San Francisco Chinatown is the largest Chinese community on the West Coast, and the second largest in the United States surpassed only by New York City's. It's one of the most exotic-feeling parts of San Francisco and at times, you may hear more Chinese spoken on Stockton Street than on the streets of Hong Kong. It's also an interesting mix of tourist attraction and ethnic enclave and small enough to see in just a couple of hours. Most people would agree it's a great place to visit.
Chinatown is best to see mid-day when all the shops are open and the streets are busy. It gets quiet very soon after dark.
Visiting San Francisco Chinatown
San Francisco Chinatown is about eight blocks long and has two long main streets, Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. Many visitors just amble down Grant, buy a souvenir or two and move on, but you know better. If you pay attention and use this guide, you'll find some pretty fascinating stuff just off the beaten path.
Chinatown is one of San Francisco's top-rated sights.
Three annual festivals honor the city's Chinese heritage. Chinese New Year and the Autumn Moon Festival draw street-clogging crowds to Chinatown. The Dragon Boat Festival is held accross the bay in Oakland.
- Chinese New Year: This lunar festival usually takes place between late January and early February. There's a big street fair and Chinese New Year Parade.
- Autumn Moon Festival: Autumn is time to enjoy the bounty of the summer harvest, the fullness of the moon, and the myth of the immortal Goddess, Chang O, who lives in the moon. It's celebrated with lots of food, especially moon cakes, circular-shaped pastries filled with a slightly sweet filling of red bean, melon or lotus-seed paste.
The part of San Francisco Chinatown that tourists typically find interesting is bounded by Stockton, Grant, Bush and Columbus.
On foot from Union Square, take Geary, Maiden Lane or Post east one block to Grant Avenue and go north to the Chinatown gate. If you're coming from North Beach, just cross Columbus onto Grant and you're there.
You can also get to Chinatown on the cable car. The California line stops at California and Grant, or you can get off the Powell line at California and walk three blocks to Grant.
Parking isn't just scarce in Chinatown, it's almost non-existent. The Portsmouth Square Garage on Kearny is hard to get to (you have to drive all the way around the block, often waiting in a slow-moving line), so the St. Mary's Square Garage on California may be a better bet. Or even better, take public transportation or walk.
Another parking option is the Chinatown Park and Ride, which operates on weekends only and charges a very reasonable fee (as long as you spend a little at a Chinatown business).
If you're visiting Union Square or North Beach on the same day, you can also park in those areas and walk.
More Chinese Heritage in San Francisco
Chinese Funerals: Chinatown can be an assault on the senses, but don't get so overloaded that you forget to listen. If you hear the rat-a-tat of drums or a brass band playing, especially on a weekend, It's most likely a Chinese funeral procession, one of San Francisco's unique east-meets-west traditions. Try to find the source and stop to watch it pass. They start from Green Street Mortuary, near Stockton and Columbus in North Beach. More important funerals go through Chinatown; others go straight down Columbus.
North Beach Museum: In the East West Bank at 1435 Stockton, it focuses on the area's Italian heritage, but they also have Chinese items and photographs, including a pair of shoes worn by a woman with bound feet. It's upstairs in the bank's mezzanine.
Dragon Boat Festival: It's a two-millennium-old tradition that's only been an organized sport for a few decades. Teams of paddlers compete in colorfully-decorated, dragon-themed boats in races held to honor Qu Yuan, a scholar and adviser to the emperor of the Chu Kingdom who jumped into a river to protest government corruption. More than 100 dragon boat teams compete. The festival takes place in September at Lake Merritt in Oakland.