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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 2023 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.
This year, the parade is on Sunday, February 4th 2023. It kicks off on 2nd and Market Streets at 5:15 pm.
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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.
- History of the Chinese New Year Festival and Parade
- San Francisco Chinatown History
- The Story of Chinatown
- Chinatown San Francisco Timeline
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.
Roar in the Year of the Tiger with gorgeous floats, costumes, lion dancers, and so much more at the SF Chinese New Year Festival and Parade!
Roaring In The Year Of The Rabbit
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 2023, it’s the Year of the Rabbit. Last year was the Year of the Tiger and next year will be the Year of the Wood Dragon. According to legend, the zodiac animal of one’s birth year supposedly influences that person’s personality and traits. The Year of the Rabbit is associated with, among other things, hope and long life. It is lovely and tender.
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 in 2022, 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
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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!”
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.
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 4 from 10am to 4:30pm, and February 5 from 9am to 5pm.
Where: Chinatown, San Francisco
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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 The SF Chinese New Year Parade
The parade commences at 2nd and Market Streets, twists its way around Union Square, and concludes on Kearny Street and Columbus Avenue on the border between the Chinatown and Little Italy neighborhoods.
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 can 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 4 from 5:15pm to 8pm.
Where: See accompanying parade route.
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.
- Lunar New Year at the SF Asian Art Museum
- Lunar New Year: Year of the Tiger at the San Francisco Symphony
- Chinatown YMCA Run/Walk
- Celebration: Year of the Tiger at the San Francisco Public Library
- Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Pageant and Coronation Ball
When You Go
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.
An excellent discount site for flights (and cars, hotels) is Expedia!
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 In San Francisco
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.
Top San Francisco 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.
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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