After spending about six hours in San Francisco’s legendary Chinatown neighborhood…I’m tired and my feet hurt. And I’m now the proud owner of much silk brocade. No place in the City has a richer cultural heritage than Chinatown, and Chinatown rivals Union Square for opportunities to indulge in serious retail therapy.
But how’d it go for this traveler with pain?
Getting to Chinatown
Adjacent to Union Square, you can get to Chinatown on foot, in a cab, on a MUNI bus, or on a cable car. My friend and I walked, as the Hotel Triton is about a sixth of a block away from the Chinatown Gate.
Exploring the Attractions (Which, in Chinatown, mostly means Shopping)
When tourists want to pick up souvenirs of their trips to San Francisco, they often buy them in Chinatown. And in fact, the point of going to Chinatown is to gawk at the architecture and browse in the zillions of independent shops. Chinatown’s shops tend to specialize in jewelry (pearls and jade dominate), stuff made out of silk brocade (clothes, scarves, tote bags, coin purses, etc etc), table and bed linens (real linen and cotton with lots of starch), porcelain, home furnishings, and of course tchochkes galore. Some of those tchochkes are distinctly X-rated.
Buyers are expected to haggle with shopkeepers, even in the t-shirt shops.
But What’s It Like Physically?
Walking Chinatown is medium-strenuous. The neighborhood sprawls for miles, and it’s easy to walk quite a ways just by window-shopping on Grant. There are precious few on-street benches, and shops don’t carry places to sit. The only way to grab a seat is to either brave the crowds in the public parks or to rent a chair in a tea house, cafe, or restaurant.
Chinatown’s got a few hills–it doesn’t have the steepest streets in the City, but Chinatown’s not on a flat spot either. My quads got a workout as I shopped. The sidewalks are run down here–uneven, sometimes narrow, and crowded on the weekends. No-power wheelchair users have a helluva time navigating Grant and Powell.
Eating and Drinking
Chinatown may be the only place in the City where there’s not a Starbucks on every block. In fact, the food and drink in Chinatown runs to dim sum and tea. A few coffee shops cater to both tourists and locals.
Many upstairs restaurants in Chinatown do not have elevators, so if you can’t climb you’re out of luck. Don’t expect much in the way of English-speaking wait staff–expect to point and nod a lot. If you’ve got major food allergies, pick one of the larger, more tourist-friendly restaurants so that you can make your needs known. Also, if you’ve got serious dietary restrictions, dim sum probably isn’t for you.
Stopping to Rest
A few small parks dot the Chinatown landscape. These have plenty of benches, but also plenty of locals with semi-permanent claims to spots on those benches.
While resting up, I enjoyed the people-watching. The young people in the park smoked weed behind the restroom, and the older denizens gambled on makeshift tables made from upturned cardboard boxes. Nope, it’s not the squeakiest clean place to catch your breath. On the other hand, no one attacked me, threatened me, or gave me a second glance. Tourism is a tremendous source of revenue in Chinatown, and tourists tend to remain fairly safe so long as they stick to the touristy areas.
Using the Bathroom
None of the shops I visited had public-accessible restrooms. The cafe had a customer-use bathroom, and Portsmouth Square Plaza had public facilities. By some minor miracle, the park stalls were reasonably clean, and both the sink and the hand-dryer worked. No promises on the public restrooms, so be prepared to shell out for coffee for a reasonable shot at a urine-free toilet seat.
The Bottom Line
Doing San Francisco’s Chinatown requires significant energy, the ability to walk, to deal with crowds, and to stay standing for long periods of time. I don’t recommend it for a traveler with pain who’s having a bad day, or for anyone who’s got trouble walking or staying on her feet for more than 30 minutes.
On the other hand, Chinatown can be a great adventure for a traveler with pain who’s using slow to moderate walking as a means of exercise, and who can use bright shiny objects as a distraction from discomfort.
I had a great time and I can’t wait to go back.