Chinatown, a city within a city

San Francisco's Chinatown is a major tourist attraction. It is visited as often as the Golden Gate Bridge and is home to the largest Chinese community outside China. It has undergone rapid and impressive development, eventually becoming one of the city's most popular spots. Restaurants, shops, Portsmouth Square, markets, the area is packed with things to see and do.

San Francisco's Chinatown

- © Michael Urmann / Shutterstock

The history of Chinatown

Created in the 1850s, it was originally a stopover for Chinese immigrants fleeing the many problems in China at the time. Famines, rebellions, political tensions, citizens were leaving the country by the thousands in search of a better life. And San Francisco's new prosperity thanks to trade and gold mining sounded like a new beginning in a young country.

Archive showing a Chinese hospital in Chinatown, San Francisco

- © Darren Burnett / Shutterstock

The Americans took a dim view of their arrival and tried to exclude them through discriminatory laws and repressive regulations. Gradually, the Chinese settled in a certain part of the city, now known as "Chinatown". Today, these laws no longer exist and the Chinese community is very involved in the life of the city. In 2011, the first mayor of Chinese origin was elected.

© Geroge Burba / 123RF

A day in Chinatown

There are many entrances to Chinatown, but the most classic and impressive is the Dragon Gate. You'll find it to the south on the corner of Grant Avenue and Bush Street. Comprising 3 pagodas, it is reminiscent of traditional Chinese village gates.

© Andrew Zarivny / Shutterstock

Once through the door, it's not unpleasant to wander the streets without really trying to get anywhere, just letting yourself be carried away by the atmosphere. Don't hesitate to push open the doors of shops, grocery shops, Chinese pharmacies and restaurants. Discovering and being surprised are the key words to appreciate this district. The Stockton Street market is a must, offering some of the freshest and cheapest produce in the area. It can get very crowded on Saturday afternoons, so try to avoid the crowds on another day.

Street market in Chinatown, San francisco

- © melv.tham / Shutterstock

Another obligatory and relaxing stop is Portsmouth Square. Considered to be the "heart of Chinatown", it is along this square that the district was born. The United States flag was first raised here in 1846. Today, it serves as a gathering place for the community, who meet there to practise Tai-chi or play mah jong, often early in the morning. Later in the day, chess lovers gather here. Fancy a game?

View of the city skyline from Portsmouth Square

- © travelview / Shutterstock

Did you know that the little fortune cookies* served in Chinese restaurants around the world came from the ovens of San Francisco? More specifically, from the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. They were first produced in 1962 and quickly became very popular. Given out at the end of a meal, these cakes can contain messages such as sayings of wisdom, lottery numbers or random statements that are supposed to predict the future. Visits are organised to see the manufacturing process and learn more.

Photo of a worker putting the messages inside the wafers

- © tehcheesiong / 123RF

One last visit to end the day: the Chinese Cultural Centre. Founded in 1963, it is the oldest organisation dedicated to documenting Sino-American history. You can see exhibitions, an art gallery and handicrafts. Publications and public and educational programmes are also developed. It's the place to go to learn more about the history that links China and the United States, and a great way to end your visit to Chinatown.

Editor's tips

Chinatown is best visited at lunchtime, not only to enjoy the many delicious restaurants, but also because this is the time of day when all the shops are open. It's easy to spend the whole day in Chinatown, though. Going there in the evening can be enjoyable, even if there is less activity, and you can admire the light displays and colourful farandoles.

Where to sleep nearby?

Omni San Francisco San Francisco
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Omni San Francisco

4-star hotel located just a stone's throw from Chinatown, with elegant rooms and a restaurant.
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by Jude JONES
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