This article (plus pics) was written for Awesome, a Chinese/Thai inflight mag for Scoot, a low-cost Asia Pacific airline.
Defined by its position just south of the mighty Yangtze River, Nanjing (meaning ‘southern capital’) bossed China for eight dynastic periods, and again, albeit briefly, when the last Emperor left the Forbidden City and China became a Republic. Dramatic centuries of upheaval have left their mark - Nanjing is awash with historic sites, from the tomb of the first Ming Emperor to the palace of China’s first president, Sun Yat Sen. Here’s our guide to getting the most out of your stay in China’s historic southern capital.
Walk the City Walls
An urban hike along Nanjing’s Ming Dynasty-era city wall is the perfect way to get your bearings in China’s former capital. Unlike Beijing, whose walls were demolished in the 1960s, about a third of Nanjing’s 600 year-old battlements still stand, recently cleared of vegetation and opened to the public in time for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Over ten kilometers of broad, weather-worn walkways await, but for a quick and satisfying hike, ascend the Taicheng City Wall section beside Jiming Temple (look for the seven-story pagoda). Here you’ll find a little museum explaining the wall’s history, followed by a picturesque 1.5km trail northwest along the Wall beside Xuanwu Lake, past rows of old cannons to the Qing-era Xuanwu Gate.
Tip: Look for bricks inscribed with Chinese calligraphy – these marks were a quality seal by the maker, made hundreds of years ago.
Chill Out By Xuanwu Lake
Just outside the old City Walls, Xuanwu Lake Park is a lovely spot for a stroll along the causeways and shorelines flanked by drooping willows and chrysanthemum flowers. Once a private imperial garden, the lake and park grounds now serve as a sanctuary for hundreds of birds, and boats can be paddled in the warmer months between lotus flowers. The lake gets its name from a black dragon, Xuanwu, who is said to live beneath the placid water, but don’t worry – sightings are rare! Much more common is the scene of elderly locals performing tai chi beside the lake in the early morning.
Tip: A branch of Huiwei, Nanjing’s much-loved fast food chain selling delectable dumplings and soups, can be found in the center of the park.
Take the Sacred Way into Ming History
Rising up 400 meters from the foot of Xuanwu Lake, Nanjing’s Purple Mountain is a treasure trove of ancient tombs and temples, including the final resting place of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. Built in the fourteenth century before the capital moved to Beijing, the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum is reached by the Sacred Way, an 1,800 meter-long road lined by 12 enormous pairs of stone animal guardians. You’ll pass between camels, elephants, lions, and even mythical beasts like the xiezhi (somewhere between a goat and a unicorn), Buried with the Emperor are his concubines – more than 40 – who were forced to commit suicide to accompany him into the afterlife.
Tip: Travel in autumn to see the Sacred Way under a golden canopy of French sycamore trees.
Discover Imperial Fashions
Sun Yat Sen played an instrumental role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, whose rulers and administrators would go about their business dressed in fine silks. Rich with Imperial symbolism, many of these garments were made in Nanjing. The Jianging Imperial Silk Manufacturing Museum documents this craft, dating back over 1,500 years and since 2009 a UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage. Woven on four-meter-high looms operated by two craftsmen simultaneously, the process is incredibly complex and results in stunning patterns, including the famous Nanjing Cloud Brocade pattern produced for the royal family.
Tip: A silk brocade fashion show takes place most days in the morning and again at 4pm.
Meet the (Former) President
Even more famous today than the first Ming emperor is the founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat Sen. His provisional government was formed in Nanjing, and his office is still visible in the Presidential Palace, sometimes called China’s White House, and one of the city’s most fascinating historic sites. Here you can learn about the Taiping Rebellion, the founding of China as a republic, and the subsequent rise of Chiang Kai Shek (his Kuomintang headquarters is also here). Nanjing also serves as Sun Yat Sen’s final resting place; his mausoleum on top of Purple Mountain, accessed by a 480-meter long stairway, is one of China’s most important pilgrimage sites.
Tip: The Presidential Palace is closed on Mondays.
Understand Nanjing’s Tragic Past
No visit to Nanjing would be complete without paying your respects at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, a monument to the memory of 300,000 civilians killed by Japanese soldiers in 1941. A sobering experience, exhibitions reveal exhumed mass graves and go into grisly detail; if it all gets too much, retreat to the statue outside simply called Peace – depicting a woman cradling a white dove in her hand, above long pools of calming water.
Tip: Arrive early to beat the crowds.
Browse China’s Most Beautiful Book Shop
Librare Avant-Garde is surely the last kind of place you’d expect to find in an underground car park close to Nanjing University, but this humongous book store is a bibliophile paradise. Opened in 1999 by Christian owner Qian Xiaohua, the motif of a cross has become the symbol of the shop, because, as Qian says, reading is their religion and the place is a ‘heaven for book lovers’. The shop has become so popular there are now eight more across the city (though none other in car parks)!
Tip: Although there is only a small English-language section, the shop is a great place to stop in for a coffee, and has an excellent range of souvenirs.
Eat Nanjing Duck (In all its forms)
A Nanjing saying goes that ‘no meal is complete without duck’. The city is even more quackers about duck than Beijing, and the most famous dish is Nanjing salted duck, with a recipe dating back hundreds of years. The duck meat is marinated in a salt, spice and osmanthus brine, before being boiled and served sliced on the bone. Nanjing’s most popular restaurant chain, Da Pai Dang (Nanjing Impressions) does a fine rendition, along with delectable soy sauce noodles and other treats. But many locals will say they actually prefer Nanjing roasted duck, with its crisp golden skin and sweet, piquant sauce. Best to try them both and make up your own mind.
Tip: The recently restored streets of Laomendong, a historic district, are a popular spot to pick up a freshly roasted Nanjing duck, as well as other snacks like Nanjing’s famous beef dumplings and duck fat ‘shaobing’ bread.
Stay in the Heart of the Capital
Only a year old, The Grand Mansion, A Luxury Collection Hotel is fast becoming a landmark destination in the city, thanks to its beautifully-appointed rooms, rooftop sun terrace (complete with duck pond) and commanding position overlooking the Presidential Palace. Many of the city’s best sights are in easy walking distance, including Nanjing 1912, the city’s premier nightlife district, amply stocked with bustling bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
Tip: For decent western and Asian food, cold beers and live music, seek out Blue Marlin in the center of the 1912 complex.