Explore The Mysteries Of Chinatown San Francisco

Shop windows beckon with colorful displays of silk, porcelain, jade and teak in one of the largest and oldest Chinatowns outside of Asia. It starts at the corner of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, where the Chinatown Gate welcomes you into a magical world of of dragons, crouching stone lions, dolphins, and jade-green tiles.

Four gilded Chinese characters at the top of the Chinatown gate spell out a cryptic message translated as: "Everything in the world in just proportion."

As you walk a little further into this little corner of the Far East, you are enticed by aromatic open-air markets, emporiums, alleyways and herbalists packed with jars of exotic roots and spices. Here we reveal the top spots to see on your tour of the unique San Francisco neighborhood. We also recommend top walking tours that combine dim sum with a peek behind the scenes to learn about the quarter's incredible history.

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A Bit of Chinatown History

Chinatown History

As we said, it's the oldest Chinatown in the USA and the most densely populated neighborhoods in San Francisco. Its story began in the mid-19th century when it was first settled by, you guessed it, Chinese workers.

Chinese men came by the thousands to work for the railroad companies and other large firms. Other men followed to open restaurants, services and shops for the earlier immigrants. They all settled in Chinatown because that was the one area of San Francisco where Chinese people were allowed to live.

The neighborhood was completely wiped out by the famous 1906 earthquake and underwent a rebuilding process that lasted into the middle of the 20th century. In addition to the city itself, SF's Chinese quarter is one of the most densely populated areas in the entire United States, and that means there's a lot to explore and a lot to see.

Top Things To Do In Chinatown

Ghost Walking Tour

Chinatown Ghost Walking Tour

Ancient Chinese myths and folktales flourish to this day in the oldest Chinatown in America. Experience the supernatural side of Chinatown as you explore it after dark on this lamplit tour.

Hear tales of its past and present, as you wander through mysterious alleyways and historic streets. Find out about the Goddess Kwan Yin and the the secrets of the magic moon cake on this ghostly tour of Chinatown.

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This was the highlight [of our] trip, we had a lot of fun hearing about the history of Chinatown and the many ghost stories. We will definitely be taking this tour again."
– 5-Star Review

San Francisco at Night Segway Tour

San Francisco at Night Segway Tour

As the twinkling lights begin to glow hop on a Segway for a tour of the best of San Francisco, including Chinatown. First stop — North Beach and its bustling Italian restaurants, Washington Square Park, and the iconic Saints Peter & Paul Church. Your speedy Segway lets you see it all in a short time as your guide keeps you on track with trivia, facts and stories about the city.

Next, glide over to Chinatown to ride along its lantern-lit streets, past dim sum houses, temples and souvenir shops. It's not over yet, because next you head to the waterfront to see everything from Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf and the historic piers and harbors. Helmet, safety vests, jackets and gloves are provided.

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Loved it! What a fun way to see around some of the sights. And really great to do so at nighttime when traffic was much more pleasant and often streets were totally empty."
– 5-Star Review

Walking Tour & Dim Sum Lunch

Walking Tour

Chinatown really is a city within a city, what with its incredible history, mystery and Asian cultural icons. On this guided small-group walking tour, you admire the pagoda style buildings and visit a Chinese herbal pharmacy to learn about the healing properties of ginseng, pearl pills and even gecko lizards!

Stop by a Buddhist Temple and see the altars adorned with red lanterns and bronze urns filled with incense. Tour the Fortune Cookie Factory, stroll along Stockton Street markets and learn about the exotic foods sold. A tea tasting demo is included plus you get an insiders list of favorite Chinatown restaurants.

Choose the two-hour walking tour or, better yet, the combination walking tour plus a multi-course dim sum luncheon.

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This is one of the best activities we did on our trip. Well worth your time and money. Linda…makes it interesting, informative and fun. She is warm, personable and witty… The food is excellent."
– 5-Star Review

Night Walking Tour of Chinatown & North Beach

Night Walking Tour

Explore San Francisco's Chinatown and North Beach on this dynamic nighttime walking tour. The tour starts in Chinatown with a dim sum tasting at one of the oldest bakeries in the neighborhood. Learn about Chinese mysticism and culture before you head to North Beach to discover another cultural neighborhood.

After Chinese tea in Chinatown, taste authentic Italian coffee and admire Italian pottery in North Beach and learn how the two neighborhoods manage to coexist.

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This tour was the highlight of our visit to San Francisco. Our guide was the best! Her insight and knowledge were beyond our imagination. She shared history of the cultures including food unique shops and answered lots of questions we have always had. We love San Francisco, but have an even deeper love learning some of the the hows and whys of Chinatown and North Beach. The food and tea were exceptional and we felt very special with the amazing treatment from our fabulous guide."
– 5-Star Review

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Historic Places to Visit

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

These tiny treats are still made here in Chinatown! Go north on Stockton towards Ross Alley where the fortune cookie is said to have been invented.

You're able to watch them being make in the blink of an eye — the hot cookies are pulled from a rotating press and quickly folded with the fortune inside. Buy samples hot off the press or ask for special-order messages — lottery numbers, Bible quotes or X-rated! 56 Ross Alley (at Jackson Street).

Chinese Culture Center

Chinese symbols

East of Portsmouth Square is San Francisco's Chinese Culture Center, a valuable research facility for the study of the Asia and the Western world. Shows are held in its art galleries and entertainment is found in its theater.

Grant Avenue

Grant Avenue

Named in honor of General & President Ulysses S. Grant, Grant Avenue is a mere seven blocks long, extending from Bush Street to Pacific Avenue.

Locals consider it the core of Chinatown. You find a variety of shops including the popular bar, The Li Po, named for the famous 1st-century Chinese poet whose verse celebrates the joys of drunken revelry. Also stop to admire the Buddhist shrine on the corner where men gather to place dice.

Buddha's Universal Church

Buddha's Universal Church

Once the site of a nightclub, the Buddha's Universal Church was purchased in 1951 for the princely sum of $5,000.

Unfortunately, before it could be consecrated, the city declared the building structurally unsound. So, it was torn down and rebuilt, entirely with the help of volunteers.

Old St. Mary's Cathedral

Old St. Mary's Church

Two blocks north from the Chinatown Gate is St. Mary's, the historic San Francisco Catholic Church built in the 1800s.

The granite foundation was imported from China and its outer walls are made from sturdy New England bricks. The church is a survivor, having made it through both earthquakes. Early plans for a steeple were rejected, given the earthquake danger and instead a bell tower was installed. 660 California Street at Stockton.

Stockton Street & Portsmouth Square

Stockton Street and Portsmouth Square

Here's where to find Asian produce and fish markets, herbal pharmacies and butchers, shops and bakeries — all the day-to-day essentials in Chinatown.

Just east of Stockton is another important meeting place, Portsmouth Square. This historic square was the center during the Gold Rush era and the site for political rallies, riots, and hangings. The square is a popular spot to watch Chinese elders play mah jong.

Waverly Place

Waverly Place

Here's the real Chinatown — the one that most visitors don't see. The small alley runs parallel to Grant Avenue between Clay and Washington streets and is filled with minuscule shops selling lychee wine, pickled ginger, rice threads, dried lotus and powdered antler horns. Traditional Chinese jade and terracotta tiles mark the edges of apartment house roofs, giving it the name "Street of Painted Balconies".

Tin Hou Temple & Kong Chow Temple

Tin Hou Temple

Queen of the Heavens and Goddess of the Seven Seas, Tin Hou is the protector of travelers, sailors, artists and prostitutes. The Tin Hou Temple is believed to be the oldest Chinese temple in San Francisco and the USA. Take a short walk from the Tin Hou temple to the Kong Chow Temple, known for its fine woodcarvings.

  • Kong Chow Temple
  • 855 Stockton Street
  • Tin Hou Temple
  • 125 Waverly Place, Fourth Floor

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