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Visitor Guide to San Francisco Chinatown

San Francisco's Chinatown is Second Largest in the United States

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Visitor Guide to San Francisco Chinatown

San Francisco Chinatown’s most interesting parts are hard to find – unless you know how. This guide will help you avoid the tourist traps, taking you instead to its hidden alleys, the fortune cookie factory and other fun shops.

©2013 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.
You won't believe how much those telephone operators had to know

Old Chinatown Telephone Exchange

©2013 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.
Visitor Guide to San Francisco Chinatown

Lion Dancer in Chinatown

©Betsy Malloy 2004. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

San Francisco Chinatown is the largest Chinese community on the West Coast, and the second largest in the United States, surpassed only by New York City.

Chinatown is best mid-day when all the shops are open and streets are busy. It gets quiet very soon after dark.

Scenes from Chinatown

Enjoy our best shots on a Chinatown Photo Tour

Visiting San Francisco Chinatown

San Francisco Chinatown is about eight blocks long and has two long main streets, Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. Many visitors just amble down Grant, buy a souvenir or two and move on, but you know better. If you pay attention and use this guide, you'll find some pretty fascinating stuff just off the beaten path.

Chinatown is one of San Francisco's top-rated sights. Find out what the rest are.

Chinatown Tours

Guided tours are very helpful to understand how San Francisco Chinatown got started and why it's the way it is. You can take our self-guided Chinatown tour by printing out a map and written guide.

Or if you're not the do-it-yourself type, see the options for guided Chinatown tours.

Festivals

Three annual festivals honor the city's Chinese heritage. Chinese New Year and the Autumn Moon Festival draw street-clogging crowds to Chinatown. The Dragon Boat Festival is held on Treasure Island, with free shuttles available.

  • Chinese New Year: This lunar festival usually takes place between late January and early February. There's a big street fair and you can use our guide to find out how to see the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade.

  • Autumn Moon Festival: Autumn is time to enjoy the bounty of summer harvest, the fullness of the moon, and the myth of the immortal Goddess, Chang O, who lives in the moon. It's celebrated with lots of food, especially moon cakes, circular-shaped pastries filled with slightly sweet filling of red bean, melon or lotus-seed paste.

Rating Chinatown

We rate San Francisco Chinatown 4 stars out of 5. It's one of the most exotic-feeling parts of San Francisco and at times, you may hear more Chinese spoken on Stockton Street than on the streets of Hong Kong. It's also an interesting mix of tourist attraction and ethnic enclave and small enough to see in just a couple of hours.

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Getting There

The part of San Francisco Chinatown that tourists find interesting is bounded by Stockton, Grant, Bush and Columbus.

On foot from Union Square, take Geary, Maiden Lane or Post east one block to Grant Avenue and go north to the Chinatown gate. If you're coming from North Beach, just cross Columbus onto Grant and you're there.

You can also get to Chinatown on the cable car. The California line stops at California and Grant, or you can get off the Powell line at California and walk three blocks to Grant.

Parking isn't just scarce in Chinatown, it's almost non-existent. The Portsmouth Square Garage on Kearny is hard to get to (you have to drive all the way around the block, often waiting in a slow-moving line), so the St. Mary's Square Garage on California may be a better bet. Or even better, take public transportation or walk.

If you're visiting Union Square or North Beach in the same day, you can also park in those areas and walk.

More Chinese Heritage in San Francisco:

Chinese Funerals: Chinatown can be an assault on the senses, but don't get so overloaded that you forget to listen. If you hear the rat-a-tat of drums or a brass band playing, especially on a weekend, It's most likely a Chinese funeral procession, one of San Francisco's unique east-meets-west traditions. Try to find the source and stop to watch it pass. They start from Green Street Mortuary, near Stockton and Columbus in North Beach. More important funerals go through Chinatown; others go straight down Columbus.

North Beach Museum: In the East West Bank at 1435 Stockton, it focuses on the area's Italian heritage, but they also have Chinese items and photographs, including a pair of shoes worn by a woman with bound feet. It's upstairs in the bank's mezzanine.

Dragon Boat Festival: It's a two-millennium-old tradition that's only been an organized sport for a few decades. Teams of paddlers compete in colorfully-decorated, dragon-themed boats in races held to honor Qu Yuan, a scholar and adviser to the emperor of the Chu Kingdom who jumped into a river to protest government corruption. More than 100 dragon boat teams compete. Races are held off Treasure Island, midway between San Francisco and Oakland.

More: Self-Guided Chinatown Tour | Chinatown Restaurants | Chinatown History | Chinese New Year

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