Surprising Nanjing: Mini-guide to China's ancient capital

Surprising Nanjing: Mini-guide to China's ancient capital

China's "southern capital" is re-emerging as a center for Chinese culture, food and one strangely beautiful bookstore

​Visit Nanjing ("southern capital" in Chinese) and you start to wonder how the city could remain such a secret among international travelers.

Sure, the capital of the Jiangsu province in eastern China isn't as fashionable as Shanghai.

Nor is its architecture as majestic as Beijing's.

But the immense wealth of well-preserved Chinese culture and history, architecture unique to China's Minguo era (1912-1949) and roots of one of China’s finest cuisines are highly alluring.

Then there's an emerging hipster scene that radiates just beneath the city's traditional surface.

With the Youth Olympic Games coming to the city in 2014, it’s easy to see why this city of 8 million is becoming China's cool kid all over again.


The InterContinental Nanjing offers the best hotel-based views of the city.

InterContinental Nanjing

​The tallest building in Nanjing, unobstructed views of the city and a killer central location make the InterContinental Nanjing the city's landmark hotel.

In the 450-meter-high Zifeng Tower, the hotel has 433 rooms and suites, all placed on the 49th floor or higher.

The bars and restaurants on the 45th and 78th floors may be the best location to view Nanjing.

InterContinental Nanjing, 1 Central Road (Zhong Yang Road), Gulou District, Nanjing; +86 25 8353 8888; from CNY 1,100 ($180) per night

Unlimited supply of hot spring water in your villa's private Jacuzzi. Kayumanis Nanjing

​The Balinese resort brand’s first overseas venture is hidden in Nanjing’s Tangshan, the hot spring area 40 minutes from the city center.

It's the most luxurious hotel in Nanjing or surrounding area.

The resort has 20 villas -- all done up in different themes with private pools, outdoor Jacuzzis with hot spring water, a spa center and reasonably good restaurant, “Nine.”

Guests can take classes ranging from yoga to calligraphy.

Kayumanis Nanjing, 12 Wenquan Road, Tangshan Town, Nanjing; +86 25 8410 7777; from CNY 4,180 ($685) per night

Jinling Hotel

​The first business hotel in Nanjing and once the tallest high-rise in China, the 37-story Jinling Hotel houses 585 rooms and suites.  

Founded in 1983, the state-approved hotel has served countless international political leaders.

The interior design is classy, service is excellent.

The hotel has an award-winning restaurant, Plum Garden, as well as the first revolving restaurant in China, Sky Palace, on the 36th floor.

Jinling Hotel, Xin Jie Kou Square, Nanjing; +86 25 8471 1888; from CNY 1,048 ($170) per night


Nanjing What to eatThe most time-efficient way to sample Qinhuai treasures all at once.

Plum Garden

Originating in Nanjing, ​Jinling cuisine is one of the leading cuisine categories in China.

The best introduction is at Plum Garden.

The award-winning restaurant in the Jinling Hotel serves savory salted duck, a local specialty made by marinating the finest duck in a special brine.

Another classic Jinling dish (you may have to order it off the menu) is deep-fried Mandarin fish, commonly known as squirrel fish. The de-boned fish is deep-fried and seasoned with sweet and sour sauce.

Plum Garden, 2/F, Jinling Hotel, Xin Jie Kou Square, Nanjing; open daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 6-10 p.m.; +86 25 8471 1888 (ext.84204)

Ma Xiang Xing

​Maybe the oldest restaurant in Nanjing, Ma Xiang Xing Halal restaurant was founded more than 160 years ago as a humble street stall.

It’s the birthplace of famous Jinling dishes, including “squirrel fish” and “phoenix tail shrimp.”

The upper floors are good for a proper sit-down meal, whereas the first floor diner serves smaller and quicker meals for cheaper prices.

Nanjing What to eatThe draw at Nanjing Impressions is the theatrical gimmick, but the food isn't bad.Nanjing Impressions

Retro interior design, staff in Minguo-era dress and traditional Chinese performance -- walking into this restaurant is like entering a theater.

Now a chain restaurant, Nanjing Impressions maintains a good standard in all its branches. 

Recommended foods include spicy crayfish, duck soup dumpling and stewed meatballs.

Visitors should try a sweet congee named after Song Meiling, wife of former Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek. It's said that Song was a huge fan of the congee.

Nanjing Impressions, No. 2, Lion Bridge, Hunan Road, Nanjing; +86 25 8330 5777

Confucius Temple food street

​This area made famous by the Confucius Temple has also been named one of four major small-eats areas in China.

Locals complain about a recent decline in quality, but it’s still the best place to sample lots of Nanjing flavors in one place while admiring the view of the Qinhuai River.

In its glory days, eight sets of its small eats were dubbed the eight treasures of Qinhuai.

Traditional foods to try include qifangge (ghee baked cake) and jiangyouji (fried beef dumplings).


Nanjing where to drinkCastle Bar, the only underground rock music venue in Nanjing.

New Castle Bar/C-Lounge

“Where are we going to see live performances in Nanjing now?”

This was a common refrain among Nanjingers who gasped like lost children when the Castle Bar recently hung a "closed" sign on its front door.

Fortunately, the bar was just moving to a new location, taking with it the promise of the same cool gigs and cheap drinks that made it a legend among the city's party crowd.

Founded in 1999, Castle Bar has become the biggest -- if not the only -- venue for underground indie rock music in town.

More good news -- the same ownership group has opened a new venue: C-Lounge, an up-market version of Castle Bar, with sophisticated cocktails and what it calls Nanjing's best-looking bar staff.

New Castle Bar, 2/F Fusheng Building, 1 Fu Hougang, Gulou District, Nanjing; opening hours depend on performance schedules

C-Lounge, 237 Zhongshan East Road, Nanjing; +86 152 5248 2023; open daily 7 p.m.-3 a.m.

where to drink in NanjingThe 61 House is a local favorite for drinks.61House Bar & Restaurant

​Located in Nanjing's university district, 61House, a converted bomb shelter, is the hippest bar in town.

A restaurant by day and meeting point at night, the underground watering hole also has a spacious al fresco area upstairs.

Although it no longer hosts live concerts, the unique vibe of the bar attracts a crowd from nearby universities.

It's not far from Shanghai Street, where many more stylish bars are located.

61House Bar & Restaurant, 61 Hankou Xi Lu, Nanjing; +86 25 8320 5979; open daily from 9 a.m. till late


​If you can't decide which Nanjing bar to check out first, the 1912 district might be helpful.

The primary up-market nightlife district in Nanjing aims to be a local version of Xintiandi in Shanghai or Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong.

An interesting feature to 1912 is that its restaurants, bars and clubs are all housed in gray-brick historic buildings dating to the period around 1912.

InterContinental Prime/Sky Bar

No list of Nanjing nightlife is complete without the city’s highest restaurant and bar, Prime.

On the 78th floor of the InterContinental, the bar serves as a cigar lounge, champagne and wine lounge and martini bar, stocking a wide range of labels.

The hotel is also home to the modern Sky Bar on the 45th floor.

InterContinental Nanjing, 1 Central Road (Zhong Yang Road), Gulou District, Nanjing; +86 25 8353 8888


 Linggu ParkLinggu Pagoda sits peacefully in Nanjing's Purple Mountain.

Zhongshan Mountain National Park

​Nanjing doesn't have the jaw-dropping skyscrapers of other major Chinese cities, but it has something as enviable -- a scenic lake and mountain area smashed into the city center.

Even better, dotted amid the natural scenery are historic sites.

Zhongshan Mountain National Park in Purple Mountain has some of the most important attractions in Nanjing: 

Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum is a majestic resting place for Sun, the father of modern China.

Xiaoling Tomb of the Ming Dynasty and Linggu Temple are parts of a large-scale and scenic Buddhist temple complex.

The park provides train-like "sightseeing vehicles" between each location (CNY 5 per ride).

Visitors can also hike on paved roads between each spot. 

Private tour cart service (CNY 200) is available, but it's not recommended in locations such as Ming Xiaoling, because carts aren't allowed to go into the actual area.  

Zhongshan Mountain National Park; free entrance for Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, combined ticket for Xiaoling Tomb, Lingu Temple and Open-Air Music Hall (a plaza next to Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum) costs CNY 115 ($18); +86 25 8443 7786

 NanjingThe palace is far more magnificent inside than it appears on the outside.Presidential Palace

​The two-dimensional, gray front gate understates the vast, beautiful and significant Presidential Palace.

The immense palace dates back six centuries.

Apart from images of scenes from various eras and well-preserved historic artifacts, beautifully symmetric gardens and courtyards are highlights of the palace.

From the garden house that amplifies the sound of trees in the rain to a confidential meeting room in the middle of a lake, the palace is a historic theme park.

Presidential Palace, CNY 40 ($6.50); open daily 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (March-October), 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (November) and 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (December-February); tour guide available for CNY 100 (in Chinese) or CNY 150 (in English) for groups of 10 or fewer.

Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

Documenting the most heartbreaking chapter in the city's history, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is a must-see.

Built in 1985 on the site of a former mass burial ground (part of it is displayed), the contemporary museum commemorates the death of about 300,000 Nanjing citizens during Japanese occupation in World War II.

The museum is informative, with wartime stories that will chill your spine told by witnesses and victims. This is an extremely sobering experience.

Signage is in Chinese and English.

Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall418 Shuiximen St., Nanjing; open Tuesday-Sunday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; free entry


Nanjing what to doAfter being voted most beautiful book shop in China, Librairie Avant-Garde has become a Nanjing landmark.​​Librairie Avant-Garde

While reading at a book shop may not be at the top of most travelers' wish lists, Librairie Avant-Garde isn't just any book shop.

Voted the most beautiful book shop in China in 2009, Librairie Avant-Garde is located in an unusual location -- an underground car park.

Some of the old car park décor has been retained, there are numerous open spaces and seats for readers to read in and famous poems are carved on each pillar in the shop.

Owner Qian Xiaohua hopes to turn a bookshop into a library, coffee shop and intellectual forum venue as well as an exhibition space for art.

Librairie Avant-Garde, 173 Guangzhou Lu, Nanjing; +86 25 8371 1455

Hot springs

Some 30 kilometers from Nanjing city center sits one of the best hot spring areas in China -- Tangshan ("soup mountain").

Once an exclusive hot spring area for the royals and nobles, Tangshan’s hot spring has a history going back 1,500 years.

The water temperature remains at around 60C (140F) throughout the year, with rich mineral substances in the waters.

Visitors can stay in a hot spring resort such as Regalia on the hill or Kayumanis in the foothills, or head to EASpring, which is open to the public with dozens of pools, from Chinese medicine baths to wine and coffee baths.

Chiang Kai-shek built a vacation home here for he and his wife.

A taxi from the city center to Tangshan costs about CNY 100 ($16).

EASpring Nanjing, 8 Wenquan Road, Tangshan Town, Nanjing; +86 25 5119 0666; entrance fee CNY 218 (bring own swimwear), some baths have additional charges

what to see in NanjingA stroll around Diaoyutai in southern Nanjing yields views of the Qinhuai River and old-style houses like this one.​​​Old Nanjing

As in any rapidly developing city, Nanjing's old buildings are vanishing, making way for new development.

A visit to southern Nanjing still offers a glimpse of the city's old life.

A nostalgic tour can start from Zhonghua Gate, site of the oldest and best-preserved city wall in China, the Ming City Wall.

Gan's Grand Courtyard, the biggest preserved residential structure is now the Nanjing Folk Museum. The mansion is also called "99 rooms and a half" to signify the vastness of this former home of a wealthy local.

Visitors can stroll along old alleys such as Ping Shi Jie, Ling Zhuang Xiang and Diao Yu Tai, where they'll find authentic Chinese snacks and unique architecture aplenty.

Zhonghua Gate, Zhonghua South Road, Qinhuai Nanjing; open daily 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; CNY 34 ($5.50)

Gan's Grand Courtyard, 15 Nanguting, South of Zhonghua Road, Nanjing; open daily 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; CNY 20

Xuanwu Lake

In the central area of the city, Xuanwu Lake provides a place for locals to escape the summer heat. It’s also a major meeting place for locals in the evening.

Different Nanjingers will organize casual walking groups to circle the 444-hectare park in the evening.

Concerts and dance gatherings are often held in the park.

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Hiufu Wong is CNN Travel's staff writer.

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