Like a trip to China without the 12-hour flight, San Francisco’s Chinatown makes you feel like a time traveler: in a blink you go from the suit-and-tie orderliness of the city’s financial district to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia (and the oldest in the U.S.), with crowded sidewalks filled with Cantonese and Mandarin chatter, overflowing food stalls, dim sum restaurants, and mysterious-looking shops. It’s a trip in every sense of the word, and probably as close as you can get to Asia without a passport.
While it’s fine to stick to Chinatown’s main artery of Grant Street, a shopping thoroughfare lined with markets and trinket and jade shops (the latter especially clustered around the Chinatown Gateway at the neighborhood’s southern end), strike out onto quieter streets to find even more surprising discoveries. Here are eight worthwhile destinations and activities; for an even more in-depth experience, consider joining a guided walking tour, such as All About Chinatown walking tours or food-centric Wok Wiz.
Time your trip to coincide with Lunar New Year (typically in late January or February, to match the lunar calendar) for a real treat: the Chinese New Year Festival & Parade. First started in 1860 to commemorate the homeland of the city’s booming population of Chinese immigrants (drawn to San Francisco during the Gold Rush), the event—now the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside Asia—includes fireworks, floats, lion dancers, drummers, and the crowning of Miss Chinatown.
Inside the landmark Chinatown YWCA building, designed by architect Julia Morgan in 1932, the museum does a knockout job with exhibits and programs related to Chinese culture and Chinatown history. You can find out about various Chinatown events here as well. Admission is free.
Go back in time in the century-old Buddhist temple, housed in a four-level apartment building, where locals pray, burn incense, and get their fortunes read. A donation is requested.
Feeling lethargic? Let the helpful proprietors of this long-respected Chinese apothecary recommend revitalizing teas and tonics prepared with dry herbs, or buy their famous ginseng and other herbs by the pound.
Chinatown’s restaurants are one of the district’s main attractions; this one is a long-time favorite beloved for its high-quality signature Cantonese dishes. Notable favorites include tender glazed spare ribs, and delicate salt-and-pepper Dungeness crab.
Sample the many brews served at this tea bar and shop, which has three locations. It’s filled with an extraordinary variety of teas, with intriguing blends such as baby chrysanthemum and ginger pine, as well as more traditional green, white, and oolong teas.
This old-timey grocery and de facto candy and snack emporium seems to carry everything from litchi gummies and green-tea Kit Kats to dried and salted fruits, noodles, and spices.
If you’re in the market for fresh dan tat, the traditional Chinese egg-custard tart with a flaky, buttery crust, then make a beeline to this amazing bakery. Don’t be daunted by lines; the treats are worth the wait.
The best thing about a visit here is witnessing owner Tane Chan in action as she whirls from one customer to the next, chatting, laughing, and helping to select the best wok for each shopper.
Insider tips: Most of Chinatown’s shops open around 10 or 11 a.m. and close around sundown. Visit sfparkingguide.com for information about where to park in Chinatown.