Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then served in the United States Navy during World War II. After the war, he got a master's degree from Columbia University and a doctorate from the Sorbonne. While studying in Paris, he met Kenneth Rexroth, who later persuaded him to go to San Francisco to experience the growing literary scene there. Between 1951 and 1953 he taught French, wrote literary criticism, and painted.
In 1953, Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin started a bookshop, which they named City Lights after a film magazine Martin had started. Two years later, after Martin had left for New York, Ferlinghetti started the publishing house, specialising in poetry. The most famous publication was Howl, the poem by Allen Ginsberg, which was initially impounded by the authorities, and subject of a groundbreaking legal case.
Ferlinghetti's best-known collection of poetry is A Coney Island of the Mind, which has been translated into nine languages. In 1998 he was named Poet Laureate of San Francisco. In addition to writing and publishing poetry and running the bookstore, Ferlinghetti continues to paint, and his work has been exhibited in galleries and museums.