Virtuoso Life July 2019 City Guide: Chengdu, China

City Guide: Chengdu, China

A quiet courtyard at Daci Temple.
A quiet courtyard at Daci Temple.
As The Temple House general manager Kurt Macher knows, the most charming thing about Chengdu is no longer black and white.
Consider the panda drill: Fly all the way to Chengdu to see irrepressibly cute and cuddly pandas. Pop in for a day to watch them wrestle and devour bamboo and generally weeble-wobble around until – if you watch long enough – they all fall down and nap. Then jet 1,000 miles due east to Beijing or one of China’s other marquee cities or cultural sites. For decades, this is how  the capital of Sichuan province has factored into most tours of the country – which, it turns out, makes about as much sense as heading to Paris to check off the Eiffel Tower and skipping town without enjoying the rest of the City of Light’s joie de vivre.

China’s westernmost megacity of roughly 14 million residents has long captured Westerners’ attention with its giant panda research center. But recently, visitors are discovering what domestic Chinese tourists have known for years: Chengdu is more than a one-trick bear, so to speak, with a scorching-hot dining scene, temples and historic cultural sites, and a stylish, creative edge.
Playtime at the panda base.
Playtime at the panda base.
“Chengdu is very popular for its underground culture, hip-hop, art, independent fashion designers, and super-friendly LGBT community,” says Kurt Macher, who moved to the city as general manager of The Temple House hotel three years ago. The 100-room outpost had opened a year earlier as part of the Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li restoration and retail development, which also created a pedestrianized district with a mall, built around restored heritage buildings such as the 1,600-year-old Daci Temple. In the brief time since his arrival, Macher has watched the neighborhood transform into the city’s place to be seen.

Free-spending and well-funded Chinese millennials stock up and strike poses throughout Taikoo Li mall’s open-air thoroughfares, then rally for the night with DJs in Jing bar at The Temple House before moving on to hours-long hot-pot feasts and the clubs. A short walk from the hotel, the Shuijingfang Museum provides a fascinating tour of the country’s oldest distillery, a vast building where visitors can watch workers create labor-intensive baijiu (a sorghum-based spirit) in pits in the same way it’s been made there since 1408.
Temple House GM Kurt Macher.
Temple House GM Kurt Macher.
Photo by Noel Yeo
Nearby, pedestrian-only Jinli Street fills with locals and travelers who come for teahouses, bars, souvenir shops, and Sichuan opera performances, in which actors demonstrate split-second “face changes” with masks and magician-like sleight of hand. Throughout its adjoining alleys, vendors hawk skewers of just about everything you can imagine (and some things you’d likely rather not), bathed in chili oil and flecked with crushed Sichuan peppercorns, famed for their mouth-numbing effect that kicks off with the sensation of a mild electric shock.

“Chengdu is alive and in constant movement,” Macher says. “You can leave town for two weeks and return to discover five new buildings, three new restaurants, and that you have new neighbors.” In some respects, the city has always pushed boundaries. Traders in the Silk Road outpost introduced paper currency to the world in the tenth century, and it spread across the country as if they’d invented the confetti cannon. Last year its aerospace research institute announced plans to install a “fake moon” – a mirrored satellite fixed in orbit to bathe the city in soft light as a stand-in for streetlights.
Jinli Street.
Jinli Street.
Despite the boom times, Chengdu holds fast to the qualities that have made it a favorite with artists and intellectuals: a more relaxed lifestyle and, being far from the Party’s halls of power, relatively liberal views. You’ll still get an eyeful of pandas – it’s nearly impossible to walk anywhere in the city without seeing panda souvenirs, panda-themed buses, or the giant panda sculpture scaling International Finance Square – but, more and more, travelers are extending their time here, or coming just to explore the city itself.

Temple House insider Kurt Macher’s Chengdu must-dos.

  • Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding: The base opens at 7:30 am; go early to avoid the masses and catch the pandas at their most active. 
  • Daci Temple: Taikoo Li’s pulsing energy slows the moment you set foot in this tranquil Buddhist monastery. In the morning, especially on the first and fifteenth of each month of the lunar calendar, visitors can witness the monks’ prayer rituals. 
  • Shuijingfang Museum: Tour China’s oldest distillery to taste baijiu and learn how workers have made it here since the fifteenth century. 
  • Fangsuo Commune: Take the glass- and copper-enclosed escalator to this bookstore, café, and fashion boutique. Its cavernous underground space was inspired by Daci Temple’s scroll library.
  • Gentle Monster: This Korean eyewear store always entertains with its intricate, large-scale kinetic art installations and abstract displays.
  • Jinli Street: A must-go in Chengdu for street food, teahouses, and souvenirs such as peppercorns and opera masks. Lots of bars open at night, when its lanes are lit with lanterns’ warm glow.
Fangsuo Commune.
Fangsuo Commune.
  • Mi Xun Teahouse: Tea culture is essential to locals, who typically outnumber Temple House guests in Mi Xun’s tranquil outdoor courtyard. Its vegan and vegetarian menu wins high praise for dishes such as bamboo mushrooms with green Sichuan peppercorn sauce and a nonspicy, truffled pu’erh tea hot pot.
  • Xiao Long Fan Da Jiang Hotpot: Temple House concierges frequently preorder meals for guests from the Chinese-language menu at this lively hot pot favorite a short walk from the hotel, and coordinate tables with good views of the face-changing opera performances. 
  • Ma Wang Zi: Across the street from the hotel, Ma Wang is one of the city’s most popular restaurants for high-end Sichuan cuisine, such as eggplant with shrimp balls, spicy fish pot, and fresh corn pancakes.
  • Jing: DJs, a laid-back all-weather terrace, a sultry interior, and creative drinks – such as Sichuan negronis and mules that impart the peppercorn’s tingling sensations – draw a crowd to Jing.
Mi Xun Teahouse’s truffled pu’erh tea hot pot.
Mi Xun Teahouse’s truffled pu’erh tea hot pot.

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