11 Best Sights in Chinatown, San Francisco

Tin How Temple

Chinatown Fodor's choice
Tin How Temple
<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/taylorrussell/5264928189/">IMG_0646</a> by

In 1852, Day Ju, one of the first three Chinese to arrive in San Francisco, dedicated this temple to the Queen of the Heavens and the Goddess of the Seven Seas, and the temple looks largely the same today as it did more than a century ago. Duck into the inconspicuous doorway, climb three flights of stairs, and be surrounded by the aroma of incense in this tiny, altar-filled room. In the entryway, elderly ladies can often be seen preparing "money" to be burned as offerings to various Buddhist gods or as funds for ancestors to use in the afterlife. Hundreds of red-and-gold lanterns cover the ceiling; the larger the lamp, the larger its donor's contribution to the temple. Gifts of oranges, dim sum, and money left by the faithful, who kneel while reciting prayers, rest on altars to different gods. Tin How presides over the middle back of the temple, flanked by one red and one green lesser god. Taking photographs is not allowed.

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125 Waverly Pl., San Francisco, CA, 94108, USA
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free, donations accepted

Chinatown Gate

Chinatown
Chinatown Gate
photo.ua / Shutterstock

At the official entrance to Chinatown, stone lions flank the base of the pagoda-topped gate; the lions, dragons, and fish up top symbolize wealth, prosperity, and other good things. The four Chinese characters immediately beneath the pagoda represent the philosophy of Sun Yat-sen, the leader who unified China in the early 20th century. Sun Yat-sen, who lived in exile in San Francisco for a few years, promoted the notion of friendship and peace among all nations based on equality, justice, and goodwill. The vertical characters under the left pagoda read "peace" and "trust," the ones under the right pagoda "respect" and "love." The whole shebang telegraphs the internationally understood message of "photo op." Immediately beyond the gate, dive into souvenir shopping on Grant Avenue, Chinatown's tourist strip.

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Chinese Culture Center

Chinatown

Chiefly a place for the community to gather for calligraphy and tai chi workshops, the center operates a gallery with interesting temporary exhibits by Chinese and Chinese American artists. Excellent political, historical, and food-focused walking tours of Chinatown depart from the gallery.

750 Kearny St., San Francisco, CA, 94108, USA
415-986–1822
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Rate Includes: Center and gallery free (donations suggested), tour $45, Closed Sun.

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Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and Learning Center

Chinatown

The displays at this small, light-filled gallery document the Chinese-American experience—from 19th-century agriculture to 21st-century food and fashion trends—and include a thought-provoking collection of racist games and toys. The facility also has temporary exhibits of works by contemporary Chinese-American artists.

965 Clay St., San Francisco, CA, 94108, USA
415-391–1188
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Rate Includes: $15, free 1st Sun. of month, Closed Mon.

Chinese Six Companies

Chinatown

Once the White House of Chinatown, this striking building has balconies and lion-supported columns. Begun as an umbrella group for the many family and regional tongs (mutual-aid and fraternal organizations) that sprang up to help gold-rush immigrants, the Chinese Six Companies functioned as a government within Chinatown, settling disputes among members and fighting against anti-Chinese laws. The business leaders who ran the six companies (which still exist) dominated the neighborhood's political and economic life for decades. The building is closed to the public.

Dragon House

Chinatown

A veritable museum, the store sells authentic, centuries-old antiques like ivory carvings and jade figures (including a naughty statue or two).

455 Grant Ave., San Francisco, CA, 94108, USA
415-421–3693

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

Chinatown

Follow your nose down Ross Alley to this tiny but fragrant cookie factory. Two workers sit at circular motorized griddles and wait for dollops of batter to drop onto a tiny metal plate, which rotates into an oven. A few moments later, out comes a cookie that's pliable and ready for folding. It's easy to peek in for a moment, and hard to leave without getting a few free samples and then buying a bagful of fortune cookies for snacks and wisdom later.

Kong Chow Temple

Chinatown

This ornate temple to the god of honesty and trust sets a somber, spiritual tone right away with a sign warning visitors not to touch anything. Chinese stores and restaurants often display his image because he's thought to bring good luck in business. Chinese immigrants established the temple in 1851; its congregation moved to this building in 1977. Take the elevator up to the fourth floor, where incense fills the air. You can show respect by placing a dollar or two in the donation box and by leaving your phone stowed. Amid the statuary, flowers, and richly colored altars (red wards off evil spirits and signifies virility, green symbolizes longevity, and gold connotes majesty), a couple of plaques announce that "Mrs. Harry S. Truman came to this temple in June 1948 for a prediction on the outcome of the election . . . this fortune came true." The temple's balcony has a good view of Chinatown.

855 Stockton St., San Francisco, CA, 94108, USA
415-788–1339
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Rate Includes: Free

Old Chinese Telephone Exchange

Chinatown

After the 1906 earthquake, many Chinatown buildings were rebuilt in Western style with pagoda roof and fancy balconies slapped on. This building—today East West Bank—is the exception, an example of top-to-bottom Chinese architecture. The intricate three-tier pagoda was built in 1909. To the Chinese, it's considered rude to refer to a person as a number, so the operators were required to memorize each subscriber's name. As the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce boasted in 1914: "These girls respond all day with hardly a mistake to calls that are given (in English or one of five Chinese dialects) by the name of the subscriber instead of by his number—a mental feat that would be practically impossible for most high-schooled American misses."

Old St. Mary's Cathedral + Chinese Mission

Chinatown

Dedicated in 1854, this church served as the city's Catholic cathedral until 1891. The verse below the massive clock face beseeched naughty Barbary Coast boys: "Son, observe the time and fly from evil." Across the street from the church in St. Mary's Square, a Beniamino Bufano statue of Sun Yat-sen towers over the site of the Chinese leader's favorite reading spot during his years in San Francisco. On Tuesdays at 12:30 pm, the church hosts free chamber music concerts ( noontimeconcerts.org). A surprisingly peaceful spot, St. Mary's Square also has a couple of small, well-kept playgrounds, perfect for a break from the hustle and bustle of Chinatown.

Portsmouth Square

Chinatown

Chinatown's living room buzzes with activity: the square, with its pagoda-shape structures, is a favorite spot for morning tai chi, and by noon dozens of men huddle around Chinese chess tables, engaged in competition. Kids scamper about the square's two grungy playgrounds. Back in the late 19th century this land was near the waterfront. The square is named for the USS Portsmouth, the ship helmed by Captain John Montgomery, who in 1846 raised the American flag here and claimed the then-Mexican land for the United States. A couple of years later, Sam Brannan kicked off the gold rush at the square when he waved his loot and proclaimed, "Gold from the American River!" Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, often dropped by, chatting up the sailors who hung out here. Some of the information he gleaned about life at sea found its way into his fiction. A bronze galleon sculpture, a tribute to Stevenson, anchors the square's northwest corner. A plaque marks the site of California's first public school, built in 1847.

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