Exploring The San Francisco Chinatown

Lanterns of Chinatown

Disclosure: This article may contain links to products or services (including Amazon) that pay me a small commission. This is at no extra cost to you.

I always like to wander through the Chinatown area of large cities, enjoying the vibrancy, the bright colours, small shops and, of course, the food. So the Chinatown in San Francisco was not to be missed. This is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and the oldest in the United States.

The Chinatown Alleys

One of the most famous parts of San Francisco Chinatown is the Alleys. These are a maze of more than 40 tiny paths and alleyways dating back to the late 19th century. At this time the Chinese population of the city was growing but local laws prevented them from building outside of their allotted area. So they created extra room by building upwards and by squeezing new passages between the existing roads.    

San Francisco alleyway
Paths and alleyways run between the main roads

Today the Chinatown alleys are home to all manner of small businesses including hairdressers, massage parlours and fortunetellers. I could hear the sounds of industry coming from tiny workshops, and I stopped to listen to buskers on the street corners.

Chinatown alleyway
A floor plaque shows the Chinatown alleyways

Shopping In Chinatown

In the past Chinatown has suffered from poverty, overcrowding, plague and earthquake. But it has been extensively rebuilt and is now one of San Francisco’s main tourist attractions. The whole area covers 22 blocks, which means that you could spend the whole day exploring.  

Red lanterns, San Francisco
The streets of Chinatown are festooned with red lanterns

After I left the alleyways I walked for a while along the main roads. They were festooned with banners and red lanterns, and full of places to buy jewellery, jade and statues of Buddha. However, this is very much a place where people live, so you could also find shops selling just about anything you might need.

Chinatown, San Francisco
…but Chinatown is also a residential area

Eating And Drinking

As you might expect, there are lots of cafés and restaurants. I opted for the Pot Sticker on Waverly Place, where I had traditional Chinese food including my favourite green onion pancakes. Opposite the restaurant was a music school and I spent some time listening to the students practising Chinese songs. And I climbed three sets of stairs to the Tin How Temple, a small peaceful area crammed with colourful artefacts and laden with the smell of incense.

Chinese meal, San Francisco
Traditional food at the Pot Sticker Restaurant

One place not to miss is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley. Here you can watch fortune cookies being made, and of course buy a bag to take away.

Mural in San Francisco
A colourful mural on the side of a building

I left by the Dragon Gate, a huge archway at the end of Grant Street. This was once the red light district but as I looked back at the bustling street, full of tourists and shoppers, it was hard to imagine the area’s impoverished past.

Dragon Gate, San Francisco
The Dragon Gate at the entrance to Grant Street

Exploring San Francisco’s Chinatown

It is very easy to explore Chinatown on your own. However you could also take a food tour of the area.


18 thoughts on “Exploring The San Francisco Chinatown”

  1. Gorgeous photos! I visited San Francisco's Chinatown many years ago, and appreciate the reminder of its vibrant beauty. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  2. I love the photo of the pink/red paper lanterns. We've been to Chinatown in SF many times and we've always enjoyed our time. There is SO much to see and SO much to eat! Delightfully yummy and the fortune cookie factories are fun to tour as well.

  3. Neva @ Retire for the Fun of it

    What colorful photos of Chinatown and San Francisco has one of the best. We walked through London's Chinatown last week, but didn't have time to eat some of their famous dishes (darn).

  4. Janice Mucalov

    We're recalling the same travels! We too just wrote about San Francisco :-). Anyway, San Fran's Chinatown is a real thriving Chinatown, as you say… Great photos you took!

  5. I also had a chance to visit San Francisco's Chinatown a few months ago. I was on a walking tour, which also took us to some of the alleys. Most cities on the west coast of the US have Chinatowns—and often a distinct Korea town or pockets housing immigrants from other Asian countries. Actually, east coast cities also have Chinatowns—-there are big ones in New York and Washington, D.C. and we even have a decent size one in Philadelphia. I'm glad you had a chance to visit Chinatown in San Francisco. It is definitely an important part of that city's fabric.

  6. Its fascinating the way China towns manage to pop up in so many major cities – Here in Australia we have a very vibrant Chinatown in my state capital Brisbane – and there's a stunning Chinatown I've visited too in Sydney – So why not other nationality towns within cities?

  7. I love the colours in San Francisco's Chinatown. I'm glad the area has been rebuilt. A great place to visit.

  8. Nancy Thompson

    San Francisco has long been one of my favorite cities in the US to visit. Haven't been through Chinatown for many years but your post and your beautiful photos have inspired me to include a stroll on our next visit in the Fall. Thank you!

  9. Great photos, it's always fun to visit chinatown neighbourhoods in different cities. Thanks for sharing.

  10. These photos are great Karen – so many vibrant colours. I think it's funny that China is always the main one of very few nations which always have a town in large cities. Great fun to walk through though!

  11. When I was in Chinatown I enjoyed walking around but unfortunately I missed the floor plaque. Maybe I was looking too much up to all the lanterns instead on the pavement. 🙂

  12. Veronika Hradilikova

    Great report from an amazing Chinatown..! That's the best when an area is not just a showcase for tourists but when people actually live there and use all the amenities. Damn, now I want to go to SF even more! 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

About WorldWideWriter

Picture of the author

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


Want a regular dose of inspiration and information from WorldWideWriter?

Sign up to our mailing list now!

Buy Me A Coffee