Walking through San Francisco’s Chinatown kinda feels like you’ve been transported half way across the world into Asia.
You’ll hear a variety of dialects being spoken, you’ll see locals grocery shopping and drying their clothes off balconies. You might even pass by people in the park practicing Tai Chi. You’ll notice that everything is practically in Chinese with some broken English, street vendors selling unusual items, a lack of Starbucks, and TONS of unique and exciting food choices.
So whether you’re a tourist or local, this is a fun place to check out for an adventure: cheap eats, great food, people watching, and tonnnns of culture.
Here’s the same advice I would give my BFFs when they ask for recs in Chinatown, SF
This is my insider’s guide:
1. Start your morning off right by grabbing some breakfast at one of the Cantonese dim sum spots.
Good Mong Kok Bakery is where you should go if you’re on a time crunch & don’t have time for a sit-down meal. It’s a small hole-in-the-wall shop, serving some of the best baked goods and dim sum in SF. Plus, everything is suppperrrr cheap too. See the pic collage above? Everything in TOTAL was under $5 bucks (cash only). It’s perfect for to-go orders and anyone who wants to stop by for a quick snack before exploring the rest of Chinatown.
When it’s your turn at the counter, don’t hold up the line by being too indecisive. While you probably won’t know any of the names, just point and choose (it’s all bomb… trust me).
Lai Hong Lounge is where you should be if you have time for a full dim-sum experience. They have awesome food with cheap prices, hence why the weekend lines are pretty long. If you can, come during the weekday or during off hours.
2. After brunch and a full stomach, start exploring!
Chinatown isn’t that big, so you can wander aimlessly- weaving between locals while checking out souvenir shops is enough of a plan.
Grant Avenue is where you can get all the touristy stuff, like plastic Buddhas, “I LOVE Chinatown” t-shirts, key chains, you might even find your name written in Chinese.
It should definitely be seen, maybe even for a pic or two, but also check out the streets where the locals live.
For a deep immersion into Chinatown, be sure to examine the produce and live markets that line Stockton Street (between Columbus and Broadway) on a weekend afternoon. This is where all the locals do their shopping, and Saturday is the busiest day.
3. After you’re done walking, it’s time for a snack!
You HAVE to go to Golden Gate Bakery for their famous egg tarts. It’s warm and light with a flaky crust, filled with custard inside. — for only $1.35 each.
And while the egg tarts are all the rage, they’ve also got sweet lotus seed paste moon cakes and other pastries. Just point at the sinful looking sweets behind the counter and you’ll fill one of those classic pink bakery boxes in no time.
After you fill your pink bakery box, enjoy it immediately! Err.. take a pic!
4. Next, visit Golden Gate Fortune Cookies: anyone can come in and watch the cookies being made, sample a cookie, and pick up a bag of 40 cookies for $3 (<– super cheap, right?)
While there are other ones in the city, this is the only spot where the cookies are made by hand, the old-fashioned way. There are two ladies manning a conveyor belt of what looks like miniature waffle irons.
And after you’re done exploring the rest of Chinatown, you could probably end your trip here.
For those of you who have time to see more:
5. Check out Waverly Place AKA “the street of the painted balconies.”
The street was formerly nicknamed “15 Cent Street” because you could get a haircut here for a nickel and a dime; today trims start at $6.
6. While you’re there, check out “Tin How Temple”
Climb three flights of stairs to find the oldest Chinese temple in the U.S. (founded in 1852). Beneath a ceiling filled with TONS of golden lanterns and amid smoky ribbons of incense, you’ll find locals praying quietly in a small room.
PS: It’s worth checking out if you’re already there, but besides the 2-min walk around the temple gawking at how beautiful everything is, there’s not much else to do.
Hope this helps plan out your trip to Chinatown.
And don’t forget to grab an egg tart!