Those who have looked for the must-see places to visit in New York will surely have come across “Chinatown” (usually accompanied by Little Italy and Soho), an incredible place to visit, especially to discover those corners of the city that never cease to amaze : restaurants, markets, souvenirs and classic aromas of a culture completely opposite to what is normally seen on the streets of New York. In this post we will tell you what to do in Chinatown, the ways to get around, how to get there and even the must-see places within one of the most curious neighborhoods in the Big Apple.
What is Chinatown
As we always say, before you know what to do in Chinatown … What does Chinatown mean? As its name says in English and its translation into Spanish, Chinatown is the Chinese city, in other words, the place chosen by hundreds of immigrants (mostly from China) to settle and look for new opportunities.
The history of Chinatown, in its beginnings, dates back to 1850, when hundreds of Chinese families came to the United States, in search of these new opportunities. As the years passed, the growth of racism, violence and even the fear that Eastern workers would “take away” jobs from North Americans, the immigration waves were decreasing, even creating the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting entry to unskilled Chinese workers, in 1882.
This ban was not lifted until 1943, when the waves of immigration began again and shaping what today is seen as Chinatown in Manhattan.
It is worth clarifying that New York was not the only place where Chinese immigrants arrived, but rather that there is a kind of tacit competition between Chinatown in San Francisco, in California and Chinatown in New York to see which is the largest and the “largest Chinatown in the United States”, even without winners.
Visiting Manhattan’s Chinatown is a kind of balloon ride, the opportunity to “get to China by subway” and a great possibility to cross an imaginary border, without passports or airports, and land with your feet in a city China, with Chinese restaurants, calligraphic signs that only few understand, characteristic colors and aromas, markets where to buy the essential products for an ancient recipe and a tour that no one should miss when visiting New York.
Visiting Chinatown in New York is arriving in a different world, where skyscrapers and viewpoints are transformed into colored letters, narrow streets full of places that were not and began to merge with the culture of the Big Apple but keeping a certain distance to preserve their traditions and customs, keeping their religion and language intact, as if no trip was ever spoken.
But What to do in New York’s Chinatown? Being a “trip within a trip”… Everything! Let’s find out.
- Travel tip: Manhattan = Subway, so the best way to get around the city and get to Chinatown is by underground, with a station on Canal St, lines N, Q, R, W, J, 6, downtown Chinatown
What to do in Chinatown, Manhattan
Being a neighborhood so different from what is used to see in the New York neighborhoods, one of the best things to do in Chinatown is: get lost, almost like an obligation, put the map aside and be surprised by what one can expect and what not from a neighborhood like Chinatown, being, of course, one of the best free things to do in New York. Look down, find even the most beautiful streets in New York, cross to the other side, look up and discover signs, letters or symbols that recall the streets of Beijing or even a corner of Hong Kong.
- Fun fact : many immigrants came from Hong Kong and many from regions of China where only Cantonese is spoken; others, where Mandarin is spoken and even the Fuzhou dialect setting up subdivisions in the neighborhood itself, depending on customs and even languages, such as Little Fuzhou.
Beyond getting lost is a great plan, for more organized travelers there are also various places and things to do in Chinatown: 1. A walk through culture in Columbus Park Strolling through the streets of Chinatown, one can easily realize where one is, it is not even necessary to enter a local because the streets in themselves say a lot about Manhattan’s Chinatown. However, for anyone who wants to gain insight into Chinese culture, a great recommendation to do in Chinatown is visit Columbus Park, a park, which in turn looks like a cultural center at the same time. Open air, a meeting point, meeting point and activities for the residents of the neighborhood.
The park is a great place to discover the traditions of the Chinese community: some doing tai chi, others playing cards, others playing an instrument and others simply talking with the neighbor who has been crossed.
- Fun fact: Before Columbus Park, this place was called Five Points, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York that, according to history, was the meeting point of tong organizations, or Chinese gangsters (Moviegoers: Gangs of New York ).
2. Visit a Buddhist temple
Religious diversity in China is one of the characteristics of the country, and it has moved to the American borders. The Buddhist religion is noted, not only by the presence of a temple in the middle of the Big Apple, but by its internal colors that, almost like a hypnotic effect, attract travelers to discover it.
At 64 Mott Street, you will find Mahayanna Buddhist Temple, a key point to visit and do in Chinatown: the largest Buddhist temple in all of New York and the oldest on the entire east coast of the United States, the site where, Furthermore, it is possible to admire the Buddha sitting on the lotus flower. Your entrance is free, although if you want to leave a donation, you are welcome.
- Travel tip: the best time (or at least the most festive) to visit Chinatown is in February, when the Chinese New Year is celebrated and colors flood the streets of the neighborhood.
3. Shopping on Canal Street
If someone asks, which street to start walking through New York’s Chinatown, then the first place to go is Canal Street, one of the main streets of Chinatown and the a place where you can forget that you are visiting the most important city in the United States.
On Canal Street, it is possible to discover those shops where you don’t really know why, but you want to buy something, a souvenir, imitation clothes, some food to cook oriental recipes or anything else, literally anything. The best thing to do in Chinatown is to admire how some “well-known” signs such as banks or restaurants are written in Cantonese.
Besides walking down the street and discovering different shops, a great tip is to visit Canal Street Market, a very interesting handicraft and food market.
- Travel advice: as in the Istanbul Grand Bazaar, haggling is common currency and negotiating the price of some products is well regarded. The best thing to do is to shop with cash, haggle and get good prices. Be careful, not all businesses practice it and it is important not to abuse.
4. More shopping on Mott Street
The second key street to visit in Chinatown is Mott Street, the place where, they say, it all began. As the story goes, it was on Mott Street that the first Cantonese immigrant arrived and opened his first business … the rest is history.
Unlike Canal Street, Mott Street is characterized by its food markets, where colors, strange shapes and aromas intermingle on the street and attract the curiosity of travelers who they go through them. Many unrecognizable products, others more familiar but all forming the heart of New York’s Chinatown, a great place to visit.
- Fun fact: many of the restaurants in the Big Apple buy their products in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
5. Learn more at the Museum of Chinese in America
The MOCA, as many know it, is one of the things to do in Chinatown, as it is the place where It tells the story of the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the United States and especially to New York, their adaptation to the new continent, their customs and traditions so opposed, and fused at the same time.
- Travel advice : the entrance to the museum is paid but its souvenir shop is free and super interesting to visit for the objects that are sold.
6. Photographing Doyers Street
A city as photographic as New York, owes part of its charm to its avenues, decorations and curious spaces. One of the most beautiful streets of New York is located in Chinatown and is Doyers Street, a curvy but charming little street, ideal to photograph your outdoor space and, why not, taste traditional food in one of its restaurants classics.
7. Stroll the Manhattan Bridge
As if something were missing from Chinatown in New York, following its streets it is also possible to access the Manhattan Bridge, one of the icons of the city and a great alternative to be able to cross to Brooklyn, towards one of the most photographed neighborhoods in all of New York and one of the most beautiful streets in the world: the Dumbo neighborhood.
Brooklyn is one of the New York neighborhoods with the greatest amount of contrasts and, as the bridge is crossed, it is possible to admire the views towards the Big Apple, Chinatown behind and access to the curious neighborhood.
Where to eat in Chinatown
Part of Chinese culture is noted through its flavors and aromas and one of the best ways to get to know it even more, is through its recipes and what better than in New York’s Chinatown. Where to eat in Chinatown?
One of the best things to do in Chinatown is: eat! There are hundreds of restaurants in Chinatown, some smaller, others with more exotic foods, others with endless and indecipherable menus for Westerners, but all of them with culture impregnated in each of their recipes. The best recommendation is to taste the classic dumplings, the bubble tea (a sweet tea made with fruits and with a jelly-like texture) and look for the place where one feel more comfortable. Although the most famous places are:
- Nom Wa Tea Parlor: a cinematic place, ideal for tasting dim sum.
- The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory: to taste the most exotic ice creams.
- Taiyaki: ideal for instagramers and lovers of sweets.
- Peking Duck House: with a set menu and many options to taste.
If New York surprises, Chinatown is not far behind. One of the essential neighborhoods, unmissable and almost mandatory to visit on a visit to the Big Apple.