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Exploring Chinatown Like a Local

Exploring Chinatown Like a Local

colorful buildings in chinatown san francisco

Chinatown is a confluence of old San Francisco and new. While the neighborhood is one of the most well-known in San Francisco, it's not necessarily the easiest to write about. I live on the edge between Chinatown and Nob Hill and walk through Chinatown on my way to and from work every single day, and I still have trouble with how to tell its story. 

To an outsider, the neighborhood has changed little since the late 1800s, when the Chinese were excluded from many aspects of civic life. The neighborhood was rebuilt with a nod to what Westerners thought of as Chinese or Asian architecture after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 and quickly grew into both a tourist destination and magnetic community for new Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans alike. 

Today, Chinatown is The City's most crowded neighborhood, with an official density of nearly 75,000 people per square mile. The neighborhood is full of traditional and Americanized food and souvenirs. It feels like you're somewhere outside of the U.S., and sounds like it too. To a tourist, the neighborhood can seem intimidating, dirty and a little like Disneyland. What's real, and what's not? 

To really experience the neighborhood, please venture off of Grant Ave., avoid the tchotchke shops and don't eat at the restaurants that hand out flyers. Just like visiting a city in another country, look for restaurants with lines, keep a look out for what locals are eating and drinking and be wary of deals that seem too good to be true. Be prepared to walk a lot and climb some hills. The neighborhood is a bit of a maze, but is full of beautiful hidden places and pretty views.

From Union Square, walk up Grant Ave. through the Dragon's Gate. Don't take a photo. Walk up Grant a few blocks to Sacramento Street, and head up that gigantic hill. Don't worry, you don't have to go all the way up! Mid-block turn right and head onto Waverly Place. It's easily the cutest and best kept alley in Chinatown. The lanterns always look fresh and are lit up at night. You'll find some delicious Boba at Cool Tea Bar, tons of small casual eateries and the Michelin favorite Mister Jiu's.

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map of chinatown street art city exploration
exploring chinatown's alleys

If you're looking for Dim Sum, which is traditionally a breakfast/brunch/lunch food and not usually served at dinner try Hang Ah Dim Sum Tea House (supposedly the oldest/first dim sum in SF) or Great Eastern (where President Obama go food to-go) if you want to sit down, or Dol Ho, Wing Sing Dim Sum or Ming Heung Dim Sum for good dim sum to go. 

One of the only super touristy spot I fully recommend is The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company on Ross Alley. The cookies are fresh and smell amazing. The alley is less manicured than Waverly, but feels very authentic. There's street art and some nice urban architecture. 

If you're looking for a strong drink, try Li Po Lounge (try a Chinese Mai Tia) or Buddha Bar (get a Buddha Beer), both on Grant Ave. between Washington and Jackson.

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how to experience chinatown like a local
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guide to san francisco chinatown walking

The neighborhood closes up a bit early, so morning or evening are best for exploring. For a taste of local living, walk Stockton Street instead of Grant. This is the neighborhood's true backbone and is full of green grocers, butchers and fish mongers. Most places are cash only, but don't be intimidated. You'll find tropical fruits like star fruit, dragon fruit and papaya next to a huge variety of citrus, seasonal American fruits and veggies, and a diverse range of dried everything. 

Like the rest of San Francisco, the buildings here are colorful and full of local character. I'm constantly noticing new buildings, fresh paint jobs and new lanterns popping up. Even the street lights are intricately painted. Keep an eye out for the wild parrots and local falcons and hawks that call this part of The City home. Remember that people live here, work here and need to do laundry here. Please don't litter--there's enough of that already. Try new foods and keep an open mind. Chinatown isn't the easiest place to explore, but it's well worth the effort.

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