal publisher and published also other Beats like Burroughs, Corso, Kaufman, and Kerouac. City Lights served as a living room for the Beats who were looked down by the mainstream. In The Fall of America Ginsberg labeled it simply “home”.

Time stands still behind the shelves, I guess nothing has changed immensely in 60 years. Just grab a book and find a seat from the benches of the basement or the poetry room, where also the Beats gathered – you are allowed to read here. We spotted inspiring discussions between the shelves, too.

This is the perfect place on earth to stock on Beat literature. You might be tempted to buy Kerouac’s On the Road (like I did), as there are several editions available, committing a slight faux pas since the book is published by Penguin. The collection is wide: we picked one book on Mexican drug trafficking, Tibetan Book of the Dead and some Native Indian mythology to the go. Whatever you might find, don’t walk out without “Howl” in your hand.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” remains the most famous poem ever written in San Francisco. It sums up excellently the mood of the Beat Generation poets and the narrow-mindedness of the surrounding society. The scandalous book was published in 1956 by City Lights and banned shortly after making Ginsberg a national hero. Obviously, from here you’ll find a lot of publications dealing with the famous trial process, as well as several editions of “Howl and other poems.”

Support The Beat Museum for a Good Cause

If you still need a fix, visit The Beat Museum just around the corner (540 Broadway). It hosts a small and weird collection including Kerouac’s liquor store bill, Neal Cassady’s shirt and Kerouac’s jacket along with letters and first editions. They have also a web shop for real enthusiasts, so you can order your Beat t-shirts and collectible items online.

Right now you can show your support to the great cause by helping them to raise enough money to acquire recently found Neal Cassady’s lost letter aka “Joan Anderson Letter”. This letter inspired Kerouac to rewrite “On the Road” in the stream of consciousness style, so its impact on his work was tremendous.

Drift Around the Beat Bars of North Beach

Vesuvio Café is conveniently located just across City Lights, which makes it easy to pop in. The pub got its place in the Beat history after Neal Cassady stopped by one autumn night in 1955 on his way to Six Gallery reading. Soon after Kerouac and other Beats became regulars. Clientele consists of artists and exotic dancers like back then – accompanied with herds of Beat hungry tourists.

The narrow passage separating Vesuvio from City Lights got aptly entitled Jack Kerouac Alley in 1988. Take a few fan shots with street signs, citations, and murals before moving on to the next Beat joints.

Drop in the nearby Caffè Trieste (601 Vallejo St), the oldest espresso house of the West Coast, to sip some of the best coffee around and enjoy the vibes of Little Italy. Besides Beats, you can pay homages to Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote much of the Godfather here. As an added bonus you still have a good chance to bump into Laurence Ferlinghetti.

A short stroll down Grant Avenue brings you to Chinatown. Receive the final beatification in Li Po Cocktail Lounge (916 Grant Ave), one of my favorite bars in San Fran. Celebrate the beatific day with their famous Chinese Mai Thai, if you dare. We settled with two Lucky Buddhas to marvel this old opium den, where Beats used to hang around. Inviting, red leather booths and Chinese lanterns still cheer spontaneous conversations under the serene stare of the golden Buddha statue.

The already departed Six Gallery (3118 Filmore St) lay a bit farther from the golden triangle of City Lights, Caffè Trieste, and Li Po Lounge. It was where by then unknown Ginsberg read “Howl” the first time. The following day Ferlinghetti sent him a message in the same words that Emerson wrote to Whitman a hundred years earlier: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career”, and the rest became history.

The Beat Heritage is Present Everywhere

Whereas North Beach is titled the official Beat neighborhood, the whole city carries allusions to the works of Beats. When Kerouac ended up in San Francisco for the first time, he lived in Marin City in his friend’s shack visiting the city itself infrequently – this is the period he allocates in On the Road. Kerouac never really lived in San Francisco, although visited the city periodically crashing at his friends’ places. In the attic of Neal and Carolyn Cassady’s house (29 Russell Street, Russian Hill) he stayed several months during 1951 and 1952 while working on Visions of Cody.

I tend to romanticize San Francisco beyond the limits: strolling the hilly streets lined with crooked, pastel-colored Victorian houses and taking in the views while hanging out from an old cable car. But so did Kerouac, so just soak in the same bohemian frenzy this fog city creates.

We enjoyed a 5-day layover in this fog city after our summer holiday in Mexico. Touring the sights by day, foodgasm and exploring the darker side of the city by night filled our stay with pleasant surprises. Circling the Beat generation hangouts was only one of our detours, so if you got interested, come back later to check our 5-day itinerary into San Francisco’s famous sights and bizarre treats.

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Booze-fueled stories of the Beat generation still linger in air of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

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