Chinatown is an iconic location not only in San Francisco but also in the nation and worldwide. It has been both a magnet for Chinese immigrants for more than a century and a half and a key tourist destination for many decades. And for locals, Chinatown is an ideal place to buy Asian food products and cookware; eat great food, including Chinese pastries and dim sum; and absorb the uniqueness of the neighborhood, which, in some locations, feels like you are far away from San Francisco.
The main entrance, not to be missed, is at the corner of Grant and Bush Streets and is marked by the Dragon’s Gate, which depicts two Chinese dragons over an arch spanning Grant Street. The neighborhood itself is contained beyond the arch and within 24 city blocks, which form a rectangular shape bound by Broadway, Kearny, Bush, and Powell Streets on each of the four sides.
Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood in the City, with a population of more than 37,000 inhabitants all contained within 20 blocks. Therefore, the only housing options in this area are apartments and condos, owned or leased, but no single-family residences. The multifamily buildings are located, in some cases, above restaurants and shops, which means you need to choose a home carefully since some people often complain about noise and/or cooking smells emanating from the street level restaurants. That said, some of these same restaurants have great food.
Though busy and densely populated, in general, Chinatown is a relatively safe neighborhood. However, there are the occasional burglaries, car break-ins, and theft, which is par for the course for most large cities, but nothing out of the ordinary, at least not usually. The best option, if you plan on living in this neighborhood, is to contact the local police station to acquire crime data and statistics and visit crime information websites, such as www.spotcrime.com.
Multiple bus lines are crisscrossing the neighborhood, plus the cable car lines and the Cable Car Museum, are within a couple of blocks west of the neighborhood’s boundary. Chinatown is so centrally located that it only takes between 10 to 20 minutes on foot to reach popular locations, such as Union Square, the Financial District, and Market Street, depending on where you start your walk. Additionally, the central subway, which will start running in March 2021, will have a station near Stockton and Jackson Streets. The Central Subway line will run all the way to the Caltrain Station on 4th Street via Union Square and Market Street. It is expected to alleviate both bus transit and vehicular traffic in Chinatown.
Shopping and Dining
There are almost countless places to eat in Chinatown, which primarily offer Chinese cuisine. However, you can also find other Asian fares, such as sushi/Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese, and so on. One of the best things you can do is wander around, and whatever eatery looks good and/or interesting. And even though I think it is rather reckless to recommend any particular restaurant, I have to mention the Golden Dragon located at 822 Washington Street. Not only is the food delicious, but they specialize in Dim Sum as well. One of my favorite things to do on the weekend, but you can also try it during the week, is to go to the Golden Dragon stuff myself on the various Dim Sum choices.
There are ample choices for shopping here as well. Whether you want to buy some souvenirs, housewares, Chinese sleepers, meats, and produce, you will find what you need. Here too, I would like to mention two of my favorite shops:
- The Wok Shop, located at 718 Grant Street, not only sells all kinds of items for wok cooking, but they also have porcelain teacups, saucers, chopsticks of all kinds, and so on. Wander through the store, even if you do not buy anything, to see what they have
- Chinatown Kite Shop, located at 717 Grant Street, has a huge assortment of kites of all sizes, shapes, and patterns. In addition, they carry Chinese lanterns and other fun items. Check this store out as well. It should not be missed.
Parks and Recreation
Because of its density, there is very little space available for large parks. The closest option is Portsmouth Square on Kearny Street between Washington and Clay Streets. Though short on green spaces, the square is a great place to walk around and/or sit and relax. If you or your child/children want to lay down on the grass or be around a bit more nature, the best option is to head out to one of the other larger parks around the City.
Schools and Libraries
Because of the neighborhood, the local schools have Chinese immersion programs, in some cases, or at least Chinese language classes at a minimum. The public schools include Gordon J. Lau Elementary School, a public school; Commodore Stockton Early Education School, which is Presbyterian; the École Notre Dame des Victoires, a French-speaking Catholic school; and the Central Chinese High School of America, which dates back to 1888. For information regarding enrollment, courses, and so on, visit these schools’ webpages or San Francisco’s unified school district site at www.sfusd.edu for Gordon J. Lau Elementary’s information.
The Chinatown Branch Library, located at 1135 Powell Street, is worth visiting for the architecture alone. However, it has a sizable collection of written and visual media, including lots of options for children. The library was built in 1921 and has been renovated a few times, but the façade remains intact, as do the external double staircases leading to the library entrance.