I can’t say for sure which city is my favorite until I’ve seen them all (ask me again in six months), but I can tell you that Chengdu blew me away and is currently my favorite city in China by a longshot. Located in world-renowned Sichuan province, Chengdu is best known for it’s cuddly pandas, spicy food, laid back locals and wild nightlife. It’s proximity to exceptional hiking and Leshan’s Grand Buddha make it a can’t-miss stop among western travelers on a whirlwind tour of the far east.
The best hostels in Chengdu are definitely the Mix Hostel family, which includes Mix, Flip Flop and Lazybones Hostels. I stayed at Lazybones and wasn’t disappointed. They’re clean, friendly and helpful, offering free bike tours and hotpot parties. They’re in a great location and the hostel lobby has a good bar area with a pool table, reliable wifi and decent food. They’re really smart to set guests up on tours to nearby attractions. Why doesn’t every hostel do that?!
Check out Wenshu Temple – It’s Free!
I’ve seen my fair share of temples over the past four months and this one was something special. You’ll see Chinese visitors kneeling for prayer and burning their incense, as well as a multitude of monks in different dress, which means they’re from different sects of the Buddhist religion. The temple is surrounded by beautiful gardens and teahouses that you won’t want to miss.
On the streets that surround the temple, you’ll find a plethora of shops and street vendors. In the shops, you can purchase traditional Chinese clothing. There’s one store dedicated to selling art from nearby Wenchuan, where the devastating earthquake of 2008 killed upwards of 69,000 people. Buying beautiful art while supporting a city that is still reeling from natural disaster isn’t a bad idea.
When it comes to the street vendors, you’ll notice that every table has assorted jewelry, as well as animal parts. Tiger paws/ claws are common here and apparently valued for their role in traditional Chinese medicine. I’ve heard that many of them are fake, but they looked awfully real to me. Who knows!
Get a Taste of Local Life at People’s Park
People all over China are envious of the laid back life in Chengdu and there’s no better way to see what everyone’s talking about than to take a stroll through People’s (Renmin) Park. You’ll see locals dancing, practicing taichi and lounging with a cup of tea. Chinese people love singing without shame and you’ll get a good taste of that, too. A Chinese man will setup a karaoke station in the middle of the park and give a proud solo performance, whether he has an audience or not.
Rent a rowboat and cruise around the lake lined with beautiful willows or sit down at a lakeside teahouse. You’ll be approached many times with various offerings from ear cleanings to palm readings. Yes, I said ear cleanings.
Attend the Sichuan Opera
If you stay at one of the Mix Hostels, they’ll set you up with a driver to pick you up, purchase your ticket and bring you back when the show is over. However you decide to do it, I highly recommend the Sichuan Opera. There was singing, dancing, pyrotechnics, acrobatics and finally, the famous face-changing masks. It was a truly Chinese experience.
Spice Up Your Life
Yes, that’s a song from the Spice Girls (RIP), but really, Sichuan is THE PLACE for spicy food. Chongqing people will tell you that their food is better, but the truth is that Chongqing used to be part of Sichuan, meaning the Sichuan is really where the famous spice of China originated. Try the hot pot and the Gongbao jiding – what we know as kung pao chicken.