Chengdu, China. Chances are that you haven’t heard of this Chinese mega city if you’ve never visited the Middle Kingdom before. Whilst Beijing and Shanghai, even Xi’an, are on most tourists must visit in China lists, Chengdu doesn’t often seem to make the cut. But it should do!
The city has so much to offer and if you’re planning on travelling around China, I’d encourage you to add it your itinerary.
The city’s modern and quite a lot of the locals speak English (unlike in a lot of places in China), which makes it relatively straightforward for foreigners to navigate. There’s lots to see and do, plus the region is famous for its mouth-numbing spicy food. Not to mention that the city is home to a Giant Panda Breeding Centre. Pandas- enough said.
If you’re planning to visit Chengdu, a few days will be enough to explore the highlights of the city but I think you could spend longer if you’re not on a limited time-scale. My time is Chengdu was short and sweet, so I’ve put together a guide to spending 3 days in the city, which covers the main things to see, do and eat, plus some general tips!
Where is Chengdu?
Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province which is situated in the south west of China. The population is around 14 million (pretty standard for a Chinese city!) but it doesn’t feel overly hectic when you’re there.
When to visit?
According to many, the best time to visit Chengdu is during September to November when the temperatures are reasonable and there isn’t much rainfall. Autumn seems like a generally good time to visit China but the weather is quite changeable, so be prepared for sun, rain and a little cold!
Chengdu airport is a large international one with flights from around Europe running daily.
The best way to reach Chengdu is by train if you are already in China. Trains in China are fast, clean, on time and not too expensive. As distances are vast, trains are much more efficient than taking a car or bus.
Internal flights aren’t very reliable as the military routinely shut down the air space at random times, meaning delays are common.
Getting around the city
As with many cities in China, there is a reliable and cheap metro, making getting around the city easy. You can walk too but the distances are vast and there can be a lot of traffic.
Be aware that cars and scooters randomly mount the pavement and drive along it at times, despite there being traffic police everywhere!
Frustratingly, you seem to need to buy paper tickets for the metro and the machines have huge queues. But apart from that, the metro is pretty straightforward to use. Note that you have to pass through security (with a separate scanner for your bags) each time you enter a metro station and go down to one of the lines.
Where to stay?
There seemed to be plenty of accommodation choices in Chengdu, from huge international hotel chains to quirky hostels. I found that accommodation in China wasn’t that cheap, especially compared to south east Asia, but it’s still affordable.
I stayed in a double room at Chengdu Lazybones Poshpacker Hostel and couldn’t recommend it highly enough. The rooms were really decent for a hostel, and the prices were more than reasonable. The location was good, although not super central; there were places to eat nearby.
The hostel staff also speak good English, and they are really helpful. The common area downstairs was great, and I met plenty of like-minded travellers. They serve tasty food too, and even put on free events over the week, like a hot pot night.
Things to see and do in Chengdu
Visit the Chengdu Giant Panda Base
A trip to Chengdu wouldn’t be complete without visiting the gorgeous pandas at the breeding centre. It’s the city’s main tourist draw, and for good reason.
The centre is similar to a zoo but the centre does seem to carry out some amazing work in helping to preserve pandas. You can read more about visiting the centre in my post here.
Explore Wenshu Monastery
Said to be the best-preserved Buddhist temple in Chengdu, Wenshu Monastery is well worth a visit when you’re in Chengdu.
It’s free to enter and it’s pretty extensive, with plenty to see. Be sure to explore the quieter mini courtyards dotted around.
They also serve a delicious vegetarian buffet for lunch, which is a great option if you’re looking for somewhere to eat. It costs 50rmb (around £5.60) and you can have unlimited food. You even get some of the cost back if you take your plate back with no food left- a great way to encourage people not to waste food!
There’s a metro station, Wen Shu Yuan, close to the monastery. You need to take line 1. There are also buses which stop nearby.
Experience a unique Face-changing opera show
One of China’s most popular, Sichuan opera is a must-see when in Chengdu. It originated at the end of the Ming and beginning of the Qing dynasties, and is still a strong tradition.
The highlight of the show is the unique face-changing act, whereby the performers slightly move and the masks on their faces change. It’s amazing to see and I can’t really describe the act in a way that does it justice! Just go and see a show, you won’t regret it.
You can get tickets online, from the theatres or via your accommodation. It’s probably best to book directly, as you can neve quite be sure what seats you’ll get when booking through your hotel or hostel (I sadly ended up paying quite a lot for a not vert good view!).
Wander down the ancient alleys
There are a number of ancient alleys in China, lined with shops, restaurants and teahouses. The Wide and Narrow Alleys are the main ones in the city, and as a result, are crowded with tourists.
Despite the crowds, be sure to spend some time exploring this ancient area of the city. There are plenty of places to grab drinks, food or snacks too.
Enjoy some spicy hot pot
Spicy hot pot is Sichuan’s most popular speciality, and you can eat it all over the city. The hot pot isn’t for the faint-hearted, it really is very spicy (I quite like spice but my mouth was on fire after a few mouthfuls!).
The idea is to share with others; you add meat and/or vegetables to the spicy broth and let them simmer away, before spooning in to your bowl ready to eat.
If you’re travelling solo, I’d recommend having hot pot at your hostel if possible, or joining a food tour. You can get one person hotpots but I feel like the experience wouldn’t be quite the same enjoyed alone.
Stroll through the People’s Park
Situated in the centre of Chengdu, the People’s Park is a green oasis amongst the bustling city. It was built in 1911 and was the first public park in the city.
It’s absolute gorgeous and even when busy, feels quite peaceful. There are lots of gardens, lakes and even teahouses. You can also rent boats.
It can easily be reached by metro, use line 2 and get off at The People’s Park station.
Relax with some delicious tea
Enjoying delicious tea is pretty much a necessity in China, and its no different in Chengdu, where there are plenty of teahouses.
For something a bit more modern, I’d recommend Ben Gong’s for delicious iced tea.
Take some time out with a coffee by the river
If you’re more of a coffee lover, you should head to Little U Coffee. There doesn’t seem to be many places to have a coffee in Chengdu, but this place serves a great one.
It’s right by the river in quite a peaceful location too. Keep an eye out for the colourful opera masks painted along the side of the river nearby.
Take a day trip to see the Leshan Buddha
If you have time (I didn’t unfortunately), make sure that you take a day trip out to Leshan Buddha, which is an incredible 71-metre high stone structure.
You can read more about the Buddha here.
What’s Chengdu like for solo travellers?
As I visited Chengdu solo, I thought it might be useful to add a little bit on what to expect if you’re visiting alone.
Like with the whole of China, I felt really safe as a young female traveller in Chengdu. Expect to be stared at as Westerner but that’s pretty standard in China.
I found that more people spoke English in Chengdu than other places I visited. The city is quite modern and forward-thinking, which seems to make it pretty easy to travel around, even solo.