San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade: Insider tips for spectators

by California

The San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade is renown as one of the top in the world. Meaning there are a lot of people turning out along the 1.3-mile route. Take a look at these spectator tips for the Chinese New Year Parade to have an even better experience.

In some form or another, the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco is now about 160 years old. Granted, in its earlier days, it was a pretty casual affair. Then, in 1958, under the direction of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, it was moved to the evening to not compete with the popular Miss Chinatown U.S.A. contest, but remained along main street Chinatown on Grant Avenue. By 1970, San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade started attracting such large crowds, that the city got involved to have it moved to wider streets with additional fire department oversight.

With crowds up to 10-deep along much of the route, a few spectator tips are in order for viewing the Chinese New Year Parade San Francisco:

Arrive early. With a parade start on Market Street at 5:15 p.m., crowds start filtering into downtown San Francisco by noontime or earlier. If you have a few hours, you can scope out the route and enjoy the bustle of activity prior to the Chinese New Year Parade’s start.

If you can, arrive in the morning so you can walk some of the route up to Chinatown, where you can then enjoy the annual Community Fair that weekend.

  • Be in your chosen place by 4 or 4:30 p.m., latest. Yes, you want to stake out what you think is a great spot and claim it early.

CNY Crowd With Cameras

  • Do find a place to … er … relieve your bladder before it starts! Otherwise you may be boxed in and may miss a fantastic float or snaking dragon in a quest to find a place (There are porta-potties here and there, usually not far from one of the three paid bleacher seat areas, see the parade’s FAQ to see more). FYI, the first hour of the parade has a lot of politicians on cars waving at people, so one spectator tip — unless you really must see the City Assessor or BART director — is to grab your place along the route and take turns with your buddies to find bathrooms or food during this spectacle.

CNY Politicians Kids Waving

  • The parade is at least 2-½-hours long – longer if you are standing farther along the route! Yes, it’s an endurance event. So, you may want to bring a foldable, portable stool, and consider snacks and beverages, especially if you have children. For example, in 2019, we stood at the corner of Post and Kearny streets, which is about half-way through the route, and it took a little more than an hour for the leading units to arrive.)
  • Consider the weather. Remember, for those of you who don’t know San Francisco, the city can be quite chilly even when the temperatures indicate it should be more pleasant. Trust us, take an extra layer, a beanie and gloves to the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade.
  • Take earplugs. Why, you ask? If you are anywhere near where they set off the spectacular long strings of firecrackers, they are VERRY VERRRY loud. If you are right next to the ruckus, the popping and cracking can even be felt vibrating in your body.

CNY Firecrackers

  • Thinking about moving about along the route for watching the Chinese New Year Parade San Francisco? Possible, yes, but you will fight with the throngs who staked out a place earlier – Union Square can be especially crowded. If you want to try, pay heed to which side of the road you are on in terms of blocked streets for the parade. For example, if you want to go from the start on Market Street to Kearny, which it follows up toward Chinatown, you will want to be on the north side of the street.
  • Remember, it is an evening parade. Meaning sunset (about 5:45 p.m.) is about 30 minutes after the start , and most light will be gone by no later than 6:30 p.m. There are huge lights set up on some points along the street as well as at the three bleacher areas. If you want more light for potentially better viewing, consider a spot near the bleachers.
  • Where to watch near the bleachers? The bands and others perform in front of each bleacher section, so you do NOT want to be just BEFORE that area on the route because you will see mostly backs. Try to choose a place just PAST the bleachers where you can see the performances in the light.

Chinese New Year Dragon Finale San Francisco

  • Do not leave early!! Yes, watching the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade is an endurance event, as we said,  but goodness gracious do not leave early! The “finale” is the fantastic, glowing dragon that is some 200 feet long, with up to 100 men and women supporting it as they run and weave up and down the streets. Do not miss this!

HITT Tip: Starting about 3 p.m. or so, take some time to walk along the “prep” area on Market street near 2nd and on some side streets there. This is where performers, participants, parade marshals and organizers set up and wait prior to the start. Makes for a very interesting “backstage” look as kids run around, bands practice, and last-minute décor is done.

CNY Prep Parade Photo Of Photo

Tips for photographers of any level

The San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade is not easy to photograph. The light goes away fast so it is a constant juggle (for those using cameras like DSLRs with settings) between speeds that are fast enough so participants don’t blur and slow enough to get enough light. We were, as mentioned above, across the street from where the floats and participants in San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade exited the bleachers. There, they were bathed in light from floodlights, but it was a really bright, flat, unpleasant light. And the light ended abruptly so one second something would be in super bright light and the next second in total darkness.

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  • DSLR camera users will want a good low-light lens and the ability to zoom in to capture images of performers and floats when they are well-illuminated.
  • Smartphone users will either need the ability to zoom in with a telephoto (Michael uses one from Moment) or wait until performers and floats are in more light.


  • Use environmental light to your advantage along the route — street lights or store front lighting. Postion yourself so that the light will be hitting your subjects where you want — their front for features, or behind them for silhouetting.
  • Consider putting down the camera and just enjoying the parade!

More than a parade

The Chinese New Year in San Francisco does not stop and start with one parade. It is several weeks of events. Go to the Chinese Parade website and click on the events tab for details.

The Flower Market Fair on the weekend prior to the actual Chinese New Year day is very community oriented with booths selling décor and food, plus traditional food and flowers – perhaps better and less commercial than the Community Fair the same weekend as the Chinese New Year Parade.

CNY Women Pulling Child In Cart Parade

Remember, the date changes each year, and thus the dates of all of these events as well as the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade, although as long as the route is not changed, our spectator tips for watching will hold true. In 2020, the year of the rat will begin on Jan. 25, and in 2021, the year of the ox will start on Feb. 12.

 

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San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade

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Therese Iknoian

Co-Conspirator at HI Travel Tales
Little did her parents know that a short trip to Europe in high school would launch a lifetime love of travel, languages and cultures. Trained as a news journalist, Therese Iknoian now focuses her writing and photography talents on travel. Fluent in German, Therese also runs a translation business (ThereseTranslates.com) working primarily with companies in the outdoor/sports/retail industry. She's a French speaker, and loves to learn a bit of the language wherever she goes -- gdje je kupaonica? Мне нужна помощь! -- often embarrassing herself in the quest for cross-cultural communication. Therese is an award-winning member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.
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