Have you ever seen anything as adorable as a mama panda helping her cub climb a tree? Or as fascinating as face-change opera? Or eaten hot pot in the Sichuan province where it was created? These are only some of the highlights of our Chengdu itinerary.
Chengdu, China is probably best known for its Giant Panda Research Center. And while this is a highlight of our Chengdu itinerary, it’s only one of several fascinating things to do in Chengdu and the surrounding area. It’s also home to Sichuan Opera and some fabulous regional foods.
And the good news, for me, the Sichuan food wasn’t always super spicy. In fact, we could set some of it the spiciness levels we each preferred.
Nearby, Leshan is home to the world’s largest Buddha; plus, there is shopping, dining, and entertainment.
With some restrictions still in place in China, we have kept this page on Albom Adventures as a historical reference and for possible future planning. Note that many venues are still closed, and some tours are not currently operating. This page will be reviewed when China tourism is fully open.
What to include in a Chengdu itinerary
With limited time, we had to pick the best things to do in Chengdu and the surrounding area. And in this case, we found it fairly easy. Here is our list of the top Chengdu attractions. It is possible to do all of this, plus add some shopping, eating, and discovering into the mix.
- Panda research centre (Officially: the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding)
- Sichuan Opera
- Authentic Sichuan hot pot
- Day trip from Chengdu to Leshan to see the giant Buddha
- Leshan street market
- Jiajiang Tianfu Tea Plantation
- The ancient village of Huanglongxi
Panda Research Centre
Whether you come here to learn about pandas or just to see the adorable animals enjoying a more natural surroundings, we highly recommend coming here. Visiting pandas in Chengdu is one of several highlights of our time in China.
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is the first open laboratory for endangered animal research and conservation in China and a UNESCO site. With displays also in English, we learned about the giant panda, the research currently being done, their current troubles, and how we can help. The centre is also home to other endangered wildlife, including red pandas, swans, peacocks, birds, butterflies, and hundreds of insects. And the grounds are stunning.
But let’s get real, we came for the pandas, and we sure enjoyed what we saw. There was an overdose of adorable, even before we made our way to the enclosure housing the baby pandas. Here, our timing was perfect. Mama panda was assisting baby panda as he tried to climb a tree.
The Panda Research Centre is a must-do on any Chengdu itinerary. We took transportation provided by our hotel. Had that not been an option, we would have gone with a tour that picks up and drops off at Chengdu hotels. This tour brings you to the Panda Research Center and, afterwards, tours you back to your hotel with some sightseeing at People’s Park. Reserve your tour to the Panda Research Center here.
Having the ability to attend a Sichuan opera was our initial motivation for spending the night in Chengdu. However, in the end, we wished we had more than two days on our Chengdu itinerary. Sichuan opera is a colourful mix of styles, each act being completely different from the one before.
There was drumming, comedy, acrobatics, fire-spitting, and face change. Reserve your Sichuan opera tickets with hotel transfers.
Learning to eat hot pot
If just hearing the word ‘Sichuan’ conjures up hot and spicy flavours, you won’t be disappointed. Spicy aromas surrounded us in the Sichuan province, yet we nearly always found a mild option.
A new favourite for us was learning how to eat hot pot. Our day two guide took us to an authentic restaurant where being the only English speaker around was not a problem – mostly because he was with us.
The beauty of the traditional Sichuan hot pot is that we have control over the level of spiciness, although my definition of “mild” was probably stretched a bit here. Jeff was ready to brave “hot” but followed our guide’s advice and went for the medium temperature, which was more than enough spice.
What we were served was a pot of water placed on a stove-top burner built into the table. In it was oil, spices, and a few vegetables. Once boiling, we chose from a variety of meats and veggies and “cooked” them in our hot pot. (We have enjoyed a similar meal in Melbourne, Australia.)
Visiting the Giant Buddha in Leshan
Carved into the hillside on Mount Lingyun, the Giant Buddha of Leshan is the world’s largest Buddha. Created in 713 AD during the Tang Dynasty, the seated Maitreya Buddha is 71 metres high and overlooks the confluence of the Min and Dadu rivers.
The area, known as the Mount Emei Scenic Area, is a UNESCO site. It was home to the first Buddhist temple in China and is considered one of Buddhism’s holiest sites. If time permits, it is a lovely area to explore.
The drive from Chengdu to Leshan Buddha takes about 2 hours. Viewing options are either from the river on a boat or walking the steep and narrow plank pathways alongside and in front of the Buddha. Our plan was to do both, with the boat first.
However, for us, the boat felt like enough, and we opted for more variety in our day after the boat trip. We were glad that we had hired a private guide for the day, as this gave us the flexibility to change our plans.
Taking an organized tour from Chengdu is the other option for seeing the Giant Buddha. Here are two top-rated tours:
- Leshan Grand Buddha Scenic Area and Panda Park Day Tour: This 12-hour day from Chengdu hits the two biggest highlights of the region. If you only have one day, this is the way to go. Visit two UNESCO sites in a day and see the best of the region.
Reserve an all-day Leshan Giant Buddha and Panda park tour.
- Leshan Giant Buddha and Huanglongxi Ancient Town Day Trip: This day tour brings you to see the Leshan Giant Buddha followed by Huanglongxi for an exploration of ancient Chinese culture. The tour starts and ends in Chengdu. Reserve a tour of the Leshan Giant Buddha and visit to Huanglongxi here.
Leshan street market
After opting not to walk alongside the Buddha, we suddenly found ourselves with extra time on our hands and took a stroll through the Leshan street market. Not a must-do, but a fun look at daily life and a chance to pick up a quick snack.
Jiajiang Tianfu Tea Plantation
Another stop between Chengdu and Leshan is the Jiajiang Tianfu Tea Plantation. A few samples, and I purchased an interesting buckwheat tea. However, it was the terraced tea fields and the huge teapot fountain that we found the most interesting.
Ancient village of Huanglongxi (a last-minute add to our Chengdu itinerary)
By skipping the multi-hour walk along the giant Buddha, we had time to visit the ancient village of Huanglongxi and enjoy some of its folklore and customs. While it’s free to enter, it was definitely more fun with our private guide as he told stories that we just wouldn’t know otherwise.
It’s a place with over 1700 years of history, highlighting a culture embedded in water, tea, farming, and Buddhism. Be sure to take a boat ride down the river, as that was one of our highlights.
In retrospect, we would recommend including a stop here on your Chengdu itinerary rather than stumbling upon it, as I did.
Our Chengdu itinerary
We opted to spend three nights but only two days in Chengdu. Flying in just after dinner from Xi’an, we were able to take a quick walk, then relax and unwind before a good night’s sleep.
Day 1: We spent the morning at the Panda Research Centre, using the transportation provided (for a fee) from our accommodation. We spent the afternoon walking around Chengdu, a much more modern town than we had expected. In the evening, we enjoyed the Sichuan opera.
Day 2: We hired a private guide who picked us up from our hotel and took us to Leshan to see the Giant Buddha and also to the hot pot restaurant, Jiajiang Tianfu Tea Plantation, and Huanglongxi. We returned to our accommodation near dinner time. We ate locally, got a good sleep, and caught an early flight to Beijing.
Finding a guide
Throughout China (and much of the world), we have successfully used private guides from Tours by Locals. Excellent guides, the opportunity to email with the specific guide prior to travel and scheduling flexibility are the three primary advantages. As we pointed out many times above, our fabulous guide is the reason things went so well for us in Chengdu.
He taught us how to eat hot pot, and ordered for us in a way that we each had a meal to our own desired spiciness (probably more important in Sichuan province than other parts of China, but he was completely flexible when we wanted to change our itinerary in the middle of the tour.
When choosing your guide, our top recommendations are to check their language ability, read the tour options to see if they do the kinds of things you like, read the specific guide’s reviews, and then make contact before you hire them.
Final thoughts: was this the ideal Chengdu itinerary?
No. If I were to do it again, and I had the flexibility, I would have spent one more day, done everything a bit slower, and had time to explore more of the off-the-beaten-path destinations.
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What will be on your Chengdu itinerary?
Other places in China that we visited: