San Francisco is known for its embracement of diversity and this is reflected in its many famous districts, each of which have their own distinct character and attractions that celebrate the cultures and personality of San Francisco. If you have time visit them all, each has something unique to offer.
In this article we’ll look at San Francisco’s Chinatown, the largest outside of Asia. You’ll want to take your time to walk through the 24 blocks of shops, restaurants, food markets, temples and small museums all dedicated to Asian culture and specialities. As one of the most populated and visited areas in San Francisco, the streets are crowded with people shopping, touring, or just going about their day giving the area a vibrant atmosphere.
Where to Find Chinatown:
Start with the "Dragon's Gate" on Grant Avenue and Bush Street. The green gate, accented in gold and guarded by two stone dragons, is considered the entrance to Chinatown. The main area of Chinatown is centered at Grant Avenue between Bush and Broadway Streets.
What to do in Chinatown:
Browse the many shops along Grant to find unique and rare items, herb and tea shops, and food markets with bamboo, lichee, roasted ducks, sharks’ fins, fresh seafood and even crates of live chickens.
Stroll along Grant Avenue and look out for Chinatown’s distinctive architectural and decorative touches such as dragon-entwined lamp posts, calligraphy street signs, and the gold dragons and medallions that decorate the Bank of America to bring luck and good fortune. Close by at 743 Washington Street is the oldest structure in the area, a three-tiered temple that was built in 1909; it is now the Bank of Canton. Visit the Chinese Historical Society of America to find out about the role of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco’s history, including in the railroad and the Gold Rush.
Chinatown’s Culinary Delights:
Have some of the best Asian food in North America, you’ll find tea houses serving high quality teas, the dim sum houses Asian bakeries and many restaurants. Try a tea tasting, with traditional style preparation at a teahouse such as the Imperial Tea Court, where tea is about more than just taste, it is an experience and a philosophy. They have a variety of teas and show you how to prepare and best enjoy each one. Dim sum is a very popular draw to the area, Hang Ah Tea Room at 1 Pagoda Place is Chinatown’s oldest dim sum restaurant, having first opened in 1920. It’s a cozy spot with colorful décor and many choices for a dim sum meal. They also have homemade ice cream and tapioca pearl drinks.
See how fortune cookies are made at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. It’s on Ross Alley; just sniff the air for the delicious scent of freshly baked fortune cookies to locate it. The factory has been operating since 1962 and makes fortune cookies of all shapes and sizes. Step inside to see the cookies being made right in front of you and try some fresh baked ones.
One of the most famous restaurants is House of Nanking on 919 Kearny St. Expect a lineup and you probably won’t be too impressed with the looks of it, but this restaurant is worth the wait. If you have not been to a Chinatown restaurant before you may be surprised by the abrupt service, bossy waiters, crammed space and busyness – but you don’t come here for the service, you come here for the delicious food and the experience itself that is unlike any other. On the menu you’ll find such delights as potstickers, Asian pancakes, scallops, tiger prawns and the Shanghai style noodles they are particularly known for. Be forewarned the waiters can be pretty pushy here, people tell stories of wanting to order one thing and the waiters insisting on another, but if you are brave enough to take their suggestions, they have good instincts and know what goes well together and you may be presently surprised!
Enjoy your trip to Chinatown in San Francisco, California!
Photo: San Francisco Travel Association / Kerrick James