Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Southwest China
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is considered a Chinese national treasure. Opened in 1987 to care for rescued wild pandas, the 165-acre (67-hectare), open-air sanctuary is now one of southern China’s most popular destinations due to its focus on breeding, conservation, and introducing new pandas into wild populations.
Standing 233 feet (71 meters) tall, the Leshan Giant Buddha(Da Fo), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, holds the record as the largest Buddha sculpture in the world. A Buddhist monk—hoping to earn divine protection for the local fishermen—carved the massive statue into a cliff, starting in 713. Ninety years later, the carving was finished.
Erhai (Lake Er is a 97-square-mile (250-square-km lake sandwiched between the town of Dali and the Cangshan Mountains in China’s Yunnan Province. The local Bai people—one of China’s 56 recognized ethnic minority groups—have long used the waters of the lake for carp fishing with cormorants.
Mengding Mountain (Mengding Shan) is considered the birthplace of the world’s tea culture and home to some of the oldest plantations. Visitors to this verdant and historic locale can tour a tea plantation, soak up spectacular views, and purchase tea close to the source.
Dating back nearly 2,000 years, the Wuhou Memorial Temple (Temple of Marquis Wu) in a southern suburb of Chengdu is steeped in history and lore. The site is meant to honor Liu Bei, emperor of the Shu Kingdom, as well as his much revered military strategist Zhuge Liang (later Marquis Wu)—two immensely popular figures in Chinese history.
This impressive museum provides unprecedented access to the science, history, and cultural heritage of the Three Gorges region near the Yangtze River. Exhibits showcase traditional painting, calligraphy, and porcelain, as well as ancient coins and sculpture from the Han Dynasty, traditional costumes, and artifacts from southwest China.
An early Tang Dynasty classic, Qingyang Palace (also known as the Green Ram Temple) is considered to be one of the oldest and most important Taoist temples in all of China due to its location near the boyhood home of Lao-Tzu, the father of Taoism. Much of the palace was restored during the Qing Dynasty.
Originally built in 256 BC, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System is the world’s oldest non-dam irrigation facility. A marvel of engineering, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dujiangyan uses the natural topography of the region, as well as hydrological features of the river, to irrigate 1.65 million acres (668,700 hectares) of farmland.
Sandwiched between Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake sits one of China’s most spectacular ancient cities, Dali. Dating back to the late fourteenth century, Dali got its start as a gateway to the Silk Road from Southwest China. Today, Dali Old Town (Dali Ancient City) — navigable on foot — is ringed by a 25-foot (7.5-meter) stone wall with grand gates facing in each direction. Within those walls, traditional Bai ethnic minority architecture now house shops, cafes and guest houses.
Fuxing Road, the busiest street through Dali Old Town, links the South and North Gates and is a popular spot for buying souvenirs. The upper portion of Huguo Road, nicknamed ‘Foreigner Street,’ is lined with Chinese and Western restaurants, art galleries, antique shops and small boutiques.
This former residence of General Joseph Stilwell was converted into a popular museum where travelers can learn about this commander-in-chief of the American Army in the China Burma India Theater and learn about his life, conquests, and death while wandering the 1940s-style halls. The grounds offer some of the best views in Chongqing.
More Things to Do in Southwest China
Located in central Chengdu, Renmin Park (People’s Park) offers a glimpse into the day-to-day life of local residents who come here to relax, exercise, play games like mah-jongg or chess, sing and dance, or find love matches for their loved ones. It’s a great place to slow down, have a cup of tea, and experience life as the locals do.
Stretching for 1,148 feet (350 meters), just east of Wuhou Temple, Jinli Ancient Street is one of the oldest shopping streets in Chengdu, dating back to the Three Kingdoms period. Restored in 2004, this historical lane paved with green flagstone still teems with shops, restaurants, and food stalls in traditional architecture.
One of the most picturesque towns in the vicinity of Dali, as well as one of the best places to see traditional Bai architecture, is the town of Xizhou. Formerly a military stronghold of the Nanzhou Kingdom, Xizhou began to flourish during the first half of the twentieth century when a group of over 100 wealthy nationalist families relocated there, calling themselves the Xizhou Chamber of Commerce.
While much of Dali’s traditional Bai architecture has been “updated” to suit the tastes of modern Chinese travelers, Xizhou remains relatively untouched — it’s home to the largest collection of Bai residential houses in China, over a hundred of which are considered registered cultural relics.
Most visitors come to Xizhou on a day trip from Dali, but those who choose to stay overnight can sleep in a Bai-style courtyard home, as several have been converted into guest houses.
Some 4,000 animals representing 230 species, including the iconic giant panda and rare South China tiger, call the Chongqing Zoo (Chongqing Dongwuyuan home. Besides animal exhibits, the zoo also features an outdoor state, teahouse, amusement park, and a roller skating rink, making it a favorite family attraction.
Regarded as the birthplace of Taoism, and one of its most sacred mountains, Mt. Qingcheng (Qingcheng Shan) has a history dating back 2,000 years. Surrounded by peaks and lush forests, Mt. Qingcheng offers a peaceful escape from the big city of Chengdu, and there are plenty of temples, historical sites, and cultural relics for visitors to enjoy.
Located in Chengdu’s Qingyang district, the three parallel alleys of Kuan Zhai Alley (Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi) offer a lively mix of old and new, with renovated and restored buildings that date from the Qing dynasty. A popular shopping, dining, entertainment, and tourist destination, it’s also one of the city’s three historic conservation districts.
China’s Dujiangyan Panda Base focuses on rehabilitation, disease prevention, and public education for the conservation of the endangered giant panda, one of the rarest species in the world. Tour the panda hospital, enclosures, and educational center for the opportunity to spot dozens of pandas munching on bamboo and playing.
Located inside Chengdu Cultural Park, Shufen Yayun Teahouse (Shufeng Yayun) has been hosting Sichuan Opera performances for over 100 years. It’s one of the city’s most popular venues for this art form, which involves an exciting mix of music, dancing, acrobatics, martial arts, hand shadows, puppet play, comedic theater, sword play, and costume changes (face changing).
Located north of Sichuan Province, Jiuzhai Valley, also known as Jiuzhaigou Valley, is one of China’s most spectacular nature reserves and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spanning 278 square miles (720 square kilometers), the valley is famed for its colorful lakes, cascading waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, diverse wildlife, and Tibetan culture.
At 10,167 feet (3,099 meters), Mt. Emei is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China. The UNESCO World Heritage Site includes over 70 temples, monasteries, and attractions, culminating in the Golden Summit, where visitors can take in the giant Puxian Buddha and stunning mountain views.
Located on the fringes of Dali Old Town, the iconic Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple date back to the ninth and tenth centuries. The middle of the three, named the Qianxun Pagoda, was erected in the ninth century during the Tang Dynasty as one of the tallest pagodas ever built in China. The two other pagodas went up about a century later, and their architectural styles are more similar to buildings of the Song Dynasty.
While Dali has endured numerous earthquakes through the centuries, including a severe one in 1925, the Three Pagodas were some of the few buildings to survive undamaged (though one now leans slightly). The well-maintained park that houses the pagodas is also dotted with smaller Buddhist temples, statues and several small lakes, all with the Cangshan Mountains as a backdrop.
Famous for its colorful azalea flowers, Cangshan Mountain rises over the city of Dali and the shores of Lake Erhai beyond. Visitors can either hike or take a cable car up the mountain, where a paved road leads down past various points of interest. From Zhonghe Temple at the top of the cable car, various hiking trails branch out into the surrounding forests toward smaller temples, pools, waterfalls and scenic areas.
Cangshan Mountain is also a famous producer of a variety of marble called Cangshan Stone, recognizable by the unique patterns in the smooth rock. Local artists carve the marble into animals, people or natural scenes — popular souvenirs available on the mountain or in shops in Dali Old Town.
Located at Chengdu’s Jinsha archaeological site, the Jinsha Site Museum offers insight into the mysterious Bronze Age Shu civilization. See the actual excavation site and the treasure trove of relics and artifacts that have been unearthed to date, including bronze, gold, ivory, jade, stone, pottery, and lacquerware.
Learn about the ancient and mysterious Bronze-Age Shu culture at the Sanxingdui Museum. Located on the grounds of the Sanxingdui archaeological site north of Chengdu, the museum displays relics unearthed at the site, including more than 1,000 bronze, gold, jade, and other artifacts dating back 3,000 to 5,000 years.