Sascha Matuszak, a 14-year resident of China and long-time Chengdu denizen, shares his tips on where to find an authentic Chengdu teahouse experience, a perfect bowl of (cheap) noodles, where to score antiques, and the city's best shopping and nightlife districts. Chengdu has a reputation as a big city with a small-town vibe, so with Sascha as your guide, do like the locals do, take your time, relax and...
Leave Yourself Enough Time to Explore Chengdu
The key to experiencing Chengdu properly is to understand that Sichuan's capital city is a hub for travel to nearby destinations as much as a destination itself. Just a few hours in any direction will take you to some of the most beautiful sights in China, from mountains to monuments to water works to bamboo seas.
That said, the city does sport its own highlights—there's the great Sichuan food to be had in virtually every corner, the Chengdu teahouses and parks that make the place justly famous and, of course, the pandas, who have long chilled in the bamboo groves to the north. Before heading out of town to explore what the countryside has to offer, it's a good idea to get to know the charms of the city first hand. Below, I'll run you through the best of Chengdu proper, while in an upcoming post I'll introduce you some of what to do around Chengdu.
Know Your Noodles: Chengdu is Sichuan Cuisine
There is no such thing as a bad meal in Chengdu... unless you're looking for non-Sichuan cuisine, then all bets are off. As for local stuff, the people pride themselves on being the best (if not the most famous) in China. Only Guangdong cuisine (a.k.a. Cantonese cuisine) gets a grudging nod from the Sichuanese; all other dishes in China are inferior.
Writer Fuchsia Dunlop has made Sichuan cooking famous in the West with her book, Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, and dozens of articles and essays about the province's delicacies—check out some her stuff on Dunlop's food blog for a frequently updated insider's take on Sichuanese cooking (surprising fact: it's not nearly as spice-heavy as outsiders tend to believe). For a quick take on Sichuan cuisine from Dunlop, check out Chengdu lifestyle site GoChengdoo's recent Fuschia Dunlop interview ("I wouldn't offer stir-fried rabbit heads to Sichuan food novices," she sagely notes, while adding that "the flavours of Sichuan are completely accessible" to the Western palate if introduced properly). And if you're planning on a visit to Chengdu, be sure to bookmark GoChengdoo's food & drink listings for up-to-date diner reviews of local eateries.
Another local English-language webzine, ChengduLiving.com (a site I know well, having written numerous pieces for them) features several articles on good places to get cheap eats—check out my list of the best places to score noodles in Chengdu for starters, and if you're into travel on the cheap you'll also appreciate my short guide of ten free Chengdu attractions. Both sites are great resources if you are going to Chengdu for a visit or to live.
There are a couple of neighborhoods that are particularly well known for their local Sichuan food: Yulin (Yùlín, 玉林) and Xiaojiahe (Xiāojiāhé, 肖家河) in the south, the area around the Jinsha Museum in the west and surrounding both Sichuan University in the south and Sichuan Normal University in the east. But truthfully, you could walk in any direction from your hotel and in less than 10 minutes you will find something to eat.
No trip to Chengdu would be complete without a liberal dose of hot pot, the city's most famous dish. Hot pot is a spicy cauldron of boiling oil filled with everything from pork strips to duck intestines (you generally choose and often cook your own ingredients, so don't worry about getting stuck with unwanted duck guts), and not one of Chengdu's hundreds of hot pot establishments stands empty on a weekend. For some visual aid, check out this YouTube clip (blocked in China? Hook up with a VPN).
Chengdu Teahouses: A Way of Life
Chengdu is famous for teahouses, and at one time the gentle clink of porcelain on porcelain could be heard up and down the Fu Nan River, the Min River tributary that encircles the city. But today, most of these teahouses have been pushed aside to make room for office towers, hotels and other modern structures. Still, the essence of teahouse culture endures and, if in Chengdu, you should reserve at least a few leisurely hours to sample this local tradition. To really get your teahouse on, head outside of the city center to the teahouse at the back of Wenshu Monastery in the north of the city or to Heming Tea House (Hèmíng Cháshè, 鹤鸣茶社) at the lake in the heart of People's Park near the city center.
Tea & Antiques: Two Chengdu Specialties
But if you're looking for somewhere more local and less tourist-oriented to drink tea, look for a tiny teahouse tucked away in the middle of Dufu's Cottage. Nearby Songxiangqiao Antique Market (Sòngxiānqiáo, 送仙桥) is the best place to buy souvenirs in Chengdu, and few things are more pleasant than checking out your purchases while relaxing over local tea and snacks. When it comes to antiques, there are a few other markets but none as diverse and interesting as this one.
On Sundays, Songxiangqiao is flooded by colorful itinerant hucksters sitting behind trinket-covered blankets that display their wares (many of which, we may assume, are fake... be careful and always bargain hard).
Finally, for all the tea one drinker can handle, head to the northside Tea Market (this link requires a VPN)—it's a bit of a trek to get there but well worth the trip. All of the many, many teas Sichuan has to offer are available here to drink or buy wholesale.
Old Chengdu: The City's Old Quarters Retain Traditional Flavors
Near People's Park is the Shaocheng (Shǎochéng, 少城), or old city of Chengdu. Manchu soldiers lived here during the Qing Dynasty, Nationalist generals moved in after the Qing fell and after the Communists took the city, the old homes were handed out to "the people," who lived quiet lives here until the city decided to refurbish the two streets as part of a tourism-boosting campaign. The two lanes that survived into modern times, Kuan and Zhai Alleys, have lost some of their old-world charm thanks to the area's makeover, but the little neighborhood makes up for any lack of authenticity with a clean, modern facade that now houses Chengdu's top-of-the line teahouses, restaurants and, of course, a Starbucks—the newest residents of Chengdu's oldest district.
Another cool little district to visit when in Chengdu is the Tibetan enclave near Wuhou Temple, where you can get your yak butter fix or buy swords, bracelets and robes. The neighborhood is only two streets by two streets, but if you don't have the time or energy to make the seven hour trip north or west into the Tibetan regions of Sichuan, this is the next best thing. At any time of the year you can see Tibetan nomads and monks down from the mountains strolling around in their magnificent robes and jewels buying CDs or stocking up on incense. Across the street from the Tibetan District and right next to Wuhou Temple, you'll find the Jin Li Pedestrian Street, a lantern-lined ode to the snacks and silks that helped make Chengdu famous.
Shop Chengdu: Chunxi Road and Around
If you want to shop here for clothes or accessories then head to Chunxi Road (Chūnxī Lù, 春熙路), the main shopping strip in the center of town, just east of Tianfu Plaza (Tiānfǔ Guǎngchǎng, 天府广场). Chunxi Road is a walking street that spans several blocks, housing the biggest names in fashion and sportswear as well as several warehouse-like establishments on the side streets. You could spend a whole day exploring this area: between Tianfu Plaza and Chunxi Road are two clothes markets, a seafood barbecue street and on South Taishan Road (Tàishān Nán Lù, 泰山南路) you'll find the biggest cell phone market in Chengdu.
If you are into high-end gear, then Renmin Road South (Rénmen Nán Lù, 人们南路), just a few block south of Tianfu Plaza, has the name brands you're looking for. On Renmin Road South and First Ring Road (Yī Huánlù, 一环路) are the computer city complexes—four of them heading east to west on First Ring Road—and if you snoop around you might be able to find the CD/DVD shops that still sell cheap, good copies of recent releases.
Living and Playing in Chengdu: Homemaking & Nightlife Tips
If you are moving to Chengdu and want to buy household stuff at wholesale prices, then make the trip north to the Wukuaishi Wholesale Market (Wǔkuàishí, 五块石) behind the North Railway Station (Běizhàn, 北站). This sprawling market goes on for several blocks and sells everything from home entertainment systems to toilets. It takes a hardy soul to walk the whole length of the market, bargaining hard at every turn, but if cheap is what you are looking for then this is the price you have to pay.
For nightlife, there are a handful of popular club districts where you can start the party, and if you manage to make some friends, they'll take you to the secret spots. Jiuyanqiao (Jiǔyǎnqiáo, 九眼桥) features six or seven clubs flanked by bars, restaurants and KTV rooms, a model that is replicated on Second Ring Road South near Yulin Road South (Èr Huánlù jìn Yùlín Nán Lù, 二环路近玉林南路) and by the south gate of Sichuan University (Sìchuān Dàxué Nán Mén, 四川大学南门), also in the south side of the city.
Some well-known Western bars are:
• Shamrock on Renmin Road South near the Nijiaqiao Subway Station (Rénmen Nán Lù jìn Níjiāqiáo Dìtiězhàn, 人们南路近倪家桥地铁站)
• The Bookworm on Renmin Road South and Second Ring Road (Rénmen Nán Lù jìn Èr Huánlù, 人们南路近二环路)
• The Hemp House on the second floor of the Oriental Times Plaza in the east side of the city (Dōngmén Dà Qiáo Dōngfāng Shídài Shāngchéng, 东门大桥东方时代商城)
• The Leg and Whistle, an English Pub on the second floor of the Blue Caribbean Plaza near the south gate of Sichuan University (Sìchuān Dàxué Nán Mén, 四川大学南门)