When people talk about the most popular attractions in San Francisco, Chinatown is always at the top of the list. As the oldest Chinatown in the United States, the list of worthwhile things to do in Chinatown SF is long, but some activities are definitely worth putting at the top of your bucket list.
When you plan out your list of things to do in Chinatown SF, be sure to consider going to Chinatown in one of our GoCars or GoRide Phat Scooters. We offer San Francisco Chinatown Tours that take you through both Chinatown and the Union Square District.
But beyond our GoCar Tours, Chinatown is an amazing place to visit.
Take a look at our list of some of our favorite things to do in Chinatown SF:
- Take a GoCar Chinatown Tour
- Visit the Dragon Gate
- Tasting at Red Blossom Tea
- Eat some egg custard tarts at Golden Gate Bakery
- Visit Tin How, the oldest Taoist temple in the U.S.
- Grab a drink at Buddha Lounge, Li Po, or Mr Bing’s
1. Take a GoCar Chinatown Tour
GoCar’s San Francisco Chinatown Tours is a great way to get the lay of the land when visiting SF. The tour departs from Fisherman’s Wharf, which is separated from Chinatown by the equally colorful North Beach, a traditionally Italian American neighborhood that runs along Columbus Ave.
The transition between the neighborhoods is quick — turn the corner and the cafe’s and gelato joints of North Beach give way to dim sum houses and boba shops. Parking can be difficult in Chinatown, and GoCar’s traditional yellow sport vehicles and GoRide Scooters make parking a breeze in this bustling neighborhood. The tour sweeps through Union Square’s busy shopping district and the skyscrapers of downtown before passing Lion’s Gate at the entrance to Chinatown, returning to GoCar via a scenic drive along San Francisco’s famous waterfront.
2. Visit the Dragon Gate
Built in 1969 and dedicated in 1970, the San Francisco Dragon Gate, also known as the Dragon Gate sits on the corner of Grant Avenue and Bush Street at the entrance to Chinatown. The gate was conceived almost two decades earlier when the Chinese Chamber of Commerce decided that it might be a good idea to establish a traditional boundary to the entrance of Chinatown. Although it is known as the Dragon Gate it is actually guarded by two lions.
The male lion stands with his right paw on a pearl or stone, symbolically guarding the structure. The female lion’s left paw rests on a juvenile lion, which symbolizes the protection of those within the gate. The gate marks a very clear mark between the busy American downtown area and the China district. A photograph in front of the gate is a definite “must” on your list of things to do in Chinatown SF.
3. Tasting at Red Blossom Tea
Located on bustling Grant Street, Red Blossom Tea is a must-visit spot when in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Originally called Yau Hing, the store opened over 35 years ago as an apothecary, with imported herbs from China. Today, the store focuses on Chinese teas, which are presented in a tasting and tutorial about how to properly brew each style.
There are a multitude of flavors to choose from: including both traditional green and black tea, as well as more specialty flavors, like winter melon sugar, which come in a 1 pound block. Red Blossom is staffed with knowledgeable salespeople, and the whole experience is an educational and relaxing way to experience something authentically Chinese while looking for things to do in Chinatown SF.
4. Egg custard tarts at Golden Gate Bakery
A truly San Franciscan experience, Golden Gate Bakery is widely considered to make the best Egg custard tarts outside of China. Egg custard tarts, consisting of baked pastry shells with an egg custard filling, were introduced to Guangzhou by English and Portuguese traders and became a popular dim sum treat. Golden Gate Bakery sells them alongside other traditional baked goods from an unassuming storefront on Grant Street. But don’t let the unassuming facade fool you — this store has been written up by Conde Nast and is a go-to spot for Chinese expatriates all over the Bay Area.
Be forewarned, this might be one of the hardest things to do in Chinatown SF. The cash-only mom-and-pop bakery is so well-loved, (and sporadically open) that loyal customers even created a website dedicated to whether they are open that day or not. It is not uncommon for customers to line up before the store is open and wait as the tarts are baked just so they can get a warm one right out of the oven. They open at 8 am… in theory. Check the website to be sure!
5. Visit Tien Hau, the oldest Taoist temple in the U.S.
Located in the alley of Waverly Place, between Clay and Washington Tien Hau was built in 1852 and is dedicated to Mazu, the Chinese Goddess of the Sea, who is said to protect sailors and seafarers. The building itself was destroyed, as was much of the surrounding area, in the 1906 earthquake.
The original image of the artist, bell, and altar survived and was incorporated into the unassuming building that houses the temple on the 4th floor. Visitors can enter for free most days between 10 am and 3 pm, with the permission of the attendant on duty. Besides the bright red donor lanterns that hang from the ceiling and the ornate offerings that are laid out for the Goddess, one of the biggest draws is being able to enter the building at all.
Visitors to Chinatown may notice that they very rarely are able to enter a building and go above the first level. This is because most buildings in Chinatown are mixed-use, with apartments in the upper floors. Tien Hau is one of the few public buildings in San Francisco’s Chinatown that allows entry above the first level, and offers a bird’s eye view of both Waverly Street and the Transamerica building, which is a few blocks away.
6. Grab a drink at the Buddha Lounge, Li Po, or Mr Bing’s
Chinatown’s storied bars are some of the best places to experience the city at its most eclectic. The big three Chinatown Bars are all local dives that happily welcome tourists. Buddha Lounge’s iconic neon sign and mushroom-shaped door makes for a great photo. The friendly bartenders often play dice with guests for drinks (just remember, if you lose, you owe them). The bar is no-frills and cash only.
If you don’t have cash, Li Po Cocktail Lounge is right up the street. Known for their Chinese Mai Tais, which were apparently a favorite of Anthony Bourdain when he was in town, Li Po also has a secret underground bar area when the regular bar fills up (which is often).
Finally, on the outskirts of Chinatown, Mr. Bings serves up a slice of Cheer’s-like atmosphere on the corner of Columbus and Pacific, which is slightly removed from the bustle of Grant Street. The u-shaped bar fills the small space and patrons can easily talk (or yell) across the bar, encouraged by the always quirky and friendly bartenders in this neighborhood favorite.
7. Visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Everyone has had a fortune cookie, and watching them get made at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is one of the best things to do in Chinatown SF. Founded in 1962, the factory and shop are located in Ross Alley, although the delicious smell of the baking cookies almost makes directions unnecessary.
The location is small, but boasts a multitude of fortune cookie options for sale, from traditional to green tea, strawberry, and chocolate-dipped cookies, there’s something for everyone. The factory is a popular local school field trip and feels both informative and warmly nostalgic. I guarantee you will remember the bustling, vanilla-scented factory every time you have a fortune cookie.