Chinatown Grant Ave


Portsmouth Square

One of the most historic sections of San Francisco ever, Portsmouth Square got its name from the U.S.S. Portsmouth, the first ship to sail to S.F. and claim San Francisco for America. And once the land was claimed for the USA — Portsmouth Square becoming the center of town — the announcement in the square of the discovery of gold in California created a city growth unprecedented in history. Yet this part of history is unknown to most travelers, especially the role played by Portsmouth Square.

Over time, as the people of San Francisco moved outward and over Nob Hill, Portsmouth Square turned from the hustle-and-bustle center of a new-growth city, into a grungy, forgotten section of town. Nobody, except the Chinese — who were literally forced into this now dirty, mangy neighborhood (once rumored to carry the bubonic plague) — wanted Portsmouth Square and its surrounding buildings.

Portsmouth Square is THE most historic section of San Francisco, especially when it comes to the Gold Rush.

But over time, as the streets cleaned up — mostly in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire — the Chinese claimed Portsmouth Square as their own. And today, not only will you see several Chinese mingle and play cards in the square, but you will see monuments which honor other events of the park, such as the Robert Louis Stephenson Hispaniola statue (the author was rumored to sit on a bench and ponder his famous book Treasure Island during the 1880s) and a plaque for the first public school in California. Even the famous San Francisco cable cars took their first journey down Clay Street, directly adjacent to the square (the line was destroyed and removed after the 1906 earthquake).

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When you visit Portsmouth Square, look past the surface of the park and into the history. You can both entertain yourself with stories of the past and appreciate a part of town most locals have forgotten. Portsmouth Square is an amateur (and professional) historian’s dream. You just need to use your imagination.

For your added pleasure, you can visit the Chinese Cultural Center in the Hilton Hotel adjacent to Portsmouth Square. And if you’re driving, you can park in the four-level parking garage underneath the park, which welcomes roughly 50,000 vehicles per month.

Portsmouth Square

How Do I Find Portsmouth Square?

  • Portsmouth Square is located on the border of Chinatown and the Financial District. In other words, if you look for the large buildings of San Francisco, Portsmouth is at the base of them on the corner of Kearny and Clay Street.
  • You can use public transportation routes 1, 9x, 20, 30, 41, 45 and all cable cars lines to reach the square. Most will involve walking, though.
  • To reach Portsmouth Square from Union Square you should walk. Take Grant Street through Chinatown and you can explore shops, sample tea and meet the locals along the way. Walking is good for your soul, anyways.

School House Plaque

Orange Sky Co. says:

Orange Sky SF Logo

Portsmouth Square is best to explore during the day. The square is usually crowded to where it’s hard to find a seat, but that’s what makes the park interesting. It only takes a few minutes to visit the historic square.

Location of Portsmouth Square