One of the most popular locations to visit in San Francisco is the Chinatown District. The District is the oldest Chinatown in America and is considered the Original Chinatown and the first to bear the moniker. It is also the Largest Chinatown anywhere outside of Asia. The bustling vibrant feel really takes you to a world far from San Francisco and the whole experience truly fitting of the tag Chinatown.
However, while the area is visited by millions every year most people have little idea of what there really is to see and do. They simply walk down Grant avenue look at a few shops and maybe go for a meal. Our guide to what to see in Chinatown San Francisco will help you understand what’s on offer and what Chinatown San Francisco Attractions are on offer.
What is Chinatown San Francisco
During the 1850s as America, and California’s population began to explode. Immigrants from all over the world arrived to find work and make their fortunes. Large numbers of workers and their families arrived through the Golden Gate from Asia. Drawn by the lure of plentiful work and the Goldrush the Chinese looked for a place to Settle. The City government of the time, restricted where the settlers could reside. One small area of the City had its laws relaxed and Chinese settlers were permitted to reside in the district.
As is often the case when a large group of people from different cultures all resides in the same area they brought their traditions and cultures with them. A further population boom occurred in the 1960s Swelling further the number of ethnic Chinese living in the city and to this day the area still retains its Chinese cultural influences in both shops, buildings, residents, and food. The area really feels like stepping into a not-so-tiny piece of China.
Right in the heart of the City the District covers over 24 blocks of city space and houses around 15,000 people. Making it an incredibly densely populated area. This population swells daily as it’s estimated more tourists visit the area than any other San Francisco area including the Golden Gate Bridge!
Where is Chinatown?
Despite what people say there is no defined boundary of what constitutes Chinatown. Roughly 3 blocks wide and 8 blocks tall. The area starts at Dragons Gate on the corner of Bush St and Grant Avenue a few blocks north of Union Square. The main Thoutofares are Stockton Street, Grant Avenue, and Kearny Street running as far as Bradway. The area extends out further than that boundary but the most concentrated Chinese influence is roughly contained in this area. See the Map Below.
It all begins with the Dragons Gate. The very distinctive entrance to Chinatown is a very photographed location and a must-have selfie. Marking the Start of Chinatown’s stretch of Grant Avenue is where most people begin their adventure. Head here from Union Square and you transition in an instant from Downtown San Francisco to Downtown China!
On the other side of the gate and you are instantly bombarded with Chinese Shops, restaurants, buildings, and architecture.
Buildings / Landmarks
Sing Chong and Sing Fat Buildings
After the destruction of much of the City in the 1906 earthquake, Chinatown was quick to rebuild and to try and incorporate some of its own architecture into the City. The Sing Chong and Sing Fat buildings were among the first to be built in this style and are still some of the most striking examples of Chinese architecture within Chinatown. The Buildings Straddle the Jackson and Grant intersection and the Cable Cars pass between the two buildings.
Old St Mary’s Cathedral and St Mary’s Square, an open space park, are opposite the buildings.
Considered the Heart of Chinatown this is the oldest Open space in the area and where many locals come to relax and unwind. The Large Chinese Pagoda reminds you are in the middle of China time while the Large skyscrapers rising up from the east remind you, you are still in San Francisco too!
The Square is a great place to come and just relax or have lunch. A place to get away from the bustle and craziness of the district.
Tin How Temple
An absolute must-see in Chinatown the Tin How Temple is one of the oldest operating Taoist Temples in America. First built in 1952 by one of the district’s first settlers, it was subsequently destroyed in the 1909 earthquake and rebuilt in 1910 in its current form. A little underwhelming you can enter the temple free of charge between 10 am-4 pm (donations gratefully accepted). According to custom, photography is prohibited so you can finally put the camera away and just enjoy the experience.
This narrow alley conjures up images of a run-down back street china slum area. The Buildings loom over you and the bright shop fronts waft alien smells, sights, and sounds at you. It’s so authentic that it’s even been used in many Hollywood films keen to avoid the expense of actually filming in China!
In the past, the Narrow streets were the home of the shady elements of the Enclave, a den of iniquity. Nowadays it’s really just a tourist attraction with shops and cafes. Be sure to check out the Golden Gate Cookie Company (see below)
Chinese Telephone exchange
Another Fantastic Example of Chinese architecture is the Chinese Telephone exchange was once a vital part of the community with all calls coming from China being manually routed through this building. Now it is just a bank, but the diminutive building looks fantastic and is a must-do photo stop!
Not really anything to do with Chinatown but this stunning piece of architecture rise up from the eastern boundary and is a constant presence as you explore the enclave. Until the completion of the Oceanside Tower 1, The Transamerica tower is the second tallest in San Francisco having just been usurped by the Salesforce Tower in 2017. While the Building is great to look at and is an iconic part of the San Francisco Skyline there is little to do as a tourist as the building is pretty much just offices.
Junk Shops…err We mean Gift Shops
You will find a large number of Gift shops lining the streets of China Town. These are normally of the very cheap and dubious quality type shops. Selling all types of …things. Really the fun is just looking around and seeing what is on offer. There are things for sale you simply couldn’t have imagined and others that are all two expected like towels and t-shirts. Hours can literally be lost just wandering in and out of the different shops looking at the trinkets and nic-nacks on offer.
Chinese Markets / Deli’s
Along Stockton Street, you will find a large number of Chinse Grocery’s Markets and Deli’s. This fascinating string of shops is like nothing you will have ever seen unless you have been to China. There is a mind-blowing array of weird and wonderful foods along with a large amount of weird and awful foods too!
Piles of fresh fruit and Veg, Whole Peking Ducks that Smell Devine, fantastic Butchers, and incredibly fresh seafood can all be found along with LIVE seafood, LIVE Frogs and Turtles along with many unidentifiable creatures, some alive some dead. It can require a strong stomach to look around but it is an experience like no other.
There a plentiful Shops selling a variety of Chinese herbs and traditional medicinal items. We are not huge believers in alternative medicine but its part of the culture and these shops are fun to look around and are usually one of the good-smelling shops to be found in Chinatown.
We are English and if there is one thing we know and love its tea! If one country can rival us in our Tea knowledge it’s China. Their tea is done all wrong (from our English opinion anyway) but it’s still well worth checking out. You will find many Tea shops in Chinatown selling authentic teas of all types of tastes and flavors.
There are plenty of places offering traditional Chinese Massages (the non-seedy kind!) all over Chinatown. We are not big on massage in general (we don’t go to spas or anything like that) and tend to avoid it wherever we go. So really we can’t offer much advice on this. But most things in Chinatown are very authentic so we imagine can find and great masseuse if that is your thing.
Chinese Cuisine is one of China’s greatest gifts to the world (along with Paper, Printing, the Compass, and Gunpowder!) and while wandering around Chinatown you will be taken aback by the delicious (along with the less delicious) Smells that permeate the Area. Food is big business in Chinatown and it would not be right to visit without sampling a little or preferably a lot.
In fact, if we were to be in San Francisco for just ONE meal, we would head to Chinatown.
What to Eat?
Chinese food in San Francisco is fairly similar to what you would expect in most places in the USA. It is quite different from what you would find in China but that’s the case with most exported cuisines.
Peking Duck – While you can order this from a restaurant we really like buying one from a Chinese Deli and eating it back at our hotel. It is a real treat to just buy and devour a whole duck…We are on Vacation!
Salt and Pepper Crab – One of our Favourites. Dungeness Crab is Synonymous with San Francisco so it’s no surprise to see the resourceful Chinese make great use of it! The Salt and Pepper crab really is to die for. It’s very messy and can take a while to tackle but the hot salty batter just compliments the Meat perfectly.
Dim Sum – Dim Sum was practically invented in San Francisco. While all the Items are authentic. Chinese eating them together as a meal really started in San Fran. What is traditionally just an appetizer has become a whole meal eaten like Tapas, with lots of small plates.
Sesame Chicken – A very popular dish and one that is fairly unique to San Francisco at least in this guise. Really it’s one for the least adventurous but is still utterly delicious.
Potstickers – We don’t really get these at home so we can’t get enough when we are away. These tasty bites filled with tasty fillings such as chicken or beef are the perfect appetizer.
Yank Sing – This place is not cheap but is possibly one of the best restaurants in San Francisco. It is especially good for Dim Sum. This fantastic Fine Dining restaurant is a real treat if you are celebrating a special occasion.
Hakkasan – High-end dining that offers great Dim Sum. A place to be seen and to see people. A worldwide chain that started in London. Offers a full menu but we opt for Dim Sum usually.
Good Mong Kok Bakery – This is Dim Sum how it’s meant to be. Cheap and freshly made. This little takeaway joint serves inexpensive Dim Sum hot and ready to eat. If you can’t stretch to expensive Fine Dining Dim Sum this is where you head.
R & G Lounge – Insanely popular restaurant expect a long queue. Extensive menu and moderately priced one of our favorites. We also like the Garden Restaurant just down the Street which is very similar only with smaller queues. Frequented mainly by Chinese Families. This is our go-to if the R & G is full.
House of Nanking – A bit of a San Francisco legend. The limited menu and surly service are all part of the Charm. It’s marketed as homely rather than extravagant. This is a very busy restaurant and one you really should try if you get the chance. It is great if you don’t know what to order as the servers will be happy to just give you what they recommend.
Z & Y – A great little restaurant and recently visited by the (ex) President of the United States Barrack Obama. Well if it’s good enough for him!
The most Quintessential of Chinese delicacies are actually not Chinese at all! In fact, they are claimed to have been invented in San Francisco’s very own China Town and are probably of Japanese origin. Just about any Chinese meal served anywhere in the US will be followed by a cookie, including takeaways, even Panda express, and the cookies served in San Francisco are no different, But it’s a fun fact to share while eating!
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company
Another place to check out is the Golden Fortune Gate Cookie Company. These are traditionally made Cookies that are made on-site and in View of the public giving you an idea of how the cookies are actually made. The Cookies are more designed for eating than the processed cookies you are used to (Which are pretty horrid) and come in a variety of flavours (Chocolate, Almond, Flourless). Cookies are sold at $5 a bag and it’s a fantastic experience. The Factory is on Ross street, which as we mentioned above is well worth visiting as well.
If you are in San Francisco for the Chinese New Year (End of Jan/Early Feb) DO NOT miss the San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade. As San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the biggest outside of Asia it is no surprise to hear that the Festival in San Francisco is one of the biggest outside Asia also.
From humble beginnings, the Festival has evolved into a typically American extravaganza lasting over two weeks! An absolute must-see if you are in the area, and TBH worth going to the area just to see! Find out more here.
There is also the Autumn Moon festival held around the middle of September which is well worth a visit if you are in the area.
Have Your Say
Let us know if you have been to Chinatown. Where did you go and what did you do? Let us know which restaurant you ate in and what it was like? We love hearing about people’s travel adventures. Just drop us a comment below, Same if have any questions just leave a comment and we will get right back to you.
2 thoughts on “Chinatown San Francisco Attractions – What to See in Chinatown San Francisco”
I loved San Francisco – in fact I am dying to go back as I haven’t been there for 15 years! I don’t remember much of chinatown – I think we passed through but I don’t think I spent any proper time there. I love the Chinese telephone exchange building! I would go there just for the dim sum actually…….yum!
Hope you get to go back soon. It is a fantastic City. Yep the Dim Sum is reason enough to visit Chinatown but there is much more besides.
Enjoy your next trip
Thanks for reading