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Just One Day to Visit San Francisco: North Beach & Chinatown

January 4th, 2012 · No Comments · One Day Tours

If you have only one day to see San Francisco, you can explore the magic of North Beach and Chinatown to get the full flavor of the City. The fusion of cultures and histories of San Francisco is visible on any block of the city. It’s seen in the diversity of restaurants – get a Vietnamese bubble tea right next to a Hawaiian lunch and before your French profiterole – in the blending of shops – sample sake at one store and get your Italian designer shoes at the next – and in its people. The diversity is what makes San Francisco special. If you only have one day in San Francisco, there are two neighborhoods in this 49-square mile quilt that can treat you to a sample of European and Asian history of San Francisco. Starting at Union Square, spend your brief visit in Chinatown by day and then head to the Italian North Beach neighborhood at night.
chinatown gate san francisco
Early Morning Picture at the Dragon Gate

The entrance of San Francisco’s Chinatown is marked by the Dragon Gate at the corner of Grant and Bush Streets. By midday, the namesake dragons are draped in tourists and witnesses to some pretty gnarly traffic. In the morning, there’s ample time to get your family photo right in front of the beautiful entrance to Chinatown.
chinatown san francisco shopping

Photography by Michael Lax
Shopping at the Canton Bazaar Marketplace

Grant Street shopping is marked by gaudy gold and glass “Oriental Arts” stores, blinking electronics shops, and souvenir stands selling personalized California license plates. There’s tacky all along the street, but some stores have more authentic Chinese mementos. The Canton Bazaar between California Street and Sacramento is a balance of both. With a parade dragon in one window and almost-life size Terra Cotta warriors in another, the well-organized store is a souvenir hunters’ oasis. In the front of the well-organized displays, there’s more common fare: silk purses with Chinese characters, medicine balls, and a wide variety of lucky cats. Towards the back of the store are the most interesting selections: Mao propaganda, ivory carvings, ceramic pigs, which are symbols of prosperity, and antique snuff bottles.
chinatown tea

Photography by Michael Lax
Tea Break at Vital Tea Leaf Company

After hunting through Chinatown shops, a relaxing tea tasting is in order at the Vital Teal Leaf Company. There are over 300 teas to taste at the wide tasting bar with names like “Golden Throat Oolong” and “Fairy Basket.” Below the wall of glass jars, delicate porcelain tea sets and portable tea canteens are for sale. There’s no tasting menu, instead a very helpful staff can share whatever you feel like – be it sweet, bitter, or floral.

History Lesson at Chinese Historical Society of America

The Chinese Historical Society of America displays the history of the Chinese immigrants who reside in Chinatown and beyond. In this Julia-Morgan designed museum (she is the architect responsible for Hearst Castle), visitors are shown the Chinese immigrant contributions to almost every industry in the American West – fishing, agriculture, minding, and the railroads. Next to the main exhibition room is a tranquil hallway that posts more modern happenings. The “In Search of Roots” project shows how today’s Chinatown residents are tracing their Chinese roots back to villages in China. Learn about the history of the neighborhood’s many “Benevolent Associations” as civic organizations for the community. This museum visit feeds the mind and sense of culture, but after a day in Chinatown, it’s time to head to North Beach via Columbus Avenue for dinner and a show to end the multi-cultural day in San Francisco.
chinatown museum

Photography by Michael Lax
Dinner Outdoors at Calzone’s Pizza Cucina

North Beach thrums at night and there’s a magic to be found along Columbus Street after dark. The best way to witness the action is a seat at one of the outdoor tables at Calzone’s Pizza Cucina. Marked by red neon among a sea of flashy North Beach neon, the restaurant is a favorite of locals and tourists. Cuddle up with both under heat lamps and at the service of friendly waiters. People-watching along Columbus Avenue may distract, but focus instead on the menu and try the Italian pot stickers or the crab pizza.
italian restaurant san francisco
Show at Beach Blanket Babylon

As the day winds down and it’s time to head back to Union Square or out of town, have an espresso after dinner and perk up for one more San Francisco North Beach institution. Only the Club Fugazi location is Italian, but the vibrant, hilarious, and popular show is a final nighttime destination. The show is heavy on costumes, wigs, catchy tunes, and humor, making fun of everything pop culture – from Oprah to the Chilean miners to Lady Gaga’s meat dress. After a night show, grab a taxi back to Union Square and start planning another day in San Francisco.

By Kristin Zibell, editor and author of travel blog After two years of traveling around the world, she is currently traveling locally in the city of San Francisco.

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