China’s capital of Jiangsu province is not only central to the country’s history but is also a vibrant metropolis.
Illustration Maggie Li
Nanjing today is a sprawling high-rise city, as modern and hectic as any in China. But it’s been around for a long time, recognised as one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China and the centre of numerous dynasties and key moments in the nation’s history.
The best place to get a grip on the sheer bulk of its history is Nanjing Museum, one of the oldest, largest and best museums in China. Well-organised with English captions and multilingual guides, it contains vast historic artefacts and probably needs a day to do it justice. It also houses one of the best collections of Ming and Qing porcelain in the world, as well as a stunning jade burial suit.
Many other museums mark specific historic landmarks that took place in the city. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Museum, which charts the 19th-century Taiping Rebellion, the war little-known outside of China that killed more people than World War One, is housed in the tranquil riverside Ming Dynasty Zhanyuan Gardens where rebels had their headquarters. Meanwhile, the city’s most infamous and tragic event is remembered at The Memorial of the Nanjing Massacre that occurred during the Japanese occupation in World War Two.
Relics Of The Rulers
Nanjing has seen many rulers who led from the Presidential Palace, named after China’s first modern ruler, President Sun Yat-sen. This sprawling complex of grand buildings dates back to the Ming Dynasty and features a mishmash of various dynastic and European styles interspersed with classical gardens and a vast museum of 20th-century China’s history.
Nearby, you can find the Ruins of the Ming Imperial Palace, located in a peaceful park. Although little remains of the palace apart from a single large gate, a few stumps of pillars or walls and a multitude of worn stone statues, you can imagine the former grandeur of the inspiration for Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Down By The Riverside
Nanjing is located on the banks of the Qinhuai River, the lifeblood of the city. Along its banks, you can find some of the most interesting attractions. Right at the heart of the city is the Confucian Temple; the area surrounding it is one of the most vibrant and popular with tourists. At night, it’s thronged by people, and the colourful ancient buildings are lit up with traditional lanterns and less-traditional neon lights that reflect their light across the river.
There are several markets here, including night markets, a decent place to pick up souvenirs if you’re prepared to haggle. Popular items include yuhuashi bracelets and necklaces made from the local kaleidoscope-coloured ‘rain flower stone’ and intricately carved wooden objects such as boxes and statues.
It’s also a good place to try the local cuisine at the many street stalls and restaurants that exude delicious aromas, especially along Fuzimiao Street. Nanjing is famous for duck dishes such as duck blood and tofu noodle soup, salted duck soup and Jinling roast duck, the ancestor of Beijing’s most famous dish. The best Nanjing food, however, is served at the revolving restaurant, Plum Garden, at the top of the Jinling Hotel in Xinjiekou.
Nearby, you can find the Zhanghua Gate, the southern gate of the walled city constructed in 1387 during the Ming Dynasty. The 14- to 21-metre-high walls stretch around the city, and this is their grandest gate, the biggest ever built in China and well worth climbing to the top to admire the view.
Nanjing’s most popular outdoor destination can be found in its eastern suburbs at Purple Mountain, named after the purple-coloured clouds that often wreath it at sunrise and sunset. Besides naturally beautiful forests and lakes, it’s also home to over 200 scenic spots as well as historical sites from the Six Dynasties to the Republic of China eras.
The oldest is Linggu temple, built in the 4th century, one of the most significant Buddhist sites in China. In immaculate gardens surrounded by ancient trees and populated by yellow-robed monks, you can wander from its brightly painted ‘beamless’ hall to the top of its 60-metre-high pagoda for magnificent views and enjoy its famous vegetarian fare afterwards.
At the base of the southern slopes, you’ll find the Xiaoling Mausoleum of Ming Dynasty, one of the biggest imperial tombs in the country. A tree-shaded Sacred Way, flanked by massive stone statues of auspicious animals such as lions and elephants, leads to a small bridge that crosses into the impressive and highly decorated mausoleum itself.
Perhaps the most visited site on the mountain is the imposingly grand Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, dedicated to the first president of the Republic of China, a pivotal figure in bringing down the Qing dynasty, and with it, over 2,000 years of imperial rule. It has the feeling of a pilgrimage site with thousands of visitors daily. If you want to know more about the man himself, there is a museum dedicated to him here.
Like any big city, Nanjing has its modern side, with an efficient metro system and recently-revamped airport. All your contemporary shopping needs can be met at the international brand stores in the air-conditioned malls such as Deji Plaza that line the streets of the downtown district around Xinjiekou. This is sometimes called Nanjing’s Times Square, and the neon-lit area is an excellent place for a stroll after dark even if you don’t want to shop.
To get a bird’s eye view of the city, ascend to the viewing platform of the 458-metre-high, futuristic-looking Zifeng Tower in Gulou District, Nanjing’s tallest building and the 14th-tallest in the world. The viewing platform is on the 72nd floor, with the Intercontinental Hotel located just below and high-end restaurants and a nightclub right at the top.
Nightlife is another thing the city doesn’t skimp on, with several areas of bars and clubs. The most famous is the 1912 District area, west of the Presidential Palace, where international-style bars and restaurants occupy an entire block and have something for everyone. Other nightspots include the Gulou and University Districts.
- The Lukou International Airport is 35 kilometres from the city centre and also has domestic connections to most of the country. Two major train stations serve regional destinations and connect to China’s high-speed rail network.
- The best way to travel around the city and from/to the airport is Nanjing’s excellent metro system, which is efficient, cheap, clean and safe.
- Nanjing is one of China’s ‘furnace’ cities, best visited outside the hot and muggy summers, though be warned it can also get pretty cold during winter.
- For up-to-date listings and information in English, check out The Nanjinger magazine available at many hotels, bars and restaurants in the city or online at thenanjinger.com.
- If you’re in town for more than a few days, pick up a Nanjing Public Utility IC card; once charged with money, it can be used to pay for most forms of transport within the city and gives discounts on the metro and buses.