Things to Do in Chinatown New York | A Self Guided Tour
This post is an overview of things to see in Chinatown New York. If you want to explore Chinatown at your own pace, use this self-guided tour that hits upon the main attractions and restaurants. We do also offer two pay-what-you-wish tours that cover Chinatown, our SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown Tour and our Chinatown Food Tour. This tour will take you an estimated 2-3 hours to complete in full. This includes time to stop, eat and relax. Be sure to check out our full selection of self-guided New York Tours.
There are many ways to arrive in Chinatown and the Canal Street subway station is the closest to the starting point of this tour, the NYC and Company information kiosk at 210 Canal Street. We recommend using this link for directions to the tour starting point.
Self-Guided Tour PDF Version
(A) Start your tour at the Visitor’s Kiosk where they often have free copies of Time Out Magazine and also nifty pocket-sized foldable subway maps!
(B) Baxter Street and the Manhattan House of Detention
Throughout the 1700s, the area west of Baxter Street and south of Canal Street was a swampy area known as Collect Pond which provided drinking water to Colonial New York. In 1811, the City drained the area by building a canal which was later covered over in 1821 and was named, of course, Canal Street. In 1838, the land where the swamp once was became the site of New York City’s jail. Because the building was built to resemble an Egyptian mausoleum, the jail came to be called “The Tombs”. The original building was torn down and eventually a new modern Manhattan House of Detention was erected. It is still referred to as “the Tombs” by attorneys and prosecutors today.
(C)Manhattan Criminal Court Building
Logically, the courthouse is located next to the House of Detention. Inmates with court dates are brought from jail to the courthouse building over a walkway located several floors up connecting the two buildings (it’s known as “the Bridge”). The criminal court house is open to the public and you can sit in on trials during the day or even visit night court from 5 pm-1 am. Keep your eyes open in the area as you may see film crews shooting scenes for one of the many law-focused TV shows like Law and Order, The Good Wife and Suits.
(D) Columbus Park and the surrounding streets
Immerse yourself in Chinese culture by spending a few minutes in this small but lively park where many elderly Chinese people come to play cards, mahjong and other Chinese games. You will hear musicians singing traditional Chinese songs and playing lutes. Early in the mornings you may spot a group of people doing tai-chi.
Though this park feels distinctly Chinese, it wasn’t always the case. The area where the park stands now and the surrounding streets was known as Five Points, an infamous, crime-ridden slum depicted in the book and movie Gangs of New York. The area earned the name of Five Points because five of its streets converged at one point, on the site of what is now Columbus Park. City officials decided to raze most of the neighborhood in order to eliminate this hub of gang warfare, violence, poverty and crime. The park was built where the streets once existed in 1896. Of the original five streets, only three remain. Worth (formerly Anthony) Street on the south, Baxter (formerly Orange) Street on the west and Mosco (formerly Cross) Street on the east. Mosco Street is a very short sloped street resembling an alley was once a much longer thoroughfare but was reduced to its current size when Five Points was torn down. In 1982 it was renamed Mosco Street in honor of Lower East Side community Activist Frank Mosco.
Today Mosco Street is a prime destination for those who searching for the best and cheapest New York Food. It’s impossible to miss the tiny shop simply named ‘Fried Dumpling’. Here you can get what some say are the best Chinese fried pork dumplings in town. $1 for 5 dumplings! Walk up Mosco Street to the corner and you will be on Chinatown’s unofficial “Main Street” where many of the first Chinese-owned shops and restaurants opened in the early days of Chinatown. Today it is lined with Chinese restaurants, trendy bubble-tea shops, tourist-type gift shops.
(E) Church of the Transfiguration (corner of Mosco and Mott Sts.)
This multi-denominational, multi-lingual church has served immigrants here for more than two centuries. The building was erected in 1801 by a Lutheran congregation. By the time the spire was added in the 1860s, the church was Roman Catholic with a congregation of Irish and Italian immigrants. The church is still Roman Catholic but its congregation is mainly Chinese making it one of the largest Chinese Roman Catholic congregation in the Western world. Sermons are held in English as well as two dialects of Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese.
(F) 32 Mott Street site of the former Quong Yuen Shing General Store
From 1891 to 2003, this was the site of the longest continuously family-operated store in Chinatown. The store was opened by a man named Lok Lee and was more than just a place to buy goods. It served as social center of sorts, a place where Chinese immigrants could come to talk, where illiterate immigrants could get assistance from literate immigrants to write letters back home, or to rent a bed by the night in the back of the store. In 2003, the General Store closed due to the effects of 9/11. The proximity of Chinatown to the Twin Towers resulted in street closures in the area, cutting off much business to Chinatown. With the Chinatown economy now in recovery, new owners have opened up a gift shop at the location.
(G) Aji Ichiban Candy Store 37 Mott Street
Despite the Japanese name, this Chinese chain of candy stores sells hundreds of kinds of Asian and Western candies and dried fruits, nuts, jerky, seafood and a fabulous selection of all things gummy! There are small sample dishes next to most items – we recommend you sample the pre-served rose petal, a wasabi peanut and the candied baby-crab. Watch the video below to see what you could get at this location.
(H) Pell Street
This narrow colorful street, lined with 100 year old brick tenement apartment buildings, small storefronts and awnings and flags with Chinese writing is a favorite locale among photographers and filmmakers, as no street more than Pell screams out “This is Chinatown!” Due to the numerous barber shops and hair salons, locals sometimes refer to Pell Street as ‘Barbershop Alley’. By the early 20th century, like many of the smaller streets branching off of Mott Street, Pell Street had its share of vice in the form of brothels, gambling houses, gang hideouts and opium dens, two of which were located at 11 and 13 Pell.
(I) Doyers Street and Nom Wah Tea Parlor
For such a small street, Doyers has big history. The street is named for Hendrik Doyer, an 18th-century Dutch immigrant who owned the land on which the street sits. He operated a distillery where the post office now stands. Doyers is an oddly curved street, the result of having been laid out prior to the City’s official street creation policy, the Commissioner’s Grid Plan of 1811 mandating that any new streets conform to the still existing grid pattern. Like Pell Street in the early 1900s, Doyers Street was a bed of vice as well as violence. Because of the number of shoot-outs, ambushes and murders in the battle for dominance between two rival tongs (gangs), the On Leong tong and the Hip Sing tong, Doyers and its infamous curve came to be known as “the Bloody Angle”.
The most famous spot on Doyers Street is the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown’s first tea parlor, opened in 1920. The interior resembles an American coffee shop with vinyl booths and a counter with stools. Unlike other food establishments in early Chinatown with their exotic mysterious appearance, Nom Wah’s décor was familiar to non-Chinese diners and made it more enticing for people to come in and try this new type of food. Though the restaurant has had different owners of the years, the current owners have been involved with it since the 1940s. Read the news articles posted on the restaurants windows to learn about the family’s history and the hard times and good times the restaurant has endured over the decades.
(J) 5-7 Doyers Street site of the former the Chinese Theater
Also known as the Chinese Opera House, the very first Chinese-language theater in the United States east of San Francisco opened in this building in 1893 to meet the needs of a rapidly growing Chinese population. A trip to the theater became somewhat of a fad among cultured New Yorkers but in 1905 a vicious gun battle between the Hip Sings and the On Leongs erupted inside the theater leaving four people dead. The theater suffered greatly and eventually closed in 1901.
(K) Chatham Square
Prior to the birth of Chinatown in the late 1800s, Chatham Square was an open market. As the area became more and more Chinese at the run of the 20th century, the area around the square became seedier as flop houses and tattoo parlors cropped up. Today Chatham Square is viewed as the eastern hub of Chinatown, much like Columbus Park on the western border.
(L) Kimlau Memorial Arch
In 1962, this statue was erected by the American Legion and is dedicated to Chinese Americans who died fighting for democracy in World War II. The arch is named for Benjamin Ralph Kimlau, a Chinese-American lieutenant who lost his live when his plane was shot down during a mission in 1944.
(M) Statue of Lin Ze Xu
Chinatown was, until the second half of the 20th century, primarily Cantonese. But in the past few decades more and more Chinatown residents are from the Fuzhou province and the area east of Bowery, particularly East Broadway (known as “Fuzhou Street” and Eldridge Street are dominated by Fujianese owned shops. Thus it is no coincidence that Lin Ze Xu, a Chinese politician who fought to keep the opium trade out of China in the 1830s-40s, happens to be Fujianese. The statue was erected in 1997and is a source of pride for the Fujianese residents of the neighborhood.
(N) Shearith Israel Cemetery
This small, hardly noticeable sliver of land is the oldest cemetery in New York, dating back to 1683. At that time, this area was outside the boundaries of New York proper and thus suitable for a graveyard. Spanish and Portuguese Jews were the original founders of the Shearith Israel congregation, the only one in New York for nearly 200 years until 1825. Though you cannot enter this tiny cemetery, you can see some headstones with Hebrew writing. This is one of the very few pre-colonial sites left in the city yet most New Yorkers have never heard of it. It is a treasure of history tucked away and should not be missed.
(O) Edward Mooney House corner of Bowery and Pell Street
This two-story red brick building is the oldest townhouse in New York City and was built in 1785 after the Revolutionary War by Edward Mooney, a butcher. Walk on Pell Street to see the wooden door frame, so dramatically different from the other building entrances surrounding it. Look up and you will see small, arched quarter-windows typical of the late Georgian and early Federal styles of the era in which it was built. Since the 1820s the building has housed a tavern, a hotel, a pool parlor, a restaurant, a Chinese club and currently is a community bank.
(P) Confucius Plaza Apartments and Confucius statue
The 44-story co-op complex with 762 apartments was constructed in 1975 to accommodate the growing number of Chinese immigrants flocking to America. The building was the first major publicly funded housing project built for almost exclusively Chinese Americans. Inside the building there are shops, a public school and a day care center.In front of Confucius Plaza is a 15-foot bronze statue of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher. Sculpted by Liu Shih, the statue was dedicated in 1976 by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States. On its base, there is a Confucian proverb praising a fair government with leaders of wisdom next to an American flag.
(Q) The Bowery
This was once the main road in Dutch-settled New York, New Amsterdam. The word Bowery is derived from the Dutch world for farm, bouwerie. During colonial times and after, Broadway replaced Bowery as the main street of Manhattan and by the 1800s the Bowery had grown into an entertainment district. However, this historic street became known as ‘skid row’ for the down and out. Seedy hotels and soup kitchens lined the street throughout the 1900s.
(R) Manhattan BridgeEntrance
Though the first thing you will notice about the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge is the traffic and constant gridlock, take a moment to admire the grand archway and colonnade, designed by one of the most famous architectural firms of the early 20th century Carrere and Hastings, who designed the magnificent New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. The Manhattan Bridge built in 1908 is not as beautiful as the nearby Brooklyn Bridge, but it provides an invaluable service to New Yorkers as it allows cars, pedestrians, cyclists and subways to cross from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
(S) Mahayana Buddhist Temple 133 Canal Street
Opened in 1997, this is the largest Buddhist Temple in New York City and home to the City’s largest Buddha statue. You can enter the temple’s foyer for free (dressed appropriately – this is a house of worship). But to go into the temple itself, it is requested that you donate $1 for which you get a fortune scroll and the opportunity to gaze up at the 16 foot-tall golden Buddha. The walls are lined with large, elaborate portraits depicting the life of the Buddha. Ironically, this building used to be an adult movie theater in the 1980s and early 1990s.
(T) Citizens Savings Bank corner of Bowery and Canal Street
This grand 110 foot tall Beaux-Arts style domed structure was built in 1924. When it was built it served as a portal to Manhattan for those arriving via the Manhattan Bridge. After a battle to have this monumental building officially land-marked, it is now a protected building. Ironically, it is hardly noticeable among the hustle and bustle going on at eye-level in Chinatown.
(U) Eastern States Buddhist Temple of America 64 Mott Street
The temple is the oldest Buddhist temple on the East coast of the United States. It was founded in 1962 along by Annie and James Ying. The temple is housed in a storefront so it is quite small, which is why Annie Ying opened the much larger Mahayana Temple in 1997 on Canal Street, included in this tour. Toward the back is an elaborate altar with benches for kneeling and a red box for donations for which you get a fortune scroll in exchange. The wall of more than 100 small golden Buddhas make it worth it to take a peek inside, especially since it is free to enter.
(V) Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association 62 Mott Street
This is the oldest community organization in Chinatown founded in 1883 by wealthy Chinese merchants who spoke English and who wanted to assist newly arrived Chinese immigrants open their own businesses by providing financial assistance and skills training. It still serves the community over 130 years later offering social services, language classes and cultural preservation activities.
(W) Ten Ren Tea Time 75 Mott Street
A fantastic shop for tea connoisseurs where you can sample hundreds of different varieties of whole-leaf teas. Founded in 1953in Taiwan by Ray Ho Lee, Ten Ren is Taiwan’s largest tea shop chain with 113 outlets worldwide. Ten Ren’s Tea Vancouver store was featured as a challenge location in an episode of The Amazing Race Canada. And the tea selection at this shop is just as amazing.
(X) Mott Street fish and food market Mott Street between Canal and Grand Sts.
The market is actually just shop after shop selling fresh fish and seafood at very competitive prices. You can also find a massive array of dried goods, from different types of mushrooms, squid, shrimp, and many items you probably won’t recognize. There are a few stores that selling greens and fruit but manly it’s the fish that bring the locals in to do their weekly shopping. Warning: if you are squeamish, do NOT look inside the large plastic garbage bins next to the fish displays.
New York’s Chinatown is the second oldest Chinatown in the United States, San Francisco being the first. In the mid-19th century, California served as the main entry point to the United States for tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants who came to the US seeking to make a fortune from the Gold Rush of 1848. Many Chinese immigrants found work building the Transcontinental railroad, but because Chinese laborers would work for less money than American workers, they suffered terrible discrimination. When the railroad was completed, Chinese workers moved east seeking work and to escape the resentment and discrimination they experienced in the West.
Chinese men continued to flock to America where they could earn higher wages than in China and better support their families who could not legally accompany them to the United States due to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted. By 1900 the estimated population of Chinese men in New York City was 7,000, with a ratio of men to women almost 200:1. Thus, in the early days of Chinatown, a Chinese woman was a rare sight and those who did make it to America were often sponsored by Chinese theaters where they would perform at exotic Chinese theaters where upper-class worldly men would visit.
The strict quotas and immigration laws were relaxed and eventually repealed in 1943. In the decades since, Chinese immigration to New York has exploded and the original boundaries of Chinatown have expanded taking over much of Little Italy to the north and the Lower East Side. In fact the original Chinatown enclave in Manhattan is no longer the largest Chinatown in the City. One will find larger Chinese populations in Flushing and Elmhurst in Queens and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Some say that Manhattans Chinatown is less authentic than these other areas because of the many tourist-focused stores selling souvenirs. But as you walk through the narrow, winding streets of Chinatown, stopping at key historic locations, some over 200 years old, you’ll see that it doesn’t get more authentic than is.
If you’re looking for jewelry, handbags, perfume, sunglasses, watches, wallets, shoes, etc. walk along Canal Street between Broadway and Mulberry Street. You will have many shops to choose from. Don’t be shy about ‘haggling’ (negotiating) – try it and you may get a better deal.
Though we don’t endorse purchasing knock-off counterfeit handbags, we can provide you with information about where and how to do this. Don’t forget – selling counterfeit goods is a crime, so be careful in who you deal with. Here are some tips:
First, you can visit legitimate stores licensed to sell goods. Merchandise can sometimes be knockoffs of your favorite brands or have logos meant to resemble those of the fancy name brand bags. If a shop does carry fake bags, they won’t make it obvious and you will have to go to the way back of the shop and have a look. Another option is to look for illegal street peddlers selling knockoff sunglasses, handbags and watches out of suitcases or on sheets laid out on the sidewalk. If they suddenly pack up and run off, it means that they have spotted the police.
For those brave enough, you can deal with individual sellers who presumably have better quality counterfeit items. These people stand on street corners (notably Mott, Mulberry and Baxter Street on the north side of Canal Street) and will walk past you saying quietly “handbag, purse” to women or “watches” to men. If you indicate you are interested, they will take you off to the side and discreetly show you pictures of the items they have. If you want to make a purchase, you then follow them to semi-secret, but generally safe, locations to complete the deal.
There is an overwhelming number of restaurants, food shops, and food carts in Chinatown and here are a few of our favorites:
Hop Kee 21 Mott Street corner of Mosco Street, basement level
Serving Cantonese classics like lobster in white sauce, sweet and sour pork and lo mein since 1968, this bustling restaurant in a clean, well-lit basement-level space, is a favorite among New Yorkers hungry for a nostalgic meal at very good prices. Fans of Anthony Bourdain should watch this video.
Jing Fong 20 Elizabeth Street between Canal Street and Bayard Street
This huge banquet hall size restaurant serves Dim Sum, a meal of small plates of dumplings with a variety of fillings like pork, shrimp or vegetables; steamed buns, ribs, seafood, and other Chinese treats. This is a perfect way to try many dishes for fairly low prices. Traditionally Dim Sum is served on the weekends only and early in the day, sort of like brunch. However, many restaurants in Chinatown now serve on weekdays as well, though the atmosphere is much more fun on weekends. When having Dim Sum, instead of ordering from a menu, you are given a large ticket on which the waiters keep track of what you eat. Choose your food from the carts being pushed around by the servers. If you see something you like, stop the waiter, point at the item and give your food ticket. The servers don’t speak much English so you may just have to wait and be surprised by what you’ve selected to try. This huge banquet hall is a feast for the eyes and stomach. If you are a big group, you will get your own table, but when it is crowded you will have to wait in the crowded lobby until a table is free. There is also the option to sit at round communal tables.
A small and cheap restaurant that is adored by New Yorkers. The dough that makes their noodles are literally pulled and stretched out by hand. They are served in broth or by themselves with add-ins such as duck, chicken or vegetables. Cash only.
This shop is a hole in the wall, but you can’t miss it as there is usually a short line to get 5 fried pork dumplings for a $1. The ladies at the counter are very fast and don’t have time for questions so be ready with a dollar in your hand. Forks are to the right of the register and there is hot sauce on the tiny counter across from the open kitchen where you can see your dumplings being made. They also have pork buns, and vegetarian dumplings but they cost a bit more and aren’t as good as their signature dish.
At $5 a scoop, it’s a bit pricey, but they have unusual flavors like ginger, wasabi, and black sesame seed. There are plenty of old-fashioned American flavors as well. They also do a great job with familiar flavors such as Mint Chip, Chocolate Peanut Butter, and Vanilla Fudge.
This is THE place to get steamed or baked pork buns in Chinatown. Juicy, tender and tangy pork fills their buns and costs less than $1! If you are a vegetarian or just want to try something different, try the lotus paste steamed buns with the consistency of peanut butter and a taste similar to that of chestnuts.
143-A Mott Street between Hester and Grand Sts.
Tucked away in a small storefront among the bustling fish market you’ll find the most delicious pumpkin steamed buns in all of New York City. The roast pork buns are good too and there’s an array of sweet and savory baked and steamed items ranging from $1 to $3.
You don’t have to feel like you’re missing out on great duck while you’re in Chinatown – these folks work miracles with tofu, wheat gluten, and seitan. We especially like the mock duck appetizer, orange ‘beef’ entrée and steamed dumplings.
If you feel like having dim sum but want to leave behind the mystery of pointing at unknown foods from wheeled carts, try this full-service restaurant. Menus are provided with a full description and photos of the food. Prices are great and the assorted dumpling platters are a great way to try several different types of dumplings. The vegetarian dumpling platter is both beautiful to look at and delicious to eat.
Free Tours by Foot – we offer several pay-what-you-like tours that are focused on, or include, Chinatown in Manhattan. Our SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown Tour runs twice every day and spends about 45 minutes in Chinatown. Sometimes, we run a stand-alone tour of Chinatown. We also offer Chinatown as part of two other history walking tours. Our Chinatown Food Tour – this is a 2-hour tour that explores both the food and history of Chinatown. This runs on a weekly basis. See our current tour calendar for our tours, times and descriptions.
Bus Tours – All the major hop-on, hop-off bus companies have at least one stop in Chinatown. You will get a narration of the neighborhood from the onboard tour guide while you drive through. For a more in-depth guided tour, consider one of the bus companies that offer a tour guide who gets off the bus with you and walks you through the neighborhood. Read our post on which tour bus is right for you.
Chinatown Walking Tour
Very few neighborhoods encapsulate the diversity and international draw of New York City like Chinatown. Interestingly enough, this neighborhood sits in the place of a former famous neighborhood in New York, the Five Points, immortalized in the book and film “Gangs of New York.” A relatively new phenomenon in the city, Chinatown is still growing. Join Free Tours by Foot for a peek into this ongoing chapter in New York City’s rich immigrant history.
As part of the tour, you will see the restaurants and stores that make up the everyday life here. You will be approached by street vendors selling everything from exotic fruits to questionable brand-name handbags. You will also get a chance to pass through important neighborhood centers like Columbus Park, where Chinese men and women congregate to talk about local happenings and play their card and board games.
All of the sites and stops in Chinatown will paint a picture that will make the world feel small while at the same time remind you of just how big it really is.
Here are the sites that will be covered on the tour:
Church of Transfiguration
Nom Wah Tea Parlor
Shearith Israel Cemetery
Kimlau Memorial Arch
Edward Mooney House
Manhattan Bridge Entrance
Mott Street Market
Mahayana Buddhist Temple
Museum of Chinese in Americas
Reservations: This tour currently runs as a private tour only.
Where: Tour departs from the intersection of Canal and Baxter Streets (map).
Duration: Approximately 2 hours. Approximately 1.5 miles (2k) in distance.