Get a taste of San Francisco’s Chinatown with this one-day itinerary filled with food, history, shopping and more. For deep immersion into Chinatown, be sure to examine the many produce and live markets that line Stockton Street (between Columbus and Broadway) on a Saturday afternoon. That is where the locals do their shopping, and Saturday is the busiest day. Untrained Western eyes may find the sight of live turtles, chickens and other animals peculiar, but the markets are definitely interesting. Coupled with the clogged streets and the shouting matches over bok choy, they make for an all-day attraction.
Exploring the pocket-size side streets at night is another great way to run into something unforeseen. Dive bars in Chinatown are small, dark and moody, with locals playing dice and visitors wandering in with curious looks on their faces.
Sights & Culture in Chinatown
Chinatown Gate: A gloriously decorated gate marks the entry to Grant Avenue’s Chinatown. It was unveiled in 1970, and helped secure the street’s status as the neighborhood’s center. Once you’re past the gate, you’ll see elaborate 1920s streetlights sculpted to resemble golden dragons lighting the way.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory: Here, tucked inside a storefront on tiny Ross Alley, some 20,000 fortune cookies a day are handmade by two women, each manning a conveyor belt of what look like miniature waffle irons. The factory opened in August 1962, and though there are other fortune cookie bakeries in the city, this is the only one where the cookies are still made by hand, the old-fashioned way.
Waverly Place: A picturesque street full of sights and smells to overwhelm you. It is also the nexus of temples in Chinatown, including Tien Hau. Parallel to Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, between Washington and Sacramento streets.
Shakris Fine Asian Works of Art: True Asian antiques take centerstage at Shakris. The gallery highlights Chinese ceramics dating from the Han Dynasty, jade pieces, such as an owl-faced pendant, from 4,000 to 2,500 BC, and religious sculptures from the Ming Dynasty.
Chinese Culture Center: The center offers a variety of cultural events, including exhibitions of traditional and contemporary art, performances of Chinese Opera and dance, classes in Chinese language, painting and floral design, publications, tours, artists workshops and craft fairs.
Chef Jia’s: Every guidebook ever written on SF has probably mentioned the House of Nanking, but few seem to shower its neighbor, Chef Jia’s, with equal praise. We don’t see why. Huge lines form for Nanking, but Chef Jia’s food is just as good (if not better) and cheap — and the restaurant is less crowded.
Empress of China: The quality of decor at this Chinatown institution surpasses the quality of its food. Filled with temple artifacts and grand chandeliers, Empress exudes an air of elegance. The restaurant’s sixth-floor views over Portsmouth Square are worth a look, but its basic Cantonese cuisine pales in comparison.
Bonsai Villa: Aside from the slew of bonsai plants in this small shop, Bonsai Villa offers books on bonsai, Tai Chi and Chinese culture in general.
China Station: One of the better tourist shops in Chinatown for cheap souvenirs, such as yin and yang Chinese exercise balls, kimonos, decorative fans and Buddha statues, as well as other Chinese arts and crafts.
Dragon House: Dragon House sells genuine antiques and Asian fine arts, which is often hard to find among Chinatown’s reproductions. Its collection of ivory carvings, ceramics, and jewelry dates back to 2,000 years and beyond.
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