Things to Do in San Francisco: Explore Beat Generation Sites
Walk in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood and beyond. Writings from Kerouac, his fellow authors, and the Beat movement in general had a large influence on American politics and culture, and would contribute profoundly to the hippie counterculture that was to follow. The Beat movement spread out from the Bay Area from its epicenter at City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Café. Today, following in the steps of the Beats is one of the top things to do in San Francisco for travelers of every generation who have been inspired by the Beat Generation. Ready to go on the road?
What Is the Beat Generation? Exploration, Liberation, and Unconventionality
Launched in the post-World War II era of the 1950s, the Beat Generation was a literary movement that celebrated modern jazz, free love, casual drug use, and Zen Buddhism. It was started by a group of authors including Kerouac (who coined the "Beat" name), William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg - but soon attracted all types of young people who rejected society's conventional values in favor of hedonism and creativity. They were inspired by European romanticism, French surrealism, and early American transcendentalism. Important elements of the Beat movement include:
- Spiritual quests and religious exploration, particularly of Eastern religions
- Non-conformity, anti-authoritarianism, and the rejection of materialism
- Jazz, poetry, and spontaneous creativity
- Sexual liberation and free love
- Psychedelic drugs, especially used to enhance productivity and insight
Jack Kerouac Alley & North Beach: The Epicenter of Beat Culture
San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood is ground zero for Beat culture, and you'll encounter Kerouac books, photos, and memorabilia all over. This is where the famous author hung out, wrote, drank copious amounts of alcohol, and couch-surfed at the houses of friends. Originally called Adler Alley and running to the edge of Chinatown, Jack Kerouac Alley was renamed in 1988 and today is a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. You'll find plaques, murals, and all kinds of mementos to Kerouac and his friends. Home to City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvius Café, Jack Kerouac Alley is also the #1 stop on the Beat Generation pilgrimage route in San Francisco.
City Lights Bookstore
Founded in 1953, this boho bookstore championed progressive ideas with shelves full of copious paperback books on politics, the arts, and literature. It was founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, who also opened a publishing house in 1955 (City Lights Publishers) to distribute writings by the Beats including the famous Pocket Poets Series. They published Allen Ginsberg's book of poetry Howl
and defended it against obscenity charges in a high-profile legal case that changed the publishing industry.
Early on in the Beat movement, writers and poets like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Dylan Thomas would get drunk and write Vesuvio Café, which is located right next door to the infamous City Lights Bookstore. The owners hired a beatnik painter named Wally Hedrick to set up his canvas in the window of the café and paint. Dressed in a turtleneck and sandals with a big, bushy beard, Hedrick's fashion sense came to define the "look" of the Beat movement.
Kerouac never had a permanent residence in San Francisco, choosing instead to stay at the homes of friends. Some of these houses are still part of the cityscape, including Neal and Carolyn Cassady's home at 29 Russell Street. Located on Russian Hill, Kerouac stayed in the attic here as a houseguest while he wrote in the early 1950s. He often wandered around the neighborhood searching and finding inspiration, like the movie shoot for Sudden Fear
with Joan Crawford. He writes about the experience in his book Visions of Cody
Snap a selfie with the mural of Kerouac outside this museum before heading inside to explore Beat memorabilia. Browse thousands of photographs and a huge book collection, including copies of Kerouac's On the Road in multiple languages from countries around the world. Please note: this museum will be closing temporarily in the future to undergo earthquake retrofitting - be sure to check the website for the latest details before you arrive.
Sip an espresso and scribble down a poem at this Italian-style coffee shop, where Beat writers worked - including Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Richard Brautigan, and Alan Watts. Check out their photos on the wall along with that of Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote most of The Godfather here. Nearby, stroll to the intersection of Columbus and Broadway Avenue to see the Language of the Birds" public art installation - featuring "flying" books illuminated above your head.
Unconventional Boutique Hotel Near Jack Kerouac Alley
Creative and one-of-a-kind, Hotel Nikko is inspired by the same Asian culture that so moved the Beat Generation. Travelers seeking an unconventional experience will find a home at our boutique hotel, from the unparalleled Asian-California cuisine at ANZU restaurant to the artistic entertainment at Feinstein's nightclub. Exploring Beat Generation sites is one of the top things to do in San Francisco, and we're just 1.1 miles away from City Lights Bookstore and the epicenter of the movement - an easy ramble for a Kerouac-inspired walk. Feel the spirit of the Beats living on in the Bay Area. Get on the road and plan your next trip.
"Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don't be sorry." ~ Jack Kerouac