Think of Chongqing and two things instantly spring to mind: First, the famous, almost-sacred Chongqing hotpot – rich, spicy and fuelling many dinner conversations to come. Second, world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie’s new riverfront baby, Raffles City Chongqing, which sits at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. A modern marvel in the heart of historic Chaotianmen.
Chongqing is the newest “It” city in China, where east meets west, ancient meets modern. A city in transition, surging ahead with a glossy new veneer, while holding onto its traditional, Old World charm.
It’s the perfect place for the intrepid explorer, where you can wander the narrow walkways of ’Gram-friendly Hongyadong, discover the burgeoning arts and music scenes, and soak in the awe-inspiring gorges along the Yangtze.
Pack your bags. Chongqing, also nicknamed the “World’s Largest Village”, is a city of epic proportions that will challenge you cognitively, socially and creatively.
Urban vibes in transitionary Chongqing
Chongqing’s urban landscape is experimental. The demanding terrain, legacy of historical buildings, heavy-handed Brutalist-Futuristic leanings and Internet-session-making structures have resulted in a skyline that looks more like Chicago than Shanghai or Beijing.
Hongyadong (Hongya Cave) exists for tourists to check boxes. The 11-storey stilt house is perched along a cliff and boasts the right mix of history and gentrified trappings, which will deliver on far more thrills than multi-storey brand complexes in Tokyo.
Chongqing’s “wait a minute” eccentricity is further exemplified by the fact that the city is home to the world’s longest graffiti street. Huangjueping Graffiti Street is a mile long and is bookended by Huangjueping Railway Hospital and the 501 Art Repository. As with everything Chongqing, there is an infectious energy, but Huangjueping’s vibe leans more towards the bohemian.
Besides the art on display, the artistic community gathered in Huangjueping has also given rise to art-inspired bars. A popular haunt is Muse Wines (Tank Loft) at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, where you can rub shoulders with Chongqing’s art-school influencers. Or you could beat the crowds and tuck into Longmen Kezhan – if you can find it.
Longmen Kezhan (which translates to Dragon Inn) might bring to mind pugilistic scenes from mid-century Chinese cinema. In actual fact, it is a low-key watering hole hidden in a courtyard just off the covered shopping arcade near the university, where you can escape from the madding crowd over a glass of cold Meizijiu (plum wine).
Over in the Yuzhong district, Chongqing surprises again with the Eling Test Bed 2 Arts Centre, located within scenic Eling Park. Some have likened this multi-level complex to a slice of New York City’s Meat-Packing District because of its hotchpotch of tenants – cafés, a microbrewery, a gelateria, design firms, and even an indoor archery. Then when the sun sets, music fans can head over to nearby Nuts Live House, an underground club and the cradle of Chongqing indie music with a brewing hip-hop scene.
Hotpot and Tea: Chongqing traditions you can’t miss
For all the urban hype of Chongqing, there is much in store for those who enjoy a walk down the heritage trail – especially when it comes to food and drink.
The hotpot experience, though daunting, is a must, even if you’re not a food gladiator with an iron-clad stomach. While famous in many parts of China, hotpot originated in Sichuan and Chongqing.
For a traditional take on this fiery feast, visit Zēng Lǎo Yāo Yú Zhuāng (220 Changbin Lu). For an as-local-as-it-gets experience, this stalwart on the hotpot scene doesn’t have an English menu and is famous for their carp fish fillet and fall-off-the-bone spare ribs. It’s housed in an old bomb shelter, and all cabbies know how to get there.
For a kitschy-cool experience, Old Base or Lǎo Jī Dì (8 Xiaozheng Street) serves up hotpot under the steely gazes of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong. Everything is Red Culture-themed – from the wall art to the piped in Communist Party folk music to waitstaff in Red Guard uniforms. Aptly-themed menu items to try, and we’re not going to spoil the surprise: General’s Beef, Red Army Belts, and Red Tri-Treasures.
Traditional Chinese medicine posits that food has warming and cooling properties to balance the body’s yin and yang. So, the perfect complement to spicy hotpot with its warming ingredients is tea with its cooling qualities.
Tea culture co-exists harmoniously with – and as ubiquitously as – the spicy hotpot in Chongqing, dating all the way back to the late Shang Dynasty in the 1000s BCE. Immersing yourself in a sliver of tea culture – from the art of brewing the right leaves in the right apparatus, to nosing and tasting – is almost like a starter kit into understanding what makes Chongqing, Chongqing.
For a gritty throwback, check out 18 Steps Teahouse (Jie Fang Bei District, south of the Liberation Monument). As you make your way up Shibati (18 Steps) Old Street to arrive at the teahouse, stop to observe the laser-focused mahjong-playing locals.
For a more MTV-esque take, visit Yuan Yuan Yuan Teahouse (five locations across Chongqing). This chain has literally been the location for many indie (read: local and aspiring) rap artiste’s music video.
Be warned: Teahouse scams are a thing in Chongqing too (as they are in Shanghai and Beijing). Touts are everywhere and have many guises. As a rule, do not follow random strangers because they happen to be warm and friendly. You definitely don’t want your first teahouse experience to be one fraught with trauma.
Beyond the city borders, into another world
There’s much to see if you’re willing to endure endless bus rides out of Chongqing.
A four-hour bus ride away from the city is the famous Three Gorges, a range of stunning rock formations and lush mountains. The Chinese language is romantic and metaphorical, and the Chinese name for this natural edifice, San Xia, translates as Three Knight-Errants, apropos of the sweeping vistas and mystical sights here.
Hop on a cruise through the gorges and visit Baidicheng – antiquity’s version of the Silicon Valley for Chinese poets, the two-millennium old Huangling Temple, and Quyuan Ancestral Hall. The latter is named after the earliest known poet in China and is legendary for his story of martyrdom.
The ancient town of Gongtan, too, is worth the six-hour journey from Chongqing. Yes, it’s true that Gongtan today is a replica of the original, sunken Gongtan. Some avoid visiting the new town for fear of it being a commercialised fake. But the reality is far more impressive. New Gongtan is not only an exact copy of the old town but is even more sylvan and idyllic than the original.
If you could capture a postcard image of Gongtan, it would undoubtedly feature its bluestone street and stilted houses. As you traverse the jade-like stone slabs, you gain an appreciation for the resident Tujia people, an ethnic minority in the region.
Indulging in local Tujia cuisine is a great way to learn about the culture. Gongtan stuffed tofu is a traditional delicacy – and traditionally reserved for special occasions like Tujia weddings and birthdays – so keep a look out if it pops up as a menu item. Mung bean powder, Gongtan sliced pork belly, and Kuqiao (tartary buckwheat) wine are other foodie must-tries.
Time in Gongtan is a blissful experience and visitors are known to suffer from momentary bouts of jealousy at the thought of having to leave while the locals get to stay on.
Your senses challenged
Chongqing has more facets than a precious gem. If you are of a cinematic bent, Chongqing’s fusion of east and west, old and new, will keep street photography enthusiasts snap happy. And when you rest your camera phones for a beat, you marvel at the contrast between Chongqing’s significance on the macro-stage and the endearingly provincial character of place, practices and people.
You can’t help but feel genuine stop-in-your-tracks amazement at the divine push-pull of juxtapositions at every turn.
If you’re looking to dip your toes into Unexplored China, join our contest for a chance to win 10 pairs of tickets to visit Chongqing (or nine other lesser-known parts of China).
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Best time to visit
Chongqing is known as the fog capital, especially in winter, and can get extremely hot in the summer. The best periods to visit for pockets of blue skies are March to June and September to November.
The rapid transit system, or the CRT and taxis are easy ways to get around.
The official currency of China is the yuan or renminbi (RMB). Major bank ATMs are easily accessible and credit cards widely accepted. Mobile payment via AliPay or WeChat Pay is also increasingly available and preferred. It’s a good idea to keep cash handy to avoid mobile payment conundrums, and when you travel further out of the city into more rural areas.
Fly direct to Chongqing via China West Air. Search for airfare deals and book your tickets now!