Spending a couple of days in Los Angeles? Well, I am sure you will be interested in paying a visit to the Downtown area. Because of that, I have compiled an exciting list of things to do in Chinatown!
In a city as big and diverse as Los Angeles, multiple Chinese enclaves exist. However, most residents would agree that the ‘official’ Chinatown is located Downtown.
This area, located north of the Civic Center, lacks the size, vibrancy, and exoticness of other Chinatowns located in prominent cities (example, San Francisco or New York). Notwithstanding, the deficit of certain elements does not take away the interesting and pleasant qualities of the area.
In some way, we cannot blame Chinatown for not ‘fulfilling’ our expectations. The area has a turbulent past. Only one building from the original settlement remains.
‘Old Chinatown’ reached its heyday from 1810 to 1910. After years of neglect, buildings were demolished to build what is now Union Station (the major rail and bus hub in Downtown Los Angeles).
Business minded people developed the area as a tourist attraction and gave streets names resembling Chinese cities. In the 80s, commerce got a big push with the creation of new shopping centers and mini-malls.
Most Chinese people have moved to the San Gabriel area (biggest Chinese population in Los Angeles and what residents call ‘New Chinatown’). Because of this, Chinatown entered another period of neglect and scarcity.
Nowadays, the opening of new restaurants/galleries, the celebration of special events and the overall booming of Downtown Los Angeles have painted a bright rainbow over the area.
It is a fun area that immerses you in the past and present of Los Angeles. I am providing you with tons of ideas to make the most of your visit to the area.
Things to Do in Chinatown Los Angeles
The main artery in the area is Broadway Street. There are signs pointing visitors to the main sights and buildings. The place gets alive during the weekends.
This long gate, composed of two dragons looking at each other, marks the entrance to Chinatown.
Main or Central Plaza
Without a doubt, the prettiest part of Chinatown was created to resemble the streets of Shanghai. Movies such as Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour have been filmed here.
And, since we are talking about movies, a statue commemorating Bruce Lee can be found in the plaza. Also, look for the statue of Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China.
My favorite building is a hot pink beauty occupied by the home goods store Realm. Through the years, I have taken dozens of pictures of this spot.
Next to the pink building, you are going to see the Chinese Celestial Dragon mural. The piece was created in 1941 by an artist called Titus Wong.
It is a lot of fun to take pictures of the colorful buildings, statues, murals, gates, and lanterns. Eateries, cafes, and souvenir shops abound around the plaza.
Chinese American Museum
This museum is located in the Olvera Street area, several blocks away from the businesses that constitute the core of Chinatown.
It is included in here because Chinese families settle originally in this part of town (close to where the city of Los Angeles was founded). As a matter of fact, the museum occupies the only surviving building of the original settlement.
The museum is dedicated to sharing the history, legacy, and contributions (to the US) of Chinese Americans. They have permanent and seasonal exhibitions covering topics related to the way of life of Chinese Americans in Los Angeles.
The Undiscovered Chinatown Walking Tour is offered at least once a month by the Chinatown Business Improvement Association. The one and a half hour tour take participants through courtyards, alleys, and plazas. Reservations are required.
Visit http://www.chinatownla.com/ for more information. If you cannot sign on for the tour, the website offers information on how to do a self-guided walking tour (link is located at the upper left side corner of the site).
The majority of the galleries are located on Chung King Road. Some galleries are open daily to the public but it is better to visit during a special art walks or during galleries opens.
The Good Luck Gallery, Coagula Curatorial or Fifth Floor Gallery are good places to visit.
Los Angeles State Historic Park
It is hard to believe there are 32 acres of open space in Downtown Los Angeles. This park offers hiking/ biking trails and great views of the city’s skyline. A place like this may not come to mind when thinking about Chinatown but I am mentioning it in case you feel like escaping the urban chaos.
What to Eat in Chinatown Los Angeles
Food is one of the reasons I love to visit Chinatown. Succulent food can be had at very reasonable prices. It is best to come here midday and take advantage of the lunch specials. Overall, don’t expect fancy decorations/furniture, stellar service or clean restrooms. Bring cash.
Phillipe the Original
Philippe’s, located on the edge of Chinatown, has been serving sandwiches for about 100 years. They claim to be the inventors of the French dip sandwich and because of that fit has been featured in many TV shows.
There is a lot of hype surrounding the place (since it is a Los Angeles original) and it is famous for its humongous and cheap sammies. The restaurant is packed most of the time. Get ready to wait patiently in line.
Dim Sum Chinatown Los Angeles
As you can imagine, Chinatown is a dim sum heaven!
Several restaurants serve the small, bite-sized portion till the afternoon (1:00 – 2:00 p.m.) for an affordable price per piece.
If you are not familiar with this style of eating, basically you will pick the ready to eat dishes from a menu or cart. Shrimp dumplings, barbecue pork buns, spare ribs, egg tarts, sesame balls and coconut pudding are popular options.
Give a try to the following restaurants:
This restaurant has been included many times on lists highlighting the best dim sum places in Los Angeles. The menu includes spare ribs in black bean sauce, scallop dumplings, taro cake and mango pudding.
Tian’s Dim Sum
A small selection of dim sum dishes are available but the restaurant has a good variety of chow mein, fried rice, soups, and vegetables.
In my opinion, this is one of the nicer looking restaurants in the area. Last time I visited, I saw over 100 dishes on their menu. Now, that is impressive!
They have chicken, pork, squab and seafood dishes as well as a dim sum selection.
This is the place to get Hong Kong style dim sum (daily), Cantonese seafood dishes and to-go food. Their soups and clay pots are good (and a little bit exotic since not even servers can explain the ingredients).
Other Chinese Restaurants
It is not all about dim sum, of course. There is way more Chinese food to try in Chinatown. I recommend the following restaurants.
- Yang Chow
- New Dragon
- Chinese Friends Restaurant
Far East Plaza
This plaza (or food mall or food hall) has a lot to do with putting back Chinatown in the radar of many Angelenos. It all started in 2013 when Roy Choi, one of the gourmet food trucks pioneers, established his first brick and mortar in the plaza.
After that, many more chefs have opened restaurants serving new concept and old favorites. Here are some of the places you need to try if you are in the area:
Chego – Roy Choi’s first restaurant serving dishes with American, Korean, Mexican and Chinese influences.
Ramen Champ – a small place serving ramen, curry, rice bowls and side dishes such as gyoza, takoyaki, and seaweed salad.
Baohaus – serves baos (pork, chicken, tofu and fish buns), rice bowls and taro fries
LASA – elevated Filipino food. This is a very unique place and it is recommended to visit during dinner time (recommendations are a good idea)
Howlin’ Ray’s – this is one of the best places in Los Angeles to get Nashville hot chicken. The only problem is that this restaurant seems to be busy all the time. Try to visit between peak hours to try to reduce the waiting time.
I knew I was going to like this place when I saw the restaurant was packed, the tables were covered from corner to corner with plates containing mountains of food and the menu included a page with noodle type (thin egg, triangle, flat egg, thin rice, short rice, etc.) options.
We ordered the basics: soup, fried rice, and seafood chow mein. Sound a little bit unimaginative but Chinese food lovers know that some restaurants cannot even get right these items. I tend to avoid the fried rice because I find it bland in most places.
But there are good news about Kim Chuy. The broth was rich, the rice was flavorful (full of pork bites, very similar to the rice I use to eat in Puerto Rico) and the noodles had a wok-infused flavor that is hard to beat. I can see myself visiting this restaurant many, many times.
One of the best places to get pho, spring rolls, bun and iced coffee is Gigo’s Café and Deli.
Street/ Fast Food
There is a place called Saigon Deli located next to Saigon Plaza. The tiny shop sells sandwiches, smoothies, tea -based drinks and ice cream. However, the action happens in the makeshift tables placed in front of the place.
In there, fruit in pieces (rambutan, strawberries, jackfruit, coconut, mangoes, etc), eggrolls, spring rolls, shrimp toast, fresh sugar cane juice and more are sold. You probably are not going to notice the name of the place but you would recognize it because of the long lines.
Many shops and restaurants have tables, outside their establishments, topped with sweet, cookies, savory snack and fruits. Be observant to decide what to try.
Coffee / Tea / Snacks
Broadway Street is full of small cafes and stores selling Vietnamese style iced coffee, Thai tea, boba drinks, smoothies, fresh juice and other popular drinks. Consider yourself warned. You are going to feel the urge to get a drink when seeing all the people walking around with tall glasses.
Bakeries in Chinatown offer a lot of choices. You can choose from buns filled with sweet pork, chicken curry, red bean paste, taro or coconut. Also, there a lot of French or Viennese pastries to choose from. Remember a lot of the baked goods in these bakeries are already packed to go (just in case you are stuffed). Some places to try include:
- The Wonder Bakery
- Phoenix Bakery
- Kim Hung Bakery
- Longs Family Pastry
Chinatown Los Angeles Shopping
Broadway Street is lined with many stores selling souvenirs, toys, luggage, clothes, accessories and everything you can imagine.
The biggest covered markets get crowded during the weekends. Visit during the week if you want to browse without dozens of people surrounding you.
Souvenirs / Trinkets / Cheap Clothes and Accessories
If you are looking to avoid the Fashion District (also known as ‘The Alleys’), covered markets such as Saigon Plaza, Chinatown Plaza, and Dynasty Shopping Center offer kind of the same variety of products in a less hectic (and maybe cheaper) environment. Buying souvenirs (t-shirts, hoodies, jackets) is more cost effective here than in places like Hollywood, Santa Monica or Venice Beach.
Far East Center and Wing Hop Fung Ginseng & China Products offer a huge variety of oriental products (dried fruits, nuts, tea, spices, dried mushrooms, herbal remedies and more). Even if you are not thinking about buying anything, it is interesting to take a look around and see what you can discover.
Fresh Poultry and Game Meat
Shops like Superior Poultry and Peking Poultry sell fresh chickens, old chickens, roosters, ducks, and geese. I have seen pheasant, guinea hens, rabbits, Silkie chickens (black skin), quails and other rare meats on their menus.
Chinatown Los Angeles Events
The area is kept lively by a series of monthly and seasonal events. Here are some to keep in mind.
Chinese New Year Festival & Parade
Chinatown Summer Nights an – event featuring food trucks, food vendors, culinary demonstrations and cultural activities
Chinatown After Dark – monthly opportunity to try new dishes and listen to up and coming artists
Mid-Autumn Moon Festival
- Parking lots are widely available in the area.
- If you are thinking about exploring Downtown Los Angeles, I suggest you park in Chinatown where all day parking is $4 to $5 bucks (as opposed to $15 to $20 in other areas of Downtown).
- Chinatown is served by its own Metro Station (yellow line). From here, you can jump in a whim to other parts of Los Angeles.
- Remember it is better to visit Chinatown during the weekends if you are looking for action. The place is very quiet during the week.
- Bring cash since several establishments do not accept credit cards (and you will need cash to shop in the covered markets).
- For more of Chinatown, check out my photo essay.
More of Los Angeles
- Find out how to spend one fun-filled day in Los Angeles
- Get inspiration by reading my Los Angeles Ultimate Bucket List
- Venice Beach Graffiti, Murals and Street Art
- Venice Beach Canals
- Driving in Los Angeles: Top Tips by a Local
More of Southern California
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