One of America’s oldest Chinatowns, San Franciso’s bustling maze of streets and alleys lined with colourful shops, historic streetlights, hanging lanterns and pagoda roofs is a fascinating place to explore.
It’s tempting to imagine that almost everything Chinatown has to offer revolves around food. But there’s a whole lot more to the vibrant district, centred on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street in downtown San Fran. Together with bakeries, tea shops and restaurants, the area is home to a wide array of attractions including ornate temples and other historic buildings and monuments. Here are 12 of the most unique things to see and do here.
Enter the Dragon
Every trip to Chinatown starts and ends by passing through the Dragon Gate. A gift from the nation of Taiwan in 1969, the ornate structure is an authentic gateway as seen in many towns across china and serves as the official entrance to the vibrant district in San Fran. Auspicious dragons and koi fish decorate the gate, while two stone lions stand guard. Eagle-eyed visitors may also spot the quote in Chinese that adorns the gate, which was spoken by Dr. Sun Yat Sen (founder of the Chinese Republic) and says “All under heaven is for the good of the people”.
Check out an architectural marvel
The very first structure in San Francisco to be rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1906 that ravaged large swathes of the city, the Sing Chong Building is one of Chinatown’s most distinctive landmarks. Constructed in homage styles of classical Chinese architecture, the eye-catching edifice is also perhaps the district’s most photographed building and has over the years gone some way to lending Chinatown such a prominent and familiar presence in the city.
601 Grant Avenue
Visit a historic temple
The oldest temple in Chinatown, the Tien Hau Temple dates all the way back to the mid-19th century when it was established by Chinese immigrants of Canton descent to pray for maritime peace. Dedicated to the ocean goddess Mazu (known as Tin How in Cantonese), today it can be entered by visitors who ascend by stairs to the third floor, where they’ll discover Mazu perched on the central shrine with her assistants by her side. Above the shrine are rows of lanterns donated by devotees. Photography isn’t allowed inside the temple but it’s still well worth a visit for its historical significance.
125 Waverly Place
Join a guided food tour
The only trouble with eating in Chinatown is choice – there’s just too much of it. But one neat way of avoiding the choice conundrum is by joining a guided food tour. On this 3-hour walking tour of the district, you’ll learn about its history and culture courtesy of an expert local guide, while tasting regional specialities at some of the area’s finest eateries. Highlights include stop-offs at the Chinese Fortune Cookie Factory, a Chinese market, and a Chinese bakery, sampling such culinary delights as buttery buns filled with barbecue-flavoured cha siu pork, Hong Kong-style dim sum, and freshly made egg tarts cooked to a smooth flan-like perfection. All tastings are included in the tour price.
Watch a live cultural event
Founded in 1965 to promote, preserve, and influence Chinese American culture, the Chinese Culture Center is located between Chinatown and the Financial District and plays host to a wide variety of events throughout the year. Among them are art exhibitions, Chinese opera and dance performances, painting and floral design workshops, craft fairs, lectures, and an annual Spring festival to celebrate Chinese New Year, all attracting a broad spectrum of audiences from the Chinese community as well as visitors from across the country and beyond.
750 Kearny Street / Tues-Sat 10am-4pm Closed Sun-Mon
Pick up some cooking essentials
A mainstay of the San Fran cooking community for almost half-a-century, The Wok Shop is the go-to store for anyone with a serious penchant for creating Chinese-style cuisine. The shop stocks all manner of Chinese cookware, including utensils, cleavers, hot pots, rice cookers, sake sets, steamer baskets, and plenty more – but it’s the gleaming stacks of woks that remain the main attraction. On Wednesday evenings, the store also hosts cooking classes for those keen to fine-tune their cheffing skills.
718 Grant Avenue / Mon-Sun 11am-5pm
Admire an old telephone exchange
Formally known as the Chinese Telephone Exchange building, the Bank of Canton is steeped in history. It started life as a public telephone pay station in 1891, and within a few years, was incorporating switchboards to serve subscribers to the telephone system. In those antiquated days, workers had to memorise every subscriber by name, address and occupation, and to memorise five distinct dialects of Chinese and English. After the 1906 earthquake, the building was fully refurbished and continued as a telephone exchange until 1947, when rotary dial telephones were introduced.
555 Montgomery Street
Challenge yourself with a city exploration game
If you’re visiting San Francisco with kids and they need a little persuasion to go sightseeing, then entering them into a city exploration game is a sure-fire way to do so. Participants must embark on a quest to discover Chinatown by solving clues, unlocking stories and finding hidden gems by following a uniquely crafted story on your smartphone. You’ll feel the thrill of the perfect mix between an adventure game and a city tour, visiting such notable landmarks as the Trade Mark Building, the Golden Gate, and more, as you compete. The game can be played 24/7 every day of the year.
Explore America’s largest Buddhist church
The largest Buddhist church anywhere in the US, Buddah’s Universal Church was built in 1961 and remains a potent symbol of religious freedom and devotion. Standing five stories tall, from the outside, the building appears more industrial than spiritual, comprised mainly of concrete, steel, and marble. But venture inside and visitors will discover such pious items as an altar in the shape of the ship of Dharma and images of Buddha made of gold and mosaics. There’s also a bamboo chapel and a rooftop garden and terrace affording great views across the surrounding area.
720 Washington Street
Try your hand at tea tasting
A relatively new addition to Chinatown’s abundant entertainment offerings to visitors, tea tasting is a fun and engaging activity for anyone with an interest in the ancient leaf-based drink, which is so richly steeped in Chinese culture. One of the best places to take part is at Vital Tea Leaf, a tranquil tea store where you can sample a wide selection of loose leaf varieties while staff share their impressive range of knowledge about all things tea.
1044 Grant Avenue