Chinatown, NYC Neighborhood Guide

By some accounts, New York City is home to nine distinctive areas that could be considered Chinatowns. Each one of these neighborhoods has its own special character, but none of them are as famous or vibrant as Manhattan’s Chinatown. The neighborhood is legendary for its food—here you’ll encounter an exciting assortment of unique restaurants, food markets, and tearooms—but it’s also a terrific area to do some shopping that won’t obliterate your budget. Many visitors flock to Chinatown for its eclectic mixture of affordable souvenirs, imitation luxury goods, and quirky boutiques. A couple well-regarded museums are located in Chinatown, too.

Chinatown Neighborhood History

The first Chinese immigrants to New York arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century, establishing deep roots in the community and founding a variety of successful restaurants, cigar stores, laundry facilities, boarding houses, and more. After the turn of the century, significant numbers of immigrants from China and Asia started moving into what had once been known as Five Points. This infamous neighborhood, depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie Gangs of New York, was previously an area of crime, poverty, and inhumane living conditions. By the middle of the twentieth century, it had been transformed into the Chinatown we all know and love today, a beloved New York City neighborhood that’s a bustling commercial district home to delicious food, affordable shopping, and historic cultural institutions.

Exploring Chinatown

Situated at the northern edge of Chinatown, the Museum of Chinese in America is a can’t-miss destination for any visitors wanting to learn more about the Chinese American experience. Set in a Maya Lin-designed building scheduled to be completely renovated in the next few years, the Museum of Chinese in America’s signature exhibit With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America tells the story of how America has been indelibly shaped by approximately 160 years of Chinese American influence.

The Museum at Eldridge Street is located within the meticulously restored Eldridge Street Synagogue, a historic structure dating to 1887 that is considered one of the oldest synagogues found anywhere in the United States. The Museum at Eldridge Street is open for both self-guided and guided tours, and it features educational exhibits that share tremendous insight into the history of Jewish life on New York City’s Lower East Side and beyond.

If you’re looking to enjoy some quality time outside, or you just want to sit and rest your legs after a long afternoon of exploring, Columbus Park makes for a great stop. Columbus Park has a playground, basketball courts, spray showers, and restrooms, and whether you want to do Tai chi, get your fortune told, or play a game of chess, it’s a prime people-watching location.

Chinatown is a staple of the Lower Manhattan experience. Bordered to the west and north by Tribeca and Little Italy respectively, Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood is home to block after block of charming narrow streets just waiting to be explored.

Chinatown Dining

Chinatown is a foodie’s delight, with culinary treats and treasures lurking around every corner. Better yet, many of them are quite affordable by New York City standards! If you’re feeling adventurous, just head for Doyers Street and take your pick of the many restaurants, bars, and tearooms found there.

If you’re in the mood for something classic, Nom Wah Tea Parlor has been in business since the 1920s, and proudly bills itself as the oldest continually operating restaurant in Chinatown. They’re famous for their vintage dining room and tasty dim sum. Great NY Noodletown is acclaimed for its salt-baked seafood—depending on the season, order the crab, shrimp, or scallops.

Joe’s Shanghai is considered by many to be Chinatown’s foremost destination for soup dumplings, while if dessert is your thing, the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory is your place. For nearly 50 years now, this iconic ice cream shop has been serving up flavors as diverse as Zen butter, lychee, pandan, don tot, and more.

Chinatown Shopping

If you’ve got time for just one shopping excursion while in Chinatown, it’s probably best to make it a stroll down Canal Street. This famous address is jam-packed with street vendors and storefronts selling all manner of handbags, jewelry, watches, purses, and more. Part of the appeal of these items is that while they aren’t quite name-brand products, they sort of resemble designer goods and they’re significantly cheaper than the so-called real thing.

Likewise, Chinatown is where many tourists head in search of that perfect souvenir at a discount price. You can find New York t-shirts, sweatshirts, knickknacks, and more throughout the city, but anywhere else and they’re likely to cost you a fair bit more than they’ll cost you here in Chinatown.

One hallmark of Chinatown’s shopping culture that is especially unique to the neighborhood is its local food market scene. If you’re seeking a truly one-of-a-kind experience, you won’t want to miss out on historic storefronts like Po Wing Hong, Aqua Best, and CT Seafood Mart. Here you can grab fresh produce, seafood, spices, and more—or just grab something to eat and go.

Explore Chinatown Like a Local

  • As mentioned above, with its narrow streets and Old World charms, Chinatown is made to be explored on foot. Fortunately, there are a number of outstanding guided walking tours available in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Tommy’s New York is the tour operator offering the Chinatown Official Neighborhood Tour, while ExperienceFirst Tours offers a well-regarded walking tour that covers SoHo, Little Italy, and Chinatown all as part of the same outing.
  • If you haven’t already gotten your fill of walking while wandering the streets of Chinatown, think about going for a stroll across the Manhattan Bridge. The pedestrian entrance for the Manhattan side of this landmark is in Chinatown at Bowery between Canal and Bayard Streets. It may not be as famous as its neighbor, the Brooklyn Bridge, but it certainly has its fair share of splendid views. Plus, it’s often less crowded!