Best Family Fun At The SF Chinese New Year Festival And Parade

by | Feb 1, 2022 | Destinations, Family Adventures, Traveling with Teens, USA, Weekend Trips, West Coast

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We have a saying in our family: “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.” In other words, if you’re going to be something, be the biggest, baddest, awesomest version of it you can —  hold nothing back. It’s a code we live by and it’s something we seek out, particularly in our vacation spots. So when we learned that not only was San Francisco’s Chinatown the largest in North America, not only was it the oldest as well, but it also just so happened to put on the biggest, brightest, loudest Chinese New Year Celebration and Parade outside of Asia. We couldn’t wait to go. 

That was back in 2019, and (spoiler!) we’ve gone every year since then. It’s become a bit of a family tradition actually; and we figured, “Why not write a family guide to enjoy the festivities?” Here is our guide, written for the 2022 Chinese New Year in San Francisco. In it, we lay out everything you need to know to enjoy the festivities with your family, and we also pass on a few interesting tips and facts we’ve learned along the way.

 

 

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A Grain Of Salt: History of Chinese New Year

 

No article, no matter how ambitious, can possibly do justice to the history of the Chinese New Year in North America. But if you’re curious about the history of the Chinese New Year in the U.S. and about the history of Chinese immigration to North America in general, I’ve provided resource links below. While by no means exhaustive, I highly recommend using them as a starting point for your own research into this fascinating topic. 

 

 

San Francisco Chinatown - Best Fun SF Chinese New Year.

Chinatown awaits. Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash.

 

 

An Old Tradition, Celebrated In A New Way

 

Also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year has been practiced (in one form or another) in China for thousands of years. In contrast, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon in the U.S., having only been consistently practiced in San Francisco since the 1860s. 

Brought to North America by Chinese immigrants eager to join the gold rush and leave behind domestic turmoil caused by the recent Opium War, the Chinese New Year festivities began as a small community celebration. Over time, it grew into one of the largest international festivals in the world. Sometime in the mid-1860s, the founders of the new Chinese settlement in San Francisco would incorporate an American practice into their revelry, that of the ticker-tape parade. And for the first time, the streets of San Francisco were illuminated by red lanterns carried proudly down Grant Avenue and Kearny Street by the revelers. 

Since 1958, the festivities have been under the supervision of the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce, who decided to move the parade from the afternoon to the evening so as not to overshadow the Miss Chinatown Pageant. The San Francisco Chinese New Year parade has grown from a small community tradition into the largest of its kind in the world, with over three million annual spectators either attending in person or watching the live broadcast every year. 

 

 

 

Tiger Statue For Chinese New Year - Best Family Fun At The Chinese New Year Festival And Parade

Wild tiger statue spotted! Photo by Matthew LaMourie.

 

 

Roaring In The Year Of The Tiger

 

Each new year in the Chinese calendar is associated with one of the twelve animals from the Chinese zodiac, starting with the Rat and ending with the Pig. In 2022, it’s the Year of the Tiger. Last year was the Year of the Ox and next year will be the Year of the Rabbit. According to legend, the zodiac animal of one’s birth year supposedly influences that person’s personality and traits. The Year of the Tiger is associated with, among other things, bravery, spontaneity, and confidence. 

It’s customary to take the week or two before the Chinese New Year to thoroughly clean your house, as well as put up traditional Chinese couplets, buy symbols of rebirth such as flowering plants, and set off firecrackers to cast off evil spirits. To get even more into the holiday spirit, you can set out a traditional Harmony Tray, with delicious sweets like candied melon or lotus seeds, as a symbol of prosperity and longevity. 

Did You Know? To help ring in the New Year, six life-sized tigers will be displayed throughout San Francisco in a public art display put on by the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Proudly made by local artists, each statue represents a different aspect of the tiger’s personality and the New Year as a whole. Just the other day, I spotted one in Union Square!

 

 

Best Things To Do In SF During The Chinese New Year

 

 

Oranges At The Flower Market Fair - Best Family Fun At The Chinese New Year Festival And Parade

Lucky tangerines ready to be plucked. Photo by Yuwei Shaw on Unsplash.

 

 

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Buy Goodies At The Chinese Flower Market Fair

 

Every year in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Chinese New Year festivities commence with the Flower Market Fair. Held on the weekend before the first day of the New Year, the fair is the best place to go to purchase everything you need for the upcoming festival. With vendors selling freshly-cut flowers, golden oranges, and delicious tangerines — and basically everything else you’d want  — many Chinese families use this as an opportunity to buy the decorations and other components they need to ensure a successful celebration and guarantee good luck in the coming year. Our family loves to purchase orchids (which signify good taste and beauty) at the market, as well as lots of fruits and traditional Chinese candies that can be found throughout Chinatown.

 

Did You Know? In Chinese culture, oranges and tangerines have come to symbolize abundant happiness and wealth. This is due to the way the words for the fruits sound in Cantonese: orange is gum, which sounds like gold; and tangerine is gut, which resembles “Good luck!”

 

 

Luck Money Or Lai See - Best Fun SF Chinese New Year.

Count your blessings. Photo By Jason Leung on Unsplash.

 

 

Receive Lucky Money From The Gods of Wealth

 

On the first day of the Chinese New Year, people dressed as Choy Sun, a traditional Chinese god of wealth, will flock through the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, passing out red envelopes to children as they go by. These red envelopes, or lai see, in Cantonese, are handed out to children and unmarried people for good luck during the new year. Customarily filled with money, each red envelope handed out by the Choy Suns will contain a chocolate gold coin, and some will even have money or a gift certificate that can be redeemed for a small toy. 

If you’d like, you can also pass out lai see of your own. The red envelopes can be purchased at any of the numerous shops or stalls in Chinatown; then just slip a little money or small gift inside and present it to your loved ones for added prosperity. They say the more lai see you pass out, the better luck you’ll have in the New Year. 

 

Did You Know? Firecrackers are a common sight (and sound) during the Chinese New Year celebration in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and while fun in their own right, they also carry cultural significance. During the New Year, firecrackers are lit to ward off evil spirits. Throughout the festival, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to buy their more city-friendly cousin, the Pop Pop boxes.

 

 

Lion Dance At The SF Community Street Fair - Best Fun SF Chinese New Year/

Bring your child to work day. Photo by Dyana Wing So on Unsplash.

 

 

Immerse Yourself In The Community Street Fair

 

Exhilarating and hectic, the Chinese New Year Community Street Fair is the perfect lead-up to the nighttime parade. On all sides, you’ll be surrounded by firecrackers, food vendors, traditional Chinese music, lion dancing, acrobats, and so much more. Block after block of Grant Avenue will be packed with bustling crowds, brightly-lit lanterns, and entertaining performances. It’s an event not to be missed!

Getting a little hangry? Not to worry! There are plenty of great restaurants and bakeries in Chinatown where you can purchase some delicious treats. Our family’s favorite is called the Eastern Bakery, where you can find tons of mouth-watering Chinese snacks and pastries. 

This event will be packed, so it’s a good idea to get there early in the afternoon if you want to avoid the crowds. If you’d prefer a quieter time at the market, we’d recommend waiting until Sunday to go explore; that said, the anticipation for the parade adds a lot to the atmosphere, so for families that don’t mind crowds, Saturday is the way to go. 

When: February 19 from 10am to 4:30pm, and February 20 from 9am to 5pm.

Where: Chinatown, San Francisco

 

 

Fun Tip: Live performances will be going on throughout the fair on Washington Street right below Grant Avenue. There, you’ll be able to find Chinese opera, traditional drumming, giant puppets, and more. It’s an excellent photo op location and perfect for taking a video for your Instagram story.

 

 

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Chinese New Year Parade Floats - Best Fun SF Chinese New Year.

Floating away… Photo by Thomas Despeyroux on Unsplash.

 

 

Ring In The New Year at the SF Chinese New Year Parade

 

Gorgeous floats, elaborate costumes, and local marching bands all unite to form the grand finale of the new year celebration: the famous San Francisco Chinese New Year parade. During this annual parade, large crowds take to the streets of San Francisco to watch extravagant floats, each elaborately decorated in a traditional Chinese style, glide elegantly by. With over 100 units participating, you’ll get to see such varied sponsors as Alaska Airlines and the Golden State Warriors getting into the new year spirit. With elegant dragons, ferocious lions, white cranes, and golden pigs, the parade is guaranteed to be the pièce de résistance of the entire celebration.

 

 

Map Of SF Chinese New Year Parade - Best Fun SF Chinese New Year.

Map of the SF Chinese New Year Parade Route.

 

 

The parade commences at 2nd and Market Street, twists its way around Union Square, and concludes on Kearny Street and Columbus Avenue on the border between the Chinatown and Little Italy neighborhoods. 

The parade is an entirely free event, but there will be restrictions imposed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. All attendees will need to either provide a) proof of vaccination, or b) proof of a negative COVID-19 test. More details regarding the parade’s health and safety protocols can be found on its website

We recommend arriving about 30 to 45 minutes before the parade begins to secure a perfect view. While every spot along the parade route provides excellent viewing of the spectacle, it will get more crowded closer to Chinatown-proper. If you’d prefer to avoid the crowds, try to find a spot closer to where the parade begins. Some of the best places to view the parade are along Kearny Street, where you’ll be able to watch a long line of floats, acrobats, and musicians. 

Bleacher seats, strategically placed along the parade route, will also be available for purchase. They run from $38 to $65 and may be purchased here. We’ve never used them ourselves, but we’ve heard they’re an excellent way to get an elevated view of the parade. The position of the bleachers can be found on the parade route map above. 

When: February 19 from 5:15pm to 8pm.

Where: See accompanying parade route. 

 

Did You Know? The grand finale — and crowd favorite — of the New Year Parade is the golden dragon. Over 200 feet long and carried by 100 dragon dancers, this regal serpent is accompanied by brightly-lit lanterns, traditional Chinese drums, and lots of firecrackers.

 

 

Firework Debris In Street - Best Fun SF Chinese New Year.

When was the last time you were this excited about confetti? Photo by May Gauthier on Unsplash.

 

 

Other SF City Chinese New Year Celebrations

 

So far, we’ve limited ourselves to events that take place in San Francisco’s Chinatown. And while this will be the main scene of action during the festival, other venues in San Francisco will also be getting into the holiday spirit in the days and weeks leading up to the big finale. Below, you’ll find a non-exhaustive list of other Chinese New Year related events that can be found all over the City. 

 

 

Looking for a fun event for younger kids? Visit the SF Asian Art Museum for some traditional Chinese tiger puppet shows!

 

 

When You Go

 

 

 

 

Flying

 

San Francisco has two conveniently placed airports that can both be used to reach the downtown area. The smaller of the two is in Oakland, CA, right across the Bay Bridge. Getting from there to the city by a ride-share app takes about 30 minutes. The second, larger airport is SFO in the south of the city. This airport is closer and more convenient to reach by ride-share apps. Tickets will go fast, particularly for the weekend of the New Year Parade, so make sure to book them in advance. 

 

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Taking A Car

 

If you plan on driving to the festival, make sure to keep in mind that parking will be limited, particularly on the day of the parade. In addition, the parade route streets will be blocked off on the 19th; so if you park in a garage that only exits onto those streets, you won’t be able to leave until after the parade has ended (around 8pm). As always, leave nothing valuable in your car when parking in the city. 

 

 

Taking Public Transit

 

Public transportation is an excellent way to get around San Francisco during the Chinese New Year celebration. The San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce goes so far as to recommend taking it to get to the festivities. You can find a complete guide to reaching Chinatown via public transit here. Remember that on February 19 the crowds will get bigger as the hour of the parade nears, so plan accordingly and try to leave a little on the early side to guarantee an excellent view. 

 

 

Where To Stay

 

Leading up to and during the Chinese New Year celebrations, hotels in San Francisco will be in high demand, so we recommend booking as early as possible to find the best deals. Below we’ve provided three hotel options, in three different budget ranges, each of which will have you staying within a 10-minute walk of Chinatown. 

 

 

Our Top Hotel Picks

 

Situated on one of San Francisco’s highest hills, The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco offers stunning views of downtown San Francisco and the Bay from each one of its 336 luxurious rooms. This world-class hotel is just one block away from Chinatown, making it easy to get out and about without having to worry about transportation. For added convenience, you can take the California Street cable car, which runs right by this hotel’s front door. 

Want to be even closer to the action? Then you should consider staying at our next suggestion: the Hilton San Francisco Financial District. Located on Kearny Street in the heart of downtown San Francisco, the New Year Parade will practically pass right under your window. If that weren’t awesome enough, each room also comes equipped with modern amenities, comfortable beds, and excellent views of the Bay, all at an affordable price. 

When it comes to location, you can’t get much better than the SF Plaza Hotel. Built right next to the world famous Dragon’s Gate — the entrance to San Francisco’s Chinatown — you’ll be less than a block away from all the New Year festivities. A block to the east lies Kearny Street where you can find restaurants, bars, and shopping. It’s also where the New Year Parade will pass by, making it a breeze to grab the perfect spot to view the grand conclusion to the entire celebration. 

 

 

Chinese New Year Lanterns - Best Fun SF Chinese New Year.

Festive office lights. Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash.

 

 

Final Thoughts

 

Ever since our family first visited San Francisco back in 2018, we’ve been blown away by the rich cultural heritage and diversity that this city has to offer, especially when it comes to celebrating holidays. And no celebration exemplifies this more than the Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Never before (nor since) have we seen a holiday celebrated with such vim and vigor, with exploding firecrackers, brightly illuminated lanterns, gravity-defying acrobatics, and — of course — intricately designed floats. So, get into the spirit of the thing: set off a few pop-pops, pass around some red envelopes, and don’t forget to wish each other great happiness and prosperity in the Year of the Tiger — “Gung hay fat choy!” 

 

 

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Matthew LaMourie is a travel writer and photographer based in San Francisco, CA. A natural explorer, he specializes in finding out of the way places, even in the most well trodden of destinations. When not on the road, he devotes his time to his loving family, his water color painting, and just walking around his adoptive city, ever curious to see what’s round the next corner.

 

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