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.