San Francisco Walking Tour: Chinatown
North America’s oldest Chinatown is a sensory immersion: You’ll hear clicking abacus beads, catch a whiff of incense, and gaze up at the buildings’ flaring pagoda flourishes and varying flags (the red Chinese banner or Taiwanese blue). Saturdays are busiest, when locals join the shopping swarm.
Two stone lions practically purr for a photo op, flanking this pagoda-style arch.
This busy commercial strip teems with souvenir shops, antiques dealers, herbalists, and gawkers. You’ll find several treasures among the tat, like the bright kites at the Chinatown Kite Shop (717 Grant Ave.). Be sure to sample a moon cake at Golden Gate Bakery (1029 Grant Ave.).
Locals do their shopping here, in a welter of groceries; follow your nose among the exotic fruit, dried mushrooms, mysterious spices, and buckets of shellfish. The Chinese Six Companies building (843 Stockton St.), once a politicians’ hub, is a vivid example of the neighborhood’s architecture. The red, yellow, and green paint job signals luck, power, and prosperity.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
A whiff of vanilla leads you to this cramped shotgun space. Workers deftly pull warm, golden discs off the spinning machines, then flip and fold them into fortune cookies.
Red Blossom Tea Company
In this glossy, tranquil shop, lift the lids from dozens of canisters to sniff the teas within. The staff enthusiastically describes everything from delicate oolong to smoky black teas; they’ll also steep tasting samples.
Old St. Mary’s Cathedral
California’s first cathedral has a small but moving display of photos of turn-of-the-century Chinatown, and of the devastating aftermath of the 1906 Great Quake.
Tien Hau Temple
Climb up to the fourth floor to the country’s oldest Chinese temple, a shrine to Tien Hau, the Goddess of Heaven and the Sea. Fringed red lanterns throng the ceiling, and Taoists send up puffs of incense with their prayers.
Dim sum fanatics often gravitate to the Richmond neighborhood, but this Cantonese spot lures them back to Chinatown. Go for cilantro-spiked shrimp dumplings and xiao long bao (soup dumplings).