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Chengdu, the capital of southwest China’s Sichuan province, is famous for the country’s pride and joy: pandas. But you won’t just see the adorable creatures at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base — panda billboards, sculptures, topiaries, taxi logos and panda-themed foods are everywhere.
As one of China’s biggest cities, Chengdu is also known for spicy Sichuan food, an unusual style of Chinese opera, and a crop of luxury hotels and shopping malls. And it has become more accessible in recent years thanks to nonstop flights from San Francisco via United Airlines and from Los Angeles, New York and Chicago via Hainan Airlines. (Bonus: Since December 2019, a 144-hour transit visa allows tourists to stay in the province without a standard China visa.)
EatAsia’s first UNESCO-designated Creative City of Gastronomy, Chengdu is home to Sichuan food — liberally laced with dried chili peppers and pungent Sichuan peppercorns — and panda dumplings.
No cause for alarm: These desserts (dough balls stuffed with red bean paste or custard) are shaped like darling panda faces; black beans form the eyes, ears and mouths. Suggest clients take a cooking class to learn to make three Sichuan specialties at individual cooking stations (panda dumplings included) at Chuancais Museum.Afterward, their lunch is served. Additionally, this Sichuan cuisine museum also has exhibits on the province’s food history.
Travelers should also head to Panda Shopkeeper, one of many restaurants serving panda dumplings. It’s well-located on Qintai Road, a cultural street lined by traditional-style buildings and entered by an ornate, carved pagoda-style gate. Panda-shaped ice cream and panda-design coffee and cookies are found at Crowne Plaza Chengdu Panda Garden, a luxury hotel 10 minutes from the panda research base.
SleepThe Temple House, a sleek, contemporary-style luxury boutique hotel — whose entrance is through a century-old courtyard and gate — reflects Chengdu’s contrasts. The hotel, which has 100 rooms, 42 apartments, a vegetarian restaurant (a rarity in pork-mad Chengdu), a pool, a fitness center, a gallery and free Wi-Fi access, was named Asia’s top city hotel in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards in 2017. Its spa was called China’s best wellness retreat in the 2018 World Spa Awards.
A sister to House Collective hotels in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, The Temple House is a short walk from the panda sculpture climbing the wall of the IFS luxury mall. A summer “glamping” package for families includes a spacious tent on the balcony, a stuffed panda toy designed by the panda research base, and breakfast for two adults plus children.
PlayThe Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, located in Chengdu’s northern suburbs, is the place to see pandas outdoors chomping on bamboo amid caves, lakes and bamboo forests that mimic the animals’ natural environment.
Meanwhile, baby pandas sleep in the nursery. Arrive early (around 8 to 9 a.m.) to see the babies fed and at their most active — which is to say, not very. A film and museum about pandas, along with shops to buy merchandise, can also be found here.