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The Union Square area bristles with big-city bravado, while just a stone's throw away is a place that feels like a city unto itself, Chinatown. The two areas share a strong commercial streak, although manifested very differently. In Union Square the crowds zigzag among international brands, trailing glossy shopping bags. A few blocks north, people dash between small neighborhood stores, their arms
draped with plastic totes filled with groceries or souvenirs.
The city's finest department stores put on their best faces in Union Square, along with such exclusive emporiums as Tiffany & Co. and Prada, and such big-name franchises as Niketown, the Apple Store, H&M, Barney's, and UNIQLO. Visitors lay their heads at several dozen hotels within a three-block walk of the square, and the downtown theater district and many fine-arts galleries are nearby. Union Square is shopping-centric; nonshoppers will find fewer enticements here.
A few blocks uphill from Union Square is the abrupt beginning of dense and insular Chinatown—the oldest such community in the country. When the street signs have Chinese characters, produce stalls crowd pedestrians off the sidewalk, and folks scurry by with telltale pink plastic shopping bags, you'll know you've arrived. (The neighborhood huddles together in the 17 blocks and 41 alleys bordered roughly by Bush, Kearny, and Powell streets and Broadway.) Chinatown has been attracting the curious for more than 100 years, and no other neighborhood in the city absorbs as many tourists without seeming to forfeit its character. Join the flow and step into another world. Good-luck banners of crimson and gold hang beside dragon-entwined lampposts and pagoda roofs, while honking cars chime in with shoppers bargaining loudly in Cantonese or Mandarin.
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The Mission has a number of distinct personalities: it's the Latino neighborhood, where working-class folks raise their families and where gangs...