City Lights Bookstore

4519, 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA

In an age when many independent bookstores have surrendered to the advance of chain stores and Amazon, City Lights is a true survivor. Since it was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1956, it has served as a gathering place for San Francisco’s literary communities. Everyone from beat poets to left-wing critics of America have found a welcome here. City Lights is also a publishing house, with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems being perhaps the single most famous book it has put out, though it counts scores of other works by some of America’s leading contemporary literary figures on its list. You can drop in anytime to find an unexpected tome, and the store also has a crowded calendar of readings.

More Recommendations

The bookstore the brought us the Beats

It’s hard to imagine a bookstore earning the label “institution” but the city of San Francisco declared City Lights a local landmark in 2001.The independent bookstore was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, and was the country’s first all-paperback bookstore. In 1955, Ferlinghetti became the sole owner of the store and launched a press in order to introduce the public to the work of Beat poets. Writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Jack Kerouac published and read here at the still-thriving Columbus Avenue store. Stop in to browse three floors of new and used books. There are regular author events, and City Lights Publishers now has more than 200 books in print. Night owls take note: City Lights is open until midnight everyday.

City Lights Books

Camp out in the basement of this North Beach institution, the Beat’s former clubhouse, and try to think of a time when scandal came in the form of a book of poetry. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the obscenity trial that followed put this three-story independent bookstore and publishing house on the map. More than 60 years later, the shelves are better organized and smoking has been banned on the premises, but the spirit remains the same. Readings, lectures, and meetings are still held four or five nights a week in the poetry room, and the publishing arm of City Lights still puts out about a dozen titles a year. And don’t forget about the books. From lesser-known independent titles to collectors’ editions, City Lights has it all. Limited-edition signed copies of Van Morrison’s lyric book Lit Up Inside were a recent hot ticket, selling for $100 and some old-school deal making: The shop wouldn’t take orders online—Van fans had to place their order over the telephone or come into the shop. Talk about revolutionary.

Learn about the Beats at City Lights Bookstore in North Beach

A beacon for beatnik culture, City Lights bookstore in San Francisco is best known for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, and as the site of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s obscenity trial in the 1950s. Opened in 1953 by Ferlinghetti, the independent bookstore and publisher has stood in the same spot in North Beach since its inception, and has attracted millions of visitors looking to learn more about the beat generation—not to mention those just looking for a good book. Stop by City Lights and peruse the extensive collection of new and used materials, and feel free to linger for hours. Read in the upstairs room and enjoy the comfy chairs and views over the neighborhood. Still feeling beatnik-y? Head to the Beat Museum after your stop at City Lights. City Lights is open every day from 10 a.m. to midnight.

I am The Door

A personal shrine of mine, in the basement of City Lights Bookstore. Mysteries that way-->

City Lights Bookstore | The Poetry Room

At the heart of the Beatnik movement, City Lights is a can’t-miss bookstore for lovers of books, culture, and hidden spaces. Spread over three levels, this isn’t your average seller of books—it specializes in make-you-think kinds of fiction and non-fiction. You might have a quick browse before taking your photo out front, because this place is famous, after all. Or you might wind your way up to the top floor, the Poetry Room, and pull up a rocking chair, set yourself down with a volume of something awesome (I recommend Jane Hirshfield) and feel the history around you.

Poetry Room

Located in the attic of this iconic book store, the poetry room is a temple of sorts.

Read Here Now

or a shrine maybe

Where the Streets of the World

... Meet the Avenues of the Mind

I am The Door

Located just beside The Mystery section in the basement of City Lights this infamous portal represents the daring mad genius of the Beat philosophy.

A Book Conservatory

City Lights is an absolute gem, even in a city with San Francisco‘s strong pedigree of independent bookstores. Home to the Beat literature movement, it still boasts an incredible collection of poetry and literature in translation that goes way beyond the average bookstore. A wonderful place to spend hours lost in the pages of a new find.

Information on this page, including website, location, and opening hours, is subject to have changed since this page was last published. If you would like to report anything that’s inaccurate, let us know at

Nearby highlights
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR