San Francisco Chinatown Walking Tour

In my attempt to enjoy all things free in San Francisco, I decided to take a journey through a free walking tour through San Francisco City Guides. City Guides is a non-profit organization that provides free walking tours through its volunteers. Tours are offered almost every day at various times and locations throughout the city.  Although the tour is free, the organization asks for a small donation for operating costs.

It was this past Saturday, July 9th at 10:00 AM that I took a journey through Chinatown with City Guides free walking tour.  It was quite packed of people waitng for the tour (as it is prime tourist season and it was a weekend).

Background of San Francisco Chinatown

The tour started with our guide (it was her first day as a guide) with the general history of Chinatown. Here are some quick facts I learned from the tour.

  • The earliest Chinese immigrant dated back to 1835.
  • The Chinese helped build the Transcontinental Railroad in the California region.
  • The Chinese stayed in Chinatown as protection as the Chinese was blamed for the depression.
  • In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted immigration to 100 people a year.

Highlights of the Tour

The tour lasted about 1.5 hours and mainly centered around 3-4 blocks in Chinatown. Along the way you pass by shops, open markets, and the hustle and bustle of people walking around the area.  Here are some of the highlights of the tour.  The tour began and ended in Portsmouth Square.

  • Portsmouth Square – The tour begins in this open area.  It is a very busy area with people playing chess, strolling around, and chatting in deep conversations.  Since the apartment living quarters are very small, many people that live in Chinatown use this square as their living space.
  • Alleyways such as Duncombe, Ross, and Waverly – There are numerous alleyways in Chinatown.  Alleyways have many business fronts and residents use these walkways to get around the area faster. Duncombe alley was known as a big area for prostitution.  In Ross Alley, you will find the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.  For $.25 cents you can take a picture inside the factory. Did you know the modern fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco?  Dating back to the 19th century, a cookie similar to the fortune cookie was made in Japan. 
  • Sunsing Center – It was an opera center in the 1930s and then became a movie theatre. This building was featured in the movie “Lady in Shanghai” by Orson Welles.  It is currently a shopping center. 
  • Pingyuen Complex – Built in 1920s it houses many people.  Residents pay 30% of your income, which could be quite nice since the rental prices in San Francisco are usually quite high. 
  • Tin Hua Temple – There are about four flights of stairs to reach the temple.  When you arrive, you will see red decorations everywhere.  From gold carvings to red papers hanging from the ceiling, it really is a nice area.  You can also walk out on the balcony for a nice view of Chinatown.  Although you may be tempted to take pictures, there are signs that say you can not.


If you have a chance, I would recommend the walking tours of San Francisco City Guides.  It is a volunteer-based organization and comprises of locals.  In addition, you will get a little exercise by walking the city.  Plus, its FREE (with a small donation).  I am planning to try some more walking tours and will provide commentaries on those as well.


About Jan

In 2004 and 2010, I set aside time to travel the world in 3 parts. In 2004, I traveled to Thailand, Europe, and Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. In 2010, I traveled to 3 continents: Asia, South America, and Africa. I am not sure if I have a fascination with the number 3, but I seem to be constantly traveling by numbers.
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One Response to San Francisco Chinatown Walking Tour

  1. Shu says:

    Nice background story. Chinatown has some cheap bargains!!

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