Traveler's Guide to Visiting San Francisco: Chinatown
Thinking of visiting SF Chinatown?
San Francisco's Chinatown is a hot tourist destination that is actually deserves of its crowds. SF's Chinatown is one of the largest Chinatowns outside of Asia, and if you come to visit, you'll likely believe it.
Rich in both culture and fantastic food, the area is the one of the best examples of how delicious America's melting pot (or tossed salad, if you prefer) can get. Any visitor, or local, who wants to get a complete view of San Francisco simply can't skip over this district. Visiting San Francisco Chinatown - whether for souvenirs, history, or snacks - is a must.
This hub is only a brief overview of the things SF's Chinatown has to offer, but I hope you enjoy it anyway! Comments and feedback are greatly appreciated.
Visit at night if possible
Location and transportation
Before you can sample any of Chinatown's deliciousness, literally or not, you first have to get there. Luckily, Chinatown is conveniently located for several modes of transportation. Do not drive. Do NOT drive. Chances are very high that you'll wait upwards of 30 minutes for a parking spot, and even then you might need to park down the hill and walk up.
Instead, consider taking the F-line street cars. They connect the Castro to Fisherman's Wharf, and are a scenic alternative. The last stop before the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines split (at the corner of Jackson and Washington) is a good place to get off and take the short walk to Chinatown.
If you'd prefer to not take the F-line, there are still other alternatives. If you're staying somewhere that's a bit far from Chinatown, I'd suggest just coughing up the cash and taking a taxi. However, there's still a problem with traffic, though it's much less frustrating when you can sit and take pictures rather than having to yell at tourists stopped in the middle of the road.
If you're up for it, the buses have a good link into Chinatown. I don't usually take those buses, so I'm not very familiar with the schedules, but here's a link to the bus page on Chinatowns's website and the SF Transportation Municipal Agency's page, which will give you all the information you could want about getting around the city.
Once you get there, the best way to explore Chinatown is to simply walk around. If you easily tire, you can always take a break in one of their many dim-sum places, restaurants, or just around to a park to people-watch. You'll actually see much more without your car.
Visit SF Chinatown Gate
Non-food landmarks in SF Chinatown
Trust me, there is a lot to explore. You may wonder why I specified "non-food" in titling this section. That's because, in my opinion, the best attractions and landmarks in Chinatown are the many restaurants and street vendors. However, there are a couple of other spots are definitely worth a visit.
First and foremost, you can't miss Portsmouth Square (One block, corner of Kearny and Washington), though chances are you'll end up there anyway. This one-block park is called the "Heart of Chinatown", and for good reason. In the morning, you can see several groups of elders practicing Tai Chi or group dances, and all through the day the Xianqi (Chinese chess) and mahjong tables will be taken, mostly by the local old men. The square is incredibly rich in history, as it contains, "A marker for the first public school in California, a marker for the Eastern Terminus of the Clay Street Hill Railroad Company, a marker for the raising of the American flag, and a monument to Robert Louis Stevenson (Wikipedia's article on Portsmouth Square)", as well as a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue used in the Tiananmen Square protests. Can't miss it.
Tin How Temple
Just a short walk away, on the third floor of a Hilton, is the Chinese Cultural Center (750 Kearny Street). This is a non-profit, community-sponsored museum and cultural center. The Center includes an art gallery, a bookstore, a large auditorium for special events, and classrooms for their Mandarin lessons. They also sponsor trips for American-born Chinese to visit China and provide tours to educate both tourists and locals. This is an excellent place for those looking to understand the rich history behind this district, as well as see a bit of the local culture. Here is the link to their official website.
There is also a tiny historic Buddhist temple called Tin How Temple (125 Waverly Place). This is an incredible spot. It's on the third floor and there's no elevator, so there's a bit of a walk, but the experience is most definitely worth it. It's said by some to be the oldest temple in the United States and is at least the oldest one in San Francisco. With the red paper, fruit offerings, smell of incense, and just all around quiet atmosphere, it really feels like a different world. The visit is free, but they accept voluntary donations.
Onto a more light-hearted attraction! There's an extremely tiny fortune cookie factory called Golden Gate Fortune Cookies (56 Ross Alley, off Jackson) that sells the most delicious -
Oh wait, I guess that's food related. Next section!
Visit the Fortune Cookie Factory!
Food / snack landmarks in Chinatown
As I was saying, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Avenue, off Jackson Street) is a miniature fortune cookie factory that sells freshly made (as in you can see them make and hand-fold it) fortune cookies. Though it's down a rather shady looking tiny side alley, Chinatown during the day is quite safe and the smell will guide in the right direction. However, it's not really a local's secret anymore, so in peak season it can get a little crowded with tourists and school groups.
But there are free samples available as you wait, and personally I think just those are worth any crowd that might gather. Both bags of unfolded and regular cookies are sold for a fair price, around 3 - 4.50 for a large bag, and they always throw in a few freshly made extra. This isn't a polished "tourist attraction", but if you want to bucket list a SF back alley and get the best fortune cookies you'll ever eat, this is a good place for you. Just keep in mind that they speak almost no English, (though it isn't a problem as they are quite friendly and there are clear signs up) and that the shop is cash-only.
Great Chinatown restaurants and snack shops
Now, onto the restaurants! Especially if you don't often have authentic Chinese food, you'll have a great time in many of Chinatown's restaurants. Some are more polished and tourist-friendly, while others really are authentically local. If you can, a great way to get to the back alley restaurants is to have a guide. If you speak Chinese or are lucky enough to have a Chinese-speaking friend, even if they don't know Chinatown, asking shop owners and locals for a good restaurant will likely get you to a good spot. Just keep in mind the Chinese are not the Japanese, and polite responses from all are not guaranteed. Only half a joke.
Perhaps this is a bit racist, but one of the best ways I've found to quickly rank a restaurant in deliciousness is to peek inside and see how many non-Chinese tourist types there are in comparison to local Chinese diners. If you see nothing but yellow and hear very little English, it's good sign. If you see nothing but American tourists wearing Hawaiian shirts, it's a bad sign. Most places are somewhere in the middle, and many of the places on Grant and other tourist havens always have tourists, so this is not a fail-safe formula. But at least generally speaking, if there are locals there, the food is good.
One great example of this method in action is the Hong Kong Clay Pot (960 Grant Avenue, at Jackson Street). The restaurant is a little difficult to find, as there are few signs and it's up a flight of very narrow stairs, but the food is about as authentic as it gets. Though the entrance is rickety (literally), it opens up into a fairly roomy space with tables that have a great view of Grant Street. Definitely a plus if you are here for the New Year's Festival as you will be able to see both the preparation and the festival. It can get crowded and slightly hectic, but in a good Hong Kong style, so if you are willing to brave the language barrier and the crowd of hungry locals, this would be a great stop for lunch or dinner.
A classic stop for Chinese would be R & G Lounge (631 Kearny Street). In recent times this place has gotten more hype after Anthony Bourdain, the food critic , featured it on his show. Though more polished in looks than the Hong Kong Clay Pot above, it still serves authentic Chinese, though it's a fair bit pricier. The food here is good, especially their legendary salt-and-pepper crab. Reservations are definitely recommended.
SF Chinatown dimsum
Don't miss the lunch dim-sum places that are scattered all over Chinatown. I recommend Great Eastern (649 Jackson Street), but really you can find them everywhere. Get to one that has a lot of locals/Chinese and you're in good shape.
There are also restaurants that aren't Chinese in Chinatown, but why as a visitor would you want to go to one? Oh, unless you're vegetarian or vegan like me. In that case, many of the Chinese restaurants don't have too many options, though there are always vegetable and tofu dishes. For vegetarians and vegans still looking to get some Chinese flavor, one place I can think of is Lucky Creation (854 Washington Street). The place is a classic local's stop, slightly dingy and a little worn looking, but their imitation meat is surprisingly good (I'm not usually a big fan) and they have classic Chinese fare that even non-vegetarian friends will like.
To be honest, though, Chinatown is a place best explored, so if you're feeling up to it, I recommend just taking the day to randomly walk around. Follow the locals and you'll most likely get a great meal. A few notes for those not used to Chinese restaurants: 1.) There's usually a fair amount of MSG, so if you're sensitive be careful. 2.) The service is often good-naturedly rude. You'll have the most fun if you don't take it personally; they're like that to everyone.
Enjoy yourself with Chinatown's food and restaurants. There's a lot to see and a lot to eat. Both of the two main streets, Grant and Stockton, have excellent selections.
Brief video tour of Chinatown (with Oriental pop elevator music in the background)
Two main streets: Grant Avenue and Stockton Street
Chinatown has two main streets: Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. If you have time, I would recommend you spend some time in both, as they offer two distinct flavors of Chinatown.
Grant Avenue is the tourist main street. This is the one featured in many photos, as it has the landmark arch entrance, the tourists that come to that, and the sales clerks that come to the tourists. Loud, polished, and sometimes even glitzy, this is the tourist trap section of Chinatown. However, Grant has a decent selection of restaurants and an incredible variety of odd souvenirs. The tourist shops and vendors stock things from postcards to jade jewelry to tea kettles, so this is the place to shop for things to take home. Just don't expect the jade to be real.
Stockton Avenue is the more local and more authentic main street. Here you can find the markets selling live frogs (to eat), fresh-ish fruits and vegetables, elders playing mahjong or Chinese chess, and old ladies that will shove you off the sidewalk. The restaurants here are mostly great, and the bakeries are incredible. Stockton has a real Hong Kong-esque feel and vibe (Disclaimer: I'm not Hong Kongese), so if you want to see the local side of Chinatown, stop by here.
Of course, there is more to explore than just these two main streets, but if you're strapped for time, a walk through these two streets will give you a brief overview. If you have time though, consider just exploring the back alleys and side streets of Chinatown; you'll see plenty that the tourists who stick to Grant won't.
Visit shops like this. Do it.
Shopping in SF Chinatown
Chinatown is quite a fun place to do some shopping. I generally don't like to buy things, but there are always neat items to be found in one of Chinatown's many shops. Plus, even if you don't want to buy anything else, you can pick up some Asian snacks!
There are ridiculous amounts of shops and street vendors all over Chinatown, especially down Grant Avenue, so there's no need to head anywhere specific. You'll basically be able to find anything you can think of somewhere. But if you're looking for souvenirs and odd trinkets at the best price possible, I recommend the Far East Flea Market (729 Grant Avenue). It's around several other popular shopping bazaars, making it a convenient place to stop at if you're planning to spend some time shopping. It takes up several stories and once you're in, it seems endless. Unlike some other Grant Chinatown shops, you will probably be able to spot locals here.
For some unusually delicious souvenirs, or if you're just hungry during your walk, check out the Ming Lee Trading Company (759 Jackson Street) for some great Asian snacks. With two floors of shelf-to-shelf all filled with Asian junk food and sweets, this is the place to grab something for hungry friends and family. Though it might not make it that far...
If you want to visit SF Chinatown during a festival...
Celebrations and festivals
When festivals roll around in Chinatown, it grows even more vibrant and crowded. Though I usually suggest that you look into festivals and see if they interest you, I recommend Chinatown festivals to anyone who has a high crowd tolerance. There are several celebrations all through the year, but two major festivals are Autumn Moon Festival and of course, Chinese New Year.
The Autumn Moon Festival takes place a slightly different time every year. It offers food and drink, near-continuous live entertainment, art exhibitions, the street vendors that seem to multiply, and even a dragon parade. Because it's not quite as well known as the Chinese New Year celebration, it's a bit less crowded, though you wouldn't know it once you're there. Here is an example of what of the celebration might involve, though this calendar is from 2011.
The Chinese New Year Festival is the biggest celebration in the Chinese world, which includes San Francisco's Chinatown. All the streets are dressed up in red and gold, and the famous dragon parades take place during this celebration. The mostly illegal fireworks and firecrackers add even more to the atmosphere. Because the festival is based on the lunar calendar, do some Googling before booking, as the date changes every year. It gets ridiculously crowded, but if that's okay with you, this could be the experience of a lifetime. Just prepare to be squashed!
However, I think every day in Chinatown feels like a festival day, and luckily not only because it's swarming with tourists. I've heard tourists say it's dirty, it's crowded, and people do "obscene" things on the street (like spit and blow their nose onto the street). All of those things are true.
A view of Stockton Street
Visit Chinatown San Francisco!
But the bustling crowd, the good-natured shouts of street vendors, the smell of delicious food, the rapid Mandarin and Cantonese flowing everywhere, and even the "negatives" - they all come together in an incredible cacophony of awesomeness. While going on yelp to see some tourist perceptions of Chinatown, I found this great review by a local: "Want really cheap produce? Go to Chinatown. Want a cheap, definitely made-in-China knickknack? Go to Chinatown. Crappy day and just want to shove against people? Go to Chinatown. Want yummy, most likely greasy, cheap food? You know where to go.
Tips: Don't be offended if you get pushed around. While you shouldn't mosh through the crowd, you're allowed to elbow through a bit if needed. When you're in line to pay, guard your position in line like a footballer. I may be a bit extreme, but I stand with my elbows out and feet braced. The grannies may be old, but they are fast! Wear closed-toe shoes. At the least, don't stand next to a guy clearing his throat; spit is probably coming soon. Not for the claustrophobe, germaphobe or xenophobe. But if you want to experience one of the purely awesome places on Earth? Yeah, check out Chinatown." (Yanny S. on Yelp.)
I really like Chinatown.
But even though I'm pretty sure that this district deserves at least a week's visit, by itself it isn't a complete picture of the city. Check out other distinct regions like Japantown, the Castro, the Mission, Fisherman's Wharf, Haight-Ashbury, and even consider just taking some time to walk through some residential areas.
In all seriousness, though, I love Chinatown and I love San Francisco. Come and check out the City by the Bay!
Where to find SF Chinatown
If and when you come to San Francisco, don't miss SF Chinatown!