A tourist attraction since the 1860s, San Francisco's Chinatown hosts one of the largest Chinese communities outside of Asia. Grant Avenue is the district's main vein, but the adjacent streets and alleys abound with history and culture.
Start your tour at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, where you'll find the (1) Chinatown Gate. Dragons slither across the top and traditional fou dogs stand guard at the sides of this ceremonial gateway, designed by architect Clayton Lee in 1970.
Continue up Grant Avenue for two blocks, past the colorful cluster of shops selling knickknacks galore, to (2) Old Saint Mary's Cathedral (www.oldsaintmarys.org). Dedicated in 1854, the city's first Catholic cathedral was built from granite quarried in China and bricks that journeyed around Cape Horn from New England.
Across the street and kittycorner from Saint Mary's, the (3) Sing Chong and Sing Fat buildings were built soon after the 1906 earthquake and demonstrate the fanciful architecture of the time (notice the pagoda-like towers).
Continue along Grant Avenue to (4) Chinatown Kite Shop (www.chinatownkite.com), which sells a zany, zoo-like collection of flying critters: butterflies, dragonflies, fairies, owls, even Sponge Bob. Across the street, (5) Eastern Bakery (http://easternbakery.com) claims to be the oldest bakery in Chinatown (since 1924), but their pastries are fresh. Try a lotus golden yolk mooncake.
Hang a left on Clay Street and then a right on (6) Waverly Place, called "the street of the painted balconies" for the buildings' vibrant facades. The street was formerly nicknamed "15 Cent Street" because you could get a haircut here for a nickel and a dime; today trims start at $6.
About halfway down Waverly Place, look for a little yellow sign reading (7) "Tin How Temple." Climb three flights of stairs to find the oldest Chinese temple in the U.S. (founded in 1852). Beneath a ceiling glimmering with golden lanterns and amid smoky ribbons of incense, locals pray to Tin How, the goddess of heaven and sea.
Continue back to Clay Street and hoof it up the hill to the (8) Chinese Historical Society of America Museum (www.chsa.org). Inside the 1932 former YWCA building, historic photographs and artifacts document the lives of Chinese immigrants in the U.S.
Head back down Clay Street to (9) Stockton Street and turn left. The next few blocks serve as the center of Chinatown's commerce. Step inside the bustling shops to see barrels brimming with knotty ginseng, shelves lined with traditional herbal remedies, and windows strung with glistening roasted ducks dangling by their necks.
Turn right at Jackson Street and right again at Ross Alley. Follow your nose to the (10)