Strolling aimlessly through the streets of Chinatown is a joy, as in every street or square you can find a surprise that makes you believe you are in China: a restaurant, a market, a souvenir shop, a temple, shops and signs in Chinese...
There is a very unique atmosphere here that will captivate you as a traveller. Read on to find out what to see and do in the area, so you don't miss anything.
Get to know New York's quirkiest neighbourhoods
With an expert guide, you will explore three of New York's most iconic and original neighbourhoods: Chinatown, Soho and Little Italy.
On the Chinatown tour, which lasts approximately 2 hours, you'll feel like you're not in New York. The streets lined with Chinese signs, shops and restaurants will leave you in awe. This district is home to one of the largest concentrations of Chinese inhabitants beyond the Chinese border, of course.
On this comprehensive tour with an expert guide, you'll also get to know the neighbourhoods of Soho and Little Italy- an ideal way to get a taste of New York City's multiculturalism!
Recommended if... you want to see New York's historic neighbourhoods in detail.
1. Discover Columbus Park
Your first contact with Chinatown should undoubtedly be Columbus Park. It's the largest park in the neighbourhood and the usual meeting place for the older members of the Chinese community, as well as one of the places you'll visit on the Chinatown tour.
It's very common to see them every morning on the benches reading the newspaper, getting together to keep fit practising taichi, to play a few games of mahjong and even to play musical instruments and sing. You'll see that the ability of the Chinese to keep their traditions alive wherever they go is immense and admirable.
Close to Columbus Park is the Kimlau War Memorial, erected in honour of Chinese-Americans who died in combat in defence of freedom and democracy.
2. Visit the Mahayana Buddhist Temple
New York is a multicultural city where different religions live side by side (you can see most of them on the famous contrasts tour). There are many temples to see such as St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine or attend a Gospel mass in Harlem.
But if you want to complete this mystical experience in the Big Apple, you should head to 133 Canal Street in Chinatown, where the Mahayana Buddhist Temple is located, which houses the largest Buddha in the city at 5 metres high. It dates back to 1962 and became the first Buddhist temple on the East Coast.
It's not easy to find, to be honest, because its façade doesn't look like a typical Buddhist temple. For this reason, we recommend that you book a tour of Chinatown or take a closer look so you don't miss it. Usually a donation is required to gain access and in return you are offered a piece of fortune paper or incense.
3. Get the best Chinese goods in Chinatown
One of my favourite things to do in Chinatown is to browse the bazaars and markets. They sell all kinds of products at very cheap prices. For example, if you walk around the Canal and Mott Street area, you'll feel like you're in a real bazaar in China.
Canal Street is arguably the entrance to Chinatown, although there is no archway to indicate this. It's the main street of the neighbourhood and is somewhat chaotic and noisy due to the sheer volume of people who pass through it as it's home to the famous knock-off fashion shops.
However, if you want to take a break from the hustle and bustle, I recommend you go to Canal Street Market(265 Canal St), a modern and orderly market that contrasts with the bustling environment that surrounds it. This market is divided into two spaces:
- On the right: a food hall with Asian food stalls.
- On the left: artisan shops selling everything from natural cosmetics and jewellery to decorative objects and handmade chocolate, among other products.
Mott Street, on the other hand, is lined with shops selling vegetables, fruits, spices, mushrooms and exotic foods. In fact, many New York restaurants source their fresh produce from Chinatown. You'll also find the best Chinatown souvenirs here at a cheaper price than in the shops of midtown Manhattan.
4. Celebrate Chinese New Year
A very special time to visit Chinatown is during the Chinese New Year celebrations, the most important holiday in Chinese culture, which you will be informed about if you book a Chinatown tour. The date depends on the lunar calendar, but it usually takes place in February and is celebrated in style.
I've been lucky enough to see it on one occasion and it's well worth it. Each year a different animal is welcomed and thousands of people take part in a parade of floats, dances, music and dragons.
It's a fun-filled event for all ages and is well attended. That's why I recommend that if you're going to watch the parade, look for a crossroads from where you can watch it well and experience the atmosphere. When it's over, don't hesitate and go to a restaurant or food stall to enjoy the best Asian cuisine in the heart of Chinatown.
5. Visit the Church of the Transfiguration
Speaking of temples in Chinatown, if you're interested, after your Chinatown tour, you can visit the Catholic Church of the Transfiguration at 29 Mott Street, which is much older than the Buddhist temple, dating back to 1801. It is attended by the neighbourhood's Chinese parishioners as mass is offered in Mandarin, Cantonese and English.
6. Enter the Chinese Museum in America
After your tour of Chinatown, you can also take the opportunity to visit the Chinese Museum in America to learn about the history of the Chinese community in the USA from its beginnings. Inaugurated in 1980, this museum offers a journey through the lives of its members since they landed in America through testimonies, images and videos.
An interesting retrospective that helps us to understand the most particular aspects of Chinese culture and the resulting cultural exchange between two worlds, Chinese and American, apparently so different.
The Museum of Chinese in America or MOCA is located at 215 Centre Street. Admission is $12 and it is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 6pm. However, admission is free on the first Thursday of every month.
7. Stop by Confucius Plaza
One of the most striking buildings in Chinatown, especially for its height and colour, is the historic Confucius Plaza (1975) in front of which stands a statue of Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher from the 5th century BC.
8. Taste the best Chinese food
Chinese cuisine is one of the most appreciated in the world for its variety of ingredients, flavours and textures. Beyond the spring rolls and three-delicious rice we're used to, in Chinatown you'll have the opportunity to savour authentic Chinese food at very reasonable prices.
If you love to eat and you're a foodie, you're in for a treat in this New York City neighbourhood because you'll find plenty of restaurants and bars where you can sample some of Manhattan's best Asian specialities. Here are the best places to eat in Chinatown:
- Xi's an Famous Food: If you like spicy food, you will love this place. The lamb and cumin burger is spectacular and so are the handmade noodles. Plus, the service is lightning fast. It is located at 45 Bayard Street.
- Big Wing Wong: This is an old-school Cantonese restaurant. The portions here are large and the service is efficient. The roast duck, wontons and fried rice are excellent, although the menu is more extensive. The dim sum is among the best in town in my opinion. Prices? Pretty cheap. You'll find this restaurant at 102 Mott Street
- Buddha Bodai: A good option for vegetarians where most dishes cost less than $15. I love it because there is an extensive menu with tasty dishes such as dumplings, spring rolls and different noodle recipes. Also, the vegetarian versions of chicken, lamb or duck are very tasty and tasty. And if you're looking for dim sum, this is a good place. It is at 5 Mott Street, near Columbus Park.
- Canal Street Market: This food hall specialising in Asian food is perfect if you are visiting Chinatown in a group and everyone wants to order something different. It has several food stalls offering a wide variety of food for less than $15. You can sample the dishes on the spot or order a take away for a picnic in Columbus Park. Canal Street Market is located at 265 Canal Street.
9. Learn to bargain, but don't fall for fakes
In local shops you can often negotiate prices, especially if you're willing to take several items. Always try to set a maximum price you are willing to pay and be patient to get what you want.
On the other hand, it is well known that counterfeit luxury goods can be found in Chinatown. To be honest, I'm not crazy about this practice (firstly because, of course, it's not legal), but mainly because the products they offer have no guarantee.
During your stroll you will probably be approached by different street vendors with a catalogue (they usually don't carry the products with them to avoid problems with the police) and they will offer you bags, watches, belts and wallets of big brands. If you're expecting to find bargains, you're wrong: a luxury handbag can cost up to $300. That's why I don't recommend you invest your money.
10. Take the opportunity to explore the surrounding area: take a stroll through Tribeca or Little Italy
If you have enough time, I recommend that you take advantage of your walk through Chinatown to get to know the surrounding streets and neighbourhoods: Little Italy. You'll realise you've crossed the "border" between Chinatown and Little Italy when you start to see coffee shops, checkered tablecloths and the delicious smell of freshly made pizza.
You'll also find Tribeca: like so many other areas of New York, it started out as an industrial area and later became a bohemian neighbourhood, with buildings that feature the typical emergency staircase on the façade and alternative storefronts and small cafés where you can stop for a break.
You'll also find small art galleries to browse in, and if you happen to stumble across a fire station that looks familiar? That's right! It's the Ghostbusters fire station. New York is full of movie sets and if you want to see the best ones, I'll tell you about them in my article about the best movie and series locations in New York.
Where is Chinatown and how to get there?
Chinatown is located in the southeast of Manhattan. It is surrounded by the Lower East Side (to the east), Tribeca (to the west), Civic Center (to the south) and Little Italy (to the north). However, its borders are blurred as Chinatown has grown so much in recent times that it has almost absorbed Little Italy and much of the Lower East Side.
The easiest way to get to Chinatown is by underground, although it can also be reached by bus.
- Underground: Canal Street stop (6, J, M, Z, N, Q, R and W lines) or Grand Street station (B and D lines).
- Bus: M01, M103 and B51.
How did Chinatown come to be?
Lured by the gold rush, thousands of immigrants from China arrived in the US in the mid-19th century. Most settled in California, but some moved to the East Coast, specifically to New York.
Historically, the Chinese community has been very tightly knit and these immigrants from the beginning sought to settle in areas where their compatriots already lived. The great growth of this New York neighbourhood came in 1960, when the restrictions on immigration, which had been enforced a few decades earlier due to the economic recession of 1873, were no longer so strict and people from Hong Kong and other Cantonese-speaking regions began to arrive.
Chinatown then began to grow and overcrowd until it became a world unto itself within the Big Apple, with its own internal social and cultural organisation. In fact, many of its inhabitants barely speak English despite living in New York. And in a way that is part of its charm- the feeling that you travel from one world to another just by crossing the street. For many, it's a culture shock.
Other "Chinatowns" in New York
If after exploring Manhattan's Chinatown, which is undoubtedly one of the best neighbourhoods in New York, you want to discover more about Chinese culture, you can check out the Chinatowns of Queens and Brooklyn.
Gentrification has displaced many Manhattanites to the other two boroughs of New York. Many people say that the atmosphere here is more genuine than the Lower East Side but, in my opinion, it's just different. It's a matter of taste, really.