The San Francisco Chinese New Year celebration is the largest outside of Asia. It's a lively festival with lots of events. To make it even more special, the holiday parade is one of the few surviving lighted night parades in the U.S., drawing visitors from many places. As one of San Francisco's top festivals, it's well worth a weekend trip to enjoy the goings-on.
The lucky color red is everywhere at the new year. Dragon and lion dancers may prowl the street to scare away evil spirits, and they are fun to watch — if you can endure the firecracker noise and confusion surrounding them.
Chinese New Year is a lunar festival whose date is determined by the moon's phases and changes every year. No matter what the official date is, the parade always happens on a Saturday. You can find this year's date at the Chinese New Year Parade website.
How to Enjoy the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade
The big event of the San Francisco Chinese New Year celebration is the annual Chinese New Year Parade, featuring more than 100 floats, bands, and other participants.
The procession actually starts at 5:15 p.m. at Second and Market Streets. If you see that television coverage begins later than that, don't let it confuse you. It takes a while for it to reach the television cameras.
The procession goes south on Market, then loops around Union Square on Geary, Powell and Post Streets. After that, it then runs up Kearny Street to Columbus Avenue. You can see a map of it here.
If you'd rather sit than stand, paid grandstand seating is available. They usually sell out, making reservations essential. Visit the parade website to purchase tickets.
The floats and other participants queue up on the side streets near Market and Second Street an hour or more before the parade begins. It's fun to walk around and watch them for a while before you go to find a place to watch.
For the best viewing places near the curb, get to your spot about 45 minutes before the parade passes by. However, late-comers can usually see just fine, especially if they go to a place closer to the end of the route.
You can find portable toilets along the parade route, typically close to the bleacher areas.
Lion Dancers at the Chinese New Year Parade
Lion dancers are a prominent part of any celebration in Chinatown and especially in the parade. They dance around like young cubs in the wild and get the crowd from seniors to children smiling from ear to ear.
The costume is made up of a head and a fabric body. Two people perform the dance, with the one in front doing most of the fancy action, mimicking the movements of a lion's body. The other brings up the rear, so to speak.
Dragon Dancers at the Chinese New Year Parade
Chinese Dragons are believed to bring good luck. The longer the dragon, the more luck. If you arrive early enough, you can get an up-close look at the beautifully decorated costumes — see how many feet you can count under each dragon!
The easy way to tell the difference between lion dancers and dragon dancers is by the number of people. The lion dance is done by two people while the dragon is long and requires many people to carry it.
More Chinese New Year Festivities in San Francisco
The parade isn't the only way to celebrate Chinese New Year. In fact, it often happens shortly after the official new year date. Other annual festivities include:
Chinese New Year Flower Fair takes place the weekend before the lunar new year so families can buy traditional plants and flowers to decorate their homes and give as gifts. A mini-parade starts at 10:30 a.m. on the first day of the Flower Fair at California and Grant, following the original parade route down Grant Avenue.
Chinatown Community Street Fair is the same weekend as the San Francisco Chinese New Year parade and features traditional arts and performances.
Miss Chinatown USA Pageant features a bevy of beautiful contestants who compete for the crown.
Chinese New Year Run is a 5K/10K race that benefits the Chinatown YMCA.
The Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt calls itself an "urban sleuthing adventure." Treasure-hunting teams must solve sixteen clues leading them on a tour of San Francisco's colorful past. It happens at the same time as the parade and might be a fun alternative.