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) Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company to sample a freshly baked wafer while you watch two women fold cookies around fortunes at a remarkable rate.
Go back to Jackson Street, turn right, and then turn right again onto Grant Avenue. Step into (11) Ten Ren Tea Company (www.tenren.com) for a free sample of one of their more than 50 tea varieties, or try a sweet tapioca iced tea.
Refreshment in hand, walk down to Washington Street and turn left to see the (12) Old Chinese Telephone Exchange (now called the United Commercial Bank), distinguishable by its dramatic peaked roofs and pagoda style. This 1909 building once served as an office for telephone operators who spoke five Chinese dialects and knew their customers' phone numbers by heart.
Walk a few more steps to finish your tour at (13) Portsmouth Square. On this spot in 1846, Captain John B. Montgomery of the U.S.S. Portsmouth raised the American flag in San Francisco for the first time. Today the square is a gathering place for friends young and old.
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