Chinatown, San Francisco, California — best things to do and places to walk in this unique neighborhood

Chinatown, San Francisco, California
Best Things To Do

SF’s Chinatown is a unique cultural adventure you will never forget. See our #1 walking tour for a quick experience of some of the very best parts.

For more background read on or click a category of interest below:
map  highlights  attractions  walks  history
geography  portsmouth  food  alleys  tips

Chinese Gateway, SF
Dragon Gate at the southern entrance to Chinatown


Highlights  map top

  • San Francisco has the oldest and 2d largest Chinatown in North America. Historically it was the starting point for most new Chinese immigrants giving it a special place in the hearts of their families.
  • Home to about 15,000 Chinese the majority of whom do not speak English well if at all. Most of these lower-income residents stay within a few blocks of their homes since they are often elderly or recent immigrants without cars.
  • A concentrated center of commerce and culture for over 133,000 Chinese in San Francisco and 200,000 in the Bay area. It serves as a cultural “Capital City” where many continue to shop on weekends and to maintain bonds with such institutions as Buddhist temples and regional family associations.
  • A major tourist attraction. Over 75% of San Francisco tourists visit China town, a total of approximately 2,000,000/year. Since tourists are so commonplace they still feel safe and comfortable even when enveloped in this extremely different Chinese culture.
  • A protected historic district where Chinese-style architecture prevails (e.g., along Grant Ave) while still preserving the inexpensive housing and hundreds of small ethnic shops, restaurants & stores used by residents (e.g., along Stockton St).
  • The densest part of the densest city in California. With 15,000 residents living in a 20 block square area this is the most densely populated area west of Manhattan, NYC. Sidewalks are usually packed and buses (one line is jokingly called the Orient Express) often move even slower than do pedestrians.
  • Chinese New Year, in late February, is always the biggest event of the year. The Chinese New Year Parade is a historical tradition starting in the 1860s; now some 500,000 spectators watch it in person along with another 3 million TV viewers. Celebrating each new year is also a Miss Chinatown Pageant, a Community Street Fair and other related events.


SPECIAL ATTRACTIONS  map top

Here are more details on special attractions mentioned in our walking tours.

  • Golden Gate Bakery, 1029 Grant/Pacific — The best hot egg custard tarts ever! These keep me coming back especially since it is only a block away from North Beach.
  • Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, 56 Ross Alley/Jackson — Since 1962 many different types (traditional, almond, chocolate, naughty, etc.) of fortune cookies have been made in this small labor-intensive factory. Approximately 20,000/month. The flat circular cookie dough is pulled off a hot press, after which a paper fortune is attached, and then the dough is reshaped over a steel rod into the final fortune cookie … all by hand. Taste a free hot sample, take a picture for $.50, or buy a bag of cookies for $3.50 from the friendly people here.
    Fortune Cookie Factory, Chinatown SF
    Get your fortune cookies hand made here
    at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

  • Dragon Gate, Grant/Bush — The dragons, fish and big lions on this ornate pagoda-topped gate guard the southernmost entrance to Chinatown. Also known as Gateway Arch, this is the only authentic Chinatown Gate in North America (it uses old historic materials donated by The Republic of China in 1969). Like similar ceremonial gates in Chinese villages there are three passageways: two small side ones for common folks and a large center passageway for dignitaries.
  • Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, 660 California St/Grant — Built in 1854 (rebuilt 1909 after the earthquake fire) this beautiful Catholic Cathedral (now parish) was the first Asian church in North America. Around the corner at 614 Grant Ave, find the Old Saint Mary’s Gift Shop. And, across California St in St Mary’s Square, find a 12 ft statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the first president (1912) and a founder of the Republic of China (Taiwan).
  • Chinatown Alleys— Waverly Place (see Tin How Temple on map) and Ross Alley (see Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on map) are the best known among the many you can find on your own.
  • Tin How (Tien Hau) Temple, 125 Waverly Place/Washington — The oldest Taoist/Buddhist temple in the United States (founded 1852 and now in a 1911 building) to honor the Goddess of Heaven and Sea, Tien Hau. If you want to see inside the place of worship (and now tourism) you will need to walk up four floors. From the balcony outside you also get a good view of Chinatown. A small $1 donation is suggested but not required when you visit the Temple.
    Tin How Temple, SF
    Looking up at the balcony of Tin How Temple
    four stories up from Waverly Place Alley

  • Portsmouth Square— The historical birthplace of San Francisco (1835). It is now an open plaza for residents and the biggest public parking garage in Chinatown.


BRIEF HISTORY OF SF’S CHINATOWN  map top

The first Chinese immigrants, 2 men and 1 woman, arrived in 1848 on a two-masted sailing ship, Eagle. They were soon followed by thousands more who worked for labor-hungry companies, such as the First Transcontinental Railroad and large mining operations, or who prospected for gold until a law passed making this pursuit illegal to Chinese.

During the late 1800s Chinatown was a dense, poverty-stricken ghetto populated by recent immigrants. It was also deeply involved with all the evils of the Barbary Coast. Criminal Chinese Tongs gained a hold that wasn’t really loosened until the early 1900s when legitimate merchants and a much stronger police force eventually gained control.

The Chinese congregated in this particular locale because it was the only area where city government allowed them to inhabit and inherit housing. From the start prejudice against Asians was evident partially due to competition for jobs since they worked for such low wages. As a result the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 preventing them from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens and banning further immigration of Chinese laborers. Many years later Supreme Court rulings reversed these laws which triggered substantial increases in SF’s Chinese population in other parts of town and in the spread of Chinatown beyond its original boundaries.

The 1906 earthquake fires completely burned down all wooden structures in old Chinatown and most of Barbary Coast. After narrowly escaping being moved to Hunters Point, the Chinatown neighborhood was rebuilt by commercial interests. Part of their conception was to make it a friendly tourist attraction consisting of “veritable fairy palaces filled with choicest treasures of the Orient.”

Over the years SF’s Chinatown has continued to be the starting point for most Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and their numbers greatly increased as restrictive immigration laws & quotas were removed. In the 1950s, after World War II and after the 1943 Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act passed, there was a major population boom. In the 1960s huge numbers of new immigrants continued to pour in, mainly from Hong Kong which explains the Cantonese dialect & food now prevalent. The population density in Chinatown is still over five times San Francisco’s average making it the densest neighborhood in the densest city in California.

See Portsmouth Square, now a focal point of Chinatown, for historical details about the City of San Francisco. This old Mexican Square is where San Francisco was born before expanding far beyond today’s Chinatown.


CHINATOWN GEOGRAPHY  map top

In 1885 Chinatown was a ghetto covering the area roughly from

  • Broadway St south to California St.
  • Stockton St east to Kearny St.

See this 1885 map for details (note: Dupont St shown was renamed Grant Ave after the 1906 earthquake). Since then Chinatown has expanded in all directions, though still maintaining the same dense Chinese core, and its borders are much more porous.

The two major streets in Chinatown are Grant Ave and Stockton St. which run parallel to each other north and south between Broadway St. & California St.

  • Grant Ave is the more touristy section full of Chinese shops, restaurants and architecture for those seeking the “mysterious” historical Chinatown experience you have seen in the movies.
  • Stockton St., the next main street west of Grant, is more similar to Hong Kong and is considered the “real” modern-day Chinatown. Live turtles, chickens and stranger animals are readily available for sale. Markets are filled with people bargaining in Chinese for the freshest fish & vegetables in town. Many eateries have no English on the menu and whole roasted birds are hanging in the window. Upstairs on the windows and balconies you’ll see people hanging out underwear to dry. Sidewalks and markets here are almost always packed but Saturday afternoons are the busiest shopping day for those looking to see the densest crowds.

Around and between these main two streets are many interesting alleys and smaller side streets to explore. Portsmouth Square one block east of Grant Ave was the historical heart of San Francisco and continues to be a community “living room” for surrounding local residents since it is one of the few open spaces in China town.

CHINATOWN ALLEYWAYS  map top

Chinatown alley
  A random Chinatown alley

You should definitely check out the alleyways of Chinatown. E.g.,

  • Ross Alley, one block west of Grant Ave between Jackson St & Washington St — The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is on Ross Alley a couple of doors south of Jackson St. It was once infamous for its brothels and gambling.
  • Old Chinatown Lane, north off Washington St just west of Stockton and east of Ross Alley — This was once used by local gangs. Now it has a beauty salon and plenty of clothes hanging out the windows to dry; we even saw fish hanging from one window apparently also to dry. Just across Washington St from Old Chinatown Lane is Spofford St another street for local residents only.
  • Waverley Place, one block west of Grant Ave between Washington St. & Sacramento St. — This popular alley is called the “Street of Painted Balconies” due to several picturesque buildings including Tin How Taoist Temple and various private family benevolent associations (originally set up to provide social & political support to new immigrants).
  • There are many other alleys to check out as well. Just walking around is the best way to locate them. Some are primarily personal areas of local residents while others contain businesses, temples, or family benevolent associations .


CHINATOWN WALKING TOURS  map top

Tourists can get at a good feeling for Chinatown by taking the short walks described below. Before walking we suggest you look at the rest of this page, particularly our special attractions list and Chinatown map

Tour 1 – Quick walk from North Beach(More such walks)

This short walk is our #1 recommendation. On it you will see much of the best of Chinatown in just a few minutes and end back where you started.

Grant & Jackson, SF
Grant St at Jackson. Typical Chinatown.

  • Start at Broadway St/Columbus Ave/Grant Ave in North Beach.
  • Go south on Grant Ave two blocks to Jackson St. Grant Ave is the most famous street with its many red lanterns, pagodas and souvenir shops. On your way look inside the poultry markets with their live birds. Don’t miss the egg custard tarts at Golden Gate Bakery, 1029 Grant/Pacific. They are the outstanding!
  • At Jackson St. turn right (west) and go one block. Check out the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, in Ross Alley just south off Jackson St.
  • At Stockton St. turn right (north) and go two blocks. This is the “real Chinatown”. It is the busiest commercial street in China Town and caters mainly to Chinese. It is also probably the best place in SF to purchase fresh produce. The hole-in-the-wall New Moon restaurant, 1247 Stockton, is just one of many places where you can buy a quick stand-up meal. Check out the whole roast chickens (including heads, etc) hanging in their window.
  • At Broadway turn right (east) and go two blocks back to where you started at Broadway/Grant. The shops and restaurants along Broadway cater primarily to local residents including those in North Beach.
    New Moon Restaurant, Chinatown, SF
    Front window displaying food at New Moon Restaurant

Tour 2 – Tourist walk through (or drive through)

Here is a good way to see the most famous part of Chinatown by either foot or automobile. It takes you from Grant/Broadway to Grant/Bush and on to Union Square.

  • From Broadway/Columbus go south on Grant Ave approximately eight blocks to the Chinese Gate at Grant/Bush. This crowded street caters to tourists with many souvenir shops and restaurants.
  • Along the way take trips on any side streets that look interesting. For example, check out Old St Mary’s Church, Grant/California St. Tin How Temple, the oldest in SF established 1852, is on Waverly Place a block west of Grant/Clay.
  • From the Chinese Gate, Grant/Bush, you may prefer to walk back to where your started via a different route such as Stockton. We often walk on three blocks more to Union Square. The walk from North Beach to Union Square is not as far as it seems, about 11-12 blocks total.
  • Grant Ave is a one-way street running north. There are no buses on it and traffic flows fairly smoothly, though slowly, from the Dragon Gate, Grant/Bush, to Broadway/Columbus. Driving this route is the easiest way to see Chinatown by car.

Tour 3 – DIY (do it yourself) Exploration

For serious explorers with more time on their hands try this. During the short tours above you will notice many other streets and alleyways to wander through.

Tour 4 – Cable Car Museum

While this nifty FREE museum does not have anything to do with Chinatown it is only a couple of blocks away. From Stockton/Washington walk two blocks west on Washington Street to the northeast corner of Washington/Mason.


FOOD  map top

It turns out that you can get just as good Chinese food at many locations other than Chinatown. However, while here at least try the food at one of the many bakeries or take-out restaurants. Pick an eating place which is busy, but not filled only with tourists, for an authentic experience. Here are some inexpensive low-end places where the locals eat. At most of these they speak only Chinese … so just point.

  • Golden Gate Bakery, 1029 Grant/Pacific — The best hot egg custard tarts ever! Take out only and often long lines.
  • New Hollywood Bakery & Restaurant, 652 Pacific Ave/Columbus — Around the corner from Golden Gate Bakery. Not fancy at all and far less crowded but here you can get 3 egg custard tarts for $1.30 and even sit down to eat them.
  • Hong Kong Clay Pot Restaurant, Upstairs at 960 Grant Ave/Jackson — Plenty of good food at decent prices.
  • Good Mong Kok Bakery, 1039 Stockton St/Jackson — Take-out dim sum with an excellent taste/price ratio.
  • New Moon restaurant, 1247 Stockton/Pacific Ave — Get a quick stand-up meal at one of those places which have whole roasted ducks hanging in the window.
  • Golden Flower Vietnamese Restaurant, 667 Jackson/Kearny — Basic sit-down Vietnamese restaurant with pho soup and iced coffee. We also hear positive things about Golden Star Vietnamese Restaurant, 11 Walter U Lum Place/Clay just west of Portsmouth Square.
  • House of Nanking, 919 Kearny St/Jackson St — A “not-so-fancy restaurant” with a big reputation on the far eastern edge of Chinatown. Good food but expect crowds, waits, and no atmosphere. Ask the waiter to make a suggestion. Chef Jias next door advertises that they are just as good but we have not tried it.


PORTSMOUTH SQUARE  map top

This Chinatown landmark is not impressive looking at all — in fact Portsmouth Square is now just a 1-square-block park over a large municipal garage. But, it is was very significant historically in the genesis of San Francisco. Below is some of the history that happened near San Francisco’s very first town plaza.

  • 1835 — Yerba Buena was established as a port of entry and town site by Spanish Governor Figueroa. At the time the water in Yerba Buena Cove came all the way up to what is now called Montgomery St. (one block east of the town plaza, now Portsmouth Square). Later, in 1847, Yerba Buena would be renamed San Francisco.
  • 1835, October — A nearby administrator residing at Mission Dolores marked out on the ground the first street in Yerba Buena. It was called Street of the Founding(La Calle de la Fundacion). This street started at the present corner of Kearny & Pine and ran north to Telegraph Hill. It eventually became Dupont Ave (about 1846) and then Grant Ave (about 1906).
  • 1835 — Capt Richardson, a naturalized citizen of Mexico, was made captain of this new Mexican port. He and his family moved from Sausalito to became the first residents of Yerba Buena. His house/tent was located one block west of now Portsmouth Square on what is now Grant St. Within a year Yerba Buena became a small village of 30-40 houses.
  • 1846, July 9 — Early in the Mexican-American War, Capt John B. Montgomery’s sloop-of-war U.S.S. Portsmouth landed at the southeast corner of Montgomery/Clay to seize Yerba Buena. His ship gave a 21-gun salute and sent a detachment to row ashore and raise the American flag on the flagpole at the Mexican Customs House located on the town plaza.
  • 1846 — The town plaza was renamed Portsmouth Square in honor of Capt Montgomery’s sloop-of-war, the U.S.S. Portsmouth.
  • 1847, Jan 30 — Yerba Buena was renamed San Francisco.
  • 1847 — California’s first public school was erected at the southwest corner of the plaza.
  • 1848 — The first Chinese immigrants, 2 men and one women arrived on a two-masted American sailing ship, Eagle.
  • 1848, May 12 — Gold was discovered! Sam Brannan, a store owner from Sutter’s Fort, stepped off the ferry at Portsmouth Square waving a bottle of gold and shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” Within one month half the male population in SF had left find gold.
  • 1849 — San Francisco dramatically grew! Within one year the population increased to 25,000 from about 400. More than 700 ships arrived many of which were abandoned by their gold-struck crews and sunk in the Yerba Buena Cove. These ship hulks eventually became part of the landfill that starts a block east of Portsmouth Sq and ends seven more blocks east at Embarcadero St.

Now, Portsmouth Square is the heart of Chinatown serving as a “front room” for many Chinese who live around it. The big city parking garage underneath is also one of the few places to park.

TIPS & INTERESTING FACTS  map top

  • Parking is very, very tight in Chinatown. The best place to go is the large city garage under Portsmouth Square. Note that the streets around the Square are all one way and that the main entrance is on Kearny St immediately north of Clay St. There is also a large parking lot under St Mary’s Park on California St 1/2 block west of Grant Ave.
  • Just a few of the movies filmed in Chinatown are The Maltese Falcon, Dirty Harry, Joy Luck Club, Flower Drum Song, and the Nash BridgesTV show.
  • Clement St, in the Richmond District between Park Presidio Blvd and Arguello Blvd, is another popular Chinese shopping area. It is less dense than Chinatown but still has many inexpensive Chinese Bakeries, Dim Sum restaurants and shops. In addition there are several other ethnic businesses (Russian, Italian, Vietnamese, German, French, etc.) along Clement giving it a very San Francisco cosmopolitan feeling.

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Back to top and map of Chinatown.

North Beach and map
North Beach is right next to and intertwined with Chinatown. Double your fun by seeing the best of both. This way you will only have to park once.

North Beach walks
Walks to different neighborhoods, including Chinatown, from North Beach. Many of these walks start at the north end of Chinatown.

Union Square
Union Square is located only only 3 blocks from Dragon Gate at the south end of Chinatown.