You’re visiting Manhattan and plan to spend a few hours in Chinatown. A downtown neighborhood just north of City Hall, Chinatown is a sprawling community that also intersects with Tribeca and the Lower East Side. The biggest population of Chinese people in the United States, Chinatown is a dense enclave of commercial and residential buildings as well as rows of stores. If you’re visiting for the first time and are unsure of what to do, consider the below five recommendations.
1. Eat Dim Sum
While you don’t have to go to Chinatown to eat Chinese food, cuisine in Chinatown stands out for its authenticity. Chinatown streets are packed with restaurants with menus that offer treats you can’t grab at your local mall. Dim sum are gummy noodle wrappings stuffed with ingredients such as shark fin, pork and red bean that you can sample at one of Chinatown’s dim sum houses. The best are massive dining rooms of tables seated with Chinese families waiters serve them from rolling carts. Dim sum comes baked, steamed, fried and boiled. You may not know what to call what you see. Pointing is enough to get you whatever you want. Decide quickly. These restaurants are fast-moving and sometimes the opportunity to get the translucent goodie that just rolled by doesn’t knock twice. Jing Fong on Elizabeth Street is a classic dim sum hall that you actually ride an escalator to reach. Golden Unicorn on East Broadway is another. The earlier you set out for dim sum, the better. The smaller restaurants that prepare it are often sold out by noon.
2. Get a Massage
It’s hard to find a street in Chinatown where someone in front of a storefront won’t beckon you inside for a massage. Some only work your shoulders, back and neck. There are those who do also do feet. There’s no guarantee of what the quality will be. It’s hit or miss. The spaces where they’re conducted are no-frills, but for a lower price than you’ll pay uptown, you’ll have a chance to receive up to 90 minutes of stress relief.
Chinatown is a mix of modern convenience stores and small cluttered groceries. Both will offer you fresher ginger, vegetables and fruit than you find at most non-Asian New York markets as well as medicinal herbs such as ginseng sold by the pound. Treat yourself to a box or two of chopsticks. You won’t find better-priced clay kettles or nicely ornamented soup bowls. You never know what you’ll discover on the shelf next to you as you browse.
4. See Columbus Park
The name would make more sense if it were located a few blocks over in Little Italy, but in the nice weather, the benches of Columbus Park on Mulberry Street are lined with people speaking Mandarin and Cantonese. The lilt and knock of traditional Chinese instruments drifts through the trees and out to people who lean on the fence around the perimeter to watch the senior citizens who earnestly gather there to perform.
5. Drink Bubble Tea
A Taiwanese drink made with black or green tea and usually drunk cold, bubble tea is served in plastic wrapped cups that you puncture first with specially designed straws. At the bottom of the milky sweet beverage inside them are chewy tapioca pearls that, last but not least, you eat. Popular shops such as Vivi on Bayard and Ten Ren on Mott are small spaces that you step back out of once your drink is in hand, but there’s nothing more fun than slurping boba through a fat straw while enjoying the scenery of a busy Chinatown street.