San Francisco: Watching the Chinese New Year Parade

This past Sunday, we made our way over the bridge into San Francisco for the Chinese New Year Parade. Celebrating Chinese New Year with firecrackers, confetti, drums, and dragons had been a favorite tradition when we lived in New York, but this was my first time to see San Francisco’s display.

We’d spent the morning at the Davis Farmer’s Market Pig Day (as you may have seen on Instagram), so the kids fell asleep in the car on the way into the city. I was worried for a split second that it was going to be too much, but the one look at all of the tall buildings, the glitter in the sidewalks, the cranes doing construction off of Union Square, and Hudson was asking if he could run his plane up and down the blocks.

We used Park Now to prearrange parking and then walked toward Chinatown. Hudson was excited to spot the lions that sit at its gate—icons familiar from his Pete and Larry book. And when we arrived, he had us laughing: He asked if they’d bite off his hand, like at the Mouth of Truth in Rome, if he told a lie. “No,” we replied. And with that he stuck in his hand and boldly lied “I don’t love mommy, I don’t love daddy, I don’t love Skyler.” It was the sweetest lie ever told.

I’d packed so much food for the kids, knowing that empty stomachs are at the root of most ills, but we couldn’t pass up the chance to have at least some Chinese food—we opted for the order-at-the-counter experience for steamed pork buns and moon cakes from Eastern Bakery.

While the actual lunar new year fell on February 19th this year, San Francisco’s Chinatown’s calendar was full of events all month—leading up to the parade. (In fact I kept checking back to be sure we weren’t wrong about the date. It was to begin at Market and Second at 5:15pm, and finish near 8pm, at Kearny and Jackson.)

Before it began, Chinatown was lined with booths and special demonstrations. And while the parade doesn’t actually pass through Chinatown—instead skirting its fringe—you might catch the lion dance troupes practicing as they go to move into position for the main event!

As for seeing the parade itself, it never hurts to check out a official FAQ page in advance, but here are a few things I learned. Please add any tips you have!

On finding a spot: Unless you pay for a bleacher seat ($30 for age 2 and up), your chances of sitting along the route, especially toward Union Square, grow slim after 4pm. With two kids, we had no interest in waiting around for long (and we learned in New York that you can usually still enjoy the dragons and the scene even if you’re not in the front row). So we waited until 5 to find a spot and actually ended finding a few enjoyable vantage options with little trouble. Our favorite was near the bleachers, where it was likely that the bands would be playing.

People were kind enough to let Hudson up to the barricades, and he would alternately try and call the smaller dragons over and recoil when they came too close.

On coming prepared: We brought a stroller and a carrier and were glad to have both. It turned out to be a beautiful day—mid ’70s—but parade days are notoriously rainy. And evenings in San Francisco can quickly grow cold. It’s best to bring layers. As for food, I had sandwiches and squeeze packs and drinks and was glad: while there are so many great options around, I hadn’t really researched any in advance and it grew late quickly.

Finally, Hudson wasn’t alarmed by the loud noises, but I saw some tears from other small parade-goers. We had brought these ear protection headphones for Skyler, and it was nice to know we had them when the firecrackers started going off.

On making an quick escape: We were ready to leave before the end of the parade, but realized we had chosen to stand on the other side of the route from our parking spot. Luckily we found a spot to cross the parade-route, but it’s something one might consider. Also, though we parked a few blocks away from the parade, toward the freeway, we were really still too close to the action to get out of town quickly. In retrospect, I might consider finding a garage a bit further still.

But any hassle there was getting out of town was well worth it! It was a thrilling cap to a very full day.

Stopping to look back on the city, from Treasure Island, on the way back to Davis made me a bit nostalgic for life in a big city. But then we climbed back in the car and I asked Hudson what his favorite part of the day was. His answer? “Petting baby pigs.”

And then he joined Skyler, lightly snoring in the back seat.

Has anyone else been to the parade in San Francisco? Top tips, or viewing suggestions? 

P.S. Kumquats for prosperity.

[Photos of me and of the night skyline by Aron Bruhn, others my own. Clothes update, thanks for asking: my top is Anthropologie, and the jeans are Madewell (Skinny skinny” knee-rip jean). Hudson’s stripes are American Apparel.]

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