Whether you stick with the infamous Grand Avenue lined with incredible shops and restaurants or venture down the tiny alleyways, exploring the more authentic culture, either way, you won’t regret a visit to Chinatown! You’ll need a few hours or a full day to see the town’s art galleries, boutiques, tea houses, parks and historical sites.
What's more, San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest and largest in North America, covers 24 city blocks. The city within a city has two hospitals, a post office, numerous parks and churches and over 30 restaurants. Since its beginnings in 1848, the area has been influential to the city’s history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America, retaining its languages, customs, identity and places of worship.
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Fun Fact: The fabled Ross Alley, formerly called the “Street of the Gamblers,” was used to film a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Equally important, the first Chinatown originated over 170 years ago and served as a port of entry for Chinese immigrants. Today Chinatown hosts an array of high-end restaurants, tea shops, galleries, karaoke bars, cocktail lounges and vibrant markets. With the largest Chinese population outside of Asia, the city encompasses a truly original Chinese society within its borders. Located next to North Beach and the Financial District, this picturesque region features ornate fixtures and rich pagoda-style architecture that makes you feel you’ve left the city and entered another world.
Chinatown Main Attractions
- Dragon’s Gate: The legendary Dragon’s Gate and official entrance to Chinatown on Busy Street are among the most photographed images in San Francisco. Taiwan (the Republic of China) gifted the materials to Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee who designed the post-card famous gate in 1969. The entrance sits at the southern end of Chinatown, along Grant Avenue. With its dragon sculptures, it’s the only authentic Chinatown gate in the country. The stone lions are said to ward off evil with the quote, “All under heaven is for the good of the people.”
Photo Alert: Make a dramatic entrance at the Dragon’s Gate between the two guardian lions that protect all who enter. This iconic passageway is an Instagram must!
Grant Avenue: The famous main thoroughfare, adorned with Chinese lamp posts and red lanterns, runs the length of Chinatown and contains the more popular gift shops and cafes. From high-end stores to bargain deals, browse the pleather of Chinatown merchant markets and eateries. To fully immerse in the culture, visitors should also explore Stockton Street for even more authentic produce markets, delicious food, and fantastic art.
- Chinese Herbal Shops: For an incredible selection of Chinese herbs and specialists on hand to offer remedies and diagnose ailments, The Great China Herb Company is one of the oldest in town.
- Red Blossom Tea Company: This family-owned teahouse is a Chinatown standard. Serving unique flavored Chinese blended teas with rare herbs and flowers. The server's presentation and preparation are a show in itself, not to mention the deliciously robust tea flavors and cold brews.
- Old St. Mary’s Church: Built in 1853, St. Mary’s was the only building to survive the great fire after the 1906 earthquake. This is a history buff must-see!
- Portsmouth Square: The square, considered the “Heart of Chinatown,” is a centrally located park and home to many historical statues and markers, like the bronze replica of the Goddess of Democracy. Located one block from the bay, the city's first houses were built in this area during the Gold Rush days. Today, the park is alive with tai chi and Chinese chess activities.
Pro Tip: Underneath Portsmouth Square is a parking garage.
Fun Fact: Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, sat and wrote in the square during his stay in San Francisco. There’s a plaque in the square dedicated to him.
- Transamerica Pyramid Redwood Grove is another attractive park with over 60 redwood trees. The famed Montgomery Block contains a charming fountain with leaping frogs in honor of resident Mark Twain.
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- Cookie Factory: At this mainstay tourist attraction visitors can watch the bakers work their magic. You can also bring home a bag of fortune cookies or at least grab a sample. The small factory makes thousands of fortune cookies a day. Since 1962, its tasty, awe-inspired treats have served hundreds of local restaurants. The cookies come in various flavors and themes, including green tea, strawberry, chocolate coated, sprinkled, and R-rated. You can also order a personalized fortune cookie for $1 apiece.
Fun Fact: The fortune cookie was created in San Francisco!
- Waverly Place: This historic two-block alley had two of the most famous Chinatown brothels. One of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club characters was named after the street.
- Sing Chong and Sing Fat are two original Chinese-inspired buildings at the intersection of Grant and California, quickly built after the 1906 earthquake to discourage moving Chinatown to a less desirable location. The California Cable Car runs past them.
- China Live: Restauranteur George Chen created this two-story emporium. China Live has a tea cafe and market-style restaurant/bar on the main floor. Upstairs is Chen’s upscale “Eight Tables,” a reservation-only eatery with a $225 tasting menu and exotic bar.
- Kim + Ono: This unique boutique features handcrafted silk and charmeuse kimonos, vivid robes, and botanical prints, all painted by hand.
- Moongate Lounge: This Michelin-starred elegant establishment includes an upstairs lounge and an extensive cocktail menu, not to mention the delectable mouth-watering egg rolls and dumplings.
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- Good Mong Kok Bakery: Smack dab in the middle of Portsmouth Square resides a tiny bakery that serves fresh dumplings, BBQ pork buns, shrimp har gow, and pork shumai. With no indoor seating, customers take in the outdoor ambiance to enjoy the bakery’s original custard-filled pineapple buns.
- R&G Lounge: Known to have the best Chinese food in San Francisco, the restaurant’s claim to fame is respected celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s thumb’s up. Bourdain fell in love with R&G and featured the lounge on his travel show.
China Town Walking Tours
Check out the “All About Chinatown Tours” or the “Wok Wiz Tours" for an inside guided tour. For a dose of history and Chinese culture, visit the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum on Clay Street near Portsmouth Square, or sign up for a neighborhood walking tour at the Chinese Culture Center.
Chinatown Culinary Tour: This three-hour tour focuses on exploring the back street cafes, crafts and galleries of Chinatown alleys. The cost is $59 and includes a free lunch.
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Chinatown Walking Tour: This two-hour tour covers historical sites such as Chinese temples, markets, alleyways, the fortune cookie factory and more. It includes a 9-course dim sum lunch and costs $38.
Evening Segway Tour: This adventurous tour travels through North Beach, the Embarcado, Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown. It costs $75 and lasts two and a half hours.
To reach Chinatown, visitors can take the cable car, ride, walk, or bus to town. Take the Powell-Hyde line or Powel Mason line from the Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square. The 30-Stockton bus goes straight through the center of Chinatown. Taking BART to Chinatown is an option too.