As one of the largest and most vibrant ethnic neighbourhoods in the U.S, Chicago’s Chinatown is worthy of a visit to get a sense of where the Chinese community in Chicago live, eat and work. While traditional urban Chinatowns in Manhattan, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston are fading due to gentrification and changing cultural landscapes, Chicago Chinatown’s population reverses the trend with an increasing population. If you feel curious about this particular Chinatown, be sure to pop by when you are in Chicago! Read on to check out the must-eats and must-dos in Chicago’s Chinatown.
Take a water taxi to Chinatown
Chicago’s Chinatown is conveniently located near Cermak/Chinatown station on the CTA red line. However if you are visiting during the warmer months, I would suggest taking a water taxi to Chinatown as it not only brings you to Chinatown but also allows you to enjoy a river cruise and take in the beautiful sights along the Chicago River.
A single “L” train ride costs slightly over 2 USD, whereas a single water taxi ride starts as low as 4 USD. The water taxi ride service is provided by Wendella and there are six stops for you to board the water taxi to Chinatown.
However, do check the schedule of the departure times of the water taxis in advance to ensure that you don’t miss it. The ride brings you to the south branch of the Chicago River right in the middle of the beautiful, 12-acre Ping Tom Memorial Park, which is a good starting point for exploring Chicago’s Chinatown.
Take a stroll in Ping Tom Memorial Park
Originally a Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad yard, it was transformed into Ping Tom Memorial Park in 1998, a lush green space with great river views. With plentiful trees, vast spaces and ducks waddling about on grass patches, it has a calming effect on me whenever I stroll there. Unlike most of the parks in Chicago, it has unique Chinese landscape design elements, thereby making you forget for a moment that you are in Chicago but in China.
Other than admiring the flora and fauna, there is also a children’s playground for the kids to occupy themselves. For the more sporty ones, you can also rent a kayak from the boat house and row in the river during summer.
The serene Ping Tom Memorial Park is located at 300 W 19th St, Chicago, IL 60616.
Shop and eat in Chinatown Square
Upon entering Chinatown Square, the first thing you will notice is the Chinese pagoda-style architectural design and 12 Chinese zodiac statues with individual description of each zodiac sign at the central area. Flanking both sides are retail stores, barbers, restaurants and Chinese supermarkets. This is the place to buy matcha-flavoured chocolates and Chinese plums (in Aji Ichiban), your Chinese herbal concoctions, Asian beauty products and cute souvenirs. Basically, Chinatown Square is a neat and compact one-stop area for eating and shopping.
Chinatown Square is located at 2133 S China Pl, Chicago, IL 60616.
Indulge in dim sum and bubble tea
In Chinatown, there is no end of food options. In fact it is so hard to choose because every single restaurant looks good! For me, I like heading to Ming Hin Cuisine for tasty dim sum even though it is slightly more pricy than nearby restaurants. Ming Hin received the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand Distinction in 2016, therefore, you can be sure that any dim sum you order on their menu will taste good, be it the warm and creamy egg-yolk buns, savoury leaf-wrapped sticky rice or fresh shrimp dumplings. Other restaurants like Phoenix, Triple Crown and Cai also serve pretty good dim sum.
As you walk around in Chinatown, you will notice that many restaurants in Chinatown sell beverages like smoothies and bubble teas. Joy Yee’s smoothies are a hit with locals and tourists, and you can almost always see long queues outside the restaurant. As for me, I am an avid bubble tea lover, and the bubble teas from Saint’s Alp Teahouse and Kung Fu Tea really hit the right spot and can satiate my longing for authentic milky bubble tea whenever my craving comes.
If you are visiting during the cold seasons, which means about two-thirds of the time in Chicago, warm yourself up with piping hot Mongolian hot pot from Little Lamb Hotpot. Definitely get the Mongolian spicy herbal broth, you won’t regret it!
Admire the architecture of the award-winning library in Chinatown
Right across the street from the Cermak/Chinatown train station is a library with unique architectural design. Only opened in 2015, this two-storey library breaks the cookie cutter mold of “boring” designs and instead draws inspiration from the layout of neighbouring roads and Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese philosophical system based on the flow of energy. The beautiful form has also won it a National Design Award from the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association.
The library is located at 2100 South Wentworth Avenue, Chicago, IL 60616.
Visit over the weekend for a more bustling atmosphere
As one of the top Chinatowns in the U.S, I feel that Chicago’s Chinatown is surprisingly non-commercialised. While there are of course tourists visiting the place, it is still very much frequented by locals doing their grocery shopping and having their Chinese food fix. In fact, even shops that sell souvenirs do not have that clean and bright atmosphere that you will expect touristy destinations to have. As such, some of the oriental costumes and trinkets you see being sold might even look slightly worn and dusty.
It can be quite deserted during weekdays, so if you are hoping to see a bustling Chinatown, it is best to visit during the weekend to get the best atmosphere. It is also a good place to indulge in authentic Chinese food for supper as a couple of restaurants are open till late in the night.