China is massive, so in spite of how dramatically tourist arrivals have been spiking the past several years, it’s understandable why so many tours of the country stick to the well trodden path: Beijing, Shanghai, and maybe, just maybe, Xi’an!
But I believe you should venture southwestward on your next trip to the Middle Kingdom, and pandas are only one reason why.
To be sure, while Chengdu first earned its place on tourism maps as home to the cutest members of the Ursidae family, its appeal extends far beyond them. Think deliciously spicy cuisine, an eclectic cityscape, and a huge variety of destinations within day-trip distance. Plus, I found Chengdu astonishingly laid-back, which is probably an adjective you never expected to hear in conjunction with the phrase “Chinese city of 14 million.”
Here’s a little summary of its attractions, uniqueness, food scene, and more.
Peaceful vibes, hidden monasteries
Chengdu feels immediately different from more ubiquitous Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, in spite of the constant haze in the air, and the slim likelihood of finding someone outside of your hotel who speaks fluent English. Here, there’s a relaxed skip in people’s step, and in spite of the rapidly increasing number of tall buildings, the rustling of gingko leaves seems to capture your attention more than any combination of steel and stone.
Which is not to say Chengdu’s manmade treasures aren’t as enjoyable as its natural ones, or that there isn’t tangible awesomeness here to match the delightful energy that surrounds you as you explore.
If you want to step back in time, for example, head just northward from Chengdu’s central Tianfu Square (ironically, just past the Mao Zedong statue) to Wenshu Monastery, the best-preserved one in the city that’s also remarkably well-hidden within a residential neighborhood.
Jin Li Street’s newfound popularity makes it feel less hidden then Wenshu, although I did manage to shoot some mysterious-looking tripod selfies amid its colorful “wishing bags.”
Further north, Tianfu Square is slightly less well-known, and sits adjacent to lush People’s Park, whose modern design (not surprisingly, given its name) dates back to the beginning of the Communist period, but whose origins date back to the days of the Qing Dynasty.
If you’re looking for more upscale urban scenery, head to the designer shops of Taikoo Li, which sits right down the Jinjiang River from the iconic Sichuan TV Tower, and just upstream from picturesque Anshun Bridge.
Up-close and personal with pandas
Pandas are native to Sichuan province (which surrounds Chengdu) and have long been the city’s most famous attraction, not to mention its cutest. The best place to see pandas near Chengdu is Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, not only because it’s a short journey from the city center, but because it’s a scientific research facility purpose-built to help ensure the future survival of pandas.
The photo opportunities here are truly endless, as you might expect.
Otherwise, your panda options in Chengdu are limited. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake damaged much of the pandas’ remaining natural habitat (which, to be fair, had been waning for decades as it was).
The world’s next great foodie destination
American and Chinese restaurants have been serving up “Szechuan Chicken” entrées for as far back as anyone can remember. Many of Sichuan’s most famous dishes will sound familiar to your Western ears, from Gong Bao Ji Ding (also known as Kung Pao Chicken) to Ma Po Tofu. Yes, there’s a reason there’s so many Sichuan restaurants are so popular in the West. The UNESCO City of Gastronomy and capital city of the Sichuan Province is in a class of its own.
The best thing about eating in Chengdu is the hole-in-the-walls crowded with locals. (Love Chinese food? Check out our guide to traditional street food there!)
Don’t miss dine-and-dash favorites like spicy, savory Dan Dan Noodles, but also consider treating yourself to one of the most sumptuous meals in the world: the 33-course extravaganza at Yu’s Family Kitchen, which features both Sichuan specialties and pan-Chinese classics like Peking Duck.
Exploring Jinli Street, famous for its historic atmosphere and local snacks, is a must. Enjoy sticky rice cakes with sesame sauce, spicy chicken on a stick, sweet rice jelly, fried beef pancakes and, for the more adventurous, spicy rabbits heads.
And ensure you sample hot pot, also. One of the country’s most renowned dishes, and roughly translating to ‘fire pot’, the communal pot of spiced broth that you dip your choice of ingredients into, is quite the (delicious and spicy) experience.
Note: you can visit Chengdu and learn how to whip up some classic Sichuan dishes in a cooking class on Intrepid’s 12-day China Real Food Adventure.
Gateway to the (South)west
You could spend a week (or more!) just within Chengdu’s city limits, but what sits just beyond Chengdu is at least as awesome, especially given the rapid expansion of China’s high-speed rail network. Take a day trip to the awe-inspiring Leshan Giant Buddha or scale the summits of Emei Shan and Mount Qingcheng, which is known as the birthplace of Taoism.
Chengdu is also a great precursor to Chongqing, an even less-discovered city that was also part of Sichuan province before its population exploded to more than 40 million.
Indeed, an entire world waits for you the moment you come through customs at Chengdu International Airport. Break out of the usual China travel bubble (and maybe, a little bit outside your comfort zone) and you’ll discover new cuisine, laid-back charm, lovely parks, and so much more.
(And, yes, pandas.)
Ready to embark on the trip of a lifetime? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in China.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Robert Scrader x5, Intrepid Travel, Robert Schrader)
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