Home to more than 14 million people, Chengdu is what you want it to be: while some visitors seek out the pulsating nightlife, others are happy to while away the days strolling through the city's many parks or sipping tea and cracking sunflower seeds in one of its multitude of tea gardens.
Upon arrival, you may be a bit disappointed. Much of the traditional architecture of the charming Old Town has been razed to make room for uninspired, communist-era apartment blocks and modern high-rises. The city has been torn in half, literally, for the last several years as new expressways, additional subways lines, a modern airport, and gleaming office towers push locals' tolerance and pollution levels sky-high.
Despite the rush to modernize, there is still much to see in terms of history and culture. Temples and memorials demonstrate Chengdu's position as the cosmopolitan capital of Western China. The city is also the world’s great center for Sichuan cooking, famous for its spicy, mouth-numbing peppers, which many believe to be the best in China. Chengdu has too many good restaurants to list, and the hole-in-the-wall around the corner may serve the tastiest Sichuan dishes you'll eat.
All roads into Southwest China lead through Chengdu. As the gateway to Tibet, this city is the place to secure the permits and supplies needed for your trip there. Journeys south to Yunnan or north to Xi'an pass through here as well. Lying in the middle of Sichuan Province, Chengdu is also a good base for excursions to the scenic spots dotting Sichuan. Like many big cities in China, Chengdu suffers from pollution. Bring eyedrops, antibacterial wipes, and possibly even a face mask.