Chengdu is a major metropolitan city in central China. With a big-city feel and high rises galore, it felt like “any city” in some ways yet highly unique in others. We spent nearly a week here and found there were quite a lot of things to do in Chengdu — and quite a lot of things to eat.
Things to Do in Chengdu
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
We didn’t see pandas on our first trip to China, so visiting a panda reserve was atop our list. And by atop our list I mean we were so excited we were literally jumping up and down for joy days in advance. We awoke early to ensure we arrived before morning feeding time at 8am, and exited the metro at the aptly named Panda Avenue station where we were greeted with a variety of panda art and statues.
We got our tickets then on the Hi Panda! bus to the reserve, complete with panda seat covers and cute panda cartoons. We hustled inside the gates, running in excitement slash taking weird selfies while running in excitement, and arrived at the Giant Panda Enclosure just in time to see them feeding, playing, and looking so adorable and cuddly I wanted to jump the electric fence and join them in the pen. (I didn’t).
The rest of the morning was much of the same, with a visit to Red Panda Enclosure 2 to see the deep orange, striped-tailed red pandas. It was truly amazing, and we left around 10 having had a decidedly unique experience.
Kuanzhai Xiangzi [Wide & Narrow Alleys]
Also dubbed the “wide and narrow” alleys, these alleys are made of black brick with historical signs and old relics scattered among the many tourist-centric restaurants, food stalls and shops. Although crowded, they maintain a historical feel and it’s worth navigating the throngs of people to enjoy the ancient architecture, street food, smells and sights. Signs are in English, too, so we could actually learn some things. Treats are tasty, although Jingli Ancient Street (see below) has the same items and more selection for cheaper. While in the alley, a random lady thrust her baby at my sister for a photo opp. Horrified, Sarah bounced it, its slitted pants dirty and open touching her body.
Jinli Ancient Street (All the Street Food)
One of my favorite spots in Chengdu, this “street” is anything but. Jinli is an intricate and bustling maze of interlocking alleys, pagodas, bridges and widening park paths. You can spend all day here. You can also eat as much food as humanly possible, as there are hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of food vendors with anything and everything on order. A bit crowded, but you can enjoy music and view the traditional Chengdu ear cleaning – people sit in wooden chairs with headlamps to look into the ear, scraping out wax with metal implements and small brushes. Or get your ears cleaned, too, if you are feeling bold or waxy. I wanted to try it as I love ear cleaning and Q-tips, but it seemed quite unsanitary so I refrained from the many, many opportunities. Jinli also contains the Wuhou Shrine, a beautiful…shrine. We didn’t pay to go in as it was a steep entry and out of budget (and we presumed it’d be not so different than other temples), but it was pretty to walk the surrounding grounds for free.
So many people at people’s park! Who would have thought? People doing tai chi to soft music, a women in makeup singing loudly to a crowd, people milling, hanging, playing cards and games on square tables, and smoking – of course. At center, the Heming Teahouse which is quaint in a widely crowded kind of way and offers up tea and ear cleaning at your table – what service! In case you want ear wax in your tea. We didn’t patronize it (not in budget; free tea at lodging plus it appeared a bit dirty to be frank; people eating fruit, spitting seeds, tarnished plastic tea mugs caked with dirt).
A city park in the middle of the…city! This historical spot had some jade, some flowers, and some tall gold-topped poles with historical information if you care to nearly break your neck and look up at them. Guards stand on wooden platforms looking out everywhere and police patrol making you feel slightly uneasy, even if you have committed no crimes. There is a cool spiral leading to an underground mall and the metro, and a statue of Mao at one end.
Face Changer Opera
A must-see for tourists, the Shu Feng Ya Yun opera includes traditional Chinese performances such as shadow puppets, fire balancing, and Chengdu’s famous face changers — who “change faces” (masks) seemingly instantly at lightning-fast speeds (they pull a string to do so, but are so skilled it’s imperceptible). Although we were swindled on our tickets and they mistakenly included food we didn’t want, we enjoyed the show. My sister was so swept up she purchased an annoying plastic cheap face changer toy, which we’ve been obnoxiously playing with and yelling “face changer” ever since.
Things to Do in Chengdu: Eating
The Sichuan province is known for its spicy food, so there was a lot of pepper everywhere! We ate a lot of random street snacks because they are cheap, but did dine out a few times. Here are a few highlights.
The Unknown Noodle Man | A random hole-in-the-wallish joint near our hotel, this noodle man brought us a bowl at 9pm when we were absolutely starving. We had no idea what we ordered as we couldn’t communicate, but we liked it so much and he was so kind we went back a second time. And I stained my shirt.
Jinli Food Street Snacks | And by snacks I mean excessive gorging. Sticky rice in bowls made of pineapples, silk pie with sweet paste inside we called ‘silk road,” giant slab of haw on a popsicle stick, deep fried potatoes spiraled on a stick, battered fried shrimp, thick white fresh coconut drink…
Mapo Dofu | Ok I admit, this is a Lonely Planet reco. We took a paper number, guessing (correctly) when we were called as we couldn’t understand what the host was saying. Our waitress was overly nice, pointing out non-spicy dishes and things we would like. Some of the red paint from the wall came off on my father’s arm.
Hotpot at Chuanxibazi | A fancy-pants hotpot joint near Du Fu Thatched Cottage. You collect items yourself, each placed in color-coded plastic boxes by price. They even provided bibs, phone screen protectors and hair ties to stay safe from the boiling deliciousness.