Everything you Need to Know About Chinatown in San Francisco
This post is about visiting Chinatown in San Francisco, updated for 2019, including directions, tours and things to do.
If you’re in the San Francisco area and looking for an iconic place to visit, you need to check out Chinatown. This is a legendary place to visit, for tourists, foodies and artists alike, and it provides a wealth of unique things to enjoy. It’s the oldest and most established Chinatown anywhere in the world outside of the Asian continent and is home to a wonderful array of people and local businesses.
- How to Get to Chinatown
- Things to Do in Chinatown
- Tours of Chinatown
- Best Restaurants in Chinatown
- Things to Do with a Family in Chinatown
- Things to Do at Night in Chinatown
- Where to Stay in Chinatown
Why go to Chinatown?
First things first, why is Chinatown such a great place to go? There are plenty of great places that you could visit and spend time in the beautiful city of San Francisco, of course.
Here at Free Tours by Foot, we’re huge fans of the gorgeous culture and sights that Chinatown has to offer.
After all, that’s why we offer tours there!
It’s packed full of a rich, vibrant history and is a place dedicated to celebrating diversity. We can guarantee that two separate trips to Chinatown won’t ever be the same- it’s always changing and evolving.
One of the main drawing factors of Chinatown is the diversity in things to do. There’s something for everyone, no matter your budget or your interests.
If you’re travelling on a smaller budget, there are plenty of tasty street food vendors and affordable places to stay. We put together a self-guided tour, which is perfect for this type of trip.
If you’ve got more time to spend, there’s Michelin star restaurants and delightful hotels to stay in. You certainly won’t be spoiled for choice with shopping or entertainment options either- although, we’ll be covering that in more depth in a moment.
If you’re planning to check out more of San Francisco while you’re at it, our San Francisco in One Day tour would be a great thing to add to your itinerary because it covers this neighborhood in detail, along with all the other best parts of the city!
Another great aspect of Chinatown is the beautiful aesthetics of the neighborhood. The visuals are striking, with a plethora of colors, delectable smells and cheery noises tumbling about the crowd.
If you’re an artist looking for inspiration, or even just a tourist looking for a change of scenery, this could be the perfect place to visit. The Dragon’s Gate entrance to Chinatown (pictured above) is an example of the utterly iconic architecture that’s dotted around this location. If you’re into photography, you won’t want to forget your camera here.
Something else that’s great about visiting Chinatown is that it can be very educational. As we’ve said, there’s an intriguing history behind the town. Chinatown was often one of the first steps for millions of Chinese immigrants looking to thrive in America, and thus, there’s a wonderfully varied history to be aware of.
Overall, it’s a culturally and visually stunning place to be, and should certainly be somewhere that’s on your bucket list as a traveller. So let’s get started with our trip to Chinatown!
How to Get to Chinatown
Now that we’ve had a look at what makes Chinatown so wonderful, let’s have a look at how you can get there with public transportation. Something that’s great about Chinatown is that it’s only a few blocks away from Union Square, where many hotels are located.
One of the main ways to get to Chinatown is by cable car. If you are coming from Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square, you can take the Powell-Hyde line or Powell Mason line. Just get off the car between Bush and Jackson, take a walk downhill for a block and you’ll be heading towards Stockton Street.
Coming from the Ferry Building or Downtown San Francisco, you can take the California Street line to Grant Avenue, which is the main street of Chinatown.
Here is a map of all three lines that you can click and zoom in on.
Parking in Chinatown
Parking can be a little tricky to find if you’re driving, but it’s not out of the question.
Whenever our Free Tours by Foot guides are parking their cars downtown, we always go to the website Best Parking. You can enter the exact dates and times you want to park, and the site shows a map of all the parking garages in the area, as well as their prices.
You can even reserve a spot ahead of time! There are a few decent parking garages available, including the Sutter-Stockton garage right next to the Dragon’s Gate, as well as Portsmouth Square Garage, which is open 24 hours and priced decently.
Here’s a sample of that on a recent Chinatown trip:
The Muni Bus
There are also buses available if you’re looking for public transport. The 30-Stockton bus is one of the best ones to get, as it goes straight through the center of Chinatown. Any of the stops between Broadway and Bush will get you to the neighborhood in a timely manner.
The Best Restaurants in Chinatown
As we’ve said, one of the best things about Chinatown is the amazing selection of street food and places to eat. You’ll be spoiled for choice with all of the delectable treats on offer, and it can be hard to pick.
Some people worry about being on a budget when they’re considering food while travelling, but this isn’t a concern in Chinatown as there’s plenty of lovely food available for people on a budget.
Budget Restaurants in Chinatown
Good Mong Kok Bakery (Yelp: 4.0 Stars, 2,457 reviews) This is one of our favorite places in Chinatown. The whole neighborhood is known for its dim sum restaurants that are very small, and this is the best of all of them. You go in, order your buns and dumplings from a counter, and take your food away. And even in this extremely expensive city, you can get a great meal here to fill you up for only about $5-6!
Golden Gate Bakery (4.5 Stars, 3,289 reviews) If you want something sweeter, the Golden Gate Bakery on Grant Avenue is the perfect place to pick up a tasty treat on a budget. This is another very highly rated place to eat, and offers a wide range of foods. It is best known for its egg tarts–pick one up for only about $2! This the oldest bakery in Chinatown, and is in a very beautiful building.
One thing to note here is that it’s cash only, for payments. But it is so popular that the owners often go on vacation. So make sure to check out a Facebook page that fans of the company have set up, Is the Golden Gate Bakery Open Today!
Moderately Priced Restaurants in Chinatown
R & G Lounge (3.5 Stars, 4,313 reviews) on Kearny Street is another fantastic restaurant in the neighborhood. Appearing in many food and travel TV shows, including Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode about San Francisco, the Salt and Pepper crab at R & G Lounge is the best you’ll ever taste. Be sure to go with a friend or family, because you get a lot of crab on your plate!
Hong Kong Clay Pot Restaurant (4.0 Stars, 856 reviews) is the last place on Grant Avenue to check out. This is a very authentic restaurant, and fantastic value for money. When eating there, you may be asked to share a table with other people, which is great if you’re travelling solo and want to meet some more people. There’s a wide range of options on the menu, and it’s suitable for working with a budget.
Somewhere else that’s famed for exquisite food is the Lai Hong Lounge (3.5 Stars, 782 reviews). This restaurant achieved Bib Gourmand status in the Michelin guide, and is known for it’s simple yet elegant food. Lai Hong Lounge can get quite busy, so it’s advised that you either go later in the day or even get takeout ordered so you can skip the bustling crowds. This restaurant is located on Powell Street.
Upscale Restaurants in Chinatown
Of course, there are plenty of pricier and fancier options on the menu if you’re looking to treat yourself in Chinatown. There are actually some Michelin star restaurants in some parts of Chinatown, for those of you who are looking to splurge!
One of the notable restaurants here is Mister Jiu’s (4.0 Stars, 582 reviews, 1 Michelin Star). This restaurant is in a restored historic building, with a beautiful romantic flair. The menu is varied and intense, with reviewers describing it as ‘perfectly cooked’ and ‘exceptional’. If you’re looking for somewhere memorable to have a meal, this is certainly a place to check out. You can find this restaurant on Waverly Place, in the center of Chinatown.
Located just off of Vallejo Street, Eight Tables (4.5 Stars, 97 reviews) is an intimate, famous spot that you do not want to miss. If you’re a foodie, chances are that you’ll already know about this exquisite location. It has beautiful decor, delectable cocktails and a divine plethora of delicious food. The nine-course tasting menu is highly recommended.
Best Things To Do During the Day in Chinatown
Once your taste buds have been satisfied by the amazing range of food that Chinatown has to offer, chances are that you’ll be hunting for something fun to do. One of the best places to start with understanding what Chinatown has to offer is a tour, to help you get an understanding of where you are and what’s available around you.
Of course, you can stroll about by yourself- but taking a guided tour with friends and an experienced guide is the best way to understand the vibrancy of Chinatown in more depth.
Tours of Chinatown
Our Free Chinatown Walking Tour is a fantastic way to explore the neighborhood! This 90-minute tour shows you all the best sights in the neighborhood, but takes you away from the main streets to visit the secret alleys of Chinatown, where the real action and history are.
We also frequently run our San Francisco in One Day Tour. This 5-hour tour takes you through Chinatown as well as four other neighborhoods in the city, including a ride on the famous San Francisco Cable Car. It’s a great way to explore the best parts of the city in one day.
If you want to go off on your own, we’ve put together a great Self Guided Tour of Chinatown that you can take on your own time. This tour normally takes about 60 minutes, when you can see the neighborhood all on your own.
Alternatively, Take Walks also offers a few services which include a Chinatown walking tour.
- Chinatown: Through the Dragon’s Gate
- Alcatraz Ticket w/ Chinatown Tour & Cable Car Ride
- San Francisco in a Day: Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf & Cable Car Ride
If you want to see the whole city, you should take a great Hop on Hop off Bus Tour. Just about every one of these tours has a stop at the main entrance to Chinatown, so you can hop off in Chinatown, walk through the neighborhood, and hop back on at the other side of the area. And the Big Bus tour also offers a tour to go along with their Chinatown stop!
Shopping in Chinatown
There are plenty of great local shopping hot spots in Chinatown that you need to check out. There’s gorgeous boutiques, like the Kim + Ono store which specializes in handcrafted, elegant kimonos. There are also beautiful tea houses – we recommend the Red Blossom Tea Company – and other lovely local stores. If you simply wander around the center of Chinatown, you’re sure to come across something memorable and unique.
If you’re looking for something educational and mentally stimulating, there’s some wonderful museums and galleries in Chinatown. One of the most interesting ones to take a look at is the Chinese Historical Society of America. This museum is dedicated to the legacy of China in America, and contains a wealth of informative exhibits. It’s incredibly well reviewed, and is certainly one to have on your to-do list.
If you take a walk a few blocks outside of Chinatown, you’ll arrive at Union Square, with some seriously upscale showrooms such as Gucci, Harry Winston, Prada, and plenty of others!
Best Things To Do at Night in Chinatown
Chinatown isn’t just a great place for daytime activities- it’s got a vibrant nightlife as well. There are countless beautiful bars and restaurants available for your entertainment, as well as other sources of fun like shows or exhibitions.
One thing that Chinatown is known for is having great local ‘dive’ bars.
One of these famed bars is the Buddha Lounge, located on Grant Avenue. This bar is described as being kitschy and fun, with a well-stocked jukebox. There’s two specialities that you’ll find in this bar- Buddha Beer in green, Buddha shaped bottles, and Chinese Mai Tai (made with Three Penis whiskey imported from China, naturally).
One thing to note here is that it’s cash only.
Li Po Cocktail Lounge is one of the most popular bars in the area. This bar was even visited by Anthony Bourdain on his travel show “The Layover.” Said to be the creator of the Chinese Mai Tai, be sure to sip on one of these famous cocktails!
Another great thing that you’ll find in Chinatown at night is karaoke bars. These are always packed full of cheery people, and are great places to go with friends. One place that you should absolutely check out is the Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge. It’s wonderfully psychedelic, with no particular rhyme or rhythm. It’s located on Grant Avenue, and worth a stop.
In general, there’s an abundance of gorgeous local hotspots to check out at night time. Karaoke is always a hit, and there’s plenty of delicious, hot street food available to wash down the shots of Chinese whiskey.
One thing’s for sure- you’re not going to run out of things to do.
Great Things To Do With the Family
On another note, Chinatown has a number of great thing to do with the family. It’s such a unique place that your children are guaranteed to have an intriguing day that fills them with questions, and there’s a number of great places to keep the adults and big kids entertained at the same time.
One of the best places that you can visit as a family is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, down Ross Alley. This wonderfully unique location allows you to see fortune cookies being made by hand, from the messages to the cookies themselves. There’s the option to personalize your own fortunes (this could also be a cute idea for couples) and plenty of mouthwatering treats available to take with you as a snack during the day.
If you’re looking for somewhere where your children can play, there’s always Portsmouth Square Park. This beautifully quaint park is very popular with residents, and is always jostling with life. This is a great place for kids to run around and enjoy themselves, while adults get the chance to enjoy themselves and have a break.
Museums and galleries are also great for going with the family, as are all the local shopping haunts.
Going for walks or guided tours with the family can be lovely in Chinatown, as there’s so many interesting things to see as you’re going around. You’ll be spoiled for choice with things to do in this town, that’s for certain.
Cute Places to go for Couples
Chinatown can be a great place to go with your significant other, as well. One of the main reasons for this is the beautiful selection of bars and restaurants available.
If your spouse is a foodie, this is one of the best places that you could take them. Treat each other to sweet milk tea and fresh dumplings as you sit in a local park and observe the bustling of the streets.
One great place to check out is the oldest Chinese temple in the western United States, the Tin How Temple, where we would encourage you to make a donation or offering. This is a temple dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess, where people would make offerings for their loved one’s safe passage from China to America. It’s a beautiful, spiritual place and somewhere very special to visit with your loved ones. You can find the temple on Waverly Place in Chinatown.
Another great place to go with your significant other is the Plentea shop, on Kearny Street. This bubble tea store has a cult following, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a mouthwatering range of delectable treats on offer, ranging from sweet milk teas to sea salt creamers.
It’s incredibly photogenic too, and a great place to treat yourself to a delicious snack with your loved one. If you haven’t had bubble tea before, this is an absolute must in Chinatown- it’s sweet, refreshing and incredibly tasty.
Where to Stay in Chinatown
There’s plenty of great places to stay in Chinatown, too. If you’re looking for something cheap and cheerful, there’s lovely hostels in central Chinatown. A great option here is the Pacific Tradewinds Hostel. Located on Sacramento Street, it is very well reviewed by guests. And in this city of extremely expensive hotels, it’s a great place to stay on a budget!
Moderately Priced Hotels
If you’re looking for hotels not hostels, there’s some great options as well. Hotel Triton is located right next to the Dragon’s Gate, so you can walk directly into Chinatown from there, or pick up a Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour right outside the hotel.
Also, Hotel 32One is midway between Chinatown and Union Square. So if you want to walk through Chinatown, get some food, then do some shopping, this hotel is in a prime location for that!
If you really want to splurge, check out the Fairmont Hotel. This famous location has been filmed in TV shows and movies going nearly back to the creation of the hotel! This historic hotel is the birthplace of the United Nations, and was the first place that famous crooner Tony Bennett ever sung that eternal song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Another great location is the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel. Not only a great hotel, but this also has the Top of the Mark, a restaurant and bar on the top floor of the hotel with the best views of San Francisco you can find!