San Francisco's Chinatown is the largest Chinese community on the West Coast, and the second largest in the United States next to New York City's. "This city within a city is a historic maze of mysterious sights, where an ancient culture from the other side of the world survives and flourishes with remarkable authenticity" It is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco which I had only a short time to wander through.
The reality of Chinatown is that there are two Chinatowns. One belongs to the locals, the other charms the tourists. They overlap and dance with each other, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Why the popularity? Because visitors expect something they won't find anywhere else. They expect to be stunned and enchanted and stuffed with great food. And you will. I can't wait to go back and explore on a deeper level and peel off the layers of what Chinatown is all about.
You don't need an itinerary to tackle Chinatown. Wandering aimlessly, weaving between locals and ducking into shops is enough of a plan. Main Street for tourists is Grant Avenue, which is more about cheap and kitschy plastic Buddhas than the long heritage of Chinatown. A word of advise if you are headed up to the North Beach area, Grant Street is a relatively flat route to the top without the use of the cable car system. It should definitely be seen, but moving on to the next block can be more rewarding.
Chinatown Gate is a gloriously decorated gate that marks the entry to Grant Avenue's Chinatown, the tourist's Chinatown. It was unveiled in 1970, and helped secure the street's status as the neighborhood's center. Once you're past the gate, you'll see elaborate 1920s streetlights sculpted to resemble golden dragons lighting the way. The sights and sounds of Chinatown are worth even a quick visit on your way to explore the rest of what San Francisco has to offer.