Chengdu, in the beautiful Sichuan province of southwest China, is probably the largest place in the world that you know without knowing it! If you’ve ever enjoyed spicy Szechuan food, imagined a place where verdant terraced fields surround beautiful mountains, or marvelled at giant pandas then you have been introduced to the culture of Chengdu. What you may not know is that Chengdu is also a massive city! It has more than 10 Million residents in the city and 14 million in the metropolitan area. That means Chengdu is larger than London, Chicago, Miami, Madrid, Dubai, Bangkok and Sydney – just to name a few better known places. Chengdu is a surprising and wonderful place!
China has some massive cities and Chengdu is its seventh largest but well behind Beijing and Shanghai. The region has seen continuous habitation for at least the past 4,000 years. However, it was not part of China during the nation’s first phase.
A wonderful mix of old and new!
The city offers one of the nicest environments to live in China with brilliant weather and an urban plan which promises to keep the place a “city within a park” rather than creating parks in the city. The green beauty and relaxed lifestyle make Chengdu a happy place to live and a wonderful place to visit.
When visiting, you’ll probably fly into Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport which is located 20km (12 mi) outside of the city centre and is one of the largest airport hubs in China. The airport is serviced by flights from all major Chinese cities as well as many international destinations. Public transport is efficient and affordable. The subway is the quickest way to travel around and there are stations everywhere; especially near popular attractions.
There’s so much to see and do in this massive city, but here are my recommendations on what you absolutely should not miss:
- Chengdu Research Base of Giant Pandas – This non-profit research and breeding centre is a wonderful place to interact with these beautiful and iconic creatures. The pandas receive excellent and individual care. Visitors can view the pandas in natural settings while they live their best lives.
Its most famous residents dress formally!
- Insha Site Museum – In 2001, by accident, a major archaeological site was found within Chengdu during a building project. The Jinsha site was a previously unknown ancient city that existed between 500 – 200 BCE. It appears to have been destroyed by a massive earthquake. The finds rising from this active site are spectacular and include gold, jade, ivory and other precious finds. You can visit the site as well as its attached museum.
Woo-Hoo! We found the temple!
- Wuhou Shrine – This temple is famous for its beautiful red walls that snake sinuously around the site. The temple, built in 1762, consists of several buildings and gardens that provide an interesting and tranquil introduction to Chinese religion.
- Dujiangyan Irrigation System –This is one of the oldest, no dam, irrigation systems in the world and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 256 BC because the people who lived along the Minjiang River were constantly threatened by floods. It’s a scenic spot and you can take beautiful photos throughout the site.
- Erwang Temple at Dujiangyan – Located right by the Irrigation System, this temple, also known as Two King’s Temple, is simply beautiful. It is dedicated to the memory of Li Bing and his son who saved the Chengdu Plain from yearly floods by building the system. The father and son were promoted to the status of honoured kings after they died.
- Chuancais Museum (Sichuan Cuisine Museum) – This is a wonderful museum dedicated to Sichuan food! If you’re a foodie then you might know that Chengdu was actually named a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO. The best part? You can literally eat your way through the museum as you learn and observe from professional chefs.
- Kuan Zhai Alley – This is a wonderful shopping area lined with renovated ancient buildings and beautiful courtyards. Shopping is fun and varied.
- Jinli Street – This is the best spot to buy local souvenirs, like Shu embroidery, and for street food.
- People’s Park – This peaceful park is the perfect spot to escape the traffic for a break. You can take a small boat onto the lake and capture the most stunning vistas; especially in the autumn!
Here’s a pro-tip: Don’t miss a day trip to the Leshan Giant Buddha. You may have seen pictures of this giant Buddha, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The statue is carved out of a cliff face of sandstone and is 71-meters (233 ft) high making it one of the largest depictions of Buddha in the world.
Sichuan cuisine is simply spectacular! So much technique and skill is required with the recipes, which feature spicy, bold and pungent flavours of garlic, chilli, peppers and other spices. Here are my favourite places to eat:
- Shu Daxia Hot Pot – Hot pot is the most famous Sichuan dish. It includes a spicy oil and pepper broth, ingredients like different meats, vegetables, noodles, dumplings and sauces. You dip whatever you’d like into the broth and wait for it to cook. It’s a communal dining experience in this aesthetically beautiful restaurant.
Eat, or get off the pot!
- Yu Zhi Lan – This luxurious and exclusive venue only has 18 seats. The restaurant offers a fusion of the finest ingredients and techniques that China has to offer. This is the type of restaurant where 25-course dinners are normal, food looks like art and your senses will be aroused by astounding flavours.
- Wen Ya Zi – The chefs at this restaurant are duck experts. They literally offer hundreds of duck recipes. My favourite was also Chairman Mao’s favourite – a spicy duck with peanuts and hot chilis. This authentic venue offers excellent quality meals at a reasonable price.
Here’s another pro-tip: Tea is a central part of Chinese culture and Chengdu is the biggest producer of tea in China. Make sure to visit an authentic tea house while you’re in the city and enjoy the presentation and quality of this delicate treat.
Chengdu nightlife is a vibrant mix of cultural activities and cool bars. Here’s where I enjoy enjoying going out at night:
- Shu Feng Ya Yun Sichuan Opera –Each opera performance is inspired by Chinese classic novels and folklore. Enjoy a lovely cup of local tea as you take in a colourful and inspirational show. You don’t need to speak Chinese to enjoy this wonderful exhibition of art and skill.
- Jellyfish Bar – This cocktail bar is a popular late-night party spot. With excellent mixologists creating delicious drinks and an in-house DJ providing the best tunes, you’ll be dancing until the wee hours.
- The Beer Nest – This cool venue specializes in draft beers, imported bottled beers and rare craft brews from Beijing. This cosy and rustic venue is great for a relaxed night in the town.
Chengdu offers luxury accommodation options as well as chain hotels. The hospitality in the city is excellent. I mostly stay in boutique hotels and these are my top picks:
That’s a big Buddha!
- Buddha Zen Hotel – This hotel has a convenient central location, complete with fishponds and a beautiful garden. It’s a peaceful escape in the middle of the city. The rooms are cosy and decorated with traditional décor. The hotel even has a full-service spa and a traditional tearoom.
- Qintai Tibetan Culture Boutique Hotel – This charming boutique hotel is cosy and welcoming. Tibetan influence is everywhere in the décor, hospitality and food of this wonderful hotel. The street outside is picturesque as well.
- The Temple House – This hotel offers the perfect blend of old and new. All the rooms are fitted with traditional Chinese touches yet still retain a modern and minimalistic feel. The courtyard suites offer an incredibly zen experience!
Chengdu is a massive metropolis but it retains the feel of a smaller and more intimate place to visit. Once you visit this beautiful city, you’ll know that you’ve known it for a long time!