Another area of San Francisco that you should visit is Nob Hill and the nearby Chinatown. They sit at the top of the hill overlooking Union Square and the Tenderloin district and they are both great places to walking around and soak up the atmosphere. They both also have a couple of points of interest that may appeal to some.
Nob Hill is so named after the wealthy nabobs who built their huge mansions on the steep streets of the area. You can still see signs of the area's heyday and the buildings are wonderful to look at. There is also an area at the base of the hills on the western side known as Polk Gulch which was once a gay mecca. Although it went through a rough period in the 1970s and gained a fairly unsavoury reputation, it is now a very peasant area with a relaxed atmosphere.
One of the main attractions in this area is the cable car museum. As the city is famous for the cable car you should take a ride on one. The routes generally run from Fisherman's Wharf to Union Square and they provide a great way to climb the steep streets without much (or any) effort. If you are interested in learning more about them, the museum is located on Mason Street and is free to enter. You can learn about the mechanisms of the cars as well as the emergency procedures for stopping them.
In stark contrast to Nob Hill, Chinatown is a bustling area with lots of atmosphere. It is very busy and is a great place to go and watch the world go by or to grab a fairly cheap bite to eat. We absolutely loved wandering through the crammed area both during the day and later on in the evening.
The area came to fruition after the gold rush of the mid 1800s brought thousands of Cantonese to California. It originally gained itself a rather seedy reputation for vice and gambling but these days it is a much more wholesome place where tourists and locals can be found wandering the streets searching for a souvenir or a bargain.
The area runs along Grant Avenue and you absolutely can't miss it as the streets are packed with shops, and signs in Chinese writing hang everywhere. Many of the shops spill their wares out onto the pavement and the proprietors stand on the streets trying to entice people inside. It can be a bit much if you are just wanting a gentle stroll, but the people are very friendly and they do take no for an answer . . . eventually!
The main point of interest around here is the Chinatown Gate, which is located on Grant Avenue and Bush Street. It is a typically ornate affair that stands as a grand entryway into the streets of Chinatown. It was a gift from Taiwan and has a quote from Confucius on the top of it. We actually found it quite difficult to find as we entered the area from a different direction the first time, but it is well worth looking out for and it makes for a great photograph opportunity.
So if you are in the city, you should definitely have a wander around these areas to soak up the atmosphere and see what they have to offer.
We went to this Chinatown (the largest outside of Asia) for my birthday lunch as i had decided on sushi. Upon coming out we kind of stumbled unwittingly into the main market area.
The stalls and markets are interesting and full of life, but the stuff they sell is tacky and cheap. They probably make a good living from selling crappy souvenirs to stupid foreigners.
On our way back we further stumbled upon a parade, which apparently was quite fortunate. There were people in big masks, long, winding dragons, dancers and children banging drums down the middle of the street. It was all very fun as i definitely wasn't expecting it. I mean, i've seen it on TV but i assumed it was just kind of a Chinese New Year spectacle.
Had that parade not happened i'd probably have knocked a star off on the final rating. You got lucky Chinatown!
When we stayed in San Francisco on our Honeymoon we were right next door to Chinatown. Our friends had recently come back and they told us Chinatown was worth a look around so we should take a trip there so with it being right on our doorstep we spent quite a lot of time there. Here is why I think you should definitely go if you find yourself in the area.
Chinatown is right smack bang in the middle of San Francisco and is clearly marked on most maps so you should be able to find it very easily. Apparently it is one of the largest Chinatowns outside of Asia and is also one of the oldest in America so it has quite a bit of history which is nice.
Ok so when we walked up to Chinatown the first thing we saw was the gates of Chinatown which were brilliant green gates which arch over the street. They have some Chinese writing just beneath them and you can see that the streets of San Francisco change immediately and instead you don't just get the plain buildings but nicely painted with extravagant roofs and colours which is brilliant to see.
There are quite a few streets in Chinatown and you can easily find your way around. If you go on the official Chinatown website then they actually give you a good way to walk around to capture all of the different streets and alleys. We didn't do this and just decided to make our own way around which we enjoyed more.
There are nice buildings in Chinatown to see including the bank of America which is a nice gold building and is very big and looks extremely expensive. We took quite a few pictures of it purely because it looked out of place and the top of the building had a traditional Chinese building top which I am not sure what they are called. I think its a pagoda type top??? It looked great though because it is so big which you expect but it is worth taking a look at.
The only other noticeable building we saw was one that was huge and not as impressive looking as the bank but there seemed to be quite a lot of tourists looking at it. We then found out when we got back that this was the Sing Chong building which was one of the first rebuilt after the big earthquake they have there. Again the website gives you a small pic and history so if you are going you can read up on the buildings and make sure you see them. I don't think you can miss the above though as they are big and impressive looking.
Lets now get onto the thing I love the most which is shopping. The shops here are fantastic and sell some really unusual things. My favourite was on the left hand side of Chinatown when approaching from the gates and about a quarter up the street. If I could remember what it was called I would tell you.
You walk into this shop and there are a few aisles of lovely gifts such as Buddah's, cast iron teapots and cups which were amazing but as we couldn't afford the $70 price tag we didn't get one. You could also get make up rolls, head bands and some beautiful notebooks which I got for my sister and she loved. The prices were really good as you could get something for $1 and then up to hundreds but there was so much to choose from and everything looked amazing.
There are quite a few shops like this around which sell really unique gifts and they are fantastic. We found loads of things to buy and had to stop ourselves buying more. There were so many beads and jewellery items in Chinatown that we got for family.
As well as the traditional Chinese shops which sell the lovely gifts, there are some slightly less unique gifts but nice ones. There are quite a few clothes shops which sell some great things and the Chinese style dresses for the children are just divine. There are also so many jewellery shops and ones that sell luggage for some reason. We spent about 3 hours in total looking around the shops and spent quite a bit of money but this was where we got most of our gifts for home on our Honeymoon so that shows you how good it is.
Now to my next favourite thing which is eating. Now we only ate once in Chinatown but it is something you will want to do because wherever you walk you will smell the delicious smell of Chinese food and will instantly becomes hungry.
The place we ate was at the China House which is in the middle of the main street. We didn't have starters but I had a chicken and cashew nut and Dave went for a Beef and pepper meal. They were both very delicious and there was lots of things to choose from but we always go with our favourites. It cost us around $40 for the meal which is not too bad.
There are plenty of restaurants to choose from though so you should have no trouble choosing. People also on the streets will hand you vouchers that you can use in the restaurants and these we were told can save you quite a bit of money when you use them. There were also markets which sell Chinese ingredients but we ate out all of the time so didn't try any.
In conclusion Chinatown is a great part of San Francisco with very interesting buildings to stare at. The shops are brilliant for all sorts of gifts and you will want to buy something when you shop there, even my husband wanted to buy loads and that's saying something. The restaurants all smelled lovely although I can imagine that they all sell the same food although I could be wrong.
The last thing I have to tell you about Chinatown is that it has an extremely good busy and buzzing atmosphere and all of the people we met were very helpful and friendly and we loved it. Five stars from me.
Thanks for reading.
Now I happen to think that San Francisco is one of the most magical cities in the world, so when you get into Chinatown in the City centre you are in fact entering a magical world inside another magical world! What could be more enchanting? I've been to San Francisco quite a few times and I always go for a meal in Chinatown. I've never been to China (yet) so this is the next best thing for me with the added bonus of it being a democratic sort of place, unlike the real one. (Don't get me started on China and Tibet!)
So, what's it like?
First thing to know is that it is it is the largest Chinese community outside of China and it's Blooming crowded! That's what! Once you get used to that you are okay but it seems to me, every time I go, that the average inhabitant of Chinatown is about 5 foot 4 inches tall, holds a normal conversation as though bent on homicide, has elbows that have been sharpened by the military and has never heard of the concept of body space. Queues? You have got to be joking! The only queues you are going to see in the shops here, are the pigtails on the traditionally dressed old men. (they were banned in the 1800's but have since made a comeback.)
Trying to buy fresh bean sprouts is an act of heroism.
However.....and it took me a bit of time to get my head around this, all the shouting and elbowing is actually quite friendly. My friend Yan reckons that you need to start worrying when they stop shouting and all go quiet. That's when you need to put your smoked chicken on the counter and back out quietly and slowly. I went into about three supermarkets in Chinatown and they were all the same. American Chinese shop assistants can't talk below 560 decibels. It's written into their contracts or something.
When you finally finish your food shopping (and take your ear plugs out ) there is a lot to see in Chinatown. There is nothing minimalist about the shop windows and frontage here! If you have a thing for dragons or golden, paw waving pups, this is the place for you! It's marvellous to see the designs, the colours, the lucky banners, the paper lanterns and streamers. Personally I think they try to out-China China! Sometimes it's hard to tell what is on sale for all the extraneous bits in the windows. Even the Bank of America is covered in dragons!
Chinatown is also the place to be if you are feeling a bit poorly. There are more Chinese Herbalists licensed to practice in San Francisco than in the rest of the US put together. I read that in a shop window so it must be true!
You can be treated by herbalists, acupuncturists, iridologists, bone displacers (don't ask me, I didn't fancy finding out about that one!), astrologers and zen practitioners.
You can have your fortune told. You can be massaged by someone walking up and down your back (I didn't do that one either!). You can have your own brand of tea blended for health and longevity. You can have a snakeskin jacket made, (come back next day to collect it.) You can find your perfect 'social partner all genders catered for!' (all genders?) (Tempting, but no I didn't try that shop either!) You could spend a full week just marvelling at the shops before you get to Chinatowns' most famous attribute and that is it's restaurants!
The restaurants represent every province of China. (plus a few that have been made up I think.) You can eat in a lowly little Chinese snack shop or a sumptous Chinese Palace. Prices range from about $15.00 to well over $500.00 for a banquet. I am told that anything that it is legal to consume in America is purchasable to eat here and I can believe it.
I love the restaurants but I have a problem with the amount of choice offered and wimplike usually let someone else order for me. The first time I was in one (about 20 years ago) there was a huge slogan written on the wall saying "We say NO to MSG!" I sat there puzzling about it, wondering if it was a political slogan. When I asked if my guess was correct, my host started to shout with laughter! He almost choked on his Wan-Ton. Bloody Mono-Sodium-Glutamate was what it was on about! How was I supposed to know that? He told the waiters too! It's not easy to eat a meal in dignity with half the restaurant giggling at you. No wonder I got taken out to so many meals, I was the Entertaining English Lady Lunatic!
I seem to remember being told that here are over 2,000 restaurants to choose from in San Francisco. I imagine that is true. I have been in half a dozen of them so I have about 1,994 to go before I've tried them all. The ones I ate in were all beautiful and the food was well presented and tasty. I didn't always know exactly what I was eating, I just trusted the people I was with not to be too extreme!
There are four decent sized parks in Chinatown and in the morning it is possible to see groups of people practising their exercises together or going through their TaeKwonDo routines. It is extremely interesting to watch! There are free lessons and classes available there if you want to try it. In one of the parks I watched a choir practising for a church concert. I thought it was really clever because you could buy tickets for the concert from the conductor if you wanted to. So they got to practise and publicise at the same time! It was lovely to listen to, a bit of peace amongst the bustle.
If you want a bit of fun, visit the Fortune Cookie Factory and see how the famous cookies are made. I was more interested in watching that than eating them because I think they taste of cardboard! I never found out who got to write the fortunes. I would not have minded having a go! "You will meet a lot of short dark strangers who will cry laughing because you have never heard of MSG." or "Beware the Sumo Wrestler who gives back massages!"
~~~Don't read this bit if you are easily offended!~~~
One side of the restaurant area is bordered by sex shops. Not the hidden furtive little ones we see signs to in England, these were more like supermarkets.
It was a very educational experience for me, seeing what people bought to help turn themselves on. I couldn't even begin to guess what some of the items were for.
There seemed to be an inordinate amount of inflatable sheep hanging around. (I am trying so hard not to make a joke about Welshmen here!)
You could buy wigs for bits of ones anatomy that are usually associated with Brazil.
Or chiming eggs?
Or spikey things that ......No, I'm not even going to go there!
Most of the goods in the shops were made in China and sold direct by their families in the USA. I imagine there are a lot of baffled factory workers somewhere on mainland China.
"What were you making today, Comrade Cheng?"
"I don't know Comrade Xu, but it involved a lot of plastic woolly things that went "baaa".
~~~Okay, you can look now!~~~
The Main entrance to Chinatown is marked by a beautifully ornate and huge traditional Chinese archway. This is on Grant Avenue which also plays host to the Chinese New Year Celebrations. You will find the evening market quite close to here too. It is best to enquire when they are held because it seemed to me that they were a bit of a 'movable feast.' They are worth going to, not just because the stalls are interesting but you also get to see a lot of street theatre. Chinese gymnasts and jugglers have to be seen to be believed!
Chinatown is easy to find in Downtown San Francisco. It is boundaried by Sacramento Street, Taylor Street, Bay Street, and the waterside. It's about 2 square miles in total. It is almost thirty minutes walk from Fisherman's Wharf if you don't stop to sightsee. (About three and a half hours if you do!)
Many trolleybuses and trains stop there. It is possible to go on guided tours if you don't feel like going it alone, your hotel will give you information on this because it is a very popular place with tourists.
It is a busy, intriguing, noisy, taste of the Orient, a good place to eat, a fun place to buy some very unusual presents or learn a new martial arts skill. I love it there!