Love pandas? What about delicious food? The Chinese city of Chengdu is closer than you think, mama, and it’s the perfect place to visit with kids!
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in Southwest China, was one of those places that was always on my theoretical bucket list – who wouldn’t want to cuddle with a panda?! – but with language difficulties and very expensive visas for Americans, it seemed to languish at the bottom of my list. So when a relative moved to a nearby city to teach this year and we wanted to visit her, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get off the (hot)pot and finally take the trip.
With a fairly short direct flight from Singapore (about 4 ½ hours), amazing food (probably the best in China), friendly citizens, fab hotels and of course the aforementioned pandas, Chengdu made for an outstanding family holiday. Put it at the top of those lists, mama!
This was my third trip to China (after previously visiting Beijing and Shanghai), but I think it would actually make for a lovely first point of entry – it’s far less crowded with tourists than the capital, and with a population known throughout the country for being friendly and laid-back, the pace is perfect for families and kids in contrast to frenetic, futuristic Shanghai.
Where to Stay
Like so many cities in China, Chengdu is filled with sparkling brand new hotels from major international chains (with prices a lot more reasonable than what you’d find in Singapore or Hong Kong, for instance). We opted for the Ritz-Carlton Chengdu, which enjoys a super central location and offers spectacular, spacious rooms that are ideal for families.
From the moment we hopped out of our car (the hotel’s an easy 30-minute ride from the airport), we could see why it ranks #2 or #1 on TripAdvisor: we were greeted by a fleet of friendly staff who whisked us directly up to our beautiful Club Executive Suite overlooking the city. While I admired the stunning views from the living room, bedroom and even bathroom, 3-year-old Maggie went right to the marzipan panda and cupcakes on the coffee table.
Ritz-Carlton knows their audience quite well; their Ritz Kids program sets the standard the world over for a creating a special and welcoming stay for little ones (I’ve stayed in my share of hotels, and was truly blown away by their efforts!). Ritz Kids emphasizes creating special memories for a child linked to that particular city, hotel or resort; in Chengdu Maggie not only received the aforementioned panda pastry and a stuffed panda, she also got a stack of children’s books (in both English and Mandarin), a cuddly stuffed lion in a satin cheongsam, and a bevy of kid-friendly toiletries along with a Ritz-Carlton rubber ducky.
She was also delighted to see a special tent set up just for her to camp out near our bed, and absolutely adored the slippers and toddler-sized bathrobe hanging at her height in the bathroom (she insisted on wearing this at all times while we were in the room). Slightly older kids also receive safari-themed pajamas, how cool is that?! Another exciting attraction (at least in our toddler’s eyes): the luxe Toto Japanese toilet (which raises the seat automatically when you come into the room). According to one of our tourguides, the Ritz is reputed to have the best bathrooms in Chengdu – a fact that can’t be underestimated when you’re coming back from a day of sightseeing with only squat toilets at your disposal!
All this is to say Ritz-Carlton Chengdu was quite possibly the most child-friendly city hotel we’ve ever enjoyed. The staff was gracious and accommodating throughout – we especially appreciated their patience at the wonderful buffet restaurant, SPICES, which served up plenty of kid-friendly options and provided a nice respite to all the spicy food we were eating out in the city.
On the food front, we also really appreciated the Club Lounge, which had food and beverages available throughout the day (Maggie gives the cookies and juice two thumbs up), along with a wonderfully helpful staff that assisted us in coordinating train tickets and transfers.
Honestly my only minor complaint is that the swimming pool requires everyone to wear a bathing cap. Apparently this is quite normal at hotels in China, but wasn’t advertised anywhere on the hotel’s website or in the information book. It was a bit of a drag to put our suits on and get Maggie all excited for a swim after a hot day of sightseeing, only to be told she couldn’t go in the pool. So, just bear in mind that if you’re going to China, mama, and want to swim, be sure to get yourselves some swim caps!
The hotel’s sterling service, location, and fabulous rooms (charging outlets everywhere you look, Bluetooth stereo speakers, plush bedding with an extensive pillow menu, huge closets, and amazing views, for starters) more than made up for this mild inconvenience, however. And the front desk staff sweetly presented Maggie with a mini-bathing cap upon checkout!
What to See
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is just 10km north of the city, and is also where you’re most likely to see a whole bunch of adorable baby pandas (OMG, see above). This is the biggest and most convenient option BUT – you can no longer cuddle with pandas here (you used to be able to). For a lot of people this is just fine, but after years of looking at viral photos of NBA players cuddling with pandas, I needed that to be part of my once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Instead, we headed to Dujiangyan Panda Center, a relatively new center about 90 minutes from the city and located in beautiful countryside surrounded by mountains and fruit farms (I was so tempted to stop every time we saw fresh strawberries for sale by the side of the road!).
Built into a hillside with about 30 different spacious, natural enclosure areas, Dujiangyan specializes in rehabilitation and has mostly older pandas (we saw a few who’d recently returned from long stints at U.S. zoos, in fact). In addition to the opportunity to take your photo with a panda, it also offers a more comprehensive volunteer program where you can spend the day feeding the pandas, cleaning out their enclosures, and carrying lots and lots of bamboo.
So, the photo taking. It costs RMB 1800 (about 363 SGD) per person, and includes about 20 seconds of sitting alongside a panda with the opportunity to take all the photos and videos that you want. The whole experience went by in a flash, but it was truly amazing getting to cuddle up next to the panda as he happily chomped away on his bamboo. Maggie was a bit freaked out at the time (as you can probably tell from the photo), but in retrospect said this was her favorite part of the entire trip!
You can easily hire a car or tourguide to take you out to any of the panda reserves; we went with a guide a friend had recommended, but could have just made arrangements through the hotel. I’d guess the pandas are the #1 attraction for visitors in Chengdu, so it’s very easily sorted. If we’d had more time, I would have loved to explore the area a bit more. There’s actually a Six Senses Resort nearby to Dujiangyan if you prefer the bucolic scenery to a more urban setting, mama — plus it means you can beat the crowds at the panda center in the morning!
We spent our first morning of the trip exploring the city on foot with Chengdu Food Tours, a cool company run by a Canadian expat named Jordan Porter who arrived in the city six years ago to study, fell in love with it, and never left. (He also fell in love with and married a Chinese lady!)
Jordan is handily fluent in Mandarin and a huge foodie; he took us through alleyways and down backstreets we never would have found on our own, and in the space of about three hours managed to stuff us with delicious treats from no less than five different restaurants and food stalls!
Our faves included guo kui (a local pastry stuffed with delicious meats and veggies), local wheat noodles made with sugar and chilli oil (tastes way better than it looks or I’ve described), and veggies stir-fried with the region’s famous Sichuan peppercorn. While Sichuan is renowned for its spicy cuisine, Jordan pointed out that the Sichuan chili isn’t so much hot as immensely flavorful. It actually has the power to change how food tastes, to the point that you feel the flavours dancing on your tongue!
We also enjoyed getting Jordan’s dual perspective on Chengdu as a Westerner; and I must say I personally appreciated his in-depth knowledge of the city’s best restrooms. At one point Maggie informed me she needed to use the potty, and as we all know 3-year-olds are ticking time bombs with that sort of thing. Jordan deftly guided us to a sparklingly clean hotpot restaurant which hadn’t actually opened yet, but between his persuasion and Maggie’s cuteness (the manager asked to take a photo with her on the way out) we were thankfully able to make use of their facilities!
Jordan also sent me a long list of other recommended restaurants (with detailed instructions on how to get there!) so we were able to be a bit more adventurous on our own than we might otherwise have been. I honestly can’t recommend him highly enough if you’re a foodie who wants to really explore the city up close; if I’m lucky enough to return I know I’ll be sure to do a hotpot dinner with him next time around!
A final Chengdu highlight for us was People’s Park, which was about a 20-minute stroll from the hotel. Beautifully lush and sprawling, the park is packed with atmospheric tea houses that are a favorite spot for locals to relax or play a game of mahjong. Maggie adored the small playground we found tucked into a corner of the park; it was actually surrounded by all manner of theme park rides, but these cost extra and it was also hard to tell how well maintained they were.
Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the park was Maggie’s rockstar status (I assume down to her white-blonde hair) — on three different occasions mothers (or grandmothers) rushed up to her with their own bewildered toddlers in tow in hopes of snapping a photo. When we chanced upon a charming ballroom dance session, a crowd of nearly 20 people seemed to form around Maggie, who mostly took it in stride. Other than in the hotel and at the panda center, we never saw any other Caucasians so I can understand why they might find her unique. Once again I found the city’s residents to be immensely warm and friendly compared to other places I’ve visited in China; no one was ever pushy or rude, merely curious.
We spent three very full days in Chengdu as we also needed to visit our relative in nearby Chongqing, but we easily could have spent five days or even a week exploring. I’m keen to return, not only to eat more of the delicious cuisine, but also to visit sites like Mount Qingcheng, the Giant Buddha at Leshan, or any number of other parks and temples.
The city is flat and extremely walkable (we had an easy time getting around with our stroller), with clean, tree-lined streets more crowded with bicycles than cars. There’s also a state-of-the-art subway system that opened in 2010 (with new lines opening approximately every two years since), and plenty of museums (Chengdu’s history dates back nearly four thousand years, so there’s lots to learn about!). To be honest, I also wouldn’t mind a spot more pampering at the Ritz – and I don’t think Maggie would mind, either!