San Francisco/Chinatown-North Beach

Chinatown-North Beach in San Francisco combines two adjoining neighbors, both of which are among the city's most popular immigrant neighborhoods. Culturally and aesthetically, they could not be more different yet their streets mesh seamlessly together. Chinatown is the oldest and largest Chinese community outside of Asia. More than just a tourist destination, it is a functioning, living, and breathing Chinese community that can offer intriguing cultural experiences even to the most jaded old China hand. Its tiny and crowded streets bustle with activity and energy. North Beach, on the other hand, is much more laid back. This "Little Italy," with its cafes and alfresco dining, has a real European charm and flavor reminiscent of the romance of Europe and Italy. The area runs from roughly Bay Street to the north, Powell Street south of Filbert Street and Columbus Avenue north of Filbert on the west, the Embarcadero on the east, and Washington Street on the south with an extension to Bush Street between Kearny and Powell Streets to encompass the rest of Chinatown.

Understand

Chinatown's Grant Avenue

Chinatown

With pagoda-tiled roofs, Cantonese conversations, busy live-produce markets, mahjong players, and little old Chinese ladies confidently spitting on the pavement Chinatown is a unique part of San Francisco. Established in 1850, in the area around Portsmouth Plaza, San Francisco's Chinatown is reputed to be the oldest and one of the largest and most famous of all Chinatowns outside of Asia. Many of the Chinese who settled here were merchants or immigrant workers, working on either the transcontinental railroad or as mine workers during the Gold Rush. Today, it is home for more than 100,000 Chinese and Chinese-Americans, many of whom are low-income, elderly, and foreign born, living in dense tenements. It is also a cultural link for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area. Chinatown holds a prominent position in the history of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the United States, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the present day. The residual "bachelor" society one finds in San Francisco's Chinatown today cannot be understood without some knowledge of these hostile decades. The tourist section of Chinatown is mainly along Grant Avenue, from Bush to Broadway. Grant Avenue was made famous by Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song. The Chinatown market area is mainly along Stockton Street, one block above (west of) Grant Avenue, and the east-west streets crossing Stockton. Other San Francisco concentrations of Chinese shops and restaurants are located in the Inner Richmond District, mainly along Clement Street, and the Outer Sunset District, mainly along Irving Street.

North Beach

Forming part of the old Barbary Coast (an extinct neighborhood infamous for its crime, prostitution, and general unruliness), and popular with both locals and tourists alike, North Beach remains one of the most popular and beloved neighborhoods in San Francisco. Nestled between Chinatown to the south and Fisherman's Wharf to the north, North Beach is the Italian part of town and is known by the moniker "Little Italy." Telegraph poles, painted in the colors of the Italian flag (green, white, and red), delineate the boundaries between these two neighbors. It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and is rich in both history and culture. The neighborhood derived its name as the bay shoreline originally reached as far as Taylor and Francisco streets, and the area was indeed a real beach until the city subsequently filled it in. The portion of Grant Avenue that runs straight through North Beach is the oldest street in San Francisco. Authentic old-world Italian cafes, restaurants, delicatessens and bakeries line the steep streets. North Beach was also the West Coast's capital for the Beatnik movement in the 1950s you can still see many of the places where Jack Kerouac and the "Dharma Bums" hung out and wrote their dark poetry. Other literati celebrities that hung out there were; Alan Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy (Dean Moriarity in Kerouac's On The Road), and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Alan Ginsberg wrote his most famous poem 'Howl' while living at 1010 Montgomery Street. Today, the neighborhood is also very well known for its happening nightlife scene. Nightclubs and bars abound particularly at the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Grant Avenue. At its base, Broadway is a mini red-light district, made famous in the 1960s by Carol Doda with her "twin 44s." The area is still full of adult bookstores and strip clubs; despite this, strangely, like everything in San Francisco, it retains a certain charm. Washington Square (another old Beat hangout), in front of the Saints Peter and Paul Church, is a very popular hangout with locals, and a great place to relax. North Beach has also some famous residents past and present, like baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and movie director Francis Ford Coppola.

Get in

Map of Chinatown-North Beach

By car

Driving into the area is not recommended, but if you must, the closest parking garage to Chinatown is underneath Portsmouth Plaza, on Kearny Street (which is a one-way street north) between Clay and Washington. Other Chinatown garages are the Golden Gateway at 250 Clay Street, North Beach at 755 Vallejo Street, and St. Mary's Square at 433 Kearny Street. All garages are open 24 hours a day, except for Golden Gateway. There are also a few small parking garages scattered throughout North Beach, including Imperial Parking at 425 Broadway Street. Driving to the base of Coit Tower is definitely not recommended, as there is a very limited amount of parking at the top of the hill.

By cable car

Each of the three Cable Car lines pass through Chinatown. If you exit BART or the MUNI Metro at the Powell St. Station you can catch the Powell-Mason or the Powell-Hyde cable car line at Powell and Market. Both routes will take you into Chinatown, but the Powell-Mason line is a better bet for getting to North Beach as the Powell-Hyde line turns west at Jackson and proceeds into Russian Hill. To reach Chinatown's famous Grant Avenue via the cable car, exit BART or the MUNI Metro at the Embarcadero Station and catch the California cable car line at California and Market.

By bus

Of course, if you'd rather avoid the long lines and crowded trip that a cable car ride entails, there are several good MUNI bus lines that serve the area. To get to Chinatown from the BART/MUNI Metro, exit at the Montgomery Street Station, walk one block up Post Street, and catch the 30-Stockton or 45-Union bus line on Kearny near Post. The 30 or 45 bus will turn left onto Sutter and then right onto Stockton; after passing through the Stockton Tunnel, the bus will stop twice in Chinatown, on Stockton near Clay and on Stockton near Pacific. To get to North Beach from Market Street, the 10-Townsend, 12-Folsom/Pacific, 30, or 45 lines will do nicely. From the east, the 1-California line passes through Chinatown. The 39-Coit goes from Fisherman's Wharf up to the Coit Tower, but can be obstructed by traffic that clogs the parking lot there, but there are plans to change this.

On foot

Chinatown is also an easy walk from Union Square (walk north on Stockton through the tunnel or north on Grant through the Chinatown Gate at Grant and Bush). Similarly, North Beach can be easily accessed by walking northbound from Market Street, straight through the Financial District. Both neighborhoods can also be easily reached from Market Street by simply walking northbound on Grant Avenue. To get to the area from Fisherman's Wharf, walk southbound straight down Columbus Avenue.

Get around

There can be little doubt that once you have arrived in the Chinatown-North Beach area, by far the best way to get around is on foot. Due to the busy and cluttered nature of both neighborhoods, and also because of the lack of parking options, driving around is certainly not recommended especially in Chinatown. Buses can also be a help, particularly when you are going in a north-south direction (or vice versa). Pedicabs also operate a route along the Embarcadero and through Chinatown and then North Beach. Stop one of them if they're empty and negotiate a price. For a bit extra many of them do walking tours of Chinatown.

There are many more parks, public seating, and cafes with curbside tables in North Beach, so why not see Chinatown first. That way, by the time you'd made it through its bustling streets you'll be ready for a coffee and a sit down in North Beach.

See

The listings in this article are geographically organized in roughly a south-to-north direction; meaning that they start with Chinatown first then North Beach.

City Lights Bookstore, with Jack Kerouac Alley and Vesuvio's Bar to the left
Looking west down Filbert Street, with Sts. Peter and Paul on the right

The Lonely Meter

Similar to paved streets, the Filbert Steps have fire hydrants, road signs, and a solitary parking meter. The parking meter, numbered 568 47610, is hidden on a landing off the stairs. 568 47610 is notable for several reasons. Foremost, 568 47610 does not serve any apparent parking space; instead it tends a remote bench with which it shares a wooden platform. Together the platform, bench and meter offer visitors a welcome rest from the steps with a view of North Beach and the bay. The parking meter also boasts a small Buddha, which is glued to its top. 568 47610 is not a functioning unit: inserting quarters will not buy you any time; however, it is a good time.

  •   Filbert Steps. The Filbert Steps are the part of Filbert Street that runs between Battery Street and Telegraph Hill Boulevard in North Beach. The steps end next to Coit Tower, and offer a scenic though some what strenuous route for visitors of the tower. In fact, following the steps is at times faster than driving to Coit Tower due to the high demand for relatively few parking spots near the site. Visitors of the steps will see public gardens, stylish homes and views of North Beach and the bay; if a path is not gated or specifically signed with "No Trespassing," then it is most likely public. Also, it pays to be adventurous: some of the best gardens and views are off the stairs. Finally, there is more than one way up and down; if you make a round trip you should find a new route for the return leg. Just avoid private property.

Museums and galleries

Temples and churches

Old Saint Mary's Cathedral

Architecture

Much of the architecture in Chinatown and North Beach was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. However, there are still some structures that are worth seeing including the Saints Peter and Paul Church and Old Saint Mary's Church, listed under Temples and Churches above. Chinatown is a mix of Edwardian and Chinoiserie architecture that was built after the fire and it has some interesting pagoda buildings. It may not be authentic Chinese architecture, but it retains a certain charm. The Chinese here also eschewed the traditional grid system of American cities, and a whole series of interesting alleys permeate through Chinatown. Other architectural points of interest include:

On the right, the copper-green Sentinel Building, with the Transamerica pyramid in the left background
Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill

Parks, monuments, and public art

Do

Walking Tours

Walking is not only the most environmentally friendly way to see this area, it is also undoubtedly the best way, as it allows one to experience its rich ambiance and charms first hand. A knowledgeable guide can be a big help in this regard, and several companies offer different kinds of walking tours through both Chinatown and North Beach:

Events and festivals

Buy

Chinatown and North Beach are unique immigrant neighborhoods, and consequently there are almost no large chain stores to be found. In Chinatown, Grant Avenue is the main shopping thoroughfare for tourists. Here you will find Oriental handicrafts of all descriptions, from jade statues to Asian rugs and kimonos. It also has many souvenir stores and small market stalls that sell typical tourist knickknacks. Stockton Street runs parallel to Grant on its west, and has many fresh produce and household ware stores that are popular with locals. North Beach has predominantly small boutique stores selling mostly clothing and jewelry, arts and handicrafts, furniture and Italian wares. Here is a selection of the stores available:

Eat

This page uses the following price ranges for a typical meal for one, including soft drink:
Budget $10 or less
Mid-range $1020
Splurge $20 or more

The area is a veritable smörgåsbord of dining opportunities, enough for even the most discerning palette. Chinatown is famous for its cheap eats (like Dim Sum) and "family style" eating in restaurants. You can fill up for as little as $3, but there are more expensive full service restaurants here as well. North Beach is generally pricier and the focus is mainly on Italian favorites like pizza, pasta, and risotto accompanied by a nice bottle of wine. With many of its restaurants situated directly on Columbus Avenue, it's a great place for alfresco style dining. There are however more affordable options in North Beach, including several great cafes, delis, and American diner style restaurants, where you can get a good quality meal at a more reasonable price.

The localized Chinese cuisine has its feet in Hong Kong and America, and is different from what many visitors are accustomed to — it is common to hear complaints from Chinese visitors that Chinese food here is not like the food back home. There are several main types of Chinese restaurants in San Francisco: those primarily serving immigrants from Hong Kong ("Hong Kong style") which commonly have signs on the wall in Chinese characters, live fish and shellfish tanks and some exotic main ingredients, such as pig's blood or sea cucumber; those primarily serving San Franciscans who are not Asian immigrants ("California Chinese") which commonly have Westernized table service, low fat content and more emphasis on fresh vegetables; those primarily serving tourists or other people accustomed to Chinese food as it is commonly served in the United States ("Americanized Chinese"); and those primarily serving immigrants from other areas or a particular dietary need or interest (regional cuisines, vegetarian, Muslim). There may be some mixing between these various classifications and each category may influence the others, for instance, the Americanized dish known as Chop Suey is often not served even at Americanized Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, while Chinese vegetables such as bok choy and pea sprouts may turn up on your plate at California Cuisine style restaurants.

Budget

Anyone for lunch? Chinese BBQ style

Chinese

The cheapest meal you can have on the go is to partake of the numerous take-out places along Stockton Street in Chinatown. The most dense parts of the Stockton Street Market stretch from Washington Street north to Broadway Street, filled with BBQ shops, dim sum shops, and other stores. Consider the Stockton Street Market as a progressive meal. Be patient, it is very crowded during the lunch hour. If you don't like crowds, try some of the restaurants off Stockton Street.

Although the many restaurants in Chinatown advertise themselves as Hong Kong or Guangzhou style, their offerings are by chefs from provincial towns in Guangdong, the quality of which is generally considered by Hong Kong or Guangzhou diners to be subpar to authentic Hong Kong or Guangzhou food.

Other Cuisines

Mid-range

Splurge

Drink

Bottoms up! The legendary Vesuvio's Bar

Chinatown has less drinking establishments, but North Beach with its abundance of bars and clubs is one of the major nightlife hotspots in the San Francisco. It attracts revelers from all over the city who are looking for a good time and somewhere to party into the wee hours of the morning... so put your drinking cap on!

Bars

Clubs and venues

Entertainment

Back in the days of the Gold Rush, Osgood Street (O-So-Good Street!) in North Beach used to be considered the red-light district. Today, the section on Broadway Street between Columbus and Samsome Street is an area that many consider to be the city's red-light district. It has many exotic-dance clubs like Larry Flynt's Hustler Club, Roaring 20s, and the more famous Condor. Carol Doda made this place famous in 1964 by injecting silicone into her chest and creating what would become known as "the new Twin Peaks of San Francisco." A plaque on the ouside commemorates the venue; The Condor; Where it all began; The birthplace of the world's first topless & bottomless entertainment; Topless June 19, 1964 Bottomless September 3, 1969 Starring Ms. Carol Doda; San Francisco, California

The undiscriminating heckles from over-zealous doormen enticing customers into the shows can be a bit tacky and off-putting, especially for those who enter the area to go to the other non-strip clubs. Consequently, many people are put off from even entering the area.

Coffee

North Beach in particular is famous its "caffe culture." It has an excellent variety of cafes, many of which serve award winning coffee, sometimes imported all the way from Italy. Here is a selection of the more popular ones;

Sleep

This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:
Budget under $100
Mid-range $100200
Splurge $200 and over

Many of the hotel accommodations in the area are of the S.R.O (Single Room Occcupancy) variety, especially in Chinatown. These are of less interest to tourists as they usually rent them out by the month ($600-800 p.m.). There are more traditional hotels however including:

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Connect

There are an abundance of coffee shops in North Beach that offer free wi-fi facilities upon purchasing a beverage. There are also two library branches that have internet computers.

Stay safe

North Beach remains busy with revelers and party-goers well into the early hours of the morning, but Chinatown, despite its crowds during the day, becomes eerily quiet after around 6-7PM. Chinatown has also had a somewhat of a poor reputation for pugnacious youngsters (as young as 12) that tend to hang around in groups, and also for bona-fide gangs. Therefore, a sensible amount of care should be taken when enjoying the sights and sounds of Chinatown.

Go next

On the road again? Well, if you are following in the footsteps of the Beat literati that loved this area so much, why not continue your tour into other areas of the city?

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Monday, February 22, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.