San Francisco’s Chinatown covers a sprawling 24-block area of the city’s prime downtown real estate. It’s North America’s oldest Chinatown, and one of the largest Chinese enclaves outside of Asia. Pagoda-like architecture and colorful banners and lanterns make it easy to see where gray concrete structures give way to this authentic Chinese district.
But it’s the stores, restaurants, landmarks, and people that make Chinatown truly special. Whether you’re looking to enjoy a delicious dinner before one of our performances or seeking daytime things to do in San Francisco, this is everything we love about Chinatown.
Culture and History Explored in Chinatown
The first Chinese hand laundry appeared on the corner of Washington and Dupont Streets in 1851. Two years later, locals were calling the area Chinatown, and the name hasn’t changed in over a century.
To truly understand the history and culture inherent to Chinatown, add these places to your itinerary. These places of worship and museums in San Francisco are testaments to the city’s culture.
1. Chinese Historical Society of America Museum
The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum isn’t solely focused on San Francisco, but the city’s launch and growth are very much woven into the stories told here.
Exhibits, such as We Are Bruce Lee: Under the Sky, One Family, and Towards Equality: California’s Chinese American Women, connect the journeys of one person or one group with movements that have changed the look, feel, and influence of this world-class city.
The primary mission here is to explore the Chinese immigrant experience. Photos and artifacts are the majority of the retelling, painting a picture of struggle and perseverance that’s as memorable as it is moving.
2. Tin How Temple
The Tin How Temple is dedicated to Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea. It was founded in 1852 as a way to express gratitude for how the deity protected Chinese migrants traveling stormy seas in hopes of reaching the United States.
The temple isn’t a building or standalone shrine as many people would assume, but a dedicated space on the third floor of a building. But don’t mistake the simple setting for a lack of devotion. Climb the stairs to the temple and you’ll be greeted with a riot of color.
Those are all lanterns donated in honor of Mazu, and the table full of offerings represents similar donations dating back a century or more.
On festival days, activity picks up, but remember to watch and learn. This is a sacred place, and while the devotees are generally open to sharing their beliefs, being included should be regarded as the highest privilege.
3. Portsmouth Square
Portsmouth Square is a place of firsts. The park was the first place in San Francisco to serve as home to an American flag. It was also where miners first announced they had found gold in 1848, not long after the first public square went up on the plaza’s southwest corner. That’s a lot of history firsts all piled into one block.
Today, the square is home to a couple of playgrounds, as well as parking for tourists and locals looking to move around Chinatown.
Use it as a starting point for your explorations, or take a break with the kids and admire the view as you take turns going down the playground’s slides.
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4. Buddha’s Universal Church
Buddha’s Universal Church is the largest church of its kind in the United States and a visual marvel. The simple monochrome exterior gives way to an interior brimming with gold leaf Buddhas and mosaic tiles.
Teak paneling makes the altar area feel like the hull of a ship, and the bamboo chapel and roof garden terrace fully embody the overarching feeling of harmony and peace.
Though the church was first built in the 1960s, its journey from concept to reality wasn’t an easy one. Budgetary concerns, earthquake damage, and bad luck put up hurdle after hurdle.
It took the Chinese community coming together and even raising money by selling cookies on street corners for the building to finally be completed.
It stands as a testimony to faith, commitment, and cooperation between Buddhists and people of other beliefs who didn’t hesitate to lend a hand.
5. Dragon Gate
Since 1970, the Dragon Gate has alerted visitors that they’re leaving outer San Francisco and entering Chinatown. The ceremonial gate has three portals, all facing south.
Green tiles and Chinese symbols add a lot of detail to the design, but it’s the pair of oversized stone lions that really capture your attention.
Get your picture taken in front of the gate, or just dip your head in reverence as you pass through. Either way, it’s important to give this iconic entryway the respect it deserves.
One of the most enticing things immigrants bring to their new homes is a portfolio of gastronomic excellence. Bite by bite, new flavors and ingredient pairings transform the local food scene.
Americanized Chinese food has become a West Coast staple. But San Francisco’s Chinatown area still offers authentic eats to satisfy your cravings.
6. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
What does your future hold? The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory might know — and if not, you’ll at least get a tasty treat out of your visit.
Here, the factory’s slow-release heat-rotating griddle wheel churns out as many as 10,000 fortune cookies every day. Some are the traditional vanilla flavor, while others are infused with chocolate or glazed with a hint of strawberry.
Come by to see how the cookies are made, or buy some to take home. They even do bulk orders for wedding parties and holiday gifts, plus you can grab branded souvenirs from the on-site shop.
7. Hang Ah Dim Sum Tea House
One of the smartest ways to experience authentic Chinese food is at a dim sum restaurant. At places such as Hang Ah Dim Sum Tea House, you can nibble on small bites bursting with flavor.
Instead of a single entree, you’re basically grazing the entire meal. The space is airy and simple but charmingly decorated, leaving the food as the inarguable star.
Dumplings abound, as do smaller protein-based plates, such as chicken feet with black bean sauce and rice noodle rolls with beef brisket.
It also has main dishes, as well as a bevy of fried rice options and soup noodles. The only downside is that your go-to takeout joint back home might never satisfy quite the same way again.
8. R&G Lounge
The culinary tour continues with Cantonese cuisine at R&G Lounge, a restaurant that embraces the Five Elements Theory that forms the cornerstone of so much of Chinese culture.
Every ingredient, technique, dish concept, and final recipe takes inspiration from the five energy fields — metal, water, earth, fire, and wood — that surround us.
You can experience that philosophy via dishes such as Salt & Pepper Live Crab and R&G Special Beef. Everything tastes fresh, with layers of complex flavors that leave no doubts as to why this restaurant keeps winning awards.
9. Eastern Bakery Inc.
This is no giant commercial bakery pumping out pumpkin pies with machine-like precision. Eastern Bakery Inc. is an ode to old-school pastry creation, and the adherence to tradition is evident in everything from the Chinese characters on the front awning to the menu posted inside.
The start of the show is the bakery’s mooncakes. These egg yolk-enriched pastries are shaped like fish, Buddha, small pigs, and lotus flowers, and the fillings are made of black bean, coconut, and taro. They’re so good, President Clinton once stopped by for a snack.
Cultural Events and Entertainment in Chinatown, San Francisco
A historic neighborhood built on a foundation of culture and community is a breeding ground for events that appeal not just to Chinese Americans but also to many other locals eager for enlightenment and entertainment.
Some are run by individual businesses, and others come together powered by groups that are passionate about sharing what it means to be Chinese.
Speaking of events — this city is a hot spot. New Year’s Eve in San Francisco is a party that no one wants to miss.
10. Autumn Moon Festival
The Autumn Moon Festival celebrates Asian mythology, especially the connection between the moon and water. There’s also an element of femininity — the moon represents yin, and historically, it was often women who made offerings of incense, flowers, fruit, and mooncakes during a moon festival.
The San Francisco Chinatown Merchants Association (SFCMA) runs the modern iteration of the age-old moon fest.
The stretch of Grant Avenue between California and Broadway explodes with lion dancing, children’s theater performances, singers, celebrity chef demonstrations, food vendors, and mooncakes galore.
Admission is free and the thoroughfare is pedestrian-only, so organizers recommend hopping on public transit.
11. The Great Star Theater
Like Buddha’s Universal Church, The Great Star Theater only exists thanks to a community-driven cleaning and renovation effort. The venue opened in 1925 as a 500-seat theater focusing on Chinese opera, movies, and artists.
Variety shows with international performers brought musical reviews and circus acts to San Francisco, and that same sense of wonder spawned all kinds of productions — perhaps even influencing touring masterpieces, such as our very own shows.
Great Star Theater is now the only theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The nonprofit venture hosts winter dance showcases, comedy festivals, and one-time-only events, such as the 55th Anniversary of The Beatles White Album Live in Concert.
Volunteers make up most of the ushers and other front-of-house staff, and even the plumbing and electrical work is often tasked to community members eager to help.
Attending a show supports the history of this iconic venue, as well as its future, ensuring a piece of Chinatown’s legacy remains intact for years to come.
Educational and Interactive Experiences
Looking to learn? These interactive and educational experiences help visitors connect with Chinatown through food, stories, and art.
12. Walking Tour With Wok Wiz
Chinatown isn’t meant to be seen at top speed. Wok Wiz Chinatown Walking Tours help you learn about the Chinese immigrant experience and proper tea brewing at a much more relaxed pace.
The Wok Wiz Classic Tour is a walk-only experience. Trek by herb shops, the local fortune cookie factory, a farmers market, and a Chinese temple. The icing on the mooncake, so to speak, is a mouthwatering dim sum lunch at a Chinatown restaurant.
Explore the bridge between cultures when you hit your stride with the Chow Ciao! Multicultural Stroll. This tour delves into the connection between China and Italy.
Learn why immigrants from those nations settled near each other, not only in San Francisco but also in NYC, Boston, and Chicago. Don’t worry, the food, like the stories, will be plentiful.
Finally, fervent foodies have their own tour called "I Can’t Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown." Bring your appetite and save room for everything from tea and dim sum to deli snacks and freshly baked pastries.
It’s one of the smartest ways to skip past touristy spots and get straight to the heart of traditional Chinese cuisine.
13. Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco
A venue with 20,000 square feet of space, a 299-seat auditorium, a dynamic gallery, multiple classrooms, and ample office space is still not enough to house the artistic potential facilitated by the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.
This is a safe place and source of amplification for pan-ethnic Asian American expression. Through education and contemporary art, the CCC is sharing voices from underserved communities that need to be heard.
Exhibits range from thought-provoking sculptural works to street murals created by youth artists excited to make their mark.
It’s free to visit the CCC, and there’s also an off-site community art space called 41 Ross where you can find more exhibitions and pop-up events.
Wrapping Up Your Chinatown Adventure
Your visit to Chinatown can be as simple as stopping by for an egg custard tart and a photo of a lantern-adorned storefront. But digging deeper into what it means to be Chinese in America and how all communities in the Bay area can learn from and support San Francisco’s Chinatown will make the experience so much sweeter.
Add an exclamation point to your weekend of exploration with tickets to one of our breathtaking performances. Our shows in San Francisco are joyful voyages into the kind of artistry that encourages you to dream big and create your own realm of the unexpected.
As authentic as they are exciting, our shows support diversity and the power of humanity — just like Chinatown.