Chengdu is a great stop on your China itinerary or if you live in the region a perfect long weekend getaway. Famous for it black and white cuddly bears and mouth numbing Sichuan cuisine, Chengdu is a marvellous hot pot of all things Chinese (pun intended). Three days gives enough time to explore the city and its surroundings, here’s what we did.
As you arrive in the capital of western China, be sure to stay in a quaint old Chinese house converted into a hotel. We stayed in one called Buddha Zen and it was gorgeous.
Take day 1 to immerse yourself in the sensory overload that is Chengdu. Start in Jinli road, next to the Wu Hou shrine.
This beautiful old quarter with winding alleyways, lakes and bridges is part of the oldest areas still in tact in Chengdu.
Spend a good half of the day getting lost in Jinli, pop in to the peaceful, meticulously curated ground areas of the shrine (entrance ticket required, as of March 2018 it was RMB 60), admire the old stage right in the middle of Jinli road that still has Sichuan Opera performances during festival times, pick out a few trinkets from one of the many kiosks lining the road.
Most of all, try the food. You’ll discover taste buds and sensations you didn’t know existed! If you are more adventurous than us, try rabbit head or duck head (beak and all) or pig nose!
And if you arent, sit in one of the many Sichuan hot pot places and let your mouth explode! The one thing that welcomes you to Chengdu is the smell of hot pot. I kid you not, while you are walking on the streets, riding in a taxi, there is no escaping this amazingly peppery smell. So immerse yourself in this truly Sichuan experience. Locals spend hours “hot potting”, we spent just over an hour at most, but take your time, try everything!
After Jinli road, if you are into more ancient alleyways head over to Kuan Zhai Xiangzi, translated the wide and narrow alleyways. Basically there are two: one wide, the other also pretty much the same size, but I guess considered narrow? We preferred Kuan Xiangzi because for some reason it felt less chaotic and had a beautiful overhead tree covering.
Pop over to one of the many quaint tea houses down the alleyways. Pick from an array of Chinese teas and order a bowl of melon seeds. Getting to the edible center of the melon seed takes some effort, unless you master the skill every local seems to have of extracting the seed with just one bite.
Either way, you’ll spend a good part of your afternoon in this tea experience.
Don’t be surprised if someone with an armful of strange looking tools walks up to you and offers to clean your ear. This seems to be a truly Sichuan experience. I can’t guarantee the hygiene of this “cleaning process” because they seem to use the same tools on everyone! But apparently it’s a therapeutic exercise that goes well with tea.
Next take a 20 min walk over to people’s park for some people watching. Join a game of mahjong or do some Tai Chi with the locals or simply walk around the park and watch the day go by. If you are interested in the local arts (I highly recommend this) head over to Shu Feng Ya Yun inside the park for a night at the opera. Note that the tickets sell out fast and need to be bought in advance. Marvel at the high pitched voices of the opera singers and the costume and mask changing illusionists. The latter way by far our favourite. We even recorded the act in slow mo to figure out how it’s done, but they are too good! The masks themselves are gorgeously decorated and the whole act is perfectly coordinated.
Today will probably be the highlight of your trip to Chengdu and is probably the reason you are making the trip in the first place.
So wake up early and make your way to one of the Panda breeding centers. Now you’ve got a few options
1. The giant panda breeding center – this is close to town and is the most popular spot to see the pandas, it also has the most amount of pandas
2. Dujiangyan – a 90 min drive out of Chengdu, this is a smaller base, but offers the coveted panda keeper volunteer program, read more about it here.
3. Wolong panda breeding center – it’s pretty much the same as Dujiangyan because it’s run by the same people and has the volunteer program, but is 3 hours away from Chengdu. So why go? Wolong is known to be the original home of pandas, so if that matters this is the place to visit.
Whichever option you pick, remember to go early for two reasons (1) beat the crowds, especially those coming in massive tour buses (2) pandas are active only in the morning till around 10-11am, after that is nap time!
If you do the volunteer program, you’ll spend pretty much the whole day at the base. If you go only to visit the pandas, it will take you at least half a day because you won’t be able to take your eyes off those cute and curious creatures. Read about our play date with the pandas here.
If you still have time and energy when you get back into town, you can head to the ancient Wen Shu monastery. If you are all monasteried out, you’ll still love the old town area the monastery is located in.
More winding alleyways, tiny shops and quaint tea houses, what’s not to love.
This evening why not consider a food tour? After the pandas, this is probably the other reason you are in town. While you’ve probably has a good dose of hot pot and stir fry, food tours offer amazing insight into the local cuisine and takes you to some amazing, hidden restaurants that will otherwise be completely off your radar. We did our food tour with Lost Plate, read about our one heck of a culinary adventure here.
Take a day trip to the UNESCO world heritage site – the Leshan Giant Buddha statue, supposedly the largest in the world. Leshan is just over 2 hours drive by car (it can take up to 4 hours if you take public transport).
Once in Leshan you have two options:
1. Do the 3 hour hike to the Buddha statue – the good part is you get really up close to the statue. However, it can get very very crowded and you will spend the better part of you time standing in the long single file queue with noisy tourists.
2. Take a boat ride – personally I recommend this option. The mammoth statue faces a river, and if you take a mere 30 min boat ride you get a much better view and an opportunity to take as many pictures as you want of the entire statue
If you take option 2, the Lehsan excursion will last around 5 hours, and if you hike it would take around 8. In any case it will take you pretty much the whole day.
Once back in Chengdu head over to Jiuyanqiao bar street. This beautiful area by the most has a number of interesting bars and of course the beautifully arched Anshun bridge. This is a great spot to say “Gambe” to your weekend in Chengdu.