The capital of Sichuan Province, Chengdu exudes an easy, laidback charm. It may be one of the world’s fastest growing cities, but there’s a true local feel, thanks to welcoming teahouses and homely restaurants serving some of China’s best food. With a pretty old town and a world–leading panda sanctuary, Chengdu is an essential stop–off.
Chengdu is served by an excellent bus system, with signs in both Chinese and English at bus stops in the city centre. The Metro service, which is in the midst of a major expansion programme, links all major sights and transport hubs. Private hire cars can be easily booked at hotels.
Most people head to Chengdu for one thing: Pandas. This symbol of Chinese diplomacy is native to this area of the country and can be seen up close at the excellent Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, a short bus ride from town. Head here early, as the bears tend to spend the afternoon sleeping after gorging on bamboo first thing.
Ancient Chinese culture can be glimpsed in Chengdu’s western suburbs at the excellent Jinsha Site Museum. Artefacts dating back 3,000 years were found here during construction work in 2001 and are now on show in this first–rate museum, where you can easily lose a day exploring.
For a taste of traditional Chengdu, head to Jinli Street. This restored ancient alleyway is a popular tourist hotspot, but its old–style design and trinket shops are a calm alternative to the busy boulevards which surround it.
Visitors to Jinli should head to the impressive Wuhou Temple, where ancient Chinese warriors and emperors from the Three Kingdoms period, dating from 220 to 280, are honoured among a swirl of incense. Once you’re finished looking at the vast number of statues and deities here, head to nearby Nanjiao Park for a spot of people watching.
Chengdu’s location in the heart of Sichuan makes it the ideal base for exploring some of China’s best off–the–beaten track sights. A two-hour bus ride from the city centre, Emeishan National Park is a must if you have an extra day to play with. The park is home to the jaw–dropping Leshan Buddha, a huge statue carved into cliffside walls.
The park has a a series of trails marked with English signs, as well as a number of ancient monasteries that offer a look at a side of China many never get to see.
Sichuan’s culinary reputation has helped turned Chengdu into a food lover’s paradise. Fiery heat is to be expected, whatever you eat. Traditional Sichuan hotpot can be found in most joints, but be bold and try Mapo Doufu, a spicy tofu, beef and chili bean dish that’s best sampled at Chen Mapo Doufu. Fuqi feipan, a tripe-based dish with chili and peanuts, is one for braver eaters.
Tea is also serious business in Chengdu and a tea ceremony is a must–have experience. Head to the superb Suwi Chahao to try local blends served in the formal style.