Best Things To Do in Chinatown, San Francisco

Here is a list of 14 things to see and do in San Francisco's Chinatown so you can appreciate the best of the area during your visit.

Camilla Graciano

Camilla Graciano

10 min read

Best Things To Do in Chinatown, San Francisco

Chinatown, San Francisco | ©Sharon Mollerus

Among the many things to see and do in San Francisco, visiting Chinatown is undoubtedly one of them. It is home to the second largest Chinese community in the United States, after New York.

As you enter the picturesque streets of San Francisco's Chinatown, you will feel like you are in another city. Its colorful roads, temples, restaurants, stores, culture and traditions will transport you straight to China. I detail what to see and do there so you can get to know the must-see sites of the neighborhood.

1. Take a culinary tour of Chinatown

Fortune Cookies| ©Karen Neoh
Fortune Cookies| ©Karen Neoh

In Chinatown you will find dozens of streets with a very particular charm and characteristic of their culture and also a long list of typical foods to taste. That's why you can't miss this tour of Chinatown that includes a tasting of typical products, in which in addition to touring the neighborhood for two hours and learn about its history, you will be able to try some Chinese culinary curiosity.

In this tour, you will learn about the production process of the famous fortune cookie in the traditional Golden Gate Fortune Cookies Co and of course you will also taste them.

But that's not all, as the tour will include visits to tea stores and you can also have a typical dim sum lunch, a traditional food from various regions of China that is usually eaten between the morning and early afternoon.

Book a bike tour in San Francisco

2. Visit Portsmouth Square

Portsmouth Square| ©Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar
Portsmouth Square| ©Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar

Portsmouth Square is a park located in the heart of Chinatown. Hence it is often referred to as "the heart of Chinatown".

Beyond being a large park, with several historical statues and many sites of interest to see while sunbathing and soaking up the local culture, it has great historical significance.

Key moments in the history of the state of California took place there, such as the first raising of the American flag in San Francisco in 1846, the announcement of the discovery of gold, and even the first public school in California was founded in one of its corners.

In addition, the park spans an entire city block, with two playgrounds for the little ones and a convenient multi-level subway parking garage, so you can arrive by car and park quickly on site.

3. Visit the traditional Old Cathedral of St. Mary

Old St. Mary Cathedral| ©Thank You
Old St. Mary Cathedral| ©Thank You

Chinatown is home to one of San Francisco's most traditional landmarks: The Old Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. It is a welcoming Roman Catholic mission church, which has been cared for by the Paulist Fathers since 1894.

Practical information

  • Price: free admission.
  • Where: 660 California St, Chinatown, San Francisco.
  • Hours: Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you want to attend mass: Tuesday to Friday at 12:05 a.m., Saturday at 5 p.m. or Sunday at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.

4. Visit the iconic Tin How Temple

Tin How Temple on the top floor| ©Mlu92
Tin How Temple on the top floor| ©Mlu92

When visiting Chinatown, you can't miss Tin How Temple. It is the oldest Taoist temple in Chinatown and even one of the oldest Chinese temples in the United States.

By visiting it you will learn a little more about the history of the place. It is one of the many buildings that had to be rebuilt after being destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906. At that time, only the image of the goddess, the temple bell and part of the altar survived.

Practical information

  • Price: free admission.
  • Where: 125 Waverly Pl, Chinatown, San Francisco.
  • Hours: any day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Please note that it is forbidden to take pictures inside the temple.

5. Stroll down the legendary Jack Kerouac Alley

Jack Kerouac Alley| ©Helder Ribeiro
Jack Kerouac Alley| ©Helder Ribeiro

This is an alley that was historically used for garbage disposal. However, it was later modified to become today a very picturesque pedestrian walkway that captures the attention of all visitors to Chinatown. Its main charm is given by the Western and Chinese writing of various writers that is engraved on its walls.

Some of the writers that you will meet on your walk through this mythical alley are Maya Angelou, Kerouac and John Steinbeck.

6. Knowing the famous Stockton Street

Stockton Street| ©Julien Chatelain
Stockton Street| ©Julien Chatelain

When you walk down this street, you will definitely feel like you are in China. It is the main commercial street of the neighborhood, it is full of businesses and it is the place where the people of the neighborhood do their shopping, fresh and cheap produce and meats and even live seafood are offered.

Everything here is Chinese, the signs, the signs, the language, the people, absolutely everything! As you pass by you will be able to appreciate the colorful stores and food stores, making it an unmissable walk to get to know their culture even more closely.

7. Shopping in Chinatown

The Wok Shop| ©Wally Gobetz
The Wok Shop| ©Wally Gobetz

Walking through the neighborhood you will find several stores and you will want to buy everything. There are many very typical and traditional Chinese things and also a variety of prices.

Although in many of them you will surely find the same objects or souvenirs, each one has its own particular things. I am going to recommend you some of the most popular and complete ones.

The Wok Shop

When you enter The Wok Shop, I assure you that you will want to take everything! It is a family business located in the heart of Chinatown that has a huge variety of Asian utensils of all kinds that you won't be able to find anywhere else. It is a super exclusive and characteristic store, with unique products.

One advantage of this store is that you can go anytime, as it opens its doors every day of the week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Bargain Bazaar

This store is one of the many others located on Grant Avenue, the center of San Francisco's Chinatown. Here you will find, in addition to the typical tourist-oriented items, specialty and unique items.

The top floor of this store, stands out for a huge amount of collectible items and toys. It's really fun to walk around and find the most diverse and unique items.

Canton Bazaar

Canton Bazaar is also located in the center of Chinatown and is a place where you can buy everything. You'll find everything from musical instruments to beautiful tea sets to bring a little bit of China into your home. If you're looking for a place to pick out the best souvenirs, this is it!

Set aside a few hours to browse the store, as it has three floors full of the most authentic Chinese items you'll find.

Keep in mind that, because of the place where it is located and its particular charm, it is a very crowded store and there will be tourists at all hours. But it is still highly recommended as there are plenty of offers that you will not want to miss.

8. Knowing the mythical Sing Fat and Sing Chong building

Sing Chong building| ©Mliu92
Sing Chong building| ©Mliu92

These buildings were the first to be rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and are notorious for their typical neo-Chinese architecture.

They are easily distinguishable and will instantly catch your attention because of the particular shape of their pagoda roofs. It will be an obligatory photographic stop on your tour.

9. Strolling along The Street of the Painted Balconies

Balconies in Chinatown, San Francisco| ©David Ohmer
Balconies in Chinatown, San Francisco| ©David Ohmer

Known as "the street of the painted balconies", in Waverly Place you will find one of the widest alleys of the neighborhood and one of the main attractions of Chinatown.

Strolling along this typical street you will pass by several places, including a religious center, a laundry and small food stores. But its main charm, living up to its name, are the striking colors that dress its buildings and historic houses.

10. Take a night tour of Chinatown

Dragon's Gate at night| ©Paul Sableman
Dragon's Gate at night| ©Paul Sableman

It is clear that this neighborhood is going to dazzle you in the daylight, but let me tell you that at night it also has its charm. That's why I recommend you to take this night tour of Chinatown and North Beach, two emblematic neighborhoods of San Francisco.

This experience will fascinate you from start to finish. You will literally start at the entrance to Chinatown, at the imposing Dragon's Gate, which is the dragon's gate that marks the entrance to Chinatown.

In 4 hours you will get to know these two neighborhoods to perfection. The mysticism of the Chinese culture, its interesting sculptures and remarkable architecture, has its particular style when the evening falls and the night begins to appear in the city.

In addition, the experience includes tea tasting and a variety of local foods.

11. Stroll along historic Grant Avenue

Chinatown, Grant Avenue, San Francisco| ©Ken Lund
Chinatown, Grant Avenue, San Francisco| ©Ken Lund

This is one of the oldest avenues in San Francisco and runs the length of Chinatown. Walking along it, you will take a particular historical tour from Sing Fat Company to Dragon 's Gates.

A most picturesque and remarkable touch of Grant Avenue is the red street lamps that line it and accompany your stroll.

Like many other places, this famous street underwent reconstruction after the San Francisco earthquake and fire. This restructuring helped to give the neighborhood an even more traditional feel. The previous buildings looked like the rest of the city despite its predominantly Chinese population, but now Grant Avenue will transport you directly to China.

In addition, this street is home to the most photographed and visited attraction in the neighborhood, the iconic entrance to Chinatown: Dragon's Gate.

Unlike similar structures found in Chinatowns around the world, this structure meets the standards of traditional Chinese gateways that have stone throughout.

This gate was designed by a Chinese-American architect according to feng shui principles in its south-facing layout. At Dragon 's Gate you will also appreciate the wooden plaque hanging from its main arch with golden Chinese words that read, "Everything under heaven is for the good of the people."

12. About Buddha's Universal Church

Buddha's Universal Church!| ©Haydn Blackey
Buddha's Universal Church!| ©Haydn Blackey

Buddha 's Universal Church is the largest Buddhist church in the United States and the largest congregational home in San Francisco. The building's construction is worth appreciating and you have to visit to learn about its history.

Your tour of this imposing church will begin in the main auditorium where you will find the main altar with a mosaic representation of Buddha, the only one of its kind in the world and a true work of art. You will also see the special bamboo chapel, the library, the roof garden and the classroom where various activities take place.

A curiosity, the place where this church is located today, was formerly a nightclub.

Practical information

  • Where: 720 Washington St, Chinatown, San Francisco.
  • Hours: Tours are held on the second and fourth Sunday of each month at the times established by the church.

13. Visit the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco and enjoy Chinese art

Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco| ©Voyou Desoeuvre
Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco| ©Voyou Desoeuvre

Chinatown houses the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco and is definitely a place worth visiting.

It was founded in 1973 as the headquarters of the Chinese Culture Foundation, a non-profit organization.

Although the center has changed its style over the years, today you can enjoy the contemporary art exhibitions and interventions of the CCC Visual Arts Center.

In addition, you can visit the Him Mark Lai Learning Center, which provides education on Chinese-American history and culture, as well as information on the inspirations for the work of prominent artists.

Practical Information

  • Price: Exhibitions are free and open to the public.
  • Where: 750 Kearny St 3rd Floor, San Francisco.
  • Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

I recommend that before you go, check here for information about exhibitions or events that will be available to see that day.

14. Taste the most traditional Chinese dishes

Char Siu Bao| ©Joy
Char Siu Bao| ©Joy

The culture and tradition of China are accompanied by its typical foods and of course I recommend you try them on your walk through this neighborhood so characteristic and emblematic.

When I told you about the culinary tour, I gave you a preview but now, I'm going to make you suffer a little more while I list the main delicacies you have to try.

  • Char Siu Bao: These are delicious crispy BBQ pork buns. I can't tell you in words how tasty they are - try them!
  • Salt and Pepper Crab: This is a pretty popular dish in the neighborhood and is offered by several restaurants.
  • Fortune Cookies: The best place, without a doubt, is GoldenGate Fortune Cookies Co As I told you before, besides tasting them, you will be able to learn how they are made.
  • Chop suey: A classic of Chinese cuisine and of course of Chinatown, you will find it in several restaurants in the area.
  • Dim Sum: Depending on its filling it will have a particular name and you can find different flavors: meat, vegetables, fish or seafood, or a mixture.

I recommend you not to eat too much before you start your tour of Chinatown, because whatever you do, you will have Chinese delicacies everywhere and the possibility of tasting all these delicacies in every restaurant you pass by.

Another tip I have for you, is to wear comfortable clothes and shoes to enjoy the walk through the neighborhood without discomfort.

All this and more is what you can do in the mythical Chinatown of San Francisco. Knowing its history, culture and traditions and appreciating the architecture of its picturesque streets and emblematic buildings and stores, is not to be missed. I have no doubt that you will fall in love with Chinatown.