As far as Chinatowns go, none is larger than the one in San Francisco. The neighborhood, sandwiched between the city’s Financial District and North Beach, bills itself as the “largest Chinatown outside of Asia,” and, at least in my experience, that claim is no exaggeration at all. My wife and I have spent seven years of visits to San Francisco exploring this vibrant part of the city. Every time we go, we fall in love with something completely different and new.
Topping the list is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, which – unbelievably, when you consider the size of the space – has been supplying 20,000 cookies daily to Chinatown and the rest of the world since 1962. The Ross Alley business is open to the public and, if you time your visit right, you might be able to witness some of the workers making fortune cookies by folding cookie dough over slips of paper in the back. On one of our recent visits, one of the three workers invited my daughters to take a closer look and allowed them to try some samples (of course we bought a bag of 40 freshly made cookies for $5, as well).
When we’re with the girls, we also visit the Chinatown Kite Shop on Grant Street, which, as its name suggests, sells a host of kites, as well as Chinese costumes and lanterns. The aisles of this tiny shop are so jam-packed with colorful trinkets, it’s easy to spend an hour just taking everything in. However, on those rare occasions when my wife and I have the chance to wander the bustling streets of Chinatown by ourselves, the itinerary is a bit more subdued.
Lanterns span Grant Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown
We usually stroll up and down Grant Street, marveling at the vendors and all of the different spices, produce, and meats for sale (oddest sighting ever: ginseng for $78 a pound). If we have time, we wander through Willy “Woo Woo” Wong Playground to watch old men play chess, checkers, and backgammon during tense-but-quiet affairs. We also drop in for dim sum at the Hang Ah Tea Room, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant off Sacramento Street with plastic chairs, formica tables, and some of the best dumplings this side of Hong Kong.
After lunch, we usually swing by the Tin How Temple, which dates back to 1855 and holds the distinction as the oldest Chinese temple in the U.S. The temple itself is on the third floor of an ornately decorated building on Waverly Place. The sanctuary is well worth the climb; hundreds of paper lanterns line the ceiling, giving the room an ethereal vibe.
Viewfinder Tip: The best people watching is in the morning, when residents do their shopping.
Most of our visits to San Francisco’s Chinatown end at the Dragon Gate on Grant Avenue. This is the archway that marks the southern boundary of the neighborhood, an iconic welcome (or, in our case, farewell) to the city’s most vibrant neighborhood. When we’re alone, we walk through the arch, cross Bush Street, and look back from the other side, marveling at the gateway’s simplicity. When we’re with the girls, we stay within touching distance, and marvel at the golden dragons on top.
From both vantage points, the structure is a reminder that Chinatown really is a city within our city, an enclave of food, culture, and history. It’s a unique statement about a unique place, proof that in San Francisco – as in most cities around the world -entire neighborhoods can be tourist destinations onto themselves.
How do you strive to find authentic cultural experiences when you travel?