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Waverly Place in Chinatown, San Francisco
Photograph: Courtesy SF Travel

The 18 best things to do in Chinatown, San Francisco

Find so much to do in San Francisco's Chinatown, including fine dining, dim sum, local markets and cool shops

Clara Hogan
Written by
Lauren Sheber
&
Clara Hogan
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San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the city's most vibrant and culturally significant enclaves. As one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States, the neighborhood offers architectural and historical importance—and serves as a testament to the enduring immigrant spirit and cultural diversity that defines the city.

Today, visitors can experience tradition, history, modernity, and innovation thanks to a recent uptick in new restaurants and shops. 

Truly, the best way to experience Chinatown is to eat and drink your way through. From incredible, authentic dim sum to family-run eateries as well as newer, high-end spots, you won't go hungry. And once you’re full, walk it off by wandering the bustling streets adorned with iconic red lanterns, stopping into various markets, tea shops and art galleries. Overall, Chinatown is one of the best neighborhoods in San Francisco to explore, drink and eat. Here are our top things to do in the neighborhood.  

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Best things to do in Chinatown, San Francisco

In 1970, Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee designed and erected this postcard-famous gate at the southern end of Chinatown along Grant Avenue. It’s a natural jumping-off point for exploring the neighborhood. With its stone pillars, green-tiled pagodas, and dragon sculptures, this gate is the only authentic Chinatown gate in the country. A trio of stone lion statues guards the three entryways, said to ward off evil. Each passage has a sign hanging over it written in Chinese. The center one reads: “All under heaven is for the good of the people”; the right and left signs read “respect; love” and “trust; peace.”

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This two-story emporium by restaurateur and renowned chef George Chen is a sprawling Chinese food, drink and craft marketplace. The ground floor contains a market-style restaurant and bar, a tea cafe, and a retail space selling spices, teas, Chinese condiments, produce, and cookware. Upstairs, you’ll find Eight Tables, Chen’s upscale, reservation-only restaurant with a $150 five-course tasting menu or $250 eight-course tasting menu (plus a $150 optional wine pairing). 

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  • Chinatown
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This family-owned teahouse is a Chinatown standby, serving rare teas from China and Taiwan. Each year, the owners take a sourcing trip through the provinces, collecting new varieties of black, white, herbal, flowering and rare teas, such as an aged orchid from the Guangdong Province. The narrow store includes two small tables for tastings, where the knowledgeable staff lecture on the loose leaves' origin, harvest and preparation. 

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Sisters Renee and Tiffany Tam opened this airy, modern boutique in the spring of 2018. The pair grew up working in their family’s store nearby and they branched off on their own to pursue a shared passion: handcrafted silk and charmeuse kimonos. The vivid robes are adorned with birds and blooming botanical prints, each sketched and painted by hand. Though they’re created using age-old techniques, the kimonos have become popular contemporary layering pieces.

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  • Chinatown
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Bar Agricole alum Brandon Jew opened this ambitious homage to Cantonese food in 2016, melding traditional flavors and modern cooking techniques. Located in the former Four Seas space, the sunny, airy dining room presents a mashup of old and new, from the minimalist, mid-century wood furniture to the ornate gold floral chandeliers overhead, salvaged from Four Seas. The Michelin-starred restaurant serves inventive twists on classic dishes—think Dutch Crunch BBQ pork buns, a chicken feet terrine flavored with lime, chili, and sorrel, and Hodo tofu skin served with Sungold tomatoes, purslane, and cured egg yolk.

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Plentea has earned a devout following for its wide range of bubble teas, served in reusable glass jars. Sweet ice milk teas are particularly popular, as are the sea salt cremas. Each can be topped with jelly, pudding, aloe, or the house-made honey tapioca.

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  • Bars
  • Russian Hill
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Empress by Boon—from Malaysia-born Michelin-starred Chef Ho Chee Boon—is one of the most exciting restaurants to open in San Francisco recently. The restaurant opened its doors in June 2021, debuting a fully restored interior (inside the former space of Empress of China, an iconic Cantonese banquet hall in the heart of Chinatown that operated for roughly 50 years) that modernizes the space while keeping some of its original woodwork. Chef Ho, a Michelin-starred chef with experience at restaurants around the world (including Hakkasan), presents a prix fixe menu at a startingly reasonable rate of $78, as well as a separate small bites menu that’s served in a trendy bar area. The menu focuses on modern takes on traditional Cantonese fare prepared with local ingredients, many from the restaurant’s own organic farm in Gilroy, California.

8. Waverly Place

Don't miss Chinatown's iconic Waverly Place, located between Washington and Sacramento streets. This street is well-known and frequently visited for its colorful balconies and beautiful, dangling red lanterns. Snap your photos, then head to Michelin-starred Mister Jiu's, which calls this street home.

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  • Chinatown
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On any given day in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square, you’ll see locals perched on benches, shoveling dumplings into their mouths from steaming containers. They likely got them at Good Mong Kok, a tiny bakery nearby. There’s no indoor seating here, so follow the system: Wait at the entrance until you’re beckoned inside by the fast-moving servers at the counter. You’ll find well-executed delicacies like melt-in-your-mouth shrimp har gow, flavorful pork shumai, and sizable baked and steamed barbecue pork buns. For dessert, opt for the custard-filled pineapple bun.

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Veer down Ross Alley and look for the red lanterns hanging out front to find the unassuming Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which has been in existence since 1962. Though tiny—the entire operation consists of a handful of workers hunched over conveyor belts, folding messages into cookies by hand—it’s mighty: the factory cranks out around 20,000 cookies a day, supplying perfectly crackly after-dinner treats to hundreds of local restaurants. Watch the golden fortune cookie wafers coming off the machine, pancake-like, before being bent into their traditional shape. (The women working will even let you sample a freebie, hot off the griddle.) The front end of the sparse space is lined with various varieties of fortune cookies available for purchase: green tea, strawberry, chocolate-coated, sprinkle-covered, and R-rated. You can even personalize your own fortune, to be tucked into a fresh cookie.

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