There are many megacities in the world. Some of them, like New York, London, and Paris- very popular and very well known. But there are others, which are (at least for many people) like obscured images, somewhere far away in the mist of unknown geography. Maybe this is one of the facts that make such cities very interesting, with their own charm. One of them is Chengdu （成都）- a pearl, located far from oceans, deep in the interior of Asia. Come with us on a journey to this unique city, and prepare yourself with tips by this ultimate guide to Chengdu!
Chengdu has been a long time our dream destination. Since my passion is geography, I have found a lot of information about this city. I knew about its history, culture, delicious food (I really enjoy spicy food), its symbols and its location. Besides, west of the city is the land of Tibet- a land that was in my bucket list, and Chengdu was a great starting point for a travel to Tibet.
Where is Chengdu
Deep in the territory of China, where most of the landscapes are mountainous, there is a large plain, called Sichuan plain. It is surrounded by mountain ranges, some of which reaching more than 7000 m altitude. Yangtze River, the longest river of China, flows through this plain, crossing it from the end of Tibet to the Three Gorges canyon. And there, in the western part of this plain, is Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province– one of the naturally and culturally richest provinces of China.
The area of Chengdu has more than 4000 years of history, leaving a lot of remnants from various ages. It has been gradually populated by some of the first predecessors of the Chinese people. And the fertile Sichuan plain appears to be a good place for rising a new culture.
Shu Kingdom (around 4000 BC to 316 BC)
Shu Kingdom was gradually formed by the development of the local culture. It’s history as an independent kingdom was different than the main classical Chinese history and its early eras of Xia, Shang, and Zhou. Shu Kingdom remained separated and seldom involved in the other Chinese events until it was conquered by Qin in 316 BC.
Qin and Han Empires (316 BC – 221 AD)
During that era, Sichuan plain gradually became Chinese, being colonized by the Han population from north and east. Thus from the ancient Shu culture remained only a specific for China local taste. Chengdu city itself also become important and the whole agriculture and economy grew to the new level.
Three Kingdoms era: Shu Han (221 – 263)
It is a short, but very significant period, the time of one of the best politicians in the history of mankind- Zhu Ge Liang. At that time the large Han Empire collapsed and divided into three parts- Wei, Wu, and Shu Han- the last one with Chengdu as capital. Zhu Ge Liang has never been an emperor of the state, but as a prime minister, with his wise management, raised Shu Han into a flourishing zenith. A lot of inheritance remained from his time, among which Wu Hou residence in Chengdu. After Zhu Ge Liang’s death, Shu Han Kingdom declined and was conquered by Wei, later Jin Empire.
Jin Empire and Six Dynasties (263 – 587)
During that era many non-Chinese people migrated to Sichuan and Chengdu area, coming mainly from Yunnan. This added a new cultural nuance to the area.
Sui and Tang Еmpires (587 – 907)
At that time China has reunited again and Sichuan gradually turned again to its prominence. However, in the 8th century, the region suffered a lot of war during the clashed between the mighty Tang and Tibetan Empires. This is also the time of Du Fu- one of the best poets of China, who used to live in Chengdu. Du Fu Cottage is a place, dedicated to this man.
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 – 965)
This was a short, but very dynamic period. During that time a few kingdoms rise and fall, gaining subsequently control over Chengdu.
Song Empire and Great Shu (965 – 1279)
Song era was another time of flourishing. It was a new age of revival and stability. But in the 13th century, a new power from the north invaded China, quickly conquering its territory, including Sichuan- the Mongols. Finally at 1279 Chengdu fell in their hands, suffering a huge genocide.
Yuan Еmpire (1279 – 1371)
During the Yuan Empire (which is the Mongol Empire) many local Sichuan Chinese are relocated to the north. Finally, a rebel, called Ming Yuzhen separates from Yuan and creates his own state, named Great Xia. It is destroyed by the Ming Empire in 1371.
Ming Еmpire (1371 – 1646)
It is another flourishing period of Chengdu and Sichuan. A lot of buildings, paintings and other architectural and art masterpieces remain from this time. It again ends in turmoil and genocide by rebels, before establishing the Qing Empire’s control.
Qing Еmpire (1646 – 1911)
The time of Qing is relatively peaceful for Chengdu. From this time is the famous Wide and Narrow Alleys neighborhood, one of the symbols of Chengdu.
Republic of China (1911 – 1949)
The industrialization improved in that period. Then during WW2 Chengdu became a temporary capital of Guomindang government, evacuated from the Japanese invasion, and only suffers air attacks from the Japanese planes. After the war, the Communists made an agreement with Guomindang to retreat to Taiwan, and Chengdu was incorporated into Communist China.
Modern China (1949 until now)
Chengdu passed all the unrest and difficult times of the early Communist era. But recently it has a significant flourishing. Attracting millions of tourists from China and abroad, it presents a lot of places to visit. And the modernization lead to building of some world records buildings like the New Century Global Center.
We arrived in Chengdu for the first time by train from Guangdong province. It was a night. We took a taxi to our hostel, where we had a nice and cozy night. On the next day, the first thing that we did was to rent a car (which we had reserved in advance). It was our transport, for our coming trip to Tibet. But before we left Chengdu, we wanted to explore the city, because there is really a lot to explore.
8 basic places to see in Chengdu
The history, culture, modern population and local nature have created a lot of interesting places to visit in Chengdu. Some of them guide us to specific points of the historical timeline. Others represent the modern city, as well as its symbols. I made a map of the places to see, drew a route between them and we started our exploration. Here are 8 places to visit in Chengdu. Of course, the city has many more interesting places, but if you don’t have enough time (as we didn’t), just try to visit those:
This is the most central point of Chengdu. It is a square (with a metro station underground), surrounded by boulevards, skyscrapers and a few museums in large pompous buildings, as well as big Mao Ze Dong’s statue. There is a circle in the middle of the square, made like the symbol of Yin and Yang (which, however, can be seen clearly only from above). A symbolic place, good for photos. We visited it mainly for its meaning- to be in the middles of the city.
This is the modern central part of Chengdu. It is formed a few centuries ago as the central trade road of the city, and not it is developed into a pedestrian street with a few street branches and square. Full of modern malls, restaurants, shops, skyscrapers, and advertisements. When we were there, we enjoyed the incredibly delicious local food (delicious at least for me, maybe not for everyone, since it is famously spicy). We met a lot of artists on the pedestrian street, offering photos (actually it was a small scam), as well as various kinds of performance. And of course, for those who love shopping, it is their paradise in this place.
Wide and Narrow Alleys
It is one of the local Chinese traditional places of Chengdu. Wide and Narrow Alleys are a remnant of an old town within Chengdu, built to quarter Qing Empire’s troops. Later the town gradually declined and only those Wide and Narrow Alleys remained. Actually, there are three parallel streets- Wide, Narrow and Well Alleys. Only a little can be seen from the Well Alley, but Wide and Narrow Alleys are the main places to visit.
What is most essential of the experience of this place, is the local touristy life, featured in many “old towns” in the world. There is old traditional architecture, great for photos, a few temples, a lot of souvenir shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, galleries and many more. It is especially alive in the evening, with a lot of street food and open-air performance. It was a real pleasure for us, every time when we were there.
Jinli Street is another “old town” attraction. But just it is only one street with a few branches and curves, starting from a large boulevard and ending in a beautiful park with a lake, and the neighboring Wuhou Temple. Same as the Wide and Narrow Alleys, it is another tourist destination of this kind. But the difference is that just it represents another historical era of Chengdu- Three Kingdoms period (221 – 265 AD). And also, there is more water nearby- a river canal with small bridges added to the old town place . makes it very beautiful. Anyway, although it is often crowded, the feeling is very relaxing there.
Wuhou Temple (Temple of Marquise)
Together with Jinli Street, it is a part of the same historical complex, representing Three Kingdoms culture. It is dedicated to the politician Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei Emperor of Shu Han, as well as a few more politicians of that time. There are a few temples, the Tomb of Liu Bei, a museum exhibition, souvenir shops and a garden with a beautiful bamboo forest. Great for Chinese tradition impression photos. There is an entrance fee: 60 RMB. Working hours: from 8:00 to 20:00 in summer, and until 18:30 in winter.
Dufu Thatched Cottage
This is a park, leading us to another historical era of Chengdu- Tang Empire. Dufu was a famous Chinese poet from that age. He has lived in the place, where the park is now, in a thatched hut. Later his hut was destroyed, and in recent years a park was created, with a few traditional buildings. One of them is a replica of Dufu’s thatched hut. The place is not only one of the tourist attractions of Chengdu, but also a place, attracting thousands of fans of poetry. Entrance fee: 60 RMB. Working hours: from 7:30 to 19:00.
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
A trip to Chengdu would be never complete without visiting the pandas- one of the symbols of China. And the best and easiest ways is to go to this Research Base. It is a park, where a few pandas live in an environment, close to their natural habitat. There are pedestrian alleys, and the pandas live freely in the space between the alleys, only protected by a fence. However, since there is a rich vegetation in the park, it is possible that you can’t see the pandas, they may hide somewhere in the thicket. When we visited the Research Base, we saw only three pandas. There is a building, showing a film about the life of the pandas in the base, as well as its history. In the film, you can see a lot of pandas- cubs, their parents, and their daily life. But in reality, it is seldom to watch.
Besides the Giant Panda, there is another animal living there- the small Red Panda. Actually, the Red Panda is not a bear but belongs to a different kind of mammals. It is called also “panda” only because there are black spots around its eyes, like in the Giant Panda’s face. We saw only one Red Panda climbing on a tree.
Anyway, this place is really worth to visit, especially if you have more time to look for the pandas. Although there are only two kinds of animals, watching them not just in a zoo, but in a much better environment is a unique experience, especially if you want to know how to ethically see pandas in Chengdu.
Entrance fee: 58 RMB. Opening hours: from 7:30 to 17:00.
New Century Global Center
This place shows another face of Chengdu- the super modern attractive entertainment. Actually, it is known as the largest area building in the world. It is not just “a mall”, it is a whole resort, gathered in one building. There are a few malls and many other shops inside, as well as a lot of restaurants, bars and cafes, and a cinema center. But the most attractive part is its pool beach, with its artificial waves. There is the resort, called “Paradise Island Water Park”- with hotels and all other attributes of a real seaside resort. It has even screen forms, imitating a horizon with sunsets and sunrise.
More interesting places in Chengdu
If you have more time to stay in Chengdu and want to see more of it, your days would be not empty. There are many more destinations to visit in the city and around it. Here is a list of as more as possible that I found (and planned for my next trip):
- West Pearl Tower- a modern TV tower, in the style of Oriental Pearl of Shanghai
- People’s Park- a favorite park for the local people, where you can see a lot of their leisure life
- Sichuan Science and Technology Museum- an interesting museum for those, who are interested. Convenient to visit, when you visit Tianfu Square.
- Chengdu Zoo- a nice place to enjoy animals from all over the world, especially with children.
- Jinsha Archeological site- an archeological complex, presenting a lot of artifacts from 3000 years ago.
- Wenshuyuan Temple- it is the most popular Buddhist temple in Chengdu, presenting the culture from the Tang Empire.
- Chengdu Eastern Memory- a creative park, presenting a lot of art, culture and some historical artifacts.
- Qinlong lake- a nice park with a beautiful lake, perfect for walking and biking (there are rent-a-bike spots). Its most interesting symbol is the Mausoleum of Shu and Ming Dynasty princes.
- Liujiang Old Town- a small old town complex, presenting the culture of the Song Empire.
- Qingyang Palace- the oldest Taoist temple in Chengdu.
- Huan Hua Xi park and Wangjianglou park- two favorite parks for locals.
- Bailuwan Wetlands- another park, notorious with its lakes.
- Chengdu Botanical Garden- a good place to visit, together with Panda Research Base and Chengdu Zoo.
Interesting places outside Chengdu and near the city
- Luodai- an old town and a mini version of the Great Wall.
- Xindu Guihu- a nice park with some historical artifacts
- Dujiangyan Irrigation system- a famous historical site, presenting an ancient irrigating system, dating from Qin Empire time.
- Sanxingdui- an ancient Chinese city with a lot of discoveries, some of the oldest found in China.
Sichuan food is very famous, not only in China but in the whole world. It is well known as hot and spicy food. Actually, it is not too hot. There are much hotter food areas in the world- in India, Mexico, and many other places, including some provinces of China. Sichuan’s hot is moderate, and what makes it incredible is its specific spice fragrance, called “ma la” (麻辣), made by the local Sichuan pepper.
There are many well known Chinese meals in Sichuan, and the main difference between Sichuan’s meals and their “brothers” from the other provinces is exactly this specific “ma la” taste. Among them some very popular are:
Twice Cooked Pork- pork meat, cooked twice in a pot with vegetables
Hot and Sour noodles- noodles, mixed with many spices like vinegar, hot oil and soy sauce
Gong Bao chicken- chicken without bones (something seldom in China), mixed with peanuts and some vegetables
Mapo Toufu- hot soy cheese
Spicy deep-fried chicken- deeply stirred chicken in a spicy mix
And many others. For more yummy Sichuan temptations, see this Chengdu food guide, and be ready to enjoy one of the most delicious cuisines in the world!
The climate of Chengdu is subtropical and generally warm. But the best time to visit this city is spring, early summer, and early autumn. During that time is usually sunny and nicely warm. July and August are the hottest and wettest months. We were in Chengdu always at that time. I will never forget a horrible thunder and hailstorm on our first day there. We have just rent our car and visited Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Wide and Narrow Alleys, Tianfu Square and Chunxi Road.
It was sunny and hot. But during our walk-in Chunxi Road, dark and scary clouds covered the sky, with distant thunders and flashes of lightning. We headed to the New Century Global Center, and there was a thick, almost black wall of heavy rain in front of us. We entered right into this wall and it was quite horrible- extremely strong rain with furious wind. Trees and traffic signs were falling down, and the boulevard quickly turned into a river. Soon heavy hail began to fall on our car and we were seriously scarred. All other cars stopped, waiting the storm go away.
Finally, the storm decreased after 20 mins rage. But we had to search a way to the New Century Global Center since many boulevards were blocked by fallen trees or flood. At least the storm went away and even the sun appeared in the sky.
Such storms don’t happen every day in summer, but still July and August are the rainiest months. Anyway, it doesn’t stop the crowds of tourists visiting Chengdu.
Winter is cold, but snowless, and often foggy or cloudy. Not a nice time, but at least the weather is calm.
Being a megacity, Chengdu has a transport system, similar like in all other megacities in China. Metro, bus, taxis and other kinds of transport are presented here. But of course, first you have to reach the city. It is well related with the rest of China and the world outside by air transport, and by trains to most of the largest cities in the country. Since it is always advisable to book a ticket in advance, check out for your transportation options here:
Once you arrived in Chengdu, you can easily move around the city and its suburbs.
It is very comfortable, but for now not enough developed- there are only 6 lines, which can be used for most of the tourist destinations, but not all. The ticket price starts at 2 RMB and the most expensive (for a whole route) is 5 RMB. Anyway, it is still very convenient. Although we have rent a car, we preferred to park it in a parking lot, then walk around the central parts of the city by metro- much faster and avoid a traffic jam.
It is another option to explore Chengdu. The fare is 2 RMB (which you have to put in a metal box beside the driver, so you must have an exact sum). Although slowly, it can be convenient too. But the main problem is that in most places everything is written in Chinese. Yes, there are a few websites, showing a transportation map of Chengdu, but again- only in Chinese. So maybe the only way is to research in advance which bus you can take to go to your desired place, and where to get off.
Taxi is, of course, faster and more convenient, but as everywhere in the world- more expensive. And again- since not every driver can speak English, it would be better to write or print the desired destinations in Chinese:
- Tianfu Square- 天府广场
- Chunxi road- 春熙路
- Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding- 大熊猫基地
- Jinli street- 锦里古街
- Dufu Thatched Cottage- 杜甫草堂
- Wuhou Temple- 武侯祠
- Wide and Narrow Alleys- 宽窄巷子
- New Century Global Center- 新世纪环球中心
And take a business card from your hotel or hostel.
The price in the central part of Chengdu can be between 10 and 25-30 RMB. And the price to the suburbs- up to 60-70 RMB
There is another kind of taxi, called Di Di (滴滴打车), but since it requires you to have installed WeChat with payment application installed, you can ask your hotel to help you order a transport to the desired place.
Other ways of transport can be motorcycle taxis, public bikes (but again- only with help by a local Chinese), rent bike (some hostels and guesthouses, as well as some bicycle shops near the parks, offer rent a bike) and the best one (for the central parts of the city)- your own feet.
Rent a Car
It is a great option if Chengdu is a starting point of a long trip. But the main problem is that you must have a Chinese driving license. If not- then you can only look for a friend with such document or hire a driver (which can be a good option if you are a group of more than 5 people and can share the money). See more here.
Of course, a big city like Chengdu has a very rich choice for accommodation to offer- from luxury hotels to small guesthouses or hostels. You can check for your choice in Booking.com, Agoda.com or other accommodation online system. When we were in Chengdu, we chose a hostel. There are a lot of international hostels, many of which located near the old Railway Station.
We slept in a few of the hostels, but most we liked Lazybones Hostel– a very clean place, with a nice atmosphere. Basically, most international hostels are very “colorful”- with a lot of funny pictures, strange artifacts, teasing design, and many other playful ideas. But in our opinion Lazybones “wins the prize” since its design is really meaningful, like a well-balanced museum. And in addition, they had a very beautiful and friendly cat, when we were there (hope they will have it a long time).
Here I have to remind something- if you choose a cheap hotel, try to contact them in advance. Many cheap hotels in China don’t have a license to accept foreigners, even they are registered in Booking or Agoda. So, it is better to contact them to confirm that they can accept you. For more information about hotels in China, check out here.
As everywhere in China- you don’t have access to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Pinterest, and a few more websites. The only way you stay connected is by VPN. There are some free VPN services like VPN Master for mobile, but their connection is very difficult and slow, sometimes impossible. If you want a good connection, the only choice is by the paid VPN service- Astrill, VPN Express or others. If you go on a short trip to China and Chengdu, you can pay only for one month- the price is between 10 and 18 USD.
Chengdu- the gate to Tibet
It is another reason why Chengdu is one of our favorite cities. We are passionate about the high and wild mountains, and their stunning landscapes. And only within a few hours by car or bus from Chengdu we can appear to be in one of the most beautiful lands on the Earth- Tibet.
Chengdu is a great starting point for a few directions to Tibet:
- Ya’an, then proceed south-southwest to Yunnan province and Yunnan part of Tibet
- Ya’an, but then proceed westward on the famous Road No.318 to Lhasa, passing Kangding and Litang (but have in mind that currently the section of Chamdo in the Tibetan Autonomous Region is closed for foreigners, so you can proceed only further to the western borders of Sichuan).
- Siguniang (Four Sisters) mountain, Bamei, and Tagong
- Aba, Sertar, Garze, Yilhun Lha Tso lake, Derge, Serxu, then in Qinghai province to Yushu
- Nyenbo Yurtse, then in Qinghai to Golog, Amnye Machin and Qinghai Lake
- Songpan, Jiuzhaigou, Zoige grasslands, Taktsang Lhamo and Xining
- and many combinations between these routes.
Thus if you go to Eastern Tibet from Chengdu, this city can make the first days of your Tibetan trip really exciting.
We have been in Chengdu 3 times, and definitely, want to visit it again. No matter if it would be as a part of a longer trip, or just only to Chengdu, the experience of this place and its taste is really great.
Check out some books and travel stories about Chengdu:
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