Checking in on Chengdu, China’s latest urban star

Checking in on Chengdu, China’s latest urban star

This city is an economic powerhouse. But it's the culture -- and a few pandas -- that's drawing tourists
Sichuanese opera -- or “chuanju” -- is an incredible spectacle that includes "face changing" and fire breathing.

Well into the 2000s, when Chinese in the developed eastern seaboard were asked what they knew about Chengdu, many would respond that it was "the panda’s hometown," or a city where residents got up late to pass the day playing mahjong in one of its famous teahouses.

The last decade’s economic transformation has led to an image makeover.

Today, Chengdu is a vibrant, modern metropolis of 14 million people -- 2013 will be remembered as a defining year in Chengdu’s rise.

In June, the city was blasted into international headlines for hosting the Fortune Global Forum -- an annual, invite-only event featuring chairs, presidents and CEOs of the world's largest companies.

That same month, Chengdu announced that it's applying, along with Guangzhou, to join Beijing and Shanghai in offering visitors from 45 countries 72-hour visa-free stays to promote tourism.

The launch of China’s first direct freight train services to Europe -- from Chengdu -- and the much-publicized opening of the world’s largest building have all pushed the city further into the limelight this year.

Things are unlikely to settle soon -- 2014 will see the opening of a dedicated rail link to Chongqing that will have trains operating at -- if current nationwide speed limits are lifted -- 350 kph (217 mph), thus reducing the current journey time on the 307-kilometer route from more than two hours to less than one.

But there's more to Chengdu than business opportunities.

The Sichuan capital is filled with ancient streets, cultural attractions, fiery cuisine and an even spicier nightlife.

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What to eat in Chengdu

The mouth numbs just looking at it.

Back in 2010, Chengdu won its bid to be named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, making it the first city in Asia to be awarded the accolade, and the second in the world (the first, in 2005, was Popayan in Colombia).

Since then, Chengdu has seen a proliferation of world-class restaurants. Here are a few of the best.

Yang Tang’s Restaurant

This excellent neighborhood restaurant serves classic Sichuanese dishes. Routinely rated as one of the best places in Chengdu and it's affordable.

Zongbei District, Ke Yuan Street, Jin Yuan Alley #38; +86 028 8523 1394

Yulin Chuan Chuan

An enormously popular hotpot restaurant that offers "pick-and-choose" ordering, reducing the chances of accidentally ordering pig’s brain or other surprises.

The broth in Sichuanese hotpot is often chili oil, so there's no way of escaping the heat.

Yulin District, Yulin Zheng Street #58; +86 028 8558 0723

A Ma Tibetan Restaurant

This atmospheric restaurant in the heart of the Tibetan Quarter specializes in Tibetan staples tsampa and butter tea, and well as yak stews and other hearty food that goes down particularly well in winter.

Wu Hou Temple, Xi Mian Qiao Heng Street #27; +86 028 8883 6788

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Chengdu’s best dishes

Hui Guo Rou (twice-cooked pork) 回锅肉: pork belly cooked with ginger, scallions and spices.

Mapo Doufu (pock-marked grandmother’s tofu) 麻婆豆腐: a Sichuan classic much loved around the world -- cubes of tofu cooked in chili. A Chengdu original.

Gong Bao Ji Ding (kung pao chicken) 宫保: Chicken, peanuts, vegetables and spice. A classic.

Yu Xiang Rou Si (fish-smelling meat strips, that don’t smell of fish at all) 鱼香肉丝: meat strips served with vegetables in a fragrant soy-based sauce.

Xiang La Pai Gu (fragrant spicy ribs) 香辣排骨

More on CNN: Chengdu, Asia's first City of Gastronomy

Chengdu nightlife

If you want to bar hop, Jiuyan Qiao "Nine Eye" Bridge Bar Street is filled with pubs, clubs and people.

Machu Picchu

A cozy neighborhood bar where interesting locals and expats enjoy conversation over cocktails and good music. Frequent live performances by Chengdu folk artists.

Yulin District, Fang Hua Heng Street #14; +86 028 8513 2903

Hemp House

Chengdu’s hip alternative hangout where the best local DJs and musicians gather to perform and party.

Jin Jiang District, Dong Men Bridge, Oriental Times Plaza 3/F; +86 028 1362 58150

Little Bar

The center of Chengdu’s live music scene for more than a decade. Local and national touring acts perform original rock, metal and alternative.

Yulin District, Fang Qin Street #87; +86 028 8556 8552

Bookworm

Since opening in 2006, Bookworm, which also has successful branches in Beijing and Suzhou, has become the center of Chengdu’s expat and cultural scenes.

Part events venue, part charity headquarters, restaurant, bar, bookstore and library -- it’s the expat one-stop shop.

Bookworm, Yulin District, Yulin Jie East Road #2-7; +86 028 8552 0177

Lan Town

Near Sichuan University, Lao Town hosts DJ parties that last into the early hours. Locals come to dance and drink imported beers.

First Ring Road, Nine Eye Bridge, Hao Wang Jiao 2/F; +86 028 8535 6206

Jah Bar

A friendly reggae-themed bar with approachable owners, late night parties and all-night jam sessions every day of the week.

Lao Nan Men Bridge, Lin Jiang West Road; +86 028 136 8905 1773

Chengdu attractions

You can't click on a story about Chengdu and not see a photo of pandas.

Chengdu Panda Research Base

Despite Chengdu's economic rise, the biggest stars will always be the giant pandas, who reside at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

The facility, open for educational tours, is home to more than 80% of the world's giant pandas.

Panda Research Base, 1375 Bei Xiongmao Da Dao, Chengdu

Jinsha Site Museum

Chengdu's Jinsha archaeologic site was buried for almost 3,000 years until it was discovered in 2001 during construction work, bringing to light thousands of rare relics traced to the late Shang dynasty.

In 2006, the large Jinsha Site Museum opened to showcase the relics and stories behind these incredible finds.

Jinsha Site Museum, No.2 Jinsha Yizhi Road, Supo Village, Qingyang District, Chengdu 

Shu Feng Ya Yun

This famous Sichuanese opera house also performs "face-changing shows," in which performers wear a variety of masks depending on their character's mood. There are also fire and puppetry shows.

108 Qintai Road, Chengdu; +86 28 8611 1025

Jinli Ancient Street

Jinli is one of the oldest and most commercial streets in Chengdu.

A stretch of just 350 meters, Jinli crams in teahouses, inns, restaurants, bars, theaters, handicraft stores, snack vendors and specialty shops.

Yue Lai Tea House

Chengdu teahouses are both indoor and outdoor and are open year round in spite of chilly winters.

One of Chengdu's historic teahouses, Yue Lai Tai is located in the main downtown shopping district. It's one of the best places to join locals as they drink tea and crack sunflower seeds.

On Saturdays, Sichuan Opera troupes from the big theaters drop by to perform intimate shows.

Jinjiang District, Hua Xing Zheng Street #54; +86 028 8678 2057

Chengdu’s rise – a timeline

The New Century Global Centre has 1.7 million square meters of floor space -- enough to hold 20 Sydney Opera Houses.

2005: Intel opens its second Chinese factory in Chengdu

2006: KLM launches direct flights from Amsterdam

2008: Sichuan earthquake strikes 80 kilometers northwest of Chengdu, killing 70,000 and leaving close to 20,000 still missing

2010: Chengdu becomes Asia’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy

2010: First subway line opens

2011:Chengdu's GDP increases 15.2 percent to reach RMB 680 billion, surpassing US$7,700 per capita

2012: Second subway line opens

2013: Direct freight train from Chengdu to Łódź in Poland launched -- the first Chengdu to Europe service

2013: Fortune Global Forum hosted in Chengdu. Keynote speakers include Tony Blair and John Huntsman

2013: Chengdu announces plans to allow citizens of 45 countries to visit for 72-hours visa-free

2013: New Century Global Centre, the world’s largest building by floor space, opens

2013: British Airways announces launch of thrice-weekly direct flights from London (starting September 23, 2013)

2014: 350 kph (217 mph) high-speed rail line between Chengdu and Chongqing due to open

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