Built by the California Gold Rush and shaped by earthquakes, San Francisco continually repurposes itself with shaking ground and shifting politics. Pavement sprouts gardens, streets become bike boulevards and parking spaces give way to parks as the city becomes more sustainable.
Between the crowded streets and cable-car stops, alleys once packed with cars, crime and trash are now filled with art and alfresco dining. Within these narrow lanes, the cultures that shaped the city hold forth, sharing their songs and stories along with distinctive food and drink.
The neighbourhood spaces that keep San Francisco’s heart beating are often bypassed on the way to popular attractions like Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge. But, if you want to meet the people and cultures that define the city, or just hang out and have a drink with them, you’ll find locals right around the corner—just down the alley. Here are seven San Francisco alleyways worth checking out.
Jack Kerouac Alley
Between the City Lights Bookstore and the barstools at the Vesuvio Café, Kerouac and other Beat Generation writers found inspiration, desperation and company. The alley that separates these iconic hangouts now pays tribute with murals and art, including quotations from Kerouac, Maya Angelou and John Steinbeck.
Remnants of the opium dens, gambling houses and brothels that lined the city’s oldest alley made great backdrops for action shots in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The alley is still an action-packed scene for friendlier adventures—with a fortune cookie company, a musical barber and murals of everyday life.
European restaurants line the block, spilling tables, chairs, waiters and light into the narrow space outside their doors. The area was home to the city’s first French settlers, and expats still congregate in the tiny French Quarter amid the bustling outdoor dining scene.
Looking for a proper pint? The former Bank of Ireland is now the Irish Bank, a cozy tavern tucked away in the Financial District. Whitewashed walls, pub signs and outdoor tables help create the illusion of a proper Irish pub. Pop in for a drink; the hospitality is genuine.
The 1906 earthquake destroyed the old red-light district, giving rise to one of San Fran’s finest shopping streets. You’ll find cafés, art galleries, high-end shops and the city’s only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building. Guests who visit on weekends may get to hear Maiden Lane’s own tenor, Robert Close, sing opera.
Pedestrian-friendly landscaping and new shops and cafés have turned the street between the old San Francisco Mint and its neighbours into an urban oasis. Free live music events, art festivals and a Friday farmers’ market bring the crowds, and on weekdays, it’s a funky spot for a coffee break.
An ever-changing collection of murals along this Mission District block gives voice to indigenous Mexican and Central American cultures in a traditional art form. Vivid colours and images portray celebrations, political statements and protests in the most concentrated collection of murals in the city.