Chengdu is rarely at the top of travellers’ minds when it comes to planning a trip to any of China’s super-sized cities, but those who take the path less trodden often find themselves pleasantly surprised at what the destination can offer.
Chengdu is a melting pot of old and new cultures. It’s hard to ignore a history that dates back to at least the 4th century B.C, but it has also managed to adapt as one of China’s fastest growing markets over the past decade.
Still, life in Chengdu happens at a leisurely step. It’s one that’s fuelled by a relaxing teahouse culture, and in more recent times, independent coffee institutions. By night, these unique brews make way for local craft beers, which are now especially prevalent throughout the city by way of specialty bars.
Yet, you can’t speak about Chengdu without a mention of its food — it is, after all, UNESCO’s first-ever City of Gastronomy. As the cradle and epicentre of Sichuan cuisine, the city has managed to make its food its biggest export yet. Today, some of its most iconic dishes — think mapo tofu, kungpao Chicken, and dandan noodles, have their own variations in every corner of the globe.
Culture is still very much a big part of this cosmopolitan city, and you’ll find plenty of ancient temples, museums, and streets that celebrate this. The Giant Pandas are one of Chengdu’s most famous residents. That said, a visit wouldn’t be complete without a visit to their hometown that is just 10km away from the city’s downtown.
From the spiciest dishes that will leave your tongue tingling to catching a glimpse of China’s cutest residents, here’s how to plan your trip to Chengdu.
WHERE TO STAY
The Temple House
With its clever mix of both old and brand-new buildings, The Temple House provides the quintessential Chengdu experience in one convenient spot. This boutique hotel is located on the edge of Taikoo Li, a trendy mixed-use development that marries traditional Sichuan architecture with modern retail and F&B names.
Its stately century-old Qing dynasty courtyard is the first area that greets guests, before two modern L-shaped blocks — conceptualised by Make Architects — come into view. The buildings are designed to evoke stepped rice terraces, and local Shu embroidery find their way into plenty of finishings within. To unwind after a day of sightseeing, head over to the hotel’s urban day spa, Mi Xun, – a sanctuary with treatments that are inspired by nature.
Address: 81 Bitieshi Street, Jinjiang District, Chengdu, China
Located within Chengdu’s centrally-located International Finance Square — Niccolo Chengdu is one of the latest five-star additions to the city’s luxury hotel scene. The luxury hotel is also just above the Chengdu metro line, making it a great spot to navigate around the rest of the city with ease.
The fantastic location is only part of the draw; the establishment is notable for creating the benchmark for 21st century Chinese hospitality. Rooms are decked with fashion-inspired interiors by leading designers, with expansive windows offering panoramic views copious amounts of light. If you’d like to experience Chengdu’s endearing tea culture, the Tea Lounge’s very own sommelier will guide you through its menu of varied tea offerings.
Address: Tower 3, IFS, No.1, Section 3, Hongxing Road, Jinjiang District, Chengdu, China
Diaoyutai Boutique Hotel Chengdu
Designed by legendary French designer Bruno Moinard, the first boutique hotel by Diaoyutai MGM is an artful blend of history and modernity within the revitalised Kuanzhai Alley. Two restored courtyards and 45 spacious guest rooms define the urban oasis, all of which marry original Chinese elements with contemporary touches.
Venture out of the establishment to Kuanzhai Alley and indulge in the myriad street food stalls for an authentic culinary adventure.
Address: 38 – 39 Kuan Alley, Qingyang District, Chengdu, China
Chengdu Old Congde Alley
It’s easy to see why Chengdu Old Congde Alley is popular amongst the hip and trendy. Besides being only 900m from the shopping paradise of Chunxi Road, it’s also incredibly design-centric. Housed within traditional architecture from the 1920s are modern elements that give this hotel an edge over the rest in the vicinity. Unique homeware and plenty of wood finishes also lend the rooms a homely atmosphere.
Address: 1 Chongdeli, Tangpa Street, Jinjiang District, Chengdu, China
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Jinli Ancient Street
Dubbed “The First Street of the Shu Kingdom”, Jinli Ancient Street is rife with history — and exceptional food. A stroll along the well-preserved Sichuan-style architecture and historically beautiful streets is almost akin to stepping back in time, but it is the local dishes here that garner the most attention.
Located in the east of Chengdu Wuhou Shrine, the 350 metre-long street is home to a large variety of traditional street food hawkers and famous snacks, ranging from buckwheat noodles to sandapao (glutinous rice balls lathered with brown sugar syrup). Specialties from suburban counties which are otherwise hard to come by in downtown Chengdu can also be found here. These include savouries such as Zhangfei beef and sesame cakes.
Directions: Take Bus 57, 82 or335,and get off at Wu Hou Ci (Wuhou Shrine) bus stop..
Address: 231 Wuhouci Street, Wuhou District, Chengdu, China
Honey and Malt
Chengdu’s insatiable thirst for craft beers in recent years has led to a booming domestic brewing scene and a legion of specialty bars for avid beer lovers. Honey and Malt is one of the city’s most impressive for its selection of 30 locally-brewed craft beers on tap. Nestled amongst high-end clothing boutiques on Tongzilin-dong Road, the cosy joint relies on a high-tech LCD menu and an ultra-modern system to regulate keg pressures and temperatures. Brews from Chengdu’s Harvest Brewery are always popular, but be sure to try other regional options too, such as Trip Smith from Guiyang, Master Gao from Nanjing, and NBeer from Beijing.
Opening hours: 5pm till late
Address: 20 Tongzilin Dong Road, Wuhou District, Chengdu, China
Chen Mapo Tofu – Luomashi Branch
Mapo tofu, one of the most recognisable Sichuan dishes in the world, has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the late 1800s. Chen Mapo Tofu is one of the best places in the city to try this delicacy. It had burgeoned from a tiny hole in the wall across from the People’s Park to a banquet-styled franchise with an unrivalled location near Chunxi Road.
Besides the iconic tongue-numbing dish, the restaurant also serves up other authentic Sichuan specialties, such as dandan noodles and spicy diced chicken.
Opening hours: 2.30pm — 9pm daily
Address: 197 Xiyulong Street, Qingyang District,, Chengdu, China
WHAT TO DO
Chengdu Research Base of Panda Breeding Centre
You can’t leave Chengdu without seeing the city’s cutest residents. The furry national treasures reside just a 45-minute drive north of the city centre and deep within the peaceful bamboo groves where they wander freely.
Dissected by paved lanes and wooden plank paths, the park not only educates thousands of eager tourists on the adorable critters, but also works hard to keep the species out of endangerment. Since its inception, the breeding facility has successfully nursed the giant panda population back to health, and the tiny baby pandas there are often on display for short periods of time each day.
Opening hours: 7.30am — 6pm
Admission fee: Adult — 5 yuan; child – 27 yuan (free for children under 1.3m)
Directions: Take bus 198 or 198Ato Xiongmao Jidi (Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding) bus stop.
Address: 1375 Xiongmao Avenue, Chenghua District, Chengdu, China
The Sichuan province isn’t short of surprises, but to be truly charmed, head out of the capital city and into Jiuzhaigou Valley. Chengdu is often a stepping stone for tourists looking to visit the picturesque fairyland, which has enchanted tourists with its ethereal mix of colourful lakes, spectacular waterfalls, and snow-capped peaks for years.
Located in the mountainous regions of southwest China, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is a mere 40-minute flight or six-hour drive away from Chengdu. The nature reserve might be known for its scenic beauty, but it’s also home to nine Tibetan villages – of which it gets its name from. Seven out of these villages are still populated by Tibetans today, and give tourists a rare glimpse into their culture with through performances and museums.
Opening hours: 7am — 7pm (peak season); 8am — 6pm (off-peak season)
Admission fee: 220 yuan (peak season); 80 yuan (off-peak season)
Directions from Chengdu city: By car (at least a 440km-drive); By bus (around 8-10 hours); By domestic flight (40 minutes)
Address: Jiuzhaigou County, China
Located next to Chunxi Road and Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li is Daci Temple, a majestic island of zen in the midst of Chengdu’s chaos. With a history of about 1,600 years, the Buddhist landmark was first built in the Sui Dynasty in year 581, but has seen plenty of reconstruction over its lifetime. Today, it’s a cultural gem in Chengdu, attracting thousands of devotees and curious visitors with its impressive collection of Buddhist sculptures and traditional Chinese paintings.
Opening hours: 8am — 5.30pm
Admission fee: Free
Address: No.1 Dacisi Street, Jinjiang District, Chengdu, China
Sichuan Cuisine Museum of Chengdu
As UNESCO’s City of Gastronomy, you can’t say you’ve truly been to Chengdu until you’ve had a taste of its authentic Sichuan cuisine. This museum takes the city’s passion for food a step further by offering a legion of books, recipes, and unique utensils that revolve around the famous tongue-numbing cuisine.
Those eager to try their hand at cooking up a storm will enjoy the Interactive Hall, where chef-wannabes can choose a recipe and gather ingredients before cooking the dish themselves. A professional cook is always on-hand to help you master the authentic Sichuan dish of your choice.
Visitors will also get the chance to taste popular local snacks for free here, such as Tofu pudding, Rice dumplings, bean jelly, and various types of noodles.
Opening hours: 9am — 6pm
Admission fee: 58.5 yuan; 360 yuan including cooking
Directions: Take metro line 2 to Xipu Station and walk across the street to take bus p22 to Gucheng bus stop. Then, walk west for 5 minutes to Sichuan Cuisine Museum.
Address: No.1 Dacisi Street, Jinjiang District, Chengdu, China
Sichuan Tapestry Woven and Embroidered Museum
Stellar food is not all that the city has to offer; Chengdu is also the epicentre for the fine art of Shu brocade, and it has a museum to show for it. The Sichuan Tapestry Woven and Embroidered Museum highlights the beauty and intricacy behind the famous craft while providing insight into the unique fabric, both for its decorative and utilitarian uses.
Over a thousand pieces of brocades and embroidery from different dynasties take center stage, telling a tale lesser known of the past. Before you reach the exhibition hall, be sure to stop by to view a live demonstration of the process of weaving . Here, two skilled artisans operate a massive looming machine at the center of the museum, churning out exquisite Shu Brocades with the intriguing ancient instrument.
Opening hours: 8am — 5.30pm (Winter season); 9am — 6pm (Summer season)
Admission fee: Free
Directions: Take bus 170 and alight at caotang xiaoxue nan men bus stop.
Address: No. 2 Caotang Eastern Road, Qingyang District, Chengdu, China
If Zhangjiajie’s countless peaks, pinnacles and spires look familiar to you, it’s because you’ve seen them on the big screens before. Now famous for forming the otherworldly backdrop of Disney’s Avatar movie, the national forest park is truly a nature lover’s paradise in real life.
The Tianmen Mountain (Heaven’s Gate Mountain) is one of the biggest highlights here. The 999-step walk might sound exhausting, but the sights that ensue are well worth it. The Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge is a suitably more thrilling way to experience the legendary views. The skywalk was the longest and tallest glass-bottomed bridge in the world when it first opened, and remains to be a fantastic spot if you’re looking to get a bird’s eye view of the canyon — that is, if you dare step foot on it.
Opening hours: 8am —6pm (November to March); 8.30am — 5.30pm (December to February)
Admission fee: From 49 yuan
Directions: Travelling overnight by train from Chengdu to Yichang takes around 11 to 18 hours
Address: Yongding District Zhangjiajie, China
SilkAir flies 10 times weekly to Chengdu.
This story first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore.