09 Feb Chinatown Walking Tour, San Francisco
Exploring local neighborhoods is a fun way to spend a day. Not only do you get to walk with your date, you can learn a little while enjoying a day outside. This little 1.5 mile loop is a delightful stroll around San Francisco’s Chinatown. There is a map at the bottom. Best of all, it’s completely free, although we recommend you pack some light cash for nibbling along the way. Parking can be difficult, we recommend the Sutter Stockton Garage for ease of access.
While there are many ways to begin a tour of Chinatown, the most popular is by first entering through the famous and beautiful gate of Chinatown.
The Republic of China gifted the gate to the city of San Francisco in 1969. Chinese villages often feature similar ceremonial gates, and the ornate dragons and concrete guard dogs are said to keep evil spirits away.
It really is a transporting experience to walk under the gate and begin a gentle upward slope through tightly packed and colorful shops. The entrance and first block are quite peaceful. Deeper into Chinatown visitors will find anything but peace on the bustling and energizing streets, where the produce, meat and fish markets seem to buzz all day long.
2. Colorful shops
Colorful shops line Grant selling everything from expensive collectible art to 99 cent tchotchkes and souvenirs. One shop early in the journey has beautiful things for children, such as hand-painted pillow cases, miniature Chinese New Year dragon heads and beautiful Asian-inspired Christmas ornaments.
3. Unique Architecture
There are so many beautifully designed and decorated buildings and structures. Even the lampposts are special, looking like pagodas with dragons’ tails. Colorful and ornate balconies and windowsills are often draped with laundry.
As you walk down the narrow street, it’s hard to know where to look: up, down to the side or in front of you.
4. Looking up Nob Hill
Before you cross California Street, look left. The street rises steeply up to the famous Nob Hill, home to some of the most beautiful hotels (e.g., the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins) and views the city has to offer. Nob Hill also boasts Grace Cathedral, a spectacular San Francisco landmark that is reminiscent of Paris’ Notre Dame.
Across the street from the cathedral is St. Mary’s Square, where visitors will find clusters of older men playing cards and checkers or reading papers and discussing the day’s events. Older women cluster together as well, but some silently practice their stunningly peaceful tai chi (also commonly found in Washington Square in nearby North Beach).
Old St. Mary’s Cathedral appears somewhat suddenly and slightly out of place at the corner of Grant and California streets. Originally built in 1854 and rumored to be the first cathedral in California, amazingly the church survived the 1906 earthquake and fires that followed.
7. Restaurants, Grocery Stores and Delis
After crossing Sacramento and Clay streets, the number of restaurants and grocery vendors increases, and so does the pulse and volume of Chinatown. It is a treat to watch the lively banter between shop owners and customers as daily produce, meats and other food changes hands.
Between Jackson Street and Pacific Avenue sits one of the most famous Chinese bakeries in San Francisco, Golden Gate Bakery. If it’s open when you’re visiting Chinatown, it is worth the wait to try its best-known item, egg tarts. During September each year, in celebration of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the bakery also makes Chinese moon cakes that many wait in line for hours to get.
Note that the bakery is typically closed for vacation in August and around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
9. Preview of North Beach
Where Grant meets Broadway, you will want to turn left to continue your tour of Chinatown and see some of the best grocery vendors the neighborhood has.
Before you do, though, feel free to linger at this intersection and watch the action. You can likely spy the bay as you look east down Broadway and the Broadway Tunnel that cuts beneath Russian Hill as you look west. Looking up Columbus Avenue (northwest), you can see the main drag of North Beach and preview any cafes, restaurants or bookstores you may want to visit in this neighborhood.
10. Bustling Bartering
The corner of Broadway and Stockton (turn left on Stockton) and most of the next 3.5 blocks on Stockton let visitors into a magical world of local commerce each and every day. The food is fresh, the customers vocal and serious, and the energy is palpable. Whether you simply observe or dive in and try to make a purchase, this otherwise bland stretch of road is totally engaging and fun.
11. Tea, Herbs and Traditional Chinese Medicine
A trip to Chinatown really is better if you visit a tea, herb or reflexology shop. Some are dark and intimidating, but many have updated their look to appeal to Western shoppers.
Ever wonder how those fortune cookies that you get in Chinese restaurants are made? You get a chance to see it in action in this tiny shop. Employees make the cookies right in front of you as the machines hum and workers fold the cookies with lightening speed. They welcome visitors to walk in and watch as they make these tasty little treats.