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San Francisco, California, United States

Touring Chinatown

Experience the largest Chinatown outside of Asia

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    This guide contains photos
 (3 votes, 1 review)
Difficulty: Easy
Length: 1.2 miles / 1.9 km
Duration: 1-3 hours
Family Friendly
Overview: Nestled in prime real estate between retail-happy Union Square, the bustle of the Financial District and the beatnik funkiness of North Beach, Chinatown beckons to tourists and locals with its irresistible green-tiled gate at the intersection of Grant and Bush streets.

Once inside the gate, the entrance and first block are really peaceful. Deeper into Chinatown, visitors will find anything but peace on the bustling and energizing streets, where the produce, meat and fish markets seemed to buzz all day long.

Chintown offers a bounty of shops, including restaurants, Chinese grocery stores and delis, bakeries, tea and herbal shops, clothing stores, galleries, souvenir haunts and more.

Tips: Take your time and let the streets and alleys guide you. This is a great part of town in which to "get lost," because you're never more than a half block from getting found.

Go hungry, because there are endless small restaurants offering dim sum, sushi, pastries, peking duck, pearl tea--and all at different price points, from 99 cent sushi to extremely high-end gourmet Chinese meals.

Be adventurous and take your sense of humor, because some blocks are incredibly densely trafficked, especially the busy sidewalks of the produce and fish markets, where locals won't look up as they make their way to the freshest and best-looking green beans, bok choi and eggplant we've ever seen.

Explore the tea houses, herbal shops and alternative medicine shops. Chinese herbal medicine is an ancient practice and the proprietors in these shops have amazing knowledge and experience. It's well worth investigating one or two--even if just for your own education.

Points of Interest


Chinatown Gate (Dragon Gate)

While there are many ways to begin a tour of Chinatown, the most popular is by first entering through the famous and beautiful gate of Chinatown.

The Republic of China gifted the gate to the city of San Francisco in 1969. Chinese villages often feature similar ceremonial gates, and the ornate dragons and concrete guard dogs are said to keep evil spirits away.

It really is a transporting experience to walk under the gate and begin a gentle upward slope through tightly packed and colorful shops. The entrance and first block are quite peaceful. Deeper into Chinatown visitors will find anything but peace on the bustling and energizing streets, where the produce, meat and fish markets seem to buzz all day long.

Colorful shops

Colorful shops line Grant selling everything from expensive collectible art to 99 cent tchotchkes and souvenirs. One shop early in the journey has beautiful things for children, such as hand-painted pillow cases, miniature Chinese New Year dragon heads and beautiful Asian-inspired Christmas ornaments.

Grant is full of dim sum restaurants, herbal shops, delis featuring upside-down roasted ducks, stores with fine antiques and jade sculptures, and loads of souvenir shops, which afford almost anyone the opportunity to take an inexpensive and whimsical bit of Chinatown home.

Unique Architecture

There are so many beautifully designed and decorated buildings and structures. Even the lampposts are special, looking like pagodas with dragons' tails. Colorful and ornate balconies and windowsills are often draped with laundry.

As you walk down the narrow street, it's hard to know where to look: up, down to the side or in front of you. Luckily, this first stretch of Grant is rarely frequented by automobiles, so you can be relatively safe on the street or the sidewalk (for the time being).

Looking up Nob Hill

Before you cross California Street, look left. The street rises steeply up to the famous Nob Hill, home to some of the most beautiful hotels (e.g., the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins) and views the city has to offer. Nob Hill also boasts Grace Cathedral, a spectacular San Francisco landmark that is reminiscent of Paris' Notre Dame. Nob Hill is well worth the hike after exploring Chinatown, if you are interested in seeing some of the sun-kissed crown jewels of the city by the bay.

As you stand at the intersection of California and Grant, you may also notice another San Francisco landmark--the cable car--rumbling by.

St. Mary's Square

Across the street from the cathedral is St. Mary's Square, where visitors will find clusters of older men playing cards and checkers or reading papers and discussing the day's events. Older women cluster together as well, but some silently practice their stunningly peaceful tai chi (also commonly found in Washington Square in nearby North Beach). Children play on the park's jungle gym and pigeons flock to pick up any leftovers, which seem to be in rich supply.

A large statue of metal and granite holds court in the square. It is of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China.

After checking out the local scene, head back to Grant and California, cross California and continue north on Grant deeper into Chinatown.

Old St. Mary's Cathedral

Old St. Mary's Cathedral appears somewhat suddenly and slightly out of place at the corner of Grant and California streets. Originally built in 1854 and rumored to be the first cathedral in California, amazingly the church survived the 1906 earthquake and fires that followed. Today it sits beween modern high-rises and detailed Chinese architecture. The church is open to visitors and has a rich history and gift shop in the basement.

Restaurants, Grocery Stores and Delis

After crossing Sacramento and Clay streets, the number of restaurants and grocery vendors increases, and so does the pulse and volume of Chinatown. It is a treat to watch the lively banter between shop owners and customers as daily produce, meats and other food changes hands.

Golden Gate Bakery

Between Jackson Street and Pacific Avenue sits one of the most famous Chinese bakeries in San Francisco, Golden Gate Bakery. If it's open when you're visiting Chinatown, it is worth the wait to try its best-known item, egg tarts. During September each year, in celebration of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the bakery also makes Chinese moon cakes that many wait in line for hours to get.

Note that the bakery is typically closed for vacation in August and around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Daily 8am-8pm

Preview of North Beach

Where Grant meets Broadway, you will want to turn left to continue your tour of Chinatown and see some of the best grocery vendors the neighborhood has.

Before you do, though, feel free to linger at this intersection and watch the action. You can likely spy the bay as you look east down Broadway and the Broadway Tunnel that cuts beneath Russian Hill as you look west. Looking up Columbus Avenue (northwest), you can see the main drag of North Beach and preview any cafes, restaurants or bookstores you may want to visit in this neighborhood.

Bustling Bartering

The corner of Broadway and Stockton (turn left on Stockton) and most of the next 3.5 blocks on Stockton let visitors into a magical world of local commerce each and every day. The food is fresh, the customers vocal and serious, and the energy is palpable. Whether you simply observe or dive in and try to make a purchase, this otherwise bland stretch of road is totally engaging and fun.

Tea, Herbs and Traditional Chinese Medicine

A trip to Chinatown really is better if you visit a tea, herb or reflexology shop. Some are dark and intimidating, but many have updated their look to appeal to Western shoppers.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookies Co.

Ever wonder how those fortune cookies that you get in Chinese restaurants are made? You get a chance to see it in action in this tiny shop. Employees make the cookies right in front of you as the machines hum and workers fold the cookies with lightening speed. They welcome visitors to walk in and watch as they make these tasty little treats.
We had planned to take a guided tour, but last minute we were unable to find oneso I looked up the o e on this sight and it was a perfect guide. Just enough history and info for a great trip.
Visited on Feb 12, 2013

by clarawatkins on Feb 14, 2013

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We like to travel and get outside. With two young children, it's always an adventure! Our oldest loves...

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