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Planning Your Trip

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Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, has a history dating back to fourth century B.C. In recent years, it has also grown to become the region’s economic and financial capital, thereby turning into a multicultural metropolis with rich history, amazing regional food, high-tech innovation and, of course, the pandas that the city is known for.

Li Xuan - artful detail multiple lamps
Li Xuan - artful detail multiple lamps
What to Pack

Compared to other major cities in China, Chengdu sits at a slightly higher elevation. The mountainous regions surrounding the city — like Mount Emei, which you might want to hike — are obviously much higher. Bring along some medication for altitude sickness, just in case.

Exploring the City
  • From the Giant Panda Reserve Center to attractions like the Shrine of Marquis Wu, built to honor the prime minister of the Shu Kingdom, there is much to see and do. Be prepared for everything the city has to offer by packing versatile basics.

  • Always carry an umbrella. In this subtropical climate, rain is often sudden and unpredictable.

  • Opt for comfort over style when choosing your shoes. You’ll be doing a lot of walking, so pack flat sandals or sneakers.

  • Keep in mind that winters in Chengdu can get cold. It also sees little sunshine this time of year. Bring extra layers, boots and a waterproof down jacket if traveling during this season.
Business Travel
  • With its substantial population of entrepreneurs who come here to found creative and high-tech startups, Chengdu is a hotbed of innovation. But it’s still a traditional place, and therefore decidedly more formal.

  • Men should pack suits in dark colors, with neutral ties and leather shoes.

  • Women should also wear tailored pantsuits or dress suits. In the case of the latter, keep skirts knee-length. Skip the high heels for demure low-heeled, closed-toe shoes.

  • Make sure you have a plentiful supply of business cards — you’ll want to network with the many young moguls and financiers who do business here.
Cultural Considerations
  • From relics of the Shu Dynasty to Buddhist and Taoist landmarks, Chengdu’s 4,000-year history makes for a colorful, educational trip. The picturesque landscapes you’ll see in what is known as the “Country of Heaven” are an added bonus.

  • A historical travel guide on Chengdu will help you better understand the city and give you the basic knowledge of its folklore and customs.

  • Be aware that Sichuan food is hot and spicy. Consider bringing a water bottle with you on culinary excursions.

  • For temple visits in summer, pack an extra shawl or sweater to cover up and show respect.
Sign that reads ?Kuan Zhai Alley? with a house and trees in the background
Sign that reads ?Kuan Zhai Alley? with a house and trees in the background
What to Reserve

While pandas are Chengdu’s main draw, the southwestern Chinese city has plenty more reasons for a visit, with its delicious, hot food, beautiful scenery and cultural offerings you can’t find anywhere else. Here’s what to book.

Chengdu is officially designated by UNESCO as a City of Gastronomy. It’s native Sichuan cuisine, one of the Eight Great Traditional Cuisines in China, is especially known for its spices, with specialties like hot pot, kung pao chicken and mapo tofu. Go to Ming Ting Fan Dian and Lao Ma Tou Hotpot for the best iterations of these local classics. For an upscale evening, book a table at The Ritz-Carlton, Chengdu’s Li Xuan and enjoy delicacies like duck egg with Osetra caviar and suckling pig. Other notable fine-dining institutions include the tiny Yu Zhi Lan and Yu’s Family Kitchen, which both offer extremely imaginative and distinct tasting menus for a truly one-of-a-kind culinary experience.

Teahouses can be spotted in almost every corner of the city — Chengdu has more of them than Shanghai, despite having less than half the people. They’re central to its culture and its residents’ way of life. For a real immersion course, mingle with locals sipping jasmine or biluochun tea in a traditional teahouse, which is customarily decorated with bamboo chairs and wooden tables, and will often have a few mahjong sets. At Yuelai Teahouse, you’ll also be treated to an opera performance by artists from the local theater.

The adorable, fluffy — and quite lazy — giant pandas are the real celebrities of this town. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was created to replicate the natural habitat of these endangered animals and spearhead conservation initiatives. If you go early enough, you might see these bears munching on bamboo sticks, which are harvested specifically for their diets. Venture out into Mount Qingcheng, one of the most important centers of Taoism in China. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with the Dujiangyan irrigation system, which was built in 256 B.C., making it the world’s oldest, still-functioning irrigation system.

In 2001, the archaeological site of Jinsha was accidentally discovered and, along with it, thousands of artifacts from the Shang Dynasty. They’re now on view at the Jinsha Site Museum. For Buddhist relics, along with artwork and calligraphy from the Tang and Qing dynasties, visit the Wenshu Monastery and its pretty gardens. Pay homage to Zhuge Liang, the prime minister of the Shu Kingdom, at the Shrine of Marquis Wu, and visit the Thatched Cottage of Du Fu, built in honor of the famous poet. Finally, get a taste of Tibetan culture without having to cross the border or venture into the remote countryside by exploring the vibrant Tibetan quarter.

A thatched-roof structure on a stone platform overlooked by trees
A thatched-roof structure on a stone platform overlooked by trees

The capital of China’s Sichuan Province is a bucket-list destination for adventurous foodies, famed for its palate-numbing peppers and bold, fiery cuisine. In 2010, UNESCO named Chengdu a City of Gastronomy (Paris and Rome aren’t even on that list). In ancient times, Chengdu was known as the Land of Heaven, and today it’s a booming metropolis and tech hub. While the city may be lined with skyscrapers, if you get beneath the surface, you can find charming teahouses, buzzing markets and elderly locals playing mahjong in the park. Any trip to Chengdu should include a visit to the panda research center. The beloved bears are an even bigger draw than the city’s food.


Playful Pandas. Rise early and pay a visit to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding 6 miles northeast of the city. The park opens at 7:30 a.m., about the same time the cubs are waking in the nursery. The adolescent “kids” are most active in the morning and can be observed stripping stalks of bamboo in their open-air enclosure. The garden-filled grounds are lined with informative signs and other enclosures. Don’t miss the catlike red panda and the adult giants in the Swan Lake area. By noon, the bears have usually settled into a bamboo food coma and lie down for a siesta.


Visit Monks. A working Buddhist monastery near the Fu River, Wenshu dates back some 1,400 years to the Tang Dynasty and is home to an extensive collection of Tang and Qing Dynasty artworks, including calligraphy, paintings and statues, and some of the best-preserved Buddha statues in the country. Locals come to pay homage by lighting incense and rubbing copper dragons for good fortune. The gardens, filled with koi ponds and pagodas, are an oasis amid the bustle of the city.

Modern Sichuan Feast. Star chefs like Danny Bowien, of San Francisco’s hit Mission Chinese Food, have made pilgrimages to Yu’s Family Kitchen. The restaurant may be set in a traditional Sichuan lane house and meals are served in the traditional Chinese banquet style, but the food experience is far from traditional. Chef Bo Yu has earned a cult following for his commitment to sourcing free-range, organic products. Meals begin with 16 exquisitely plated cold appetizers, known as liang cai, followed by artful riffs on classic Sichuan dishes. A highlight of every meal is Yu’s signature edible calligraphy brush, with a tip made of flaky pastry and minced Tibetan pork that gets dipped in a pungent black vinegar. Reservations are a must.


People Watch. Walk off your marathon lunch in the gardens of Chengdu’s Zen-style People’s Park. Here, you can observe elderly locals playing rousing games of mahjong or performing meditative, dancelike tai chi movements.

Tea and a Checkup. Both indoor and outdoor teahouses can be found throughout Chengdu and are embedded in the local culture. One of the most interesting, He Ming Teahouse, is in People’s Park, marked by a giant bronze kettle. Join the locals as they gather to sip Zhu Ye Qing (bamboo green tea) or a complex Pu’Er.


Haute Cuisine. Li Xuan, the fine-dining restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Chengdu is equally renowned for its modern interpretations of Sichuan and Cantonese cuisine and its gorgeous, brocade-lined dining room, inspired by the ancient Shu civilization. Dishes are accented with luxurious touches (Osetra caviar, foie gras, abalone) and sharing is advised. Barbecue is a specialty. If you want to try the perfectly cooked roasted whole suckling pig, you’ll need to give the kitchen at least four hours’ notice.

Opera of a Different Face. Sichuan Opera is a truly unique experience — head to the Jin Jiang Theater to take in a show. It is believed that in ancient times, people would paint their faces to scare away wild animals. Sichuan Opera draws on that practice, hence its nickname Face-Changing Opera. Performers don traditional costumes, and as they dance to melodic tunes, they shake their heads up and down and back and forth, instantly and magically changing the thin-painted masks over their face.



Visit China's Iconic Bears. The best time to visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, 6 miles northeast of the city, is early morning, when the bears are most active. Try to arrive when the park opens at 7:30 a.m., so you can watch the cubs being nursed by their moms. The adolescent “kids” can be observed eating breakfast — stalks of bamboo — in their open-air enclosure. Have your cameras ready to snap photos of the adult giants in the Swan Lake area.


Dine With Locals. Chengdu has no shortage of renowned restaurants, but for a truly authentic meal, make a reservation at one of the city’s “private kitchens,” which are run out of local homes. Xiaojing Sifangcai, or Little Chengdu, is run by Laura Liu. Don’t expect a menu; do expect a multi-course tasting menu of dishes like rice-stuffed lotus roots.


Hotpot Cooking. The hotpot — a boiling cauldron of chili oil and assorted meats and vegetables — is one of Chengdu’s best-known dishes. Experience the authentic meal at Laoma Tou Hotpot Restaurant, a longtime favorite of both locals and visitors. There’s no shame in ordering the nonspicy hotpot, or ask for a combination of the two.

Rock Show. A visit to Chengdu shouldn’t only look back to the past. The city has one of China’s most rocking live music scenes. Little Bar, which opened more than 20 years ago, pioneered the rock scene. The venue became so popular a second, larger location, New Little Bar, has opened in the Yulin neighborhood. To really feel like a local, catch a local indie band here and sip Belgian beers alongside Chengdu’s hipster set.


Visit a Working Monastery. One of China’s most significant Buddhist centers, Wenshu Monastery dates back nearly 1,400 years and remains one of the region’s most active monasteries. You can observe monks, hands clasped in prayer, and on weekends locals pay homage by lighting incense from cauldrons.


Slurp Spicy Noodles. Monks, locals and visitors line up at Zhang Liang Fen, a tiny, always-packed noodle shop across the street from Wenshu Monastery. The signature tian shui mian (sweet water noodles), a heaping bowl of thick, hand-pulled noodles topped with fiery ground Sichuan peppercorns, sesame paste, chili oil and a spoonful of sugar, is well worth the wait.


Local Architecture. While much of Chengdu has been developed with modern, towering skyscrapers, glimpses of traditional architecture can be found along Wide and Narrow Alley, an intersection of historic alleyways lined with traditional courtyard homes known as hutongs. Originally built in the Qing Dynasty, most of the alley’s remaining hutongs have been renovated and now house shops and restaurants.


Splurge Meal. One of the prettiest dining rooms in the city is within The Ritz-Carlton, Chengdu. Li Xuan, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, puts a contemporary spin on classic Sichuan and Cantonese cuisine. You can’t go wrong with any of the signature dishes, including the bird’s nest with fish maw and lobster broth (a Cantonese delicacy) and the Sichuan staple dan dan noodles with minced pork and Sichuan chili. For dessert, adventurous foodies should try the durian crème brûlée.


Temple Tour. The Wuhou Temple, a shrine to China’s third-century Three Kingdoms period, is now a museum that houses cultural relics, including statues of historical figures and stone tablets. Adjacent to the temple, on Brocade Street you’ll find food vendors selling traditional street snacks like guo jui, a crispy baked bread stuffed with a spicy mix of pork, bean sprouts and shredded carrots.


Taste of Tibet. Chengdu’s Tibetan quarter, also known as Little Lhasa, is about as close as most people will come to visiting actual Tibet. You’ll feel transported as you observe monks wrapped in maroon robes and vendors selling yak butter. This is a great place to pick up souvenirs — woolen rugs, artwork, handcrafted jewelry — but be prepared to bargain.


People Watch. Walk off your marathon lunch in the gardens of Chengdu’s Zen-style People’s Park. Here, you can observe locals playing rousing games of mahjong or performing meditative, dancelike tai chi movements.

Tea Time. Enjoy traditional afternoon tea service in the stylish, contemporary setting of the Lobby Lounge at The Ritz-Carlton, Chengdu. Served daily from 2 to 5 p.m., it’s the perfect way to take in stunning city views while enjoying the British classic that has become beloved around the world.


Face-Changing Opera. Catch a performance of the region’s unique Sichuan Opera. Performers dance to melodic tunes, and as they shake their heads they magically change the thin-painted masks over their face.