So, here’s a tip for you: Sunday morning is a GREAT time to visit Chinatown in San Francisco. I figure if a trip to China isn’t in the budget this year…San Francisco’s Chinatown is the next best thing, right? My nine-year-old was so excited about being in the city that he woke up extra early, so we set off to see it all: Dragon Gate, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, dim sum restaurants, and of course, souvenirs galore.
On your first visit to Chinatown, you must enter through the Dragon Gate. This south-facing ceremonial gate, located at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, dates from 1970. It makes the perfect photo op. Plus, walking through the Dragon Gate adds to the general excitement of entering Chinatown.
By arriving here at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, there were very few people, but shops were already opening their doors — including the glittering stores with expensive collectibles and home decor pieces that anchor the corners adjacent to the Dragon Gate. We stopped to look, agreed that while we did want a giant golden dragon, it probably wouldn’t fit in our luggage, then gradually made our way up Grant Avenue.
All visitors to San Francisco should make space in the itinerary for at least one walk up Grant Avenue. Here, sidewalk musicians play the traditional erhu (a two-stringed fiddle), dragons wind around the lampposts, Chinese lanterns sway gently over the road, and if you’re lucky, you may be treated to the chanting of monks echoing through the open doors of a temple.
The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
It took the word “cookie,” of course, to get my kid really excited about all this walking. I was pleased to find out that the famed Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory was open at 9 a.m. because it is rumored to have very long lines at times.
The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is located in a small alley, but easy to find with a smartphone map. Essentially this is an adorable little fortune cookie storefront where the proprietors have brought the women behind the magic out front. Two women sat at large machines, quickly making fortune cookies, as tourists moved through the line in the small space. The shopkeeper handed out crisp, sweet disk cookies — unfolded fortune cookies — as we stood in line.
Donations of at least 50 cents are encouraged/expected to take photos. There are all kinds of great souvenirs available (if you can get them home in one piece) including chocolate-dipped fortune cookies and a giant fortune cookie (which my son HAD to have).
The most unique option is the chance to make your own fortune cookie for $1. The line moves fast, so if you plan to do this, I strongly advise having your fortune(s) ready ahead of time. You could have A LOT of fun with this at a dollar a pop, though!
Sampling the local cuisine is an important part of any international journey, so we couldn’t leave Chinatown (and our pretend China trip) without a brunch of dim sum.
Sometimes it pays to walk in to the first restaurant where a hostess ushers you in, rather than trying to crawl through Yelp reviews beforehand. We ended up in a crowded restaurant where very few people spoke English, but despite our awkward ordering, we ended up full and happy and with a kiddo who had tried a lot of new foods.
We exited to find a line of young white people extending halfway around the block, waiting to get into a competing restaurant across the street. I’m not sure what was so great about that other dim sum place, but we were pretty happy with ours.
If you have a child with an $8 budget and a penchant for shopping, Chinatown is the best place in San Francisco to take him to buy souvenirs. I can vouch for the aptly named Souvenir Shop at the corner of Jackson and Grant streets. By purchasing our Alcatraz and Golden Gate items here, we saved a mint later when we actually visited Alcatraz Island.
Should you manage some time in Chinatown without children, there are plenty of high-end home decor, fashion, and jewelry stores intermixed with shops selling keychains and T-shirts are that could have easily kept me entertained for an afternoon.
Pro tip: Don’t waste your time on the souvenir shops closest to the Dragon Gate. You’ll find the exact same items for half the price farther up Grant Avenue.
It is a universal truth that kids are going to need to use restrooms. Also, sometimes adults. Fortunately, San Francisco is the type of city to put nice, public restrooms in a public park like Portsmouth Square, complete with an attendant out front to make sure they stay clean and safe.
This charming park also features a little playground, picnic tables, and clusters of elderly people playing cards who look like they came right out of Central Casting.
We are a little obsessed with bookstores, and the child that came long with us to San Francisco is the biggest book lover of all. When he spotted Louie Brothers Bookstore, we had to enter, despite our warning that he probably couldn’t read anything in the store (we were right). Louie Brothers did have a little collection of children’s books, though, so if you are looking for a unique kids souvenir, you may find it here.
Instead, once we were ready to leave Chinatown, we just headed to the nearby City Lights. This independent bookstore is the original home of the Beat poets and the most famous bookshop in San Francisco, and conveniently located just a few blocks away. If you are looking for progressive children’s literature, head straight to the basement, where they have a small kid’s section.
Final verdict? If you’re visiting San Francisco with kids, Chinatown is a must-see!