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San Francisco's Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia. It is a place many visitors want to see and put high on their list of places to go. But read the reviews and many are quite negative. Why? Because it is an intense, densely populated area that still retains its ethnic identity. If all of San Francisco's 49 square miles were as closely packed as Chinatown, the city's population would be 8 MILLION (rather than about 800,000).
Slightly larger in area than Manhattan's Chinatown, it is situated within Bush in the south, Montgomery to the east, Taylor in the west, Green in the north north-west, and scattered throughout Russian Hill, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill going as far north as Lombard. With over 300 restaurants and as many shops in the expanded area, Chinatown offers more dining and shopping options per capita than any other neighborhood in San Francisco.
The best way to "do" Chinatown is on a walking tour. There are a variety of them. Some are free, such as the San Francisco City Guides, which have walking tours all over the city. Some charge, such as "All About Chinatown," and Shirley Fong Torres' "Wok Wiz." For a unique tour experience, look up the Chinatown Alleyway Tours program which is a tour program led by youth who have deep roots to Chinatown.
Some tours include (or have the option of including) a dim sum lunch at a Chinatown restaurant. Whatever your time, desire or budget allow, take a tour of some sort. Chinatown is not about looking at buildings or even reading from a guidebook. There is much in it's rich history that needs to be explored. Even for a local (albeit not an Asian) walking into a temple is not your everyday experience. Only with a guide who is familiar with the ins and outs of Chinatown will a visitor get real insight and perspective. There are also some excellent museums. The Chinese Historical Society of California on Sacramento Street is in a beautifully restored Julia Morgan building that was once the YWCA (Morgan, for those unfamiliar with one of California's pioneering female architects, designed Hearst Castle). There is also the Chinese Cultural Center inside the Hilton Hotel (the Hilton was built on city redevelopment land, hence the public space), which has interesting gallery displays and a good gift shop.
The back alleys of Chinatown have over a century of history. They are still populated by immigrants from the Guangdong Province, the first of whom came in the mid-1800's. Chinatown is one part of old San Francisco that flourishes today.
Yes, it is crowded; no, it is not spic-and-span. But it is a living, breathing, exceptionally ethnic neighborhood that flourishes cheek-to-jowl amid the high-rises of downtown. This is NOT Disneyland.
So for those people who go and say "don't bother," sorry, you did not see the real Chinatown!