Why Chengdu? Besides the fact that we scored a housesit there, we were pretty much sold on one other fact alone: pandas!
I’d recommend Chengdu as an excellent place to visit if you really want to get out of the tourist areas in China (Beijing, Hong Kong, etc.) and want to see some real China.
Here are the best things to do in Chengdu if you are planning a visit as well as some travel tips.
Things to Do in Chengdu:
The city itself is a mix of old and new, with the new buildings trying to look old. Get in one of those little green taxis, and do some exploring!
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
Think: An entire zoo, but only with pandas. The red pandas might be the most interesting creatures you see. They look like a mix between a fox and a raccoon, and they can climb up and down trees like squirrels. It’s hard to believe that they are from the same family as the giant panda.
Baby pandas are definitely the cutest animal you’ll run into. They are so clumsy it’ll make you blush.
We dumbfoundedly watched one baby panda trying to climb up a ladder, only for it to wrap around the ladder, fall to the ground, try a few more times, and never actually make it up the ladder. We were crying, laughing so hard.
Tip: Get to the Panda Research Base around 8 a.m. as soon as they open. The pandas will be awake, eating, climbing, and wrestling at this hour. If you wait until the afternoon to go, the pandas might all be sleeping.
Opera House with Face Mask Changing
Try to make it to an outdoor opera. I recommend the Shufeng Sichuan Opera House for how authentic it is.
The traditional Opera House show has a few acts to it; a puppet show, a comedy act, a professional shadow puppeteer, a small play, and a few guys that change masks so quickly you don’t understand how they do it. It looks like they are waving their hand over their face at lightning speed, and then all of the sudden they have a different face. Truly extraordinary.
As a head’s up, the show is all in Chinese, so you won’t understand the dialogue. Try to follow along with their body language and take in the full experience.
Tip: We got all dressed up, thinking we were going to “the opera” but it’s actually outside under a covered tent so dress casually.
During the show, they offer Sichuan noodles and beer, both worth trying.
Tip: At the Shufeng Sichuan Opera House, you buy the tickets on one side of the street at the box office, and then have to walk to the other side of the street through this weird gate to where the opera is actually located. Buy your tickets, and then wait for someone else to buy their tickets, and then follow those people to where you need to go (without looking too creepy or obvious).
Come to People’s Park to sip tea in the Hemin Teahouse, relax, and try all the snack delicacies offered, like egg crepes.
It was in People’s Park that we witnessed our first professional ear cleaning. You can expect a man in a uniform to walk up to you and ask if you would like a wax cleaning. Although it looks like he sticking several different pipe-cleaner-like tools in people’s ear, the experience can be awkwardly enjoyable.
We held our breath while we watched, then my boyfriend Colton opted in for one.
Kuan Alley and Zhai Alley (also known as Wide and Narrow Alley)
Wide and Narrow Alley is casual, upscale place to shop and walk around. They have narrow roads and wide roads, and you can explore many different foods, unique toys and apparel, and there’s great people watching.
Like most places in China, brace yourself for the crowds.
Jinli Ancient Street
It’s best to experience Jinli Ancient Street at night. We were lucky enough to catch it on the Chinese New Year.
It was jam-packed with people and decorated from the ground up with roughly 100 huge air-filled floats in the streets and in the ponds with red Chinese lanterns everywhere.
Here you’ll find some of the best Chinese street food — don’t miss it in the food court area.
A few floors of China’s full history, ancient artifacts and robes, and countless stories can be found in the Sichuan Museum. Head here on a rainy day.
Where & What to Eat in Chengdu
You must try hot pot and Sichuan noodles.
Sichuan food originated in Chengdu and is all the rage in this part of China. Sichuan food has the Sichuan pepper cooked into it. You’re in for a surprise, as it makes your whole mouth go numb when you eat it.
It’s a different kind of “spicy”. I can only describe it as Novocain in food-form.
When trying hot pot, you’ll notice it’s served with a hot boiling bowl in the middle of the table that’s full of different oils and Sichuan peppers. You dip your raw food into it, let it cool for a moment, and then take a bite.
I would highly recommend BaShu Da ZhaiMen Hotpot (Ke HuaJie). You might have to wait outside for a half hour, but it’s worth it. You can go grab a drink across the street at one of the few bars while you wait.
Then, when you do get in … Get ready for an explosion to take hold inside your mouth! My mouth is still on fire after eating all of the Sichuan food in Chengdu.
When it comes to Sichuan food and hot pot, you’re either going to love it or hate it. But you absolutely must try it.
Other foods worth trying:
- Egg crepes. These things are absolutely delicious. Find them at People’s Park.
- Rice balls. They kind of look like donut holes from Dunkin’ Donuts, but they don’t have as much sugar and have more of a rice taste to them. Find them on any street.
- Chengdu-style Bing. Like steam griddled sandwiches but with Sichuan peppers. Find them at Jinli.
You might find that the street food is better than any of the restaurant food. As a head’s up, if you order chicken anywhere, it’s still going to have all the weird parts attached to it.
They do have a subway system. If you can read Chinese characters, go for it, as it is the cheapest option.
Since we could not read Chinese characters and were there for such a short time, we took taxis everywhere. They are pretty inexpensive. A forty minute ride for us was around $8.
However, be prepared before going in a taxi!
The Chinese taxi drivers don’t always want to drive you where you want to go. Typically, we were rejected a couple times before we were able to convince a taxi driver to take us where we needed.
Although pretty much everyone we met from China was super friendly, the taxi drivers are not. To be fair, taxi drives in all countries seem to be crabby.
In Chengdu, practically nobody speaks English or reads Chinese in English, which leads me to my biggest tip…
Have screenshots on your phone in Chinese characters of all the places you want to go to show the taxi drivers.
Also prepare yourself with screenshots of the addresses.
We had a little “taxi book” that our house owners gave to us, which we used every time we went out. It has all the popular places to go in English and in Chinese, so you can show your driver where you want to go.
Here is one available on iTunes.
Last but not least, and you might have heard it before but, Google and Facebook don’t work in China… So you can’t rely on Google Maps.
Tip: Even if you can get on Google through a VPN, like we did, the “Google Maps” feature doesn’t sync up like it should, and it will lead you to places you don’t want to go. You’re better off using the “Maps” app that comes with your iPhone.
Goodluck and have fun in Chengdu! If you have any question or want more information, leave a comment below.