A weekender guide to Chengdu

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Chengdu-born food blogger Jenny Gao guides you through her city's tastiest treats, teahouse culture and other exciting offerings

As a key outpost on the historic Southern Silk Road, the Sichuan capital of Chengdu was once a hub for the world's exotic spices and ingredients. Over thousands of years, the city developed a unique cuisine and culture.

Where to eat

Sichuanese dishes are some of the most flavourful in all of China. They include classics such as tongue-numbing mapo doufu (tofu in chilli and bean sauce, 麻婆豆腐), sizzling shuizhuyu (water-boiled fish, 水煮魚) and yuxiangqiezi (fish-fragrant aubergine, 魚香茄子). Then there are the centuries-old street snacks such as dandanmian (擔擔面), noodles dressed in chilli oil, topped with Sichuan peppercorn, ground pork and scallions.

As well as Sichuanese fare, Chengdu offers a whole class of food that is unique to the city, available in cangyingguan, or 'fly restaurants'. These feature rickety stools and questionable hygiene, but they serve delicious home-style cuisine at dirt-cheap prices. Locals sniff these places out like flies (hence the name).

The first spot to hit is Ming Ting (30 Yijiefang, Waicaojia Xiang, Jinniu district, +86 28 8331 5978. 金牛區外曹家巷 一街坊30號), which is probably the most famous 'fly restaurant'. Hidden down an alley in a historic market, it is always packed, as locals flock to it for specialties like pig's brain tofu (腦花豆腐) and heyezhengrou (lotus-leaf steamed pork belly, 荷葉蒸肉).

If you visit the Wenshu Monastery, stop at nearby Zhangliangfen (39 Wenshuyuan Jie, Qingyang district, no phone. 青羊區文殊院街39號), for bowls of tianshuimian (sweet and spicy noodles, 甜水面) and liang fen (涼風), their famous mung-bean noodles. With just the right amount of mouth-puckeringly fragrant vinegar and spicy chilli sauce, it's a perfect harmony of flavours.

With so much choice, it's easy to overlook the 100-year-old, humble Gongting Bakery chain, which produces quality goods using local seasonings and ingredients. There are six locations, including one near Wenshu Monastery (58 Wuyuegong Jie, Qingyang district, +86 28 8694 2646. 青羊區五岳宮街58號). Everything here is great, but the stars of the show are the taosu (walnut cookies, 桃酥). Get the signature jiaoyan (salt and Sichuan pepper, 椒鹽) variety. The buttery texture melts in your mouth, leaving you longing for more.

What to do

Believe it or not, there's a lot to do in Chengdu besides eating. No visit is complete without a stop at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, about 30 minutes by taxi from the city centre (1375 Xiongmao Dadao, Chenghua district, +86 28 8351 7814. 成華區外北熊貓大道1375號近北湖). There are outdoor areas where you can see giant pandas at play and a museum, complete with a formaldehyde-pickled panda penis. You can even pay to hold a baby panda for a photo op. The best time to visit is 8.30am to 10am, during feeding time. A key part of Chengdu's famously leisurely lifestyle is the teahouse culture. Often, afternoon tea stretches late into the evening as card games and mahjong take over. A visit to an authentic teahouse is essential. The city has hundreds, but the most famous is Heming (inside Renmin Park, 12 Shaocheng Lu, Qingyang district, 028 8613 9234. 青羊區少城路12號人民公園內). It offers a great opportunity to spend a lazy afternoon people-watching – bring a pack of sunflower seeds to complete the experience.

Don't leave Chengdu without catching a Sichuan Opera show at the Wu Hou Ci Grand Stage (231 Wuhouci Dajie, Wuhou district, +86 28 8558 2397. 武侯區武侯祠大街231號). Created over 300 years ago, Sichuan Opera remains popular with locals. Skilful singing, acting and comedy characterise these playful shows, as do the performers' masks, which change colour in the blink of an eye.

Where to stay The Shangri-La (shangri-la.com) is pricy, with doubles from RMB1,300 ($1,700), but it has the city's best amenities and an ace location, with views of the Jin River. Or, for a gorgeous boutique with historic style, try the Old Chengdu Club (oldchengduclub.com.cn; doubles from RMB1,000 ($1,250)) near Wenshu Monastery. For those on a budget, the Chengdu Mix Hostel (mixhostel.com) is centrally located and highly rated for its security and atmosphere. Dorms start at RMB40 ($50) a bed; private rooms from RMB88 ($110).

How to get there Hong Kong Airlines flies direct to Chengdu from $1,480 return (excl taxes and charges).

Jenny Gao writes the food blog Jing Theory (jingtheory.com/blog) and is the author of the Chengdu Street Snack guide.

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