Chicago Chinatown: A Visitor’s Guide
A Visitor’s Guide
Published July 5, 2021
If you’re visiting Chicago, be sure to check out the city’s Chinatown! It’s a vibrant, safe, walkable neighborhood just south of downtown that’s easy to explore in a morning or afternoon. As you might guess, Chinatown is an excellent place to get some amazing food, but it’s also much more than that. Beautiful parks, museums, monuments, and street art can be found in this gem of a neighborhood in Chicago!
This post will tell you everything you need to know about the following topics. To skip down to any section that interests you, click or tap on the links below!
Where is Chinatown?
Chinatown is located about a mile south of Chicago’s Loop, or downtown area. It can be reached via the CTA Red Line, which runs north to south. The closest stop is Cermak-Chinatown.
The neighborhood has two main cross streets: South Wentworth Avenue running north to south, and West Cermak Road running east to west. Although Chicago’s Chinatown may not be massive, it’s not small either. A quick walkthrough only takes a couple minutes, but this is an area you’ll want to explore at a leisurely pace if you have the time.
Chinatown’s most prominent feature is its restaurant scene! With dozens if not hundreds of different places to try, it would take many months and thousands of dollars for a dining enthusiast to work their way through all of the different offerings.
With that said, I’ll be working on a Chinatown food guide, which I’ll link here as a separate post as soon as it’s done! I may not be able to try every restaurant, but one thing I love about the food scene here is that so many different regional Chinese cuisines are represented. Keep an eye out for that post coming soon!
You can buy almost anything you might need in Chinatown. Consider checking out Chinatown Square or some of the souvenir shops on Wentworth Avenue!
Chinatown Square Outdoor Shopping Mall
This two-story shopping center located here basically spans an entire city block. Although it’s currently home to more restaurants than retail stores, there are a few gift and cookware shops, plus salons and a few small corporate offices.
Other Shopping Options
Outside of Chinatown Square, there are a number of stores worth browsing on Wentworth Ave. Most seem to specialize in imported gifts and souvenirs, but you can also find small groceries, restaurant supply shops, and more. Pictured below are two aisles inside the large EK Housewares & Souvenirs.
Parks, Museums, and Landmarks
In addition to dining and shopping, Chinatown has a lot of other unique attractions to see. Most of them are free and outdoors!
Ping Tom Memorial Park
This stunning waterfront park on the east bank of the Chicago River appears to be one of the city’s best-kept secrets. It offers one of my favorite views of the skyline I’ve seen so far, but it never seems to get crowded, even on beautiful days.
Ping Tom Park is home to a pavilion, a boardwalk, a playground, and on it’s southern edge you’ll find the Chinatown Amtrak Lift Bridge (pictured below), which is still in use today. Apparently, the middle section can be raised or lowered to accommodate large ships, but I haven’t personally witnessed it move up and down yet!
It’s impossible to miss this beautiful gate over Wentworth Ave at the intersection of Cermak Rd. Built in the 1970s and made out of steel, the arch has gone through some renovations throughout the years, so older pictures of it might look slightly different.
Pui Tak Center
This historic building is also located at the intersection of Wentworth Ave and Cermak Rd. Visually, it’s the focal point of Chinatown. Its two distinct towers can be seen from many parts of the neighborhood above the other rooftops.
Pui Tak Center is a Christian community center that offers a number of classes and social services. As such, it’s not exactly a tourist center, so I’ve never gone inside. However, the outside of the building is adorned with intricate tiles that you should check out up close.
In addition to its striking façade, the Pui Tak Center has a fascinating history. Originally built as the On Leong Merchants Association Building, it was seized by the FBI in the early 1990s for allegations of gambling and other illicit activities within. The local Chinese Christian Union Church purchased it a couple of years later and converted it into the community center that it is today.
You Are Beautiful Plaza
This small plaza is aptly named for a bilingual sign on one of its walls that says “you are beautiful” in both English and traditional Chinese. You can find this plaza between the Chinese Christian Union Church and the U.S. Bank building.
Chicago Public Library Chinatown Branch
This library, which was built in 2015, incorporates many interesting modern design elements both inside and out. You don’t have to be a member to step in and check out the mural on the second floor or some of the other pieces of art on display.
Chinese American Museum of Chicago
I would bet that many visitors miss this museum because it’s not located on a main street (find it on West 23rd Street surrounded by homes and apartments), and it looks pretty small from the outside. However, once you get inside, you’ll find two surprisingly large floors of exhibits to check out.
While here, you can learn about Chinese history as well as the stories of Chinatowns in America. There are sections on migration, cuisine, artwork, and artifacts that have been found throughout Chicago’s Chinatown. A suggested donation of five dollars per adult is requested by the museum. Hours are currently limited due to the pandemic, so check their website for current information.
Chinatown Square Plaza
One cool thing about Chinatown Square is its large public plaza separating the mall into two sections. This plaza is home to a lot of art, including two teal gates with carved stones that depict Chinese inventions.
There are also bronze statues representing all twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac on the edges of the plaza. They all have a modern twist on traditional designs and were created at Xiamen University in Fujian Province in the 1990s.
Chinese American Veteran's Memorial
This engraved memorial can be found on the corner of South Archer Avenue and South Princeton Avenue.
Other Street Art
Last but not least, Chinatown has a lot of unique street art. Keep your eyes open for a variety of styles and media!
Nine Dragon Wall
A nine dragon wall (九龍壁) is a traditional form of imperial Chinese art. They are usually tiled with a gorgeous jade, yellow, and blue color scheme. Installed in 2004, Chicago’s nine dragon wall can be found next to the CTA station. It was inspired by a similar one in Beijing’s Beihai Park just outside the Forbidden City.
Chinatown Square Plaza Mosaic
This impressive mosaic is located alongside other pieces of art in Chinatown Square.
South Archer Street Murals
These two murals pictured below, including one with a three-dimensional dragon head, are located on opposite sides of South Archer Street just west of the South Clark Street intersection.
Ping Tom Memorial Park Murals
You have to visit Ping Tom Memorial Park to see these two murals painted on the concrete supports of the West 18th Street bridge, which passes over the park. The blue and white floral one reminds me of porcelain, and it’s a great place to have your photo taken!
Go Visit Chinatown!
This post might make it seem like Chicago’s Chinatown is huge, but all of these attractions and more are located within a pretty compact area. Nothing mentioned here is more than a ten or fifteen minute walk from anything else!
While this is a pretty complete list of things to do in Chinatown, it’s by no means exhaustive. If you’re in Chicago or plan to visit soon, be sure to head over to Chinatown for half a day! If you find anything I missed, leave a comment below and let me know! Thanks for reading and check back soon for more Chicago blog posts!
This post was published on July 5, 2021