Just about every corner of New York City bustles with life, energy and excitement, but few neighborhoods encapsulate this spirit as wholeheartedly as does Manhattan’s Chinatown. Its streets teem with people from the crack of dawn until well past sunset, and every block present a parade of sights, sounds and smells. Since its mid-19th century days, when immigrants, primarily from the Cantonese-speaking Guangdong Province, settled here, Chinatown has drawn crowds to its abundance of restaurants and shops—and the same is true today. Over the years, the neighborhood has seen shifts, and the more recent wave of Mandarin speakers from Fujian Province has brought new cuisine and customs into the neighborhood. And although there’s been an influx of non-Chinese newcomers of late and cries of “gentrification” have begun, Chinatown remains a stronghold of immigrants and their descendants. Whether you visit to eat, shop or just the experience of wandering around, the vibrant street life of Chinatown doesn’t disappoint, so grab your walking shoes and get ready to explore. Our day-long itinerary will help you get the most out of your visit to this classic New York neighborhood.
10am: Coffee and an egg tart
Even Chinatown has a Starbucks (four in fact), but you didn’t come to Chinatown for that, so start the day off right at one of the neighborhood’s many local bakeries. Both Tai Pan Bakery (194 Canal St., 212-732-2222) and Fay Da (83 Mott St., 212-791-3884, fayda.com) are known for their enormous selections of sweet and savory pastries like custard buns or egg tarts, which go perfectly with a coffee or tea. They’re self-serve, so grab a tray and tongs and pick out what suits you. Expect lines and no room to sit, but despite these inconveniences, you’ll exit with enough caffeine and sugar in hand to fuel your day-long Chinatown adventure.
10:30am: Souvenirs, fake bags (if you dare) and chopsticks
No visit to Chinatown is complete without shopping, and you can spend hours hunting for trendy knockoffs, getting the best deals on I Love NY T-shirts and scouring the countless souvenir shops on Canal and Mott streets. Of course, shopping in Chinatown is more like a sport than a leisure activity with packed sidewalks and stores overflowing with everything from classic New York souvenirs (magnets, postcards, trinkets) to perfume, jewelry and sunglasses. Be prepared to bargain. If you’re bold, you can try your luck at scoring a knockoff handbag from one of the many men on the streets whispering designers’ names to passersby. You’ll have to follow them to see the “good” stuff, and it’s often kept hidden in the back of a store, in a basement, down an alley or in a van. A word to the law-abiding: while buying knockoff bags isn’t illegal, selling them is, so don’ t be surprised if the man or woman showcasing the wares suddenly packs up and runs away. There are also plenty of chances to move past the schlock to stores where the locals shop: One of the more unique storefronts is Yunhong Chopsticks (50 Mott St., 212-566-8828, happychopsticks.com), which sells a huge variety of chopsticks in every size, material and color. For Chinese hard and gummy candy, dried fruits and fish, and an abundance of traditional snacks by the pound, try the tiny Aji Ichiban just up the street (37 Mott St., 212-233-7650, ajiichiban.com.hk/eng).
12pm: Exploring Chatham Square and East Broadway
Canal and Mott streets might be the epicenter of the neighborhood, but for something a little different head to Chatham Square where Bowery meets East Broadway. There’s a small plaza dedicated to 19th century Chinese scholar Lin Zexu, famous for his anti-opium stance, but the real action is down East Broadway towards the Manhattan Bridge where you’ll find the heart of Little Fuzhou, the main drag of shops and restaurants run by Fujianese immigrants, the latest wave to put down roots in the neighborhood. Don’t be afraid to pop into one of the many shops off of East Broadway that sometimes lead into a maze or even entire malls of stores selling exotic produce, dried goods, fashions, electronics and snacks. East Broadway Mall (88 E. Broadway) is one of the larger ones, but it still feels more like an indoor flea market than a mall.
1pm: Lunch on Doyers Street
Get your camera ready because historic Doyers Street is one of the most photogenic streets in all of Manhattan. A curved alley packed with barber shops, restaurants and a post office, this street used to be the home of legendary street gangs, earning the nickname, “Bloody Angle.” Now it’s a charming block that hosts quite a few photo and movie shoots along with one of the oldest restaurants in Chinatown, Nom Wah Tea Parlor (13 Doyers St., 212-962-6047, nomwah.com), which opened in 1920. There are no carts here, you just order from a delicious menu of made-to-order delights like shumai, shrimp and snow pea leaf dumplings and rice rolls. The staff goes out of its way to welcome visitors in the warm space made festive by red and yellow booths and tables topped with red and white checkerboard tablecloths.
2:30pm: Cultural rest stop
Take a break from the hustle of the streets and step inside MOCA: Museum of Chinese in America (215 Centre St., 212-619-4785, mocanyc.org). This cultural hub offers perspective on the Chinese-American experience with an insightful look at the history of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. since the 1850s. The sleek exhibition space was renovated by star architect Maya Lin in 2009, so the modern design is as impressive as the exhibits. Entry is $10, and it’s closed on Monday.
4pm: Put your feet up
Head to the charming Columbus Park at Mulberry and Bayard streets and give your feet a much-needed break. You’ll be in good company as the whole neighborhood meets up here to play mahjong, perform traditional Chinese music and chat with friends. You’ll see snippets of traditional Chinese life as locals practice tai chi in the early mornings and caged birds sing from the trees. Grab a savory pork bun (or two, they’re less than $1) from Mei Lah Bakery (64 Bayard St., 212-966-7866), some cheaper-than-cheap dumplings from hole-in-the-wall Tasty Dumplings (54 Mulberry St., 212-349-0070) or a bubble tea—try the mango green tea for something different—from Teariffic Cafe (51 Mott St., 212-393-9009) and stake out a bench, or just come to take a rest and soak in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood.
6pm: Endless dinner options
As night falls on Chinatown, many of the fish shops, groceries and tourist stands close up and the streets quiet down, but most restaurants stay open late into the evening. In fact, with hundreds of often similar looking eateries sprinkled about, it can be hard to choose just one. If you’re in the mood for something more upscale, there’s Peking Duck House (28 Mott St., 212-227-1810, pekingduckhousenyc.com), which is renowned for its namesake dish served with pancakes, scallions, cucumber strips and hoisin sauce. Fish lovers should head straight for Fuleen Seafood (11 Division St., 212-941-6888) where some of the fish is plucked from tanks in the front of the restaurant. For barbecue meats and wonton soup, you can’t go wrong at Big Wong King (67 Mott St., 212-964-0540, bigwongking.com), which specializes in roasted pork, chicken and duck. Like Fuleen, and many Chinatown restaurants, Big Wong King isn’t atmospheric, but it is reasonably priced with lightning-fast service. Vietnamese specialties—pho and bo luc lac, a cubed beef dish—are on the menu at popular Nha Trang One (87 Baxter St., 212-233-5948), where you may encounter a wait at prime hours. Meanwhile, Wo Hop (17 Mott St., 212-962-8617, wohopnyc.com), a Chinatown basement classic that’s been around since 1938, serves old-school American-Chinese standards in big portions and for low prices practically around the clock, from 10am to 7am daily.
8 pm: Get a scoop or two
Satisfy your sweet tooth with an exotic scoop from the standing-room-only Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard St., 212-608-4170, chinatownicecreamfactory.com). This tiny shop has been making flavors such as almond cookie, ginger, green tea and red bean to adoring New Yorkers since the 1970s, although classics such as chocolate or strawberry are also available.
9pm: A shot of karaoke
After a long day, you’ll need a drink to unwind and contemplate the epic nature of your Chinatown tour. Dive bar fans will feel right at home at Winnie’s (104 Bayard St., 212-732-2384) across from Columbus Park. Grab a stool or a seat in a red booth, order a cocktail and mingle with seasoned regulars. Winnie’s is famous for its late-night karaoke, and as the night wears on, groups of hipsters and tourists amass to belt out songs from the extensive, though somewhat dated, catalog. You don’t need to be a karaoke connoisseur; dive into the song book and pick a favorite from the list—from standard pop classics to obscure Chinese tunes, you’ll have quite a range of options from which to choose.