Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province and home to the country’s beloved pandas and its fiery cuisine. In fact Chengdu was named a UNESCO “city of gastronomy” in 2010 and Sichuan cuisine has long been recognized in China as one of the eight great cuisines of the country.
This vibrant city of over 8 million people is full of fun things to explore — everything from old, historic streets and beautiful parks to cultural icons like Sichuan opera and the pandas.
Bryan had a work trip in Chengdu this past August, so we extended the trip over the weekend and I tagged along. Here’s a quick look at the many things we did during our Chengdu weekend trip.
Food, of course, is a huge part of Chengdu. As I mentioned above, Sichuan food is considered one of China’s eight great cuisines. I’ll devote at least a whole separate post (if not multiple posts!) to the food, so I won’t go into too much detail here.
Suffice it to say, the cuisine is beautifully complex in its balance of multiple flavors. It is also really, really, really spicy!
Most common food: any form of spicy hot pot
Most unusual popular snack: chili rabbit heads
My favorite discoveries: cold jelly noodles; Sichuan style century eggs
No visit to Chengdu would be complete without an excursion to see giant pandas, which are native to Sichuan province. We visited the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, the closest place to the the city center where you can see many pandas. You can’t hold baby pandas here (you have to travel further to do that), but you can see infant pandas in incubators, baby pandas at the nursery, and dozens of adult pandas all over the large park-like area. It was definitely a highlight of the trip and I highly recommend it! I’ll write a another more detailed post with photos and our thoughts plus tips about visiting the Research Base.
I love how Chengdu is such a visual blend of old and new. Unlike in the US, where it’s hard to find a building that’s over 200 years old, Chengdu has been in existence with its current name since 400 BC. (!) You really see that in the juxtaposition of ancient Chinese buildings and modern high rises.
To get a glimpse of history, check out Kuanzhai Alley (寬窄巷子), one of Chengdu’s historic preserved areas. It consists of a wide 寬 “kuan” street and a narrow 窄 “zhai” street that were built around the time of the Qing Dynasty for Manchu soldiers. In 2008 the city renovated the two ancient alleys into mixed use cultural and business streets. Now, it’s a popular place to visit due to its many restaurants, tea houses, shops, and street food vendors. You can even catch a glimpse of a traditional Chengdu family home at the tourism center for Kuanzhai Alley.
It’s a beautiful city in which just to walk around, with tree-lined boulevards and numerous parks.
For a taste of the more modern side of Chengdu, you can shop until you drop at Chunxi Road 春熙路, a huge pedestrian-only shopping street with over 700 shops.
Aside from clothing and merchandise, you can also eat at restaurants or pick up a snack at the many street stalls. For fun, we enjoyed some soft serve ice cream cones while strolling up and down the street.
One must-see in Chengdu is a type of ancient Sichuan Opera called Bian Lian 變臉, which translates to “face changing”. Performers wear brightly colored masks and through what seems like magic, change their faces instantaneously with a quick swipe of the hand. The technique behind mastering this secret art has been heavily guarded within certain families for generations in China.
I would highly recommend seeing a show. The performances are fascinating to watch and well worth the time.
The Sichuan Opera ticket we bought even included a free pot of tea at the tea house right next to the opera house. Going to a tea house is an experience in and of itself.
For some reason, it’s quite popular to get your ears cleaned in Chengdu. There are always men roaming around holding ear cleaning instruments (plus a head lamp) ready to clean your ears for a small fee. I wasn’t quite comfortable to let someone put metal instruments into my ears, but from what others tell me, it feels quite nice and your ears are very clean afterwards.
For a more cultural experience in a beautiful setting, visit Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage Museum. Du Fu was a Tang dynasty poet and is considered one of the greatest poets in Chinese history. The museum provides a really nice tribute to the poet, and you get to nice overview of his difficult life and how it impacted and really shaped his poetry.
For us, because we visited with a local friend, we were able to hear a local Chinese person’s perspective on visiting this famous poet’s place. All Chinese school children know Du Fu because they studied and memorized many of his poems. Our Chinese friend told us that it would be impossible for us to truly understand the depth and beauty of Du Fu’s poetry without (1) reading it in the original language and (2) understanding the culture and history of China and the Chinese people. We could definitely sense it as we watched her reactions to the poetry and Du Fu’s life story compared to our own.
A very local and relaxing thing to do is drink tea and relax at a public park, such as Chengdu People’s Park. We saw families playing Mah-jong, the elderly doing Tai Chi, and more people getting their ears cleaned (it seems to happen at places where people drink tea). We really could sense that the pace of life in Chengdu is very different from other cities we’ve visited in China, which seem much more intense, high energy, and high pressure. Chengdu is a more laid back city where people really enjoy just hanging out and eating really good food.
All in all I really enjoyed our visit to Chengdu. It definitely felt short and I felt like I barely have scratched the surface of this beautiful city. Definitely worth visiting again. Stay tuned as I dive a little deeper in certain aspects on this trip on future blog posts!
Shaanxi Cuisine: Xian and the Terra Cotta Warriors
Shanghai: Eating at the World Expo
Wandering the Streets of Beijing
The Best of Beijing Street Food: 九門小吃
Sichuan Restaurants in Hong Kong