NYC's Chinatown and Little Italy Walking Tour, New York

NYC's Chinatown and Little Italy Walking Tour (Self Guided), New York

New York's Little Italy and Chinatown were places that attracted Italian and Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s, with densely packed ethnic communities having grown around them, as they brought their customs, food and language. In the 1960s, however, right around the time that Italians stopped coming to the city in large numbers, Chinese immigrants did the opposite, hence why Little Italy gradually shrank as Chinatown gradually grew.

Our self-guided tour takes you through both of these historic neighborhoods, from Mulberry Street to Canal Street and then Mott Street – the heart of the Chinese community, home of the only building that remains with a wooden pagoda roof.

While Little Italy's few streets are lined with restaurants and cafés serving Italian staples, Chinatown can be more crowded, especially on weekends and dinner time. With that said, if you've never seen the small sidewalk fish or vegetable shops, or roasted ducks hanging in the restaurant windows, it can be quite an eye-opener. There are many small, out-of-the-way noodle shops and other specialty restaurants, each one with a devoted following. Do yourself a favor – check them out!

Don’t miss a trip to Kimlau Square, the site of the Memorial Arch erected in 1962 in memory of the Chinese Americans who died during WWII. East of the square on Division Street is Confucius Plaza, where a statue of the philosopher stands, while the Mahayana Buddhist Temple, housing NYC’s largest Buddha, stands a few blocks away.

As this orientation walk offers insights, you can see neighborhood landmarks and stop for tastings as you stroll. Go and explore!
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NYC's Chinatown and Little Italy Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: NYC's Chinatown and Little Italy Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » New York (See other walking tours in New York)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 7
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.6 Km or 1 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Mulberry Street
  • Canal Street
  • Columbus Park
  • Bayard Street
  • Mott Street
  • Kimlau Square
  • Mahayana Buddhist Temple
Mulberry Street

1) Mulberry Street

Little Italy's main strip since the early 20th century, Mulberry Street is also, arguably, its most pleasant, mellow part, where Italians from all over the city converge. Lined with cafés, social clubs, street stalls and a multitude of Italian fast-food/snack vendors, the street gets particularly lively at night when the lights come on and restaurant hosts advertise their menu specials to passers-by.

At the edge of the main strip of cafés and restaurants, the MULBERRY STREET BAR (Sun-Thu: 11am–12am; Fri, Sat: 11am–2am) is no ordinary watering hole. Open since 1908, the bar has seen its share of actors, mob bosses, and actors playing mob bosses. This is a Hollywood favorite and the backdrop for several cinematic projects including Frank Sinatra's "Contract on Cherry Street", "Donnie Brasco", and "Godfather III" as well as scenes from "The Sopranos" and "Law & Order". Few aspects of the bar have changed since it opened its doors and the mafia ambiance emanates from dark wood walls and pressed tin ceiling. The jukebox is loaded with Sinatra, the Four Tops, and Elvis. But above all, it's still a bar, so grab a Peroni and relax – it's not like someone's gonna whack you here!

For seafood with a side of mafia folklore, walk over to the infamous UMBERTO'S CLAM HOUSE (Sun-Thu: 12pm–12am; Fri, Sat: 12pm–1am), and sit facing the wall in the last table in the back. That is exactly where "Crazy Joe" Gallo had his last supper on April 7, 1972 at 4:30am when four Colombo family members gunned him down. Get the baked clams and linguine with white clam sauce – it's to die for!

Having been run in the same location since 1891, the cash-only CAFFÉ ROMA (Sun-Thu: 8am–11pm; Fri, Sat: 8am–12am) is well worth seeing just for the charming old-time décor; their coffees and traditional Italian pastries – such as cannoli, tiramisu, and ricotta cheesecake – are delicious and worth the calories, however. They don't appear to want to chase you out as soon as you finish your dessert, either. If the spot by the window is open, you better snag it!

If you're looking to satisfy your sweet tooth and take in a little history of Little Italy at the same time, don't miss the FERRARA BAKERY & CAFE (Sun-Thu: 8am–11pm; Fri, Sat: 8am–12am). There's something for everyone there to have with a coffee or to take home and enjoy later (if one is too full from a delicious dinner).

For pizzas and/or pasta done well and in a cozy atmosphere, head straight to SAPORI D'ITALIA (Daily: 11am–10pm), where you can also choose the tables outside to enjoy the views around on a nice sunny day. Whenever you want a snack or a quick meal, TASTY DUMPLING (Daily: 9am–8:30pm) on the Chinatown side of Mulberry St serves fresh, authentic, well-priced dumplings (both boiled and fried) and some of the most flavorful hot and sour soup you'll ever taste.

If you're here in mid-September, the 11-day Festa di San Gennaro brings music, carousels, colorful parades, eating contests and many delicious delicacies for people of all ages to enjoy.
Canal Street

2) Canal Street

Back in the 1980s, this street in NYC was the place to go for electronics, as every month Popular Electronics would publish DIY plans for hobbyist projects, and if one took those down to Canal Street, one could find all the components. Over time, the electronics shops faded out and were replaced with industrial plastics and consumer good knock-offs like handbags, fragrances, jewelry, watches, and designer fashions – all made China and brought via container ships.

It's still a fun place to shop, with street vendors hawking coconut drinks, durian fruit, and vegetables, homemade noodles, and other Chinese specialties lining pretty much the entire south side sidewalk as far as the Manhattan Bridge. Also, virtually every doorway leads to a store, and there are some wonderful, exotic shops for handmade Asian ceramics here, but also a good number of (cash-only) small shops with many more typical souvenirs, at only a fraction of the price you would pay in Times Square. Since they hate seeing people walk away empty-handed, vendors will always bargain and there are some good deals to be found.

At 200 Canal St, the NEW KAM MAN Supermarket (9:30am–7pm) offers 3 floors of Chinese grocery; Asian pottery; teapots; cast iron teapots; woks; rice cookers; handheld and decorative fans; chopsticks; traditional Chinese patterns of china; Japanese-style lunch boxes; cosmetics; loose and packaged teas; herbs; herbal medications and ointments. The upper level has been renovated to house an extensive Hello Kitty stationery; trinkets; sauce holders; sake bottles and cups; bags; blankets; lunch boxes; jewelry; wallets, etc., plus Japanese cosmetics and skincare.

There are also hundreds of exotic restaurants on Canal Street, and on nearby streets: mostly Cantonese, but also many others. Some of these can be authentic and/or VERY good. Usually, the prices at these eateries are reasonable for the quality of food they serve.

Don't mind the weird whispers for backroom watches and handbags. If you're looking for a knockoff of a $1200 bag that is hit or miss close to real or totally cheap, this is your place for the low low price of about $20-$150. Again, haggling is taken to the extreme here and strange between-alley deals are happening all over the place. There's nothing intrisically dangerous about this – it's just a different world.
Columbus Park

3) Columbus Park

There is much to be learned of the dark past of the surrounding buildings and streets, gang warfare and crime (as portrayed in Martin Scorsese's historical gangster epic "Gangs of New York"), but this park is the center of life in the transformed neighborhood – a small world unto itself, where locals gather for Tai chi in the morning, music playing on traditional Chinese instruments, and board games that sometimes go well into the night. It is quite obvious when you see an outsider walking around the park, usually taking pictures, because everyone else seems to belong here.

There are pathways and walkways leading from end to end, gardens and tree-surrounded benches, a water area for the hot summer days, frequent games of soccer set up on the main field nearby, and plenty of kids playing hoops or even volleyball. Sun Yat-sen, the revered Chinese revolutionary leader, has been memorialized with a statue sitting in the middle of it all.

If you're walking through Chinatown and are looking for a good place for a break, this is a great spot to come and people-watch, or get out of the sun.
Bayard Street

4) Bayard Street

A simple street deeply rooted in its new-found Chinese heritage, Bayard is full of eateries and walk-ups above, looking pretty much like a typical restaurant street somewhere in Hong Kong. Odors of various fish and freshly-baked pastries waft through the air from the many markets, bakeries and restaurants located on the street level. Above them, the walk-up apartment buildings are home to multi-generation families who emigrated from southern China or Hong Kong.

As you walk down the street, you will see a line of people enjoying their ice cream in a cup or a cone. You have found the correct spot: the CHINATOWN ICE CREAM FACTORY (Daily: 11am–10pm) – a family-owned business serving ice cream for over 30 years in New York. Their product is fresh, rich, not too sweet, perfectly creamy and smooth, and with an Asian flair to it. If you're lucky enough to come right before a big crowd, you will get to sample several exotic flavors in the legendary little shop: Ginger, Durian, Green Tea, Egg Custard, Black Sesame, Lychee and many more (there's a reason why their Lychee flavor is so popular!).

While you're there, the bakery across the street, called MEI LI WAH (Daily: 7:30am–10:30pm) is great for cheap, tasty steamed buns (pork/chicken/pineapple/egg yolk/etc.) that come right of the oven and are mostly sold at the take-out counter. It's really easy to just buy some buns to go and eat while walking, but you can sit down and try their other items without breaking the bank; if you're not sure what to order, just point at the large pictures laid across the walls. Service is fast and to the point, but get ready to wait for a bit once the trays empty out, because sometimes customers order their buns by the dozens!

Stop for a little while on the corner of Bayard and Mott streets, too: SUN'S ORGANIC GARDEN (Tue-Sun: 12–6pm) has an excellent range of organic teas, with shopkeepers always helpful in finding what you're looking for: whether it's caffeine level, flavor, and/or price point.
Mott Street

5) Mott Street

From a tourist's perspective, Mott Street has the best that New York's Chinatown has to offer – a fantastic array of authentic Chinese food, cheap gift shops, tea houses, jewelry stores, fish and vegetable markets, as well as some remaining Italian businesses. From a resident's perspective, Mott Street is home. After more than a century, it continues to be home to Chinese immigrants and their American-born children. Unlike many other Chinatowns throughout the U.S., this one is an actual community where families are born and raised and continue to thrive.

The best part, though, is the food. You have to go eat at WO HOP on the south side of Mott street: they are a Chinatown institution and open very late (4:30am) for all you night owls. There are two parts: the upstairs (newer, with booths) and the downstairs (older, with plain tables and chairs). While the environment in both is very basic, the food is delicious with just about every Chinese dish you can think of on the menu – try the house special fried rice and/or the shrimp in lobster sauce. Large portions, so come hungry!

Walk further north to Grand Street and you'll be in vegetable heaven, as shop after shop sells fresh produce at great prices. For an incredible selection of Italian meats, handmade cheeses, olive oil, vinegar, spices, etc., the family-owned DI PALO'S FINE FOODS (Mon-Sat: 9am–7pm; Sun: 9am–6pm), which represents all 20 regions of Italy, is worthy of a special trip. They provide personalized service and will gladly answer any questions and give suggestions (ask for free samples if you wish); in addition, there's a delivery system that allows sending products to friends in other states.

As you walk along Mott and other nearby streets, pay attention to the Eastern decorative motifs on the buildings: sunbursts, floral swirls, shells, and human faces.
Kimlau Square

6) Kimlau Square

New York's "Little China" has been growing slowly but steadily over the years, both towards the Manhattan Bridge and further east towards an area whose heart is undoubtedly the Kimlau Square, standing at a labyrinthine intersection where eight streets converge. On the square's pedestrian island stands the Kim Lau Arch, named for a Chinese-American aircraft commander who grew up in NYC and died a hero in WWII but dedicated to the memory of all the Chinese who had served the nation, going back to the workers who helped build the railroads that cross the country from east to west.

Nearby is a monument to Lin Zexu, a Qing Dynasty statesman who ardently defended the urgent need to restrict drug trafficking, combat British colonialism in China and stop once and for all the growing opium addiction of the Chinese people (apparently he succeeded, but at the cost of unleashing the First Opium War of 1839-42). A New York Times article from 1997 reported that "Those who brought the Lin statue to Chatham Square say they did so to deliver a strong anti-drug message. But the statue carries a strong political message as well: it underscores the ascending power in Chinatown of immigrants from mainland China, particularly the Fujianese. They are quickly gaining political strength, at the expense of the pro-Taiwan Cantonese who settled earlier in Chinatown."

East of the Square, on Division St, is Confucius Plaza, a 1970s housing complex that still ranks as some of the best living quarters in Chinatown. A bronze statue to honor the Chinese philosopher was raised in 1976, serving as an inspiration and important meeting place for the whole community.
Mahayana Buddhist Temple

7) Mahayana Buddhist Temple

Right off the Manhattan Bridge, in a busy intersection, and right next to the Fung Wah bus stop, a 16-ft tall gold Buddha presides in a small and pleasantly set out place, with 32 wall plaques that tell the Buddha's life story. Although still a place of worship, tourists are more than welcome to take a look around, just so long as they are quiet and respectful. Instructions for your visit – wearing modest clothes, no photography in certain areas – are clearly indicated, as is the donations bucket.

Come to see New York's largest Buddha, but stay to light incense, get your fortune (a $1 donation is all they request), and if you happen to be there for the public service on Sundays (10am–2pm), to partake in the veggie lunch served after in the basement. There's also a gift shop upstairs with interesting things to see (and buy); both religious and non-religious, both mass-produced items and handmade crafts.

Guarded by two majestic golden lions, this peaceful temple is definitely worth popping into for a bit, as it just adds to the Chinatown experience.

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