Located in the fertile plains of the Sichuan Province's Red Basin, Chengdu seems so much like a small town that it can be easy to forget it is one of China's largest cities. With nicknames like 'Heavenly State', 'City of Hibiscus' and 'Land of Milk and Honey', it is no wonder that Chengdu is also ranked as one of China's most liveable places.
Still a well-kept secret for many tourists in China, Chengdu lacks the famous historical sites that draw crowds to tourist magnets Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi'an. This doesn't mean that the city lacks historical importance though, as it was the site of origin for the Bronze culture, the Southern Silk Road, and printed the first paper currency. Chengdu is full of rich history, where travellers can visit attractions like the Wenshu Monastery, Wuhou Memorial Temple, Tomb of Wang Jian, Green Ram Temple, and the Thatched Cottage of the ancient poet Du Fu.
Chengdu is an important culinary destination in China, and visitors can attend traditional Chinese tea ceremonies at many teahouses, including Wenshu Monastery and Guanghe Chalou. The food in Chengdu is some of the best in the region, offering fiery Sichuan dishes like hotpots, Chongqing duck neck, and spicy dragon prawns from roadside carts or stylish restaurants.
The top attraction in Chengdu, however, is located in the lush valleys surrounding the town. The Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center is the world's only centre of its kind, and offers one-of-a-kind opportunities to see and interact with pandas and their cubs.
Chengdu makes a great base for exploring the Sichuan Province, as it is within easy distance of the Giant Buddha of Leshan, Mount Qingcheng, and the Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area. It is also a convenient stopover on travels to Tibet, as there are almost daily flights to Lhasa.
The Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre is a must-see for animal lovers and wildlife conservationists. The largest centre of its kind, Chengdu is part zoo, part lab, and part habitat. The centre was founded with the aim of increasing the population of giant pandas in captivity so that more may be released into the wild; with this in mind, the Chengdu centre is the best place on earth to see ridiculously cute panda cubs. Research focuses on the advancement of wildlife conservation and, as it is impossible not to be enchanted by these seriously endangered creatures, visitors will leave the centre with a new passion. The park is also a home to other endangered Chinese animals, like the South China Tiger, red pandas and golden monkey, though the famous giant pandas are the main attraction. The Giant Panda Museum has interactive exhibits designed to teach visitors about the fascinating creatures, and the work of the centre.
It takes about two hours to walk the grounds, alternatively, visitors can ride in a tour cart. It is best to go for feeding time (9am-10am) which is when the animals are most active. Also, if travellers get there nice and early they are more likely to get the chance to hold a baby panda. People have to pay extra to cuddle a cub, although it is expensive, it is a very special experience and the donation goes towards a worthy cause.
As a tourist attraction, Mount Qincheng really does have something for everyone. It is located approximately 41 miles (66km) from Chengdu. The mountain is one of the most famous Taoist mountains in China, and is a popular destination for international travellers and locals alike. It is usefully divided into two sides, which provide very different experiences. The front side of Mount Qincheng (anterior) is the more touristy side, and boasts an impressive array of cultural and historical landmarks. A number of temples to be visited include the Jianfu Palace, Shangqing Palace, and the Tianshi Cave. However, for those who prefer to travel off the beaten track, the back side (or posterior) is relatively quiet and unspoiled, offering a stunning hiking route along narrow mountain passes, past waterfalls and through wooded areas. This trip is a must for those interested in the flora and fauna of the area.
Whether travellers are keen on the more frequented front route, or the adventurous trail at the back, the views from the summit are spectacular. Although the paths are very well-maintained, the hike is pretty demanding on both sides; nevertheless, there is a cable car which can be taken half-way or all the way up. The mountain is the ideal travellers escape from crowded urban sightseeing and makes for a delightful excursion from Chengdu.
Kuanzhai Ancient Street is one of three historic preservation areas in the city and scores highly on most visitors' lists of things to see and do in Chengdu. It is formed by the confluence of three alleys: Kuan Alley, Zhai Alley and Jing Alley. The area once boasted 45 Qing Dynasty (18th-century) courtyards, and Kuanzhai contains the only three which remain well-preserved.
Kuanzhai is now trendy and artistic and is an entertaining cultural experience for visitors, with ancient Chinese architecture contrasting with modern restaurants and art galleries in a captivating way. It is particularly interesting to walk this street in the evening when the ancient attractions are juxtaposed with a lively modern nightlife and bright city lights. There are lots of souvenir shops and craft stalls selling ceramics, silk and embroidery. There are also a number of restaurants, pubs and food vendors to sell you a variety of local cuisine; and places like Starbucks to provide international staples.
Another good reason to visit Kuanzhai in the late afternoon or evening is the entertainment provided by cultural displays, dancing groups, and locals doing their daily aerobics. The area is intended to be a cultural hot spot and often even the walls display photo exhibitions. Kuanzhai is a great casual tourist attraction in Chengdu, a place where you can wander freely and just absorb local flavour.
Chengdu has a humid subtropical climate, with four distinct seasons: spring is short and warm, summer is long, wet, and steamy, autumn is cool and rainy, and winter is cold and foggy. Average minimum and maximum temperatures range from 28°F (-2°C) in the winter (December to February) up to 86°F (30°C) at the peak of summer (June to August). Chengdu is humid and foggy for most of the year, which reduces sunlight hours and can exaggerate the feel of the temperature. The rainy season is in July and August, when occasional storms are experienced. The best time to visit Chengdu is in the spring and autumn, March to June and September to November.
Hiring a car in Chengdu is not advised due to heavy and chaotic traffic, especially at rush hour times. Metered taxis are available, though difficult to find in some areas. Note that it is necessary to have your destination written in Chinese as most drivers don't speak English.
There are plenty of public transport options, most of which are marked on tourist maps available from the airport, railway station, and souvenir shops.
Public transport in Chengdu is mostly comprised of an extensive bus network. There is a free shuttle service that links all parts of the city centre. The other half of Chengdu's public transport is the metro, which connects the North and South Railway Stations. A second line, running northwest and southeast, has recently been completed. Trains are regular and safe, if a little crowded during rush hour. Be sure to check the operational hours as the metro does not run late into the night.
Situated in the centre of Chengdu Plain, at the confluence of the Min and Tuo Rivers, is the maze-like city of Chengdu. Travellers are most commonly drawn to the area by the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre, but once there they discover many other interesting things to see and do in Chengdu.
Pandas are justifiably Chengdu's biggest attraction, where the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre has popularized conservation of these gentle giants. The centre rehabilitates and breeds a number of animals besides the loveable Giant Pandas, including Red Pandas, South China Tigers, and Golden Monkeys. It is an absolute must for anybody who loves animals and is interested in wildlife conservation. For a special donation, visitors can even hold a panda cub.
Another popular excursion from Chengdu is a trip to Mount Qincheng just outside the city. The mountain provides wonderful hiking opportunities amidst many historical and cultural places of interest.
Travellers interested in archaeology and ancient civilizations should visit the Jinsha Site Museum, located on the site where archaeologists unearthed an ancient village of the Shu Kingdom (220 - 280 AD) and displays some wonderful ancient relics and artefacts. A good companion site in town is the Wuhou Memorial Temple, which has shrines to the ministers of the Shu Kingdom.
Other attractions in Chengdu include Wenshu Temple, the city's largest Buddhist temple complex, and People's Park, a big public park with a number of attractions, including a rather odd underground museum. Kuanzhai Ancient Street is also worth visiting: it is a trendy shopping street and cultural hot spot as well as a historic preservation area with several ancient structures. Kuanzhai and the charming Jinli Alley are the best places for bargain hunting and sampling local cuisine.