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Sitting on the edge of the fertile Sichuan Basin and surrounded by mountains, Chengdu is a city full of history, heritage, agriculture, and beauty. Dating as far back as at least the 4th century BC, the city is home to intricate temples and archaeological ruins, but today Chengdu is most famous for its food. Along with its bold and spicy Sichuan flavors, Chengdu is known for 2 more things—serious tea culture and giant pandas. Throughout the city, find locals lingering in teahouses for hours, while further out of town, the Chengdu Panda Base is a place where you can make friends with the furry creatures. With a large population of college students and expats, the city has earned an easygoing reputation. Local lifestyle emphasizes relaxation and entertainment, with afternoons spent playing Mahjong by the river and nights out listening to live music. Whether you want to admire the ancient architecture, mingle with locals at hotspots, or treat your taste buds to mouthwatering food, Chengdu is a Chinese destination you don’t want to miss.
The center of Chengdu is broken up into 5 distinct districts. Together these boast most of the region’s most popular attractions, from elegant temples and cultural museums to animal encounters and amusement parks.
Chenghua — In the northeast of the city center, Chenghua is where you’ll find Chengdu’s most famous attraction, the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Learn about the center’s ongoing efforts for panda conservation as you see newborns being fed, watch toddlers as they play, and visit full-grown adults that weigh up to 350 pounds (159 kg). Chenghua is home to many of the city’s other top attractions as well. Scope out the sights from the top of the West Pearl Tower, admire the beauty in the Chengdu Botanical Garden, or see other animals like elephants, tigers, and giraffes at the Chengdu Zoo.
Jinjiang — South of Chenghua, the district of Jinjiang serves as the primary commercial center and a popular place for the city’s young and hip. On and around the pedestrian street of Chunxi Road, find everything from discount stores to designer boutiques and restaurants ranging from pan-Asian to American chains. South of Chunxi, immerse yourself in the city’s cultural heritage at the Sichuan Opera or bike around a lotus-filled lake at the Bailuwan Wetland.
Jinniu — In the northwest of the city, Jinniu is a quieter area that’s becoming popular with the locals but has yet to attract as many tourists as other parts of the city. Find a selection of lively bars and restaurants along Yipin Tianxia Street, or grab the whole family for a fun-filled visit to the Happy Valley amusement park.
Qingyang — Beginning in the center of the city and sprawling west, Qingyang is home to the majority of the city’s main attractions. For history and culture, visit the Sichuan Museum and the Du Fu Cottage Museum. Admire at the amazingly ornate Qingyang Palace or visit the statues, gardens, and teahouse at the Wenshu Temple. At the Jinsha Site Museum, you can travel back in time as you witness firsthand the relics of the ancient Shu Kingdom, or marvel at modern-day wonders at the Sichuan Science and Technology Museum. To truly immerse yourself in the local culture, head to thriving Kuan, Zhai, and Jing alleys. Here, along these parallel streets, find a mix of ancient teahouses, authentic eateries, handmade souvenir shops, and modern nightclubs.
Wuhou — Sitting in the southwest of the city, Wuhou is the largest and wealthiest of all of the Chengdu’s districts. Its biggest attractions are close to the center of town and revolving around Dongpeitang Park. Within the park is the 17th-century Wuhou Shrine and the Temple of Marquis Art Museum, while Jin Li Street on the east side of the park is a picturesque spot to peruse snack and craft stalls. In the blocks just south of the park, find Chengdu’s vibrant Little Lhasa, where hundreds of traditionally dressed Tibetans sell clothing, trinkets, and exotic food. Further south near the river sits the New Century Global Center, opened in 2013 as the building with the most floor space in the world. Inside, the multi-use complex hosts a shopping mall, water park, skating rink, IMAX theater, and multiple hotels—all under one roof.
Scope out Chengdu’s sights from high up in the sky with a visit to the observation deck of the West Pearl Tower. In an elevator, get whisked away to the height of 715 feet (218 m) for panoramic views of the city and beyond. On the indoor sightseeing floor, you can look out upon landmarks such as skyscrapers, temples, and the river beneath your feet. When you’re ready, make your way to an open-air corridor that allows you to feel the cool breeze while admiring truly unobstructed views.
Once you’ve explored Chengdu, travel out of town to the confluence of 3 rivers, upon which sits the historic Leshan Giant Buddha. Aboard a boat, gaze up on the towering 233-foot (71-m) statue, which was carved out of the cliff in 713. Listen as your guide reveals the importance of the figure and how it took an entire 90 years to complete. From here, head to shore and climb up to the Lingyun Temple, which sits at the back of the Buddha’s head. Get close to the intricate details that adorn the scalp and venture to the feet to truly appreciate its size.
On the other side of Chengdu, Mount Qingcheng is another site with incredible cultural and religious significance. On a day tour with a private guide, soak in the lush beauty of what has been called “the most peaceful and secluded mountain under heaven.” Upon arriving at the Taoist site, take a cable car to the top to see ancient relics, historic pagodas, and views of the verdant region for as far as the eye can see.
No trip to Chengdu would be complete without savoring its fiery Sichuan food. Head to Jin Li Street for a stroll through the snack shops to sample aromatic creations like dried persimmon, chili wontons, and san da pao, a sweet bowl of sesame sticky-rice buns. If you can handle the heat, pop into an any of the city’s hotpot restaurants to have the region’s spiciest food. This classic recipe is a bowl of steaming broth in which you cook various meat, vegetables, and seafood. Use your chopsticks to fish out the items as the broth is intended to be too hot to drink.
If you really want to understand the culinary scene, you’ve got to get hands-on yourself. Over the course of a few hours, dive into the history of South China’s most famous cuisine with a visit to the Sichuan Cuisine Museum. View thousands of culinary cultural items as you sample traditional snacks and hear more about the evolution of Sichuan dining. After your lesson, roll up your sleeves to get working. Follow your expert chef as you learn tips and techniques for making some of the country’s most classic dishes. Enjoy your finished creations with fresh fruit, hot tea, and Chinese herbal alcohol.
If visiting Chengdu for the first time, a trip to the panda center is sure to be on the agenda. But why not take your experience up a notch by volunteering with the very caretakers who watch over these creatures? Travel to the newest panda-breeding base in Dujiangyan, a city located roughly 90 minutes outside Chengdu. Once you arrive, get outfitted with a uniform and start your work. Clean cages, wash bamboo, and chop snacks that you can feed to the pandas. After a break for lunch, catch a documentary that offers insight on the amazing animals before getting back to work. At the end of your day, receive a certificate as a thank you for all your contributions.