From New York to Los Angeles and Boston to Honolulu, in almost every major city throughout the U.S., you’ll find a Chinatown. But for the best mouthwatering, history-drenched and lantern-illuminated experience, there’s no comparison to the original: the San Francisco Chinatown. Take a walk through history with us as we take you on a brief tour of the oldest Chinatown in America.

Wǒmen zǒu ba — Let’s go!

San Franciso’s Chinatown Then & Now

The first Chinese telephone operator in Chinatown, circa 1900-1930

In 1848, a sailing vessel, the Eagle, docked at San Francisco port. Among the passengers were two men and one woman from China and as they disembarked the ship, they also became the very first Chinese immigrants of the Californian Bay Area. Thus was born America’s oldest Chinatown. Historically, this was the starting point for most new Chinese migrants into the U.S., even for those who traveled beyond to the North, South and the East of the U.S.,  which gives it a special place in the hearts of many Chinese-Americans throughout the nation until today.

As in the case of most immigrants, life in a foreign nation, so far and different from home, was riddled with hardships and the creation story of this famed Chinatown was clouded with prejudice and poverty. From the California Gold Rush that beckoned in Chinese immigrants by the thousands to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the nation’s first racially restrictive immigration legislation) and alas to the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake fires, this area was forced to be built and rebuilt many times over. But despite the setbacks, this Chinatown thrived; after the racial law was lifted post-World War II, the area quickly started to lure in tourists who wanted to find out more about the Chinese culture, eventually becoming the bustling commercial hub that it is now.

Today, San Fran’s Chinatown is bursting with life, with a whopping 15,000 residents, making it the densest population within the densest city of California — and it attracts more visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge itself!

Get Your History Fix

Gateway Arch

If it’s a stroll through history you’re looking for, then there’s no better place to start than the Dragon Gate (a.k.a Gateway Arch), an ornate, pagoda-topped gate adorned with lion, dragons and fish (oh my?) that serves as a welcoming entrance into Chinatown.  Created by traditional materials donated by the Republic of China in 1969, this gate was created to resemble the ceremonial gates you’d find in many villages in China and stands today as the only authentic Chinatown Gate in all of North America!

Tien Hau Temple

Once you’re in, make your way down Waverly Place, and trust us when we say, you’ll stop in your tracks to gaze at the Tien Hau Temple — the oldest Taoist temple in the U.S. Founded in 1854, this stunning temple was built to honor Tien Hau, the Goddess of Heaven and Sea, and inside you’ll find an elaborate shrine to the Goddess, as well as hundreds of lanterns adorned above it and a balcony that offers a breathtaking birdseye view of Chinatown.

Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral

Next up — a Registered Historic Landmark. Originally built in 1854 (and rebuilt in 1909 post-earthquake), this Gothic-style Catholic Cathedral was the first Asian church in North America, initially made by imported stone and brick from China. Besides it’s obvious prevalence to the local Chinese community, this landmark was also a space that was used to host events for the servicemen and women of World War II, offering a way for different immigrant enclaves to come together in one place.

Portsmouth Square

Considered the birthplace of San Francisco, the history of this area is marked by some incredible diversity. What started out as the home of the Mexican community Yerba Buena in the early 19th century, eventually turned into the popular community park that today is nicknamed “the heart of Chinatown” and is filled with Chinese chess tables, playgrounds, landscapes and a four-level underground parking garage.

Sweet, Spicy and Everything Nice(y)

You can’t visit the oldest (or any, for that matter) Chinatown and not immediately turn your foodie senses on. Brimming with restaurants, bake shops and tea houses (some dating back to the early 1900’s), San Francisco’s Chinatown is a treasure trove when it comes to delicious eats.

Keeping to the practices of the traditional, five-element Chinese kitchen (recipes, techniques, ingredients, history and memories), the R&G Lounge is a longstanding establishment that foodies from near and far still flock to at all times of the day. While you’re here, don’t miss out on some of their signature, high-quality Cantonese classics such as seasoned Dungeness crab and tender, glazed spare ribs! If dim sum is more your thing when it comes to dining out for Chinese delicacies, check out Great Eastern, a quintessential dim sum restaurant in Chinatown and a local favorite that’s so good, it’s even attracted famous patrons such as Barack Obama!

If you thought the Golden Gate Bridge attracted a lot of visitors, just wait until you see the line that usually wraps around the Golden Gate Bakery! Be sure to get there early to try their famous dan tat (traditional Chinese egg custard tarts) before they run out. If you happen to be here around the mid-autumn festival, don’t forget to grab a mooncake too. And while we’re talking sweet-tooth fixes, don’t forget to check out the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where you can try homemade fortune cookies while taking a free tour around the tiny kitchen and factory to see how these clairvoyant, yummy treats are made.

Whether you’re here to pay homage to its resilient history, or you’re itching to venture to the innumerable restaurants, bars, tea parlors and specialty stores filled with fabrics and Chinese herbs — prepare yourself for a unique and unforgettable cultural experience when visiting San Francisco‘s Chinatown!


Been here before? Tell us about your favorite spots in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the comment section! 

About The Author

Tasmiah Rashid

In a past life, Tasmiah was either a Bollywood actress, renowned ethnographer or master chef; no questions asked. In this one, she is a shower-singing, croissant enthusiast, who also writes content for Fareportal, in that order.