Manhattan’s Chinatown is home to one of the largest Chinese communities in North America, and its historic streets and colorful shops make it a popular destination for shoppers from all over the world. Situated near trendy SoHo and charming Little Italy, Chinatown features some tremendously unique New York City shopping. From local food markets to imitation luxury designer goods to discounted New York souvenirs, shopping in Chinatown brings something to the table that not many other scenes in the city can match.
Getting to Know the Neighborhood
A significant portion of the area of Manhattan known today as Chinatown was once the infamous Five Points neighborhood. Immortalized in pop culture by Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York, Five Points was during much of the nineteenth century a rough-and-tumble place where many immigrants lived in extremely close quarters when they first arrived in the United States. Around the turn of the twentieth century, immigrants from China and Asia began to move into the neighborhood in greater numbers. By the 1960s and 1970s, Chinatown was a thriving community and lively commercial district.
Though gentrification has threatened to alter the classic character of Chinatown over the past couple decades, it remains today a distinctive destination for those New York City visitors seeking fantastic food, affordable shopping, and Chinese cultural institutions.
Popular Chinatown Shopping Destinations
One of the most unique things about Chinatown’s shopping scene is that a big part of it is comprised of local food markets like you just won’t find most places. Beloved establishments like CT Seafood Mart, Po Wing Hong, and Aqua Best sell fresh seafood, produce, spices, and more from historic storefronts. Whether you want a bite to eat on the go, or to grab something to take home with you, the Chinatown food markets make for an unforgettable time.
Chinatown’s Canal Street is a major shopping destination for those individuals wanting to score a major deal on imitation designer goods. There you’ll find plenty of storefronts, shops, and stalls full of purses, watches, handbags, and jewelry that aren’t name-brand or designed by that fashion icon whose stuff you love—but they’ll look a little bit like they are, and to many folks on a budget, that’s the next best thing!
If it’s your first time in New York City, you’re probably on the prowl for that perfect souvenir to remember your initial visit to the Big Apple by. If that’s the case, Chinatown is a terrific place to go to fulfill that particular shopping mission. All along Canal Street you’ll find vendors selling every kind of New York City souvenir you can imagine. Even better, the price is right! Your “I Love NY” t-shirt is likely to be much cheaper here in Chinatown than in, say, Times Square.
As famous as Chinatown’s shopping scene is for its assortment of inexpensive souvenirs and knock-off luxury goods, in recent years it’s seen an influx of small shops and quirky boutiques of the sort usually more associated with nearby SoHo and NoLita. And music lovers will want to visit Chinatown and hit up the legendary Downtown Music Gallery, known the world over for its unparalleled selection of free-jazz albums and rare avant-garde recordings.
Other Ways to Enjoy Chinatown
There’s more to Chinatown than just shopping, and one of the best ways to explore all this vibrant neighborhood has to offer is by going on a guided tour of the area. There are multiple options available to any visitor interested in this type of excursion. ExperienceFirst Tours operates a daily two-hour guided walking tour that takes guests through Chinatown, SoHo, and Little Italy, while Tommy’s New York runs the popular Chinatown Official Neighborhood Tour.
Once you’ve shopped and dined your way through Chinatown, you’ll want to set aside some time to stop at the nearby Museum of Chinese in America. Currently housed at 215 Centre Street, in an elegant building designed by famed architect Maya Lin, the Museum of Chinese in America is slated to move into new digs sometime in the next few years. In the meantime, you won’t want to miss With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, the museum’s signature exhibit, which sheds remarkable light on the nature of the Chinese American experience.
The Museum at Eldridge Street is a fascinating history museum located in the heart of Chinatown. Housed in the lovingly restored Eldridge Street Synagogue, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 1996 and stands today as one of the oldest synagogues found anywhere in the United States, the Museum at Eldridge Street tells the story of American Jewish life from the nineteenth century to the present day. It runs regular guided tours and hosts special exhibitions throughout the year.