Is Chinatown In San Francisco Worth Visiting?

Overlook at San Francisco's Chinatown, bay bridge in background

When the majority of people think of San Francisco, they envision views of the Golden Gate Bridge. However, there is another destination that attracts large numbers of tourists — Chinatown San Francisco. Millions of tourists spend time there. But, you might be wondering, is Chinatown San Francisco really worth visiting?

Chinatown San Francisco is definitely worth a visit. The area has an interesting and rich culture that has been an important part of San Francisco’s history for nearly 200 years. Chinatown is full of authentic shops, restaurants, and architecture that immerses you in a different culture.

From sipping traditional tea to watching workers produce thousands of fortune cookies, Chinatown San Francisco is an excellent opportunity to experience a whole new world without needing a passport.

Visit Chinatown, and you will see why so many people make their way there. There are plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy. Continue reading for more information about how to explore Chinatown, things to do, and tips to make the most of your visit.

Exploring Chinatown in San Francisco

Chinatown San Francisco is located in the heart of the city of San Francisco, just north of Union Square. The area is comprised of 24 city blocks and is home to over 15,000+ people.

Visitors can expect to see a bustling neighborhood full of shops and authentic Chinese restaurants. However, the best way to experience Chinatown is just to get lost and explore. You never know what surprise you will find in a random alleyway.

The Dragon Gate the southern entrance to Chinatown, San Francisco

Most people enter Chinatown at the iconic Dragon Gate located where Grant Street meets Bush Street (although you can technically enter from any direction). The beautiful gate is inscribed with a message from the first President of the Republic of China. The gate is a perfect opportunity to get a photo with the family before heading off to explore the rest of the neighborhood. Along Grant Street, you will see lots of Chinese-style architecture, ornately designed lampposts, and traditional hanging lanterns above the street.

Things to Do in Chinatown San Francisco

Tea Tasting – Chinese culture is known for its variety of teas. One popular place to try out a new flavor is Vital Tea Leaf. They have three separate locations in Chinatown. Try a few different teas and buy some to take home to friends and family.

Visit Old St. Mary’s Cathedral – Built in 1853, Old St. Mary’s Cathedral is the only building to have survived the fire that followed the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The fire gutted the entire building and was so hot that it melted the church bells. Fortunately, the main brick structure remained and was able to be restored.

The Chinese Historical Society – The Chinese Historical Society is a museum and cultural center that lets visitors learn about the history and culture of the Chinese in San Francisco.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory – Stop into this tiny factory hidden in Ross Alley to watch a handful of women fold thousands of cookies by hand. On a typical day, the shop produces over 20,000 cookies.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory sign

Tin How Temple – Located in Waverly place, a pleasant two-block alley full of colorful buildings, the Tin How Temple is the oldest Chinese temple in the United States. Built in 1852, the temple is dedicated to the Empress of Heaven, who protects seafarers.

The businesses, restaurants, and shops in Chinatown are independently owned and operated, so their hours may vary. You can expect to see most businesses open by 9 AM. Depending on the type of business, some remain open as late as 9-10 PM. The area, however, can get quite crowded with tourists, so the best time to visit is early in the morning or late afternoon.

Bay Area Answers Fun Fact: The inscription on the Dragon Gate translates to “All under heaven is for the good of the people.”

Special Events and Festivals

Depending on when you visit, you might have the chance to experience one of the many exciting festivals throughout the year. The two most popular are the Chinese New Year and the Autumn Moon Festival.

Chinese New Year – This is the biggest party of the year for the Chinese community. Celebrating the new year according to the Chinese calendar (February), visitors will see parades, dragon dancers, and martial arts displays. All to the sound of drums and firecrackers going off. In addition to the parade, there are lots of other activities during this time, including street fairs, concerts, and other special events.

Autumn Moon Festival – The festival is the second most popular holiday after Chinese New Year, dating back over 3,000 years. It has been hosted in Chinatown every September since 1989. The event features an opening and closing parade as well as a street fair with live entertainment.

Festive Chinese New Year celebration

Where to Park When Visiting

There are several parking structures available in Chinatown. Since the area is very walkable, you only need to find parking once. However, there is a high demand for parking, so you may have difficulty finding a spot if you arrive too late in the day. Parking will typically cost you between $7-$10 per hour. Some lots have full-day rates, which are a little cheaper.

Depending on the area you are coming from or staying in, your best option is probably to take public transportation. The Montgomery Street Bart Station is a short 10-minute walk from the Dragon Gate.

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Shopping in Chinatown San Francisco

Two main streets run through Chinatown — Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. These are the areas where you will see plenty of action.

Grant Avenue is more geared toward tourists, so this is where you will find most of the gift shops. Because the area is more touristy, prices will be a bit higher.

Stockton Street is where the locals typically go shopping. Here you will find the produce markets that the Chinese American residents go to every day to buy food. Stockton Street is a great place to get a good deal. Keep in mind that you will also get a very authentic shopping experience as many of the shops and markets resemble those found in China. If you are looking to immerse yourself in Chinese culture, Stockton Street is the place to be.

Is Chinatown San Francisco Safe for Tourists?

Overall, most neighborhoods in the City of San Francisco are safe. However, the area around Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown is considered some of the safest places for tourists. The population of Chinatown San Francisco is mainly comprised of Chinese American families and visiting tourists.

You are visiting a major city, so there are occasional instances of petty theft or pickpockets. A little commonsense and safe practices like not flashing large amounts of cash or having valuables accessible can help avoid most of the risk of being the victim of crime.

The biggest hazard for tourists is the bicycle and vehicle traffic that will sometimes run red lights in a hurry. So be sure to look twice before crossing the street.

Busy Stockton Street in Chinatown

The History Behind Chinatown San Francisco

In the 1800s, thousands of Chinese immigrants began traveling and settling all across the globe. During that time, most major cities had a district or neighborhood with high populations of Chinese people. Because western culture was so different from life in China at the time, it was much easier for settlers to live close to other people who spoke the same language and had a similar way of life. Thus, these areas came to be known as “Chinatown.”

The first Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States in the middle of the 19th century seeking economic opportunity. Chinese immigrants from the Taishan and Zhongshan regions began arriving in San Francisco at the height of the California Gold Rush looking for work.

Many immigrants went to work in mines across the northern part of the state. Those who couldn’t work in mines took jobs on farms or garment factories. These immigrants later went on to help construct the Central Pacific and Transcontinental Railroads.

The Chinese community faced many hardships throughout its history in the San Francisco area. Most specifically, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restricted the influx of immigrants from China and their ability to open their own businesses. In addition, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 caused severe damage to Chinatown and killed hundreds of people.

Fortunately, the area recovered from the earthquake, and the Chinese Exclusion Act was overturned in 1943. As a result, Chinatown San Francisco began experiencing new growth that made the area what it is today.

Today Chinatown San Francisco is the biggest Chinatown outside of Asia. In addition, it is also the oldest Chinatown in North America.

Explore a Cultural Gem in California

Whether you have only an afternoon or several days to spend in Chinatown, you shouldn’t miss this part of San Francisco. The more you explore this area, the more hidden gems you will find.

Don’t be afraid to put away the phone or tourist map and just wander the many alleyways looking for fun restaurants or sites to check out. Chinatown San Francisco is an excellent example of how unique the State of California really is.

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Ever since I was little I have been a traveler at heart. It all started when I was six years old and my family took a road trip to Alaska. I enjoy visiting new places and revisiting some of the great locations that I have been to already.