Looking for a big, beautiful, exciting and easy access city in China with a long history and relics to show for it? Nanjing checks all those boxes and more! As the historical capital and one of the oldest cities in China, Nanjing (direct translation ‘south capital’) is ideal for anyone wanting to taste both traditional and modern China. Sarah and I spent over a year working here as English teachers in the north-eastern district, Xianlin. So we’re sure we’ve found the best spots for you to make the most of your visit.
If you’re looking for history and ancient relics the Ming Xiaoling Tombs and the city wall at Xuanwu Lake are amazing to see and learn from. If you’re after day excursions the Tangshan Hot Springs and Water Park are ideal destinations. For recent history and the impact of world war two on Nanjing visit both the Nanjing Massacre Museum and John Rabes’ House. Nature walks and swims at Purple Mountain will make sure you get a good dose of local flora and fauna. Also, there’s no shortage of unique shopping opportunities at Lao Mendong and the Fuzimiao Night Market, make sure you catch the inner city canal boat ride while you’re at it!
- Jump To Info About Purple Mountain
- Jump To Info About Xuanwu Lake
- Jump To Info About World War Two Memorials
- Jump To Info About Unique Shopping in Nanjing
- Jump To Info About Tangshan
Purple Mountain or Zijin Shan (Pronounced Dz Jin Shan) is easily the most beautiful part of Nanjing. It’s a 20km square natural and historical park with roads and walking tracks that twist and turn throughout. Just following them by bike or on foot is easily a full days’ worth of exploring and picnics.
There are so many destinations within Purple Mountain including the Linggu Temple, the Observatory, the summit of the mountain and the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum. But I first want to talk about the place we spent a lot of time visiting, swimming, relaxing and having a picnic at, Zixia Lake and the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum.
Zixia Lake is very secluded, nestled deep inside the mountain and is actually inside the confines of the Ming Xiaoling Tombs historical site, so making a day trip to cover both Zixia Lake and the Ming Tombs is ideal. The lake is so peaceful, and an ideal place to find a bench or a tree and watch the locals enjoy their leisure time. Also, the water is super warm in the summer so swimming is a must, don’t forget your swimwear! I recommend checking out the Ming Tombs first, then heading up to the lake for a swim and relaxation.
The Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum:
The Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum is the tomb of the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming dynasty. The path to the tomb is eerie, secluded with forest and buried by hundreds of years of growth. Most of the old buildings have disappeared as the mausoleum complex suffered damage during the mid-19th century Taiping War, but the place was somewhat restored during the Tongzhi era. Now, stone foundations break through foliage and half-reconstructed walls, stone carvings and steps emerge from the rubble.
How to get there:
- Take the subway to Muxuyuan Station on Line 2 (red line). Take Exit 1. Cost: ~¥4
- You can then walk this 30-minute route. Cost: ¥0 or….
- Take a 5-minute cab to the ticket office and gate of the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum. When speaking to the taxi driver pronounce it like this: “Ming Shyao Ling Men Koh”. Failing that show them this: 明孝陵 But try out your Chinese first! They’ll appreciate it. Cost: ¥10-20 (it’s worth ten but they’ll try twenty on you because you’re foreign)
- To get into the enclosure you can buy a ticket at the gate right here. Cost: ¥70 (or flash any id card and say “Shway Shang” (student) for an attempt at a student discount)
- Then follow the network of paths and tracks to either location (they are both sign-posted in Chinese and English). The tombs entrance is here and Zixia Lake is here.
Xuanwu (pronounced Shwan Woo) Lake is huge! There’s easily enough to see here to soak up an entire day of exploring. A wide, tree-lined cobbled path skirts the entire lake with the south-western edge and the main entrance dominated by the ancient city wall. Stone bridges reach out to the many small and large islands which pepper the interior of the lake. You can hire electric and peddle-powered boats from one of the many shops that speckle the shoreline and there are a few theme park-like attractions for kids and adults alike.
Hiring a boat is an absolute must. The tranquility of being on the open water and the various views of the city line and Jiming Temple in the distance during sunset are some of the best views Nanjing has to offer. Take some beer and food and your camera, but be wary of the battery charge! We limped back after being away for almost 3 hours.
We spent an afternoon on our skateboards and managed to cover a lot of ground. Check out right here for a pond filled to the brim with Koi. You can purchase a small bag of fish food and cause a frenzy of thousands of fish gaping for food, it’s an almost grotesque spectacle. Exploring the islands you’ll find sculptures and gardens filled with cherry trees which blossom like crazy during the spring and attract throngs of wedding photographers.
How to get there:
- Take the subway to Xuanwumen Station on Line 3. Cost: ~¥4
- Take Exit 3 and head to the main lake entrance here. Entrance is free
- Hire an Electric or peddle-powered boat from almost anywhere along the shoreline. Cost: ~¥100-200 per hour (not including a deposit of around ~¥200)
World War 2 Memorials
The recent history of Nanjing includes a dark era that a lot of Westerners know little about. Our knowledge of World War 2 is full of stories of Europe and Japan, but China has a story which is by some measures equally as sad. Before you go I recommend reading The Rape of Nanking and watching the documentary adapted from the book, it’s on youtube here.
Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall:
The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is a beautiful tribute to this horrific time in Nanjing. A large outdoor garden with giant statues, sculptures, relief carvings, tablets, and a large wall listing some of the names of the estimated 300,000 victims who fell during Japanese invasions in December 1937. Large stone figures loom with grief-stricken faces, tablets tell of horror stories and a huge coffin-shaped excavation hall displays undisturbed skeletal remains of those who were tossed in a mass grave.
A tomb-like exhibition hall, half underground, contains more than 1000 items related to the massacre, including an immense collection of pictures, objects, charts, and photographs. Paintings, sculptures, illuminated display cabinets, multimedia screens and documentary films serve to demonstrate to visitors the crimes committed by the Japanese military.
How to get there:
- Take the subway to Yunjin Road Station on Line 2 (red line). Take Exit 2 Cost: ~¥4
- Cross the road directly in front of you and go straight along the small road to Shuiximen Road and turn right.
- The entrance is right about here. Cost: Entrance is Free
John Rabes House:
John Rabe was a German businessman and Nazi Party member who lived in Nanjing during the second world war. When the Japanese military invaded Nanjing in 1937 Rabe set up a safety zone in central Nanjing in order to protect citizens from the persecution of the Japanese militants.
His war diaries have been published as The Good Man of Nanking. They tell of the horrors faced by the Chinese during the Japanese occupation and how Rabe saved so many from them.
You can visit John Rabe’s house and learn more about his actions, his life after the war and how the people of Nanjing grew to revere and respect him. The house is an odd fixture, it’s European architecture and land composition is in stark contrast to the surrounding buildings which now tower over it.
How to get there:
- Take the subway to Zhujiang Station on Line 1 (blue line). Take Exit 1. Cost: ~¥4
- Take a right at that big intersection onto Guangzhou Road then take another right, up the small alleyway named Xiaofen Bridge.
- It’s on your left about 50 meters up the road right about here. Entrance Cost: ¥10
Unique Shopping in Nanjing
Nanjing is not short of special shopping experiences. Malls seem to dominate almost every major corner in the central city. But there are a few spots that exude a charm that all others lack. Here are our favourite must-see shopping destinations in Nanjing.
Fuzimiao Night Market:
The Fuzimiao (pronounced Fu Dz Meow) Night Market is located right next to the Confucius Temple historical site and rests on the banks of the Qinhuai River. Most of it is a complex maze of trinket and fashion shops which line the pedestrian-only alleyways. There’s a fake market below which is almost dungeon-like and sells fake-brand products of all kinds for almost no money. I call it the bottom feeders of capitalism.
You don’t have to visit Fuzimiao at night time, but if you don’t, you’re truly missing out on one of the most charming places in Nanjing. The place lights up like Christmas, the smell of Chinese BBQ and stinky tofu permeate the air. Throngs of people excite the place and the range of shops are as interesting as the decoration. The sound of jewel vendors hammering away at their fake silver jewellery cuts through the pop music hammering out of the fashion shops. But tranquillity can be found on the canals.
Taking the hour-long canal boat ride at night time on the Qinhuai River is worth every kuai. Red and orange Chinese lanterns line the banks. Colourful LED lights are strung amongst trees and line the traditional Chinese buildings. You get the feeling you’re travelling through someone’s dream. Check out the video below to see what I mean. Cost of boat ride: ~¥80
How to get there:
- Take the subway to Confucius Temple Station on Line 3 (green line). Take Exit 1. Cost: ~¥4
- Go left as you come off the escalators, then left again at the main road, Jiankang Road
- Follow this road for about 400 meters until you see the Fuzimiao archway on your left, here. This is the entrance to the market.
- Explore the place. Go everywhere, especially the small alleys.
- For spots described above, check out this map.
There’s a funky little shopping area just one stop south of Fuzimiao called Lao Mendong. Like Fuzimiao it’s an amazing place to visit during the night. Tiny water gardens with statues and lilies pepper the market area and at night time they light up blues, greens, and reds. Mist-machines pump out an eerie fog which gives the whole place an ancient feel and adds excitement to the exploration of the tiny alleys and gardens you find behind the main shops.
The shopping here isn’t as extensive as Fuzimiao, but Lao Mendong has one thing that Fuzimiao doesn’t, Motu burger joint. Motu is a New Zealand themed burger bar that also serves kiwi-style milkshakes and kiwi beer (I’m a Kiwi, I can vouch for their authenticity). Any burger on the menu is delicious and you can sit up on their verandah, above the market itself and while away your time watching the shoppers and tourists go by.
How to get there:
- Take the subway to Wudingmen Station on Line 3 (green line). Take Exit 2. Cost: ~¥4
- Cross Madao Stree and walk west for four blocks.
- Take a left at Gutong Alley and go straight for 100 meters.
- Cross Jianzi Alley and you’ll be looking at the Lao Mendong archway entry right about here.
Just outside of Nanjing, to the east, is a small recreational town and scenic reserve called Tangshan, (translated – Hot Mountain). You’ll need to take a taxi there but it’s only around half an hours drive and the visit is well worth the trip! The surrounding mountain is a hotbed of geological activity meaning it’s the perfect place for hot springs!!, and there are many… including a water park.
Happy Magic Water Cube:
If you’re looking for some excitement and summer fun go check out this place! Happy Magic Water Cube, Nanjing is a giant waterpark with about eight or nine different slides, various kid’s water playgrounds, a lazy river and a giant wave pool.
Twice during the day, once around 2 pm and once in the evening, they host a crazy music show directly above the wave pool. It’s enough of a spectacle in itself, but when you’re sitting in doughnut floaties squished together with thousands of people it’s freakish….. it’s night time….. there’s a stage above you and a guy dressed like the Gangnam style dude is singing K-pop hits up there with gogo girls either side of him and break dancers in front, the lights are crazy and fireworks are going off…… Then they drop the wave…. and this giant wall of humans comes rushing towards you and picks you up for a brief glimpse of the surrounding insanity before dropping you down into the scrambling washing machine of legs and arms. Then the Gangnam style guy tells everyone to splash each other like crazy so the entire pool becomes an ocean of erratic hands and water spray. It’s the definition of hysteria and something we will never forget.
The only draw back from this waterpark was that the food court was pretty dirty and the food selection was pretty terrible. So, unless you’re into eating Chinese sausages, bring your own food. Water and drinks are always available……. (and you can bring beer)
How to get there:
- Without a car, the easiest way to get there is by taxi. Cost: ~¥60
- The park is called Happy Magic Water Cube in English, but they won’t understand that so show them this: 南京欢乐水魔方
- Their Website (in Chinese) has directions if for some reason the driver is confused.
- Returning home, it’s easy to find taxis parked outside the front of the car park on the main road.
- Water park Cost: ¥160
Tangshan Hot Springs:
If you’re looking for lush pampering in a peaceful environment, you’ll find everything at one of the many hot spring villages the surround the Tangshan mountain. The village we went to was amazing. The entire enclosed area was a sculpted garden with Chinese Pavillions and bridges. The baths were nestled inside gardens of fern and other local flora, it was a really lovely set up.
Each bath has it’s own charm or interest. There are play pools for the kids, super hot baths for the adults, baths infused with giant bags of tea, wine and coffee, pools with waterfalls and secluded enclosed baths. The strangest thing we found was a large shallow pool that was so busy with people we found it hard to get in. Inside we saw tens of thousands of small Doctor Fish, all nibbling away at the dead skin of swimmers. We got in but it was a pretty unsettling feeling…..
How to get there:
- Like the waterpark above, the easiest way to get to Tangshan is by Taxi. Cost: ~¥60
- The village spa we went to is called Nanjing Tangshan Easpring Resort in English, but they won’t understand that so show them this: 南京汤山颐尚温泉
- Their tripadvisor page is here and has directions if the driver has trouble finding it. It’s here on google maps.
- Returning home, it’s also easy to find taxis parked outside the front of the car park on the main road.
- Village Entry cost: ¥120
So thanks for reading! I hope you manage to have an epic visit to Nanjing, it truly is a beautiful city with so much to offer!
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