I’ll admit it, my first visit to New York City’s Chinatown I felt overwhelmed. The sights, the sounds, the smells, all so unfamiliar.
For first-timers, the fast-paced vibe of some parts of this neighborhood can translate as chaotic. Adding to the complexity is that most of the signs are in Mandarin. Chinatown is home to an estimated 100,000 people, the highest concentration of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere, and this is their neighborhood. Rather than coming in with a tourist mindset and staying near the souvenir shops, consider walking a few blocks in and approaching as a visitor. The locals are friendly and helpful. They are welcoming and they want you to feel at home. So, be kind, ask for help, and explore all that Chinatown has to offer!
The food in Chinatown is unlike anywhere else. There are noodle shops, bbq stalls with whole ducks hanging in the windows, dumplings, pork buns and dim sum. It’s all incredible! And, cheap!! My favorite noodle shop is Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles located at 1 Doyers St. Thankfully, they have a picture menu. They pull their noodles in the open kitchen while you watch. You can order thin or thick noodles in the broth of your choice or pan-fried with a selection of protein options. Delicious!
Columbus Park, affectionately known as Chinatown’s living room, is a large multi-use park situated in the heart of the neighborhood. There you will find groups of locals practicing Tai Chi in the pavilion or giving impromptu karaoke-style musical concerts and children kicking soccer balls and running around the playground. The most fascinating to watch is the large groups of senior men gathered around playing mahjong and other games. You must stop by, have a seat and experience it for yourself!
Be on the lookout for the open-air and sidewalk shops scattered throughout the neighborhood. They are a great place to pick up groceries, like fresh and exotic fruits, for an amazing price. The last time I was there I bought five avocados for $3!
If you do decide to shop the souvenir stores in Chinatown (the ones selling “I love NYC” shirts, etc.) keep in mind that prices marked are negotiable. However, if you are shopping in a Chinese souvenir shop, one selling traditional Chinese wares, you are encouraged to pay full price. You will find that prices are quite reasonable for these trinkets.
It took me one full visit to get my bearings in Chinatown. So, expect to feel a little bit lost and overwhelmed your first time. It’s normal. Whatever you do, don’t write off this neighborhood as too touristy. A few blocks in off the main strip (Canal Street) you will find yourself immersed in the beauty and culture of a vibrant community.