Discover our ultimate guide to London’s Chinatown, from the best places to eat to unique shops and experiences. Explore the best things to do in Chinatown.
The Best Things to Do in London’s Chinatown
Instantly recognisable by its four majestically decorated gates outlining its perimeter, the sky filled with red paper lanterns and of course the enticing scents from the restaurants that line its streets, Chinatown is a must-visit area during any visit to London. The best part? The Ritz London is ideally located just a 10-minute walk from the vibrant area.
Positioned between Soho and Leicester Square, Chinatown is the perfect spot for pre-theatre dining, or a refreshment stop during a shopping day. With restaurants serving all kinds of Asian cuisine, supermarkets stocking ingredients you can’t find anywhere else and bakeries offering sweet treats until late at night, Chinatown has something for everyone.
With so many choices of what to do in Chinatown, it can be difficult to decide where to start. That’s why we have collated our favourite activities in Chinatown to help you plan your next visit.
If you are a London resident who loves to cook at home and try new recipes, it can often be a struggle to pick up all the ingredients you need for the likes of xiaolongbao or dan dan noodles. We recommend heading down to the supermarkets of Chinatown, such as Loon Fung supermarket, which stocks everything you can imagine from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea. Loon Fung first opened its doors in 1965 and is now one of London’s largest Asian supermarkets. From fresh fish to sauces from renowned brands such as Lee Kum Kee, and from Asian fruit and vegetables to tasty snacks, you may walk in expecting only to pick up some noodles, but you are certain to walk out with a basket full of delicious produce.
If it’s beauty products that you are in the market for, following the stratospheric rise in popularity of ‘K-Beauty’, set your destination to shops such as P2Bus. A true emporium of cosmetics, make-up, skincare products and fragrances, you are sure to find some hidden gems that your beauty regime is crying out for. Don’t forget to speak to their staff who are always happy to offer skincare consultations and guide you in your choice.
Of course, a guide to Chinatown wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of its exquisite dining locations and you truly are spoilt for choice.
On Rupert Street, Speedboat Bar is a tantalising option for Thai cuisine and despite being in the centre of London, walking through the doors transports you to the bustle of Bangkok. Meanwhile, if you are keen to jump on the trend sweeping London for Korean BBQ, Chinatown’s Olle delivers on dining theatre with its tabletop grills.
For dim sum and Cantonese cooking, Gerrard Street’s Golden Dragon is a sure-fire hit with Londoners and visitors alike and is an ideal location for large celebrations such as birthdays. If Sichuan is more to your taste and you are not afraid of a little spice, Barshu is a brilliant choice for a fiery feast.
Sometimes, you may not have time for a full lunch or dinner in Chinatown but still fancy a taste of the Asian delicacies on offer. Perhaps a refreshing Bobo Milk Tea from Hey Tea or a Bubblewrap waffle is just the solution? Be prepared to queue at these popular spots but we promise it will be worth the wait!
Experiences & Activities in Chinatown
No matter what time of year you visit London you are always guaranteed to have a fun and delicious time in Chinatown, but there are some landmark events such as Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, when the Chinatown attractions are a must-visit.
A key event in Chinatown’s annual calendar is of course Chinese New Year, which follows the lunar calendar. In 2024, the date will fall on 10th February, signifying the start of the year of the dragon. Celebrations ensue for 15 days, so expect incredible street parades with traditional Chinese decorations, lavish feasts featuring extra-long longevity noodles, beautiful displays of red lanterns and of course, the giving of red envelopes, signifying good luck, prosperity, and vitality for the year ahead.
Many restaurants also do special menus during the celebration period, making it the ideal time to gather a group of friends or family and enjoy a traditional Chinese New Year feast. Whether you prefer modern fusion cuisine or the most authentic, regional dishes, Chinatown certainly knows how to cater for a crowd so no one will be going home hungry.
In summer, the Dragon Boat Festival arrives, and in 2024 the festival will sail into London on 10th June. The festival started in commemoration of an ancient poet, Qu Yuan, who was greatly admired. He tragically died by drowning in the Miluo river and it is said that locals raced out in boats to retrieve his body and threw sticky rice into the river to keep the fish distracted. Hence why today the festival is celebrated with Dragon Boat races, which often take place in London’s Docklands area and the eating of sticky rice dumplings, wrapped in bamboo leaves, named zongzi. Zongzi can have savoury or sweet fillings and can be found everywhere in Chinatown during the festival. Delicious!
Later in the year, comes the Mid-Autumn festival and in 2024, this starts on 17th September. Famous for its moreish mooncakes, the Mid-Autumn festival celebrates the harvest. You may wonder why mooncakes are the symbol of this festival. The dates always coincide with the full moon and traditionally, observers of the festival worshipped the full moon in thanks for a plentiful harvest. Mooncakes themselves consist of sweet pastries filled with red bean, sesame or lotus seed paste and are printed with a symbol of good luck. If you wish to try this delicacy for yourself, head to Sakurado bakery for their handmade mooncakes.
Finally, the Chinese National Day is annually celebrated on 1st October, and in China, this is followed by the Golden Week holiday. Celebrated with firework displays and parades, Chinese National Day is always a high-spirited occasion and the perfect excuse for a trip to Chinatown in London.
The History Of Chinatown
So accustomed we are to head to the West End for the best Asian food in town, it’s hard to believe that Chinatown hasn’t always been where it thrives today. In fact, the original Chinatown of London was located in Limehouse, East London in the 18th Century. This was because a Chinese population was growing by the docklands, importing goods such as Chinese silks, pottery and tea as Chinese and British trade developed.
By the 1950s, the Chinese community were in need of a new area to continue their business development and so Soho was the natural answer, with (at the time) affordable rent and a thriving nightlife culture. Chinese goods and cuisine were in high demand following the war, as British soldiers had developed a taste for it during their travels, and so the area became prosperous as the new Chinatown.
However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Chinatown developed into how it looks today, with the addition of the four gates and pedestrianisation of the streets, allowing for al-fresco dining and visitors to explore the area at their leisure.
That brings us to the end of our whistlestop tour of Chinatown. We hope you enjoy the sights, sounds, scents and tastes of the area during your next trip to London. While exploring the area, be sure to take the opportunity to see one of the many theatre shows in London, the perfect way to elevate your day in Chinatown.