San Francisco's Chinatown is a large area, densely-packed with interesting things to see. Wandering through the streets and alleys of Chinatown is a lot of fun, either on a guided walking tour or a do-it-yourself tour.
|Do-It-Yourself Tour||Guided Tours||Chinatown Tour Map|
There's something to be said for either approach to exploring Chinatown.
The tour is an easy and efficient way of getting around and seeing a lot, and you don't have to spend a lot of time reading about the history of every place beforehand. The tours usually take an hour or two, then you can head out on your own to poke around in the alleys, do a tea tasting, look around in the shops, and have a leisurely lunch.
San Francisco City Guides is a local non-profit organization, associated with the SF Public Library, that does free tours of all sorts of San Francisco attractions. The tours are conducted by trained volunteers who are very knowledgeable, and have a real interest in the subject. I've been on their Chinatown tour and highly recommend it.
How the free tours work: the times and meeting locations are listed on their website. There are no reservations; people just show up at the appointed time and place. The Chinatown tour lasts about an hour and a half, and it's free. They do ask for a donation to the non-profit organization at the end, but there's no pressure (the tip doesn't go to the tour guide). See for the tour schedule.
In addition to the Chinatown tour, I've been on several others of their tours and I've really enjoyed them.
There are also some highly-rated, reasonably-priced walking tours that take you around the Chinatown hot spots.
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Viator has a popular tour that takes you around the markets, schools, fortune cookie factory, Chinatown alleys, temples, herbal shops, etc., and explains the fascinating history of this community. It's two hours and $35 for adults, children $25. For more info and booking, see San Francisco Chinatown Walking Tour.
They also give you an option to add on a 10 course dim sum lunch...yum!
Another popular Chinatown tour is the "ghost" tour. You probably won't see any ghosts, but this is a lively presentation that takes you around Chinatown at night, into the alleys, and goes through a lot of the darker history of the neighborhood. Locals have enjoyed this one as well. 90 minutes, $29. For more info and booking, see San Francisco Chinatown Ghost Tour
If you are planning to do a Hop On Hop Off Bus tour, the 2 and 3-day bus tour passes with City Sightseeing include a choice of one of the San Francisco walking tours using the popular do-it-yourself, GPS-based, Detour app (one of which is a Chinatown tour). See Hop On Hop Off Bus tours for more info and booking.
I've listed what I think are the most interesting things to see and do in Chinatown.
I haven't given a step by step sequence to follow, because there are so many ways to walk through the neighborhood, but going in numerical order is probably the most efficient way of doing it. I've marked the places on the map (below) you can use to navigate, and print it out if you would like.
Before you head out to explore, I think the tour will be more interesting if you get a glimpse what life was like here during the Gold Rush era and early 1900's. These streets, and especially the alleys, have seen some rough times, very different from their charming appearance of today.
On my page about Chinatown history, I've included information and photographs from the Gold Rush period and the lawless times that followed, before the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the entire neighborhood.
To download a PDF of the map: click here.
To download a PDF of the key: click here.
The following are some additional spots that might also be interesting to check out:
To download a PDF of the list of additional places to explore click here.
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