Explore San Francisco

Literary City: Getting a Read on San Francisco

Your guide to San Francisco's rich literary culture.

The connection between San Francisco and the printed page is a love story enhanced by a deep sense of place. Let’s begin with Mark Twain, who came and left before the cable car was invented. A rich literary trail leads to the Beat Generation poets, and later to an anthem for the city on a hill “where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars.” Then it’s back to North Beach for a look at the future with Francis Ford Coppola’s short story vending machine.

What Mark Twain Never Said

What: A great storyteller, Mark Twain mastered an impeccable style of expression. As a 20-something-year-old local news reporter, he spent only a year or so in San Francisco in 1865-1866. Yet, somehow one of the best-known quips about this city is often wrongly attributed to him: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

Where: The Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley, the world’s largest archive of Twain documents, is open to the public by appointment.

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco
City Lights Bookstore (©Scott Chernis/SF Travel)

The Beat Generation

What: No American bookstore can match the significance of City Lights Bookstore as the publisher and bookseller of progressive cultural and political titles. Known as “A Literary Meeting Place Since 1953,” this landmark became ground zero for a movement when co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti published the controversial “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg and writings of other Beat writers. Ferlinghetti’s own “A Coney Island of the Mind,” is cited as the best-selling poetry book of the 20th century. Weekly readings take place upstairs; jam-packed shelves are spread over three floors in the store.

Where: City Lights Bookstore attracts authors and visitors from all over the world to its North Beach corner. Don’t miss the legendary Vesuvio Cafe across Jack Kerouac Alley, where the walls display a collection of memorabilia.

Tony Bennett statue at the Fairmont San Francisco
Tony Bennett statue at the Fairmont San Francisco (©Drew Altizer)

Legendary Local Lyrics

What: The lyrics from Tony Bennett's “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” strike a chord with natives, locals and visitors alike. The hit song received gold record status and was ranked 23rd by the Recording Industry Association of America among the most historically significant songs of the 20th century. Despite being written in New York City, the song was selected as an official anthem for San Francisco in 1969.

Where: In honor of Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday, a larger-than-life statue of the singer was unveiled in August. See it on the front lawn of the historic Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill, where Tony Bennett first performed this ballad in the Venetian Room in 1961.

On-demand reading, Cafe Zoetrope, San Francisco
On-demand reading (Courtesy Cafe Zoetrope)

Short Story Vending Machine

What: Innovation and San Francisco are longtime bedfellows. “The Godfather” creator Francis Ford Coppola, distinguished Bay Area-based screenwriter, director and producer, backs projects to support emerging creative writers and filmmakers. And at his North Beach restaurant, your choice of short story (from a selection that includes manuscripts from his literary magazine) is dispensed from a vending machine that’s the first of its kind in the United States. So you can enjoy some reading with your bowl of pasta.

Where: Look for the distinctive red awning. Café Zoetrope serves Italian food and wine from Coppola’s own Sonoma and Napa Valley vineyards. Newly curated content is uploaded to the machine seasonally, so there’s always something to read besides the menu.

Litquake, San Francisco
(Courtesy Litquake)


What: In October, Litquake offers hundreds of readings, panel discussions and events during a nine-day Bay Area festival dedicated to the written word. 

Where: A diverse lineup includes comedy skits, children’s authors, debut novelists and Pulitzer winners. Various venues host many free events; some require tickets.