china city beautiful old streets night tourists travelTwo adjectives that aren’t normally used together to describe a Chinese city:  Huge and laid-back.  With over 10 million people in the greater metro area, Chengdu is the fifth biggest city in China (and that’s saying a lot).  But somehow this capital of Sichuan province has maintained a reputation among the Chinese as one of the country’s most cheerful and livable cities.

chinese family relaxing tea tourists travelAlways quick to generalize about a population based on geography, the Chinese like to stereotype the people of Chengdu as being “lazy.”  Personally, I prefer a lazy population when I travel.  In fact, even when I’m not traveling. Maybe because I myself am a slacker.

chinese girl playing music china tea shop tourists travelTo illustrate this point, the favorite pastime of the jovial people of Chengdu is relaxing outside one of the city’s many teahouses, where locals pass the time with games and caffeine-fueled conversation.  Many teahouses and snack bars also offer free Sichuan opera or other music performances to entertain customers.  Ah, my kind of folks.

chinese china park bamboo tourists travelAdding to the leisurely atmosphere of Chengdu are the city’s many outstanding gardens and parks, where locals and tourists wander down windy paths peppered with willow and ginkgo trees.  Built on flat ground, the compact city (4miles/6km) and its colorful old streets are easy to explore on foot or bike.

china travel tourists old man relaxing tea pipe

"Dude, you're like totally bogarting that pipe man."

Like any large city in modern China, Chengdu does have the usual downsides too: uninspired high-rises, traffic, and pollution.  But despite the fact that life continues to speed up here, somehow the slackers of Chengdu have managed to preserve a mellow vibe that evokes a sense of history.

Chengdu is also main transportation hub of southwest China and the gateway to Tibet, where you should apply for your permit and stock up on travel supplies.


Chengdu’s history goes way back to around 400BC, when the city was already the region’s biggest and most important center.  But it wasn’t until around 220AD that it became a capital city.

Much later, Chengdu developed a reputation for silk and as a printing center.  In fact, Chengdu has the distinction of being the first city in the world to produce paper money.

china travel tourists famous spicy hot pot dishesToday, as in years past, Chengdu and the Sichuan province are famous for their Sichuan cuisine, which many in China believe to be the best in the country.  But if you can’t take spicy food (sadly, like me), you probably won’t appreciate the subtleties of their legendary spicy cuisine.  According to Chinese medicine, chilies are supposed to counteract “water” illnesses that are common in damp environments.

Chengdu’s favorite and most popular food is the sweat-inducing hot pot (literally “fire pot”), which they can’t seem to get enough of.  Walking around town, a sight that’s common and humorous (to me anyway) is to see sweaty men in hot pot restaurants eating with their shirts off (I guess I’ll have to stick with eating topless at the local KFC).

chengdu panda breeding funny

"Will you be my friend?"

Located about 6miles (10km) northeast of Chengdu is a Panda Breeding Center.  Considered one of the best places in China to see pandas, the center has bred and raised over 80 panda cubs and is currently home to some 30 red pandas and 80 giant pandas.

Maps of Chengdu

External links:

Wikipedia: Chengdu page

New York Times Chengdu Travel Guide What to do, where to stay, where to eat/drink, etc.

Chengdu Time Site created by Chengdu expats—insider info (forum, travel guide with good info on transportation, hotels, etc)

Chengdu Panda Base A non-profit center for Panda research, education, breeding.

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