The 10 hidden gems of San Francisco that we love are, in this post, focused on the city’s remarkable treasures based on its East Asian communities and heritage.
(We love San Francisco a ton, which is why we chose it as one of our Favorite Destinations for August 2021; you can read about our other choices in this post.)
Here’s a look at a glance; feel free to jump ahead to your favorite;
- Fabulous Contemporary Art at the Asian Art Museum
- Little Saigon: Great Food in the Heart of the Tenderloin
- Chinese Karoake in Grant Park
- Where to Buy Woks, Kites, and Pandas in Chinatown
- Sweet Treats in Chinatown
- Japantown and the Marvelous Hotel Kabuki
- The Coolest Souvenirs in Japantown
- Side Trip: The Candy Shop in the Haight for completely crazy Kit Kats
- Your Moment of Zen: The Japanese Garden at Golden Gate Park
- The Best Districts for Amazing Eats from All Over East Asia
Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #1: The Fabulous Contemporary Art in the Asian Art Museum
We admit it: The Asian Art Museum is not exactly a hidden gem.
Still, when it comes to museum recommendations in San Francisco, it tends to trail behind some even bigger stuff, like the Exploratorium, De Young, SF Moma, the Disney, etc.
Guess what? Everything you go to those other places for? Like cool technology, amazing classical and contemporary art, and family fun?
The Asian Art Museum’s got it.
And we love how things are always changing.
On a visit in 2018, we were greeted by this fabulous creature: Taiwanese artist Hung Yi’s Dragon Fortune.
Naturally, the Museum features an amazing collection of classical art from all over Asia—including India and West Asia. But for me, the contemporary art, including Hung Yi’s sculpture, is particularly wonderful.
And, given that you’re surrounded by the classical inspirations, pieces like these beautiful vases from artist Fu Shen take on greater meaning.
Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #2: Banh Mi in Little Saigon
Let’s say you spend a pleasant morning strolling among the Buddhas, dragons, and plum blossoms at the Asian Art Museum. You’re hungry, right?
A few blocks away, you can grab superb Vietnamese pho and/or banh mi—or both—in the block known as Little Saigon.
Just take Larkin to Turk to Saigon Sandwich (visit The Infatuation for a great Saigon Sandwich write-up and pic).
….or a block further to Pho 2000. (Check out the Pho 2000 Facebook page and get hungry.)
Or pick a different spot; you can see what’s for offer, as well as how popular a place is, just by looking in the window.
In comparison with Chinatown and Japantown, Little Saigon is tiny.
It’s also pretty much smack dab in the middle of the Tenderloin, which remains stubborn in resisting gentrification. My euphemistic way of saying that, yeah, the Tenderloin is still plenty rough.
But around lunchtime, you won’t be alone. And you will be able to get a GREAT and highly authentic Vietnamese meal.
Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #3: Chinese Karaoke, St. Mary’s Square
To find the hidden gems in San Francisco’s Chinatown, ya gotta get past the Dragon Gate.
Still, it makes a great picture.
But walk beyond this splendid structure, and turn the corner on Pine. You’ll find an Only-in-Chinatown site that delights me every time I visit.
At St. Mary’s Square, gender-segragated groups of Chinese senior citizens huddle over tables playing dominoes or cards….
…as karaoke is sung with tremendous exuberance and utter disregard for pitch in the background.
Of course, there are wonderfully photogenic buildings right across the street, including the Peking Bank.
This one, around the corner, features the homey touch of laundry on the lower balcony.
Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #4: Chinatown Shopping
There are, naturally, dozens of places selling Chinese tchotchkes. Pandas are big.
So are waving cats.
But the Chinatown Wok Shop is the perfect place to pick up whatever you need to make your own Chinese food, from cleavers, to woks, to chopsticks, to….plastic green corn!
Just down the road, behind the creepy fortune telling machine straight out of Big…..
…you’ll find the Chinatown Kite Shop.
That’s the trick with Chinatown: Just keep going further in. Away from the first photogenic but over-visited block, it gets better.
Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #5: Sweet Treats of Chinatown
Truthfully? You are not going to find the best Chinese food in San Francisco here.
(It’s in what some locals are calling the New Chinatown, aka The Sunset and Richmond Districts, depending on who you talk to.)
Also, if you’re here during the day, when the light is lovely, we’ve already told you to pick up a substantial bite in Little Saigon.
You will instead find lots of places with adequate food catering to tourists. Which may completely hit the spot.
But our tip: Save your appetite.
Meanwhile, pick up a big old bag of fortune cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
The Fortune Cookie Factory is only a slightly hidden gem, but it still needs to make your itinerary. Take a tour and buy a bag, including the swanky pink strawberry and electric green matcha versions.
If you prefer ice cream, you have two choices on Grant Ave, neither of which are Chinese: Magical Ice Cream with its crazy Thai rolled ice cream, or the local branch of Matcha Cafe Maiko, a small Japanese chain. Both shops serve a variety of tasty teas and coffees as well.
If you’re pretty hungry, AND in the mood for a very tasty splurge and a view, AND you’re here at night, AND you have a reservation, you can either blow a ton of money in the newly reopened and gorgeously refurbished Empress dining room—now Empress by Boon—or pop into the bar, which is kept open for drop-ins.
PLEASE first read this article so you’re aware of the concerns that Empress by Boon may be one more gentrifying blow to the neighborhood. Chef Ho Chee Boon has promised that this will not be so, and vows to help revitalize Chinatown.
Fingers crossed. Chef Boon and Chinatown, we’re pulling for you!
Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #6: Japantown and the Marvelous Hotel Kabuki
Japantown is another Not Exactly Hidden Gem.
Yet it often gets bypassed by city visitors in favor of the bigger, way more famous Chinatown.
Still. It feels like a hidden gem.
You’ll arrive at Peace Plaza, with its iconic concrete pagoda. Feel free to debate its artistic merits. You won’t be the first.
(To that end, the monument defied my every attempt to shoot it straight up and down. Or maybe that was just me fighting what I think is kind of a not-so-awesome structure.)
But the lack of crowds does, indeed, lend a feeling of peace. As does the quiet martial arts practitioner you’re almost certain to find there.
You can follow the walking tour signs that are posted on the buildings and learn a lot. The Japanese community’s struggle before, during, and after the shameful WWII internments is an inspiring one, and the neighborhood is beautiful.
Keep your eye peeled for Japanese architectural details.
And whatever you do, be sure to pop into the utterly marvelous lobby of the Hotel Kabuki, just up Post Street heading west from the Plaza. Next time I’m in the city, I absolutely want to splurge on a night or two here.
This quickie video doesn’t do it justice, but I hope it gives you an idea of how wonderful it is.
Now it’s time to shop.
Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #7: Japantown Shops NOT in Peace Plaza
Two mall buildings flank Peace Plaza. Here’s the entrance to the one on the west side.
The one on the east side features this beautiful indoor stairway and bridge. (It’s empty because I was there literally the day after the city opened back up post-COVID.)
And of course, you’ll find all sorts of cool things to buy inside; get full deets at the informative SF Japantown website.
But we want to direct you to a couple of shops that you’ll miss if you don’t venture off of Peace Plaza and across Post Street.
First, there’s Soko Hardware.
Beyond all the normal hardware store stuff, there’s a basement with amazingly priced and beautiful tableware and cooking utensils.
And across the street in the pleasing open-air Buchanan Mall, you’ll find the fabulous origami and stationery shop Paper Tree. Which, for an origami-mad friend, proved to be pure, unadulaterated, paper heaven.
Can’t get there? No worries: Shop for origami paper from Paper Tree online.
Meanwhile, if you’re hungry again, Japantown has many, many restaurant choices, which you’ll find detailed here.
We swear we’re not being lazy by refusing to recommend a particular one. But there’s no way to hit them all, so you might as well tailor your restaurant choice to your personal preference, and with more complete information from folks who have really had a chance to explore the area.
In other words, if you fall so in love with Japantown that you find yourself there at dinner—a highly plausible scenario—you’re all set.
This place? Looks Awesome. (It’s Umai Ramen House.)
Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #8: Crazy Kit Kats in the Haight
We are not suggesting that you are insane enough to try to do all this stuff in one day.
But if, by chance you are, when you’re heading west to Golden Gate Park to see the Japanese Garden, you can, conceivably, detour through the Haight.
Where you’ll find Candy’s.
Here’s why we consider it one of the hidden gems of San Francisco, East Asian edition:
Yes, my friend. You’ve doubtless heard of the many wacky flavors of Kit Kat available in Japan.
Now, you can try them yourself. For a price.
But hey: Sakura Kit Kats!! Count me in.
Decidedly UNHidden Gems of San Francisco, #9: The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park
I just want to live here.
You cannot take enough pictures.
To learn everything you need to know about The Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park, visit their website.
Hidden Gems of San Francisco, #10: The Best Neighborhoods for Amazing East Asian Food
For years, San Franciscan friends have invited me to dinner at restaurants in the Inner Sunset, an area near Golden Gate Park.
The variety of global cuisines available in Inner Sunset inspires; not just Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and Korean, but Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian, and, well, tons more.
Also, how often do you get to eat Burmese food? Check out the Burma Superstar menu here to get inspired.
Venture into Outer Sunset, or, on the other side of Golden Gate Park, to Outer Richmond. You’ll find San Franciscans chowing down on great, reasonably-priced food from chefs making the foods they grew up with in Laos, Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Viet Nam, and…I’m sure I’ve missed a couple of cuisines.
Not being a San Franciscan or having a year to truly deep dive and give you well thought-out recommendations, I refer you to the best source for everything you need to know about Eating in SF: Eater San Francisco.