Chengdu might look like a typically gray Chinese metropolis of skyscrapers and chaotic traffic, but beneath the concrete exterior is one of China’s most inviting, charming cities. Life moves just a little more slowly here. The teahouses fill up quickly on weekends with locals practicing calligraphy and cracking sunflower seeds, and at the Chengdu panda research center, the city’s most famous residents seem content lazing about in trees most of the time. Recently, though, this unpretentious city has seen its economy boom as one of China’s new high-tech hubs, luring young entrepreneurs to found creative start-ups and innovative architects to transform the skyline. There’s definitely a buzz about the place, though it’s hard to notice over the clacking of tiles during a rousing game of mah-jongg in the park.
1. Poetic Inspiration | 3 p.m.
Slip into the laid-back Chengdu lifestyle at Wangjiang Pavilion Park, a quiet green space dedicated to a famous poetess from the Tang dynasty, Xue Tao. Xue loved bamboo — and it’s everywhere, some with stalks as wide as small trees towering 50 feet overhead. Wander through the graceful, century-old pagodas and pavilions — some of the oldest architecture left in Chengdu — and then settle in at the atmospheric teahouse next to the river where locals while away the hours sipping green tea (20 renminbi per glass, or $3.40, at 6 renminbi to the dollar), chatting and playing cards. For the brave-hearted, a gentle ear scrub is also on offer from the roving ear cleaners clanging their metal instruments as they stroll by.
2. Artistic Revival | 6 p.m.
A historic district restored by the government several years ago, the Wide and Narrow Alleys offer a glimpse of the city’s long-forgotten imperial-era architecture combined with the commercial excess of modern-day China. While most of the overpriced silver and trinket shops can be bypassed, Fingertip Art (24 Kuan Xiangzi) is worth a stop for its brightly embroidered bags, shawls and pillows, all made by women from the Qiang minority, whose villages were devastated in the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Sichuan Province in 2008. The company has trained hundreds of women how to improve their traditional embroidery to appeal to well-heeled tourists and returns a share of the profits to their slowly rebuilding communities.
3. Haute (Not Hot) Cuisine | 8 p.m.
Sichuan food may be known for its heat, but the cuisine is actually more complex than that. At Yu Zhi Lan, a tiny restaurant with three private rooms run by the affable chef Lan Guijun, every course in the kaiseki-like meal presents a unique balance of flavors, from the spicy-sour sea cucumber to the delicate sweetness of the bird’s nest with snow pears, peach tree sap and a bit of sugar candy. Lan’s goal is to elevate Sichuan cooking by combining a Japanese-style precision with fresh, locally sourced ingredients: He makes noodles with duck eggs from a free-range farm, for example, and slices them thread-thin by hand with a giant cleaver. Even the pottery used to serve each course was handmade by the chef. The set menu for two, with 10 cold appetizers and nine mains, starts at 600 renminbi per person.
4. A Monk’s Life | 11 a.m.
With a history of some 1,400 years, Wenshu Monastery is one of China’s most significant Buddhist centers — and certainly one of its most active. On the weekends, locals flock to the sprawling complex of gray-tiled temples and gingko-filled courtyards to light incense from caldrons, rub copper dragons for good fortune and march in circles around a slender iron pagoda, hands clasped in prayer. The monastery has some of the best-preserved ancient Buddha statues in the country, along with paintings and calligraphy dating back hundreds of years, but the highlight may be the monastery garden, a shady spot of koi ponds, pagodas and sculpted rocks where the silver-haired crowd goes to enjoy a little peace and quiet.
5. Cheap Eats | 12:30 p.m.
Although the city’s street food vendors are dwindling, Chengdu’s tastiest snacks can still be had for pocket change in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, such as the noodle shop directly across from the monastery, Zhang Liang Fen. At lunchtime, a line of customers snakes out the door for the shop’s specialty, tian shui mian (sweet water noodles), a bowl of thick, hand-pulled noodles topped with mouth-numbing ground Sichuan peppercorns, chile oil, sesame paste and a spoonful of sugar (6 renminbi). Around the corner, join the queue at Yan Tai Po for another local must-try: guo kui, a crispy, baked bread pocket stuffed with pork and a spicy mix of shredded carrots, cucumbers and bean sprouts (7 renminbi). Menus in Pinyin and English make ordering simple.
6. Tea and a Show | 2 p.m.
With its earsplitting falsettos and crashing percussion instruments, Chinese opera is not for everyone. But for a taste of one of Chengdu’s most famous and enduring art forms — without the commitment of a pricey, hours-long performance at a theater — drop in to Yuelai Teahouse to watch for a bit in a more informal setting. Once a week, troupes from the Chengdu Sichuan Opera Theater perform on the small, lantern-lined stage at the century-old teahouse, one of the oldest in Chengdu, for a tea-sipping crowd of retirees (a ticket, with tea, is just 20 renminbi). There are no English subtitles, but the elaborate costumes and acrobatic, sleeve-twirling dancing can be entertaining enough without our necessarily following the plot.
7. Taste of Tibet | 4 p.m.
Known as Little Lhasa, Chengdu’s colorful Tibetan quarter is as close as one can get to Tibet without traveling to the remote Sichuan countryside or crossing the border to Tibet itself. Wander down Wuhouci Heng Jie, directly opposite Wuhou Temple, and take in the sights: monks wrapped in maroon robes counting beads behind their backs, vendors selling yak butter on the street, and shop after shop of Tibetan Buddhist religious icons, prayer flags and wheels, tapestries, incense, wildly patterned leather boots, and beads of every hue, size and price. Don’t pay the asking price in any shop; bargaining is a must.
8. Searing Stew | 7 p.m.
The quintessential Chengdu dining experience is crowding around a furiously boiling pot of broth and dunking in every manner of sliced meat, balled seafood and leafy greens while throwing back copious bottles of Snow beer. While there are hot pot restaurants on practically every corner, Lao Ma Tou is one of Chengdu’s most famous, as much for the noisy, convivial atmosphere as for the throat-burning spiciness of the hot pots. (The pots can be divided into spicy and nonspicy broths for those wary of too much heat; prices start at 78 renminbi for broth, other ingredients vary by plate.) Servers in crisp white shirts prepare the dipping sauce — sesame oil mixed with garlic, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and a little MSG — and supervise the cooking process for hot pot neophytes.
9. A Little Night Music | 9 p.m.
When it comes to live music, few Chinese cities are as rocking as Chengdu. The pioneer of the local scene is Little Bar, which opened nearly 20 years ago and became a hub for the city’s underground artists and musicians. (The longtime owner, Tang Lei, is known by regulars as Sister Tang.) These days, the bar has a second, larger location (New Little Bar) with Belgian beers on the menu and a rotating schedule of national touring acts and local indie musicians. The crowd skews young — bespectacled 20-somethings with ripped jeans and Converse shoes who raise cellphones overhead during shows instead of lighters.
10. Panda Overload | 7:30 a.m.
After coming all this way to see the pandas, a visit to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding requires a little strategizing to maximize alone time with the cuddly bears (more than 135 in all). Skip the hotel breakfast to be there for the 7:30 a.m. opening when the park is silent and the cubs in the Sunshine Nursery are just waking up (admission, 58 renminbi). Feeding time for the adolescent giant pandas happens next at the adjacent open-air enclosure — this is when the pandas are most active, stripping stalks of bamboo, lying back and eating their weight in leaves. After the 8:30 a.m. tour buses roll in, escape the crowds for a leisurely stroll through the beautifully manicured grounds to see the red panda enclosure. By midmorning, the pandas are ready for their siesta and the show’s over. Just another lazy day in mellow Chengdu.