Pandas and Sichuan Peppercorns
With Mainland China just across the border, there are plenty of travel opportunities right on our doorstep that we tend to overlook. As a city of 14 million people and the capital of Sichuan Province, Chengdu is home to the adorable Giant Panda bear and the Sichuan peppercorn. It’s also less than a 3-hour flight from Hong Kong, making it a perfect weekend getaway.
Check out our Guide to Chengdu for tips on where to eat, where to stay, and what to do in one of China’s most welcoming destinations…
What to do
You can’t visit Chengdu without paying a visit to the city’s most famous residents, the Giant Pandas. There are less than 2,000 pandas left in the wild, but there are several panda conservation centers in and around the area where you can get up close with the cuddly creatures.
The easiest way to see pandas is by visiting The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu. Be sure to visit in the morning, when the pandas are at their most active! Grab a cappuccino and a croissant from the hotel café and jump in a taxi for a short drive to the base, which opens at 7.30am. Plan to spend at least an hour of two swooning over the baby pandas and getting a few, or a few hundred (guilty), shots for your Instagram feed.
You can actually get up close and personal with a panda if you’re willing to trek further afield. Dujiangyan Giant Panda Center is about an hour and a half drive outside of Chengdu, where you can book a whole-day panda experience and learn all about panda care, and even have your photo taken with your new furry friends. To avoid disappointment, book in advance as a limited number of visitors are allowed each day. Note that panda hugs don’t come cheap, prices start upwards of USD250!
If you can tear yourself away from the pandas, there are plenty of other things to do in Chengdu. Mount Qingcheng is conveniently located next to the Dujiangyan Center and you can walk to the top of this scenic hill in about two hours, checking out Taoist temples along the way. There’s also a cable car to the top if you prefer to take it all in from a height.
Sichuan Province neighbours Tibet and about 30,000 Tibetans live in Chengdu. Although it’s only a few streets wide, the Tibetan Quarter is definitely worth a visit. You can shop for Tibetan knickknacks, watch monks go about their daily shopping, and snack on some momos, the Tibetan version of dumplings (yes, please).
The Tibetan Quarter is right next to a shopping street called Jin Li Street. We found this areaa bit touristy, but if you’re looking for panda souvenirs, you will not be disappointed!
Where to stay
You won’t have to sacrifice on comfort during your visit to Chengdu. Swire Hotels (of The Upper House) opened The Temple House in Chengdu last year. Rooms are sleek and comfortable, and there’s a trendy cocktail bar downstairs where you can unwind after a long day of sightseeing.
What to eat
You’ll be overwhelmed by delicious food options. In fact, Chengdu was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2010 for this very reason!
Hotpot is a local specialty, and it’s a must-try if you can take the heat. We chose Lao Ma Tou, a spot close to the hotel that’s popular with tourists and locals alike. If a pot full of boiling chili intimidates you however, you can split the pan and order a non-spicy broth on one side. For the hotpot novice, waitresses will help you cook and serve you when your ingredients are ready to eat. Lao Ma Tou’s dan dan mian (noodles in a spicy peanut broth) were also amazing.
Although it’s a bit of a drive, Yu’s Family Kitchen is worth visiting for dinner. Chef Yu Bo is said to be one of the most innovative chefs in China, and his unique menu did not disappoint. Highlights included a red-bean dumpling shaped like a tiny hedgehog, dough spikes and all, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, and a calligraphy brush with an edible dumpling “brush,” served with tomato sauce “paint” for dipping.
A meal of cold appetizers and 12-15 hot dishes will set you back about RMB660, and the chef is happy to accommodate dietary requests if you let him know in advance.
Things to Note
The best time to visit Chengdu is from March to June, before the rainy season sets in, or September to November, before it gets too cold!
China can be a bit tricky for non-Mandarin speakers, but Chengdu is a laid-back and friendly city. Have your hotel write your destination in Chinese to show taxi drivers, and keep a card with the hotel’s address written in Chinese in your purse, and you’ll be all set. Also, most nationalities require a Chinese visa to visit, so be sure to apply a few days in advance!