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San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the city’s oldest and most historically significant neighborhoods. There’s certainly enough worth seeing to devote 24 hours to soak up its rich heritage and world-renowned food.
A full day is the perfect amount of time to visit and see why Chinatown, San Francisco, is among the most popular tourist destinations in the US. Read on for some suggestions that show how to get the most out of your day (or staycation) in Chinatown.
Walk around for a crowd-free photo session
To locals, Chinatown is synonymous with crowds. Stay at a nearby hotel and get an early start hitting the pavement. Shutterbugs will have an unrivaled chance to snap pics of the local community preparing their businesses for the coming deluge of customers, as well as enough opportunity to roam for that perfect angle of a dangling lantern. Those looking for good street art will want to head to the northern edge at Broadway, abutting North Beach, for Jack Kerouac Alley. It’s a solid spot for wall-to-wall street art and, if you’re lucky, quality buskers. If you head out super early, you might want to bring a snack. Most of the restaurants don’t open until lunch, but they stay open late.
Dim sum for breakfast
All your walking will probably work up an appetite, so it’s best to figure out what craving will get you over the mid-morning hump into the afternoon. Blue Bottle Coffee has a location in Chinatown if you want something conventional. If you want a taste of Chinatown, though, hike over to Good Mong Kok Bakery for some dim sum. It’s open daily from 7am to 6pm and offers everything from chewy dumplings the size of your fist to loaded sticky rice entwined within lotus leaves. Prices are very reasonable, so get one or two of everything and feast.
Scour shops for the perfect memento
The crowds are generally more manageable around Chinatown in the late morning or early afternoon. If you want to grab a memento or some gifts for family and friends back home, it’s best to get to the shops along Grant Street right when they open to avoid the inevitable crowds. Many stores sell the same snow globes and sweatshirts, but don’t let that put you off. Emporiums like Canton Bazaar offer multiple floors of goods that range from antique furniture to supposedly ceremonial daggers. The Chinatown Kite Shop is the perfect stop for a unique gift that blends art with fun, while The Wok Shop has stuff that’s more practical.
Create a custom taster for lunch
There’s no shortage of great places to eat in Chinatown. Neighborhood eateries prepare food that’s lauded as the best examples of traditional Chinese cuisine this side of the Pacific. These are served up alongside the ultimate incarnations of Americanized staples like Mongolian beef and sweet and sour pork. China Live on Broadway has three restaurants that all offer plenty of options for you to craft a taster of Chinese delicacies. Walk around the shops, try lots of food and get ideas for what you want to eat for dinner. They also deliver if you want to take a mid-afternoon break in your lodgings and relax before heading back out. If you’re feeling brave, get in the long lines at Golden Gate Bakery for dessert. Its world-famous egg custard tarts are amazing. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is another must-see spot. Call ahead to arrange a tour of the factory or just stop by the gift shop to load up on cookies. And, lest we forget, the factory prints customizable fortunes!
Find a free tea tasting
Vital Tea Leaf has three locations in Chinatown. Each has generous free tastings that will get you totally jacked on caffeine. Vital has everything from matcha to aged black tea that comes in great big wheels, looking like Italian parmesan. If you want boba or something a little sweeter, treat yourself to Steap Tea Bar and grab a portable drink in flavors like Kumquat Green and Mango Paradise.
Tour an authentic Taoist temple
Chinatown has three temples with deep roots in the community: the Kong Chow, the Ma-Tsu and the Tin How. The last of those is the oldest and the most beautiful. Tin How is dedicated to the Taoist sea goddess Mazu and is brimming with exquisite altars and lanterns. Please note that visitors are welcome at all three temples, but are required to quietly respect worshippers and the space. Photography is not permitted.
Honestly, this is going to be the most difficult decision you’ll make all day. All the sit-down eateries in Chinatown serve huge portions, so it probably doesn’t make sense to try a little bit from a lot of restaurants (unless you have a fridge for leftovers and are okay with a huge spend). Go to Begoni Bistro for Peking duck – if you have a fond taste for the bird, welcome to your new favorite restaurant. If you want soup, go to Hon’s Wun Tun House for an enormous bowl of noodles and meats swimming in succulent broths. New Lun Ting Café is good for something different, as it’s menu covers Chinese, Mexican and American staples. If you can’t decide, just go to whatever’s closest and order something new.
The best part of late-night Chinatown is the karaoke bar. It’s where the new generation of San Franciscans go to mingle. It’s where the local Chinatowners go to drink and socialize. It’s where visitors from across the Bay and across the continent come to see what moves Chinatown, what makes it happy. Go to the northwest corner of the neighborhood where Columbus dives diagonally and slices the city blocks into irregular triangles. All the karaoke places near there are a little divey with drinks on the cheaper side. But go in with an open mind and get ready to have the kind of amazing night you want to forget. Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge is the best-known bar, but Mr. Bing’s and Red’s Place are equally great. If a drink is all you’re after, go to Li Po for the Chinese mai tai. His reverence Anthony Bourdain loved it, so it’s certainly good enough for the rest of us mortals.