I recently spent four days in Chengdu. I absolutely loved it!
Most people who come to this part of China visit the panda research centre. But there are plenty of other cool things to do in and around Chengdu.
So here’s my list of what to do in Chengdu if you’ve only got a few days.
1. People-watch in the People’s Park
Big city parks in China are a hive of activity, and the People’s Park in Chengdu is no exception.
I discovered the park while walking around the city centre, but there’s a subway station right near the entrance. This makes it super easy to get to.
I have to admit the park was absolutely packed – not the kind of place I would go to relax in.
But it’s worth a visit for the people-watching and all the activities that are going on.
People's Park in Chengdu.
Like many public spaces in China, there are people who dance in the park. And I mean loads of people dancing!
When I was there, there were multiple groups dancing to music being blasted out of large portable speakers.
Watching Chinese people dance is quite calming. It seems to be more like light exercise rather than strenuous activity.
In the park there were also people singing, painting and busking. You can even hire a small boat and row your way around the lake.
The People’s Park in Chengdu is definitely worth checking out. Entrance is free.
2. Soak up Chinese culture at the Sichuan Opera
I was told the Sichuan Opera was very different to the Peking (Beijing) Opera. This is not entirely true.
While there are some obvious differences – like the puppet show – the Sichuan Opera still has plenty of high-pitched singing and instrument-playing like the Peking Opera.
I couldn’t help but enjoy it though! There were quite a few acts and they changed relatively quickly, so there was no chance of getting bored.
A traditional performance at the Sichuan Opera.
The MC who introduced each act gave an English translation, but her English was virtually incomprehensible!
For me it didn’t matter as I was just relishing the moment and soaking up the local Chinese culture.
At the theatre I went to (the name has slipped my mind – sorry!) there were three sections to choose from – the back, middle, or VIP at the front. I chose the middle, but as the theatre isn’t that big the back would’ve been fine.
I paid 268 yuan (about US$40) to do both the Sichuan Opera and the panda base. This included private pick-up and drop-off from the hostel I stayed at.
That’s pretty good value if you ask me!
I was told this package was cheaper than doing both things on my own.
3. Fight you way for a photo at the panda research base
If there is only one thing you do in Chengdu, make sure it’s a visit to the panda base. It houses the most pandas in any one place in the world.
Given China’s treatment of animals generally, I was expecting average zoo-like conditions at best.
Surprisingly though, the place was enormous, there was lush vegetation everywhere and the enclosures were excellent. I was impressed!
Make sure you see the pandas in Chengdu.
The cute black-and-white creatures seemed to be pretty happy, despite the hordes of noisy tourists pushing their way to the front to get a photo.
We got there just before 8 am, and the guide took us to the best enclosure before it got too busy. In was so nice to see four young pandas munching on bamboo, just a few metres away.
I managed to get quite a few good photos, but by 9am it was getting really hard to take a decent one.
Brace yourself for big crowds at the Panda Research Base in Chengdu.
By 10am, it was near-impossible to get a photo without someone else photo-bombing it.
And by 11am, the park was so incredibly busy I was dying to get out of there!
If there is only one piece of advice you take from this blog, it’s get to the panda sanctuary early. And by early I mean when it opens at 7.30 am.
4. Eat a snack on Jinli Pedestrian Street
Take a walk down ‘ancient’ Jinli Pedestrian Street for a good range of Chinese souvenirs. And sample the snacks on sticks – Chengdu style!
The squid-on-a-stick seemed to be a favorite with the locals, but I opted for what I think was quail.
Like the region's famous hot pot, it was a bit too spicy for me.
Jinli Pedestrian Street is worth visiting.
Eating quail in Chengdu.
If you want to sit down and eat, there are plenty of restaurants in the vicinity of this Qing Dynasty themed street. I noticed some Tibetan restaurants nearby, which can be hard to find in China.
If you need a break from Chinese food, Chengdu offers some good Western food options.
Jinli Pedestrian Street is pretty close to the city centre. Like the People’s Park and the panda sanctuary, it’s usually packed.
Although it's a touristy kind of place, I still recommend a visit.
5. Take a trip to Mount Emei
Mount Emei, or Emei Shan in Mandarin, has been on my must-visit list for a long time.
It’s one of the four holy mountains of China.
I visited Mount Hua in Shaanxi province many years ago and loved it (though this mountain is not deemed holy) and wanted a similar experience.
Mount Emei is pretty far from Chengdu but was the highlight of my trip.
I took a bullet train from Chengdu East station. It took about an hour-and-a-half to get there.
Silly me just missed the 7.27 am train, so I had to get the 9.30 am train. This meant I had much less time to explore the mountain than originally planned.
(Note: for help booking a train ticket, check out this blog about the apps you need in China.)
When I arrived at Mount Emei station, I asked for directions on how to get to the base of the mountain. I was told to take '12 Lu' bus, and I hopped off near the Baoguo Temple.
This Buddhist temple is lovely and has quite a few prayer halls. It costs 8 yuan (US$1) to get in.
Temple at base of Mount Emei.
I had no idea how to get from the temple to the top of the mountain.
I must have looked like a fish out of water, as a scooter driver circled his way around me and offered me a ride (for a fee, of course!).
He wouldn’t engage in any sort of bargaining, so I paid the 40 yuan (US$6) he asked for to get dropped off part-way up the mountain.
Hooning up the mountain on the back of a scooter sans helmet was the best part of my day.
There’s something really liberating about having the wind rush through your hair (or balding head, in my case) on a vehicle like that.
The driver dropped me off at one of the mid-way bus stations and I made my way from there to almost the top of the mountain.
Part-way up Mount Emei.
I shared the mini bus with a family from Tibet. They were absolutely lovely and shared some sweets with me along the way.
The bus stopped once on the one-hour-plus journey, and the Tibetan grandfather hopped out to wash his false teeth in a trough by the side of the road. What an eye-opener!
It’s no wonder he was vomiting in a plastic bag on the bus only moments later.
At the top of the mountain you take a cable car to the ‘golden summit’, unless you have the time and fitness required to hike up. I opted for the cable car.
Although the view from the top was a bit foggy, the atmosphere was great. People seemed really happy to be on top of the world.
Posing for photos at the top of Mount Emei.
View from the top of the mountain.
My recommendation for Mount Emei is to go on a guided tour, particularly if you’re stretched for time and can’t speak any Chinese. There are signs, but I still found it really confusing.
I can speak some Chinese so managed to find my way, but it was a bit stressful at times. It was my fault though, as I came unprepared apart from a very basic map.
But thank god for that map! I had no phone reception up there.
I’d allow at least a few hundred yuan for the day. This includes the return bus, entry to the mountain, and the cable car. It’s not a cheap day by Chinese standards.
If you're fit and want to hike up the mountain, you'd need at least a couple of days.
I think visiting Mount Emei really is one of the best things to do around Chengdu.
6. Take a trip to the Giant Buddha
I loved the big buddha!
This towering structure looms over the city of Leshan where the Minjiang and Dadu rivers meet. It was built in the Tang Dynasty over 1,200 years ago.
I decided to pay the 90 yuan (US$13) entrance fee to walk around the Giant Buddha.
If you don’t like crowds, you might want to jump on one of the many tourist ferries which stop at the front of the buddha. You’ll get better photos too.
The Giant Buddha in Leshan, near Chengdu, is impressive.
Views of the buddha are best from a boat, plus you get to avoid big crowds.
You can catch a bus or bullet train from Chengdu to the Big Buddha and do it in a day. Bus 3 (1 yuan) or K1 (2 yuan; slightly quicker) will take you from Leshan bus station to the buddha entrance.
Like the panda base, get there as early as you can.
I arrived around the middle of the day and it was incredibly busy. You need patience!
What not to do in Chengdu
Are you wondering what you should not do in Chengdu?
For me, the Chengdu Art Museum was a shocker. I stumbled upon it while walking through Tianyi Square.
The museum contained just a few rooms with mostly framed photographs. There were some interesting shots of before and after the earthquake in 2008, but that’s really about it.
Luckily, I had no expectations.
My final tip
In case you haven't heard, many popular foreign websites and apps are blocked in China due to the country's strict censorship laws.
So, if you want access to things like Google, Facebook and WhatsApp, make sure you download a VPN app before you arrive. Otherwise, you'll be left high and dry!
Here's my review of the best China VPN apps to help you stay connected.
Chengdu is a great place to visit
As you can see there are plenty of cool things to do in Chengdu itself, and the surrounding area.
It would be unforgivable if you didn’t visit the panda sanctuary, but my best recommendation would be to take a trip to Mount Emei. It’s beautiful, peaceful and quite an adventure getting to the top.
Happy travels in Chengdu!
What other places in Chengdu do you recommend if you only have a few days to spend?