Nanjing is one of the most fascinating cities in China. Located in China’s eastern Jiangsu providence on the Yangtze River, it’s just a 1.5-hour ride from Shanghai to Nanjing on the bullet train – well worth expanding out of Shanghai to see an amazing number of things to do in Nanjing.
Nanjing played an important role in China’s long history. Literally translated as “Southern Capital” (南京), it was the national capital during six of the ten dynasties in Chinese history. The city’s pinnacle was during the Ming dynasty when it was the largest city in China. In more modern times, Nanjing was the capital of the Republic of China.
Much of the stunning architecture, magnificent ancient walls, important monuments, and landmarks are still intact. Nanjing is considered one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, along with Beijing, Xi’an, and Luoyang.
Cultural sights abound in Nanjing, a clean and attractive city. Museums highlighting both ancient and recent history, temples, nighttime river cruises, and mountaintop tombs are just a few of the delightful ways to pass time in the city.
Here are some of the best things to do in Nanjing. Check out the variety to suit every personality!
1. Ming City Wall
It was raining upon our arrival in Nanjing, but a little drizzle didn’t dampen my fascination with the ancient City Wall. Plus it gave me a chance to dig out my new polka-dot raincoat, purchased specifically for this trip.
Nanjing was the national capital during part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1421). At the time, the surrounding wall was the longest city wall in the world (22 miles). Zhonghua Gate (Gate of China) is a well-preserved 14th-century section of the massive wall which once controlled the old city’s southern entrance.
In 1366 AD, Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty accepted the notion to construct a city wall and began preliminary design. After 21 years of labor-intensive construction, the wall was finally completed in 1386. The wall is made up of four parts – the Outer City, Inner City, Imperial City, and Palace City. The portion of the wall I walked on was the well-preserved remnant of the Inner City Wall.
Because the wall symbolizes the history of Nanjing, the citizens attach great significance to the work of conserving it. The local government erected a wide side path at Jiefangmen Gate to enable visitors to ascend to the top.
Within the wall complex is the Lao Cui Tea House where we received hands-on instruction on how to prepare traditional Chinese tea.
We also took a class on painting fans incorporating the ornate Chinese calligraphy and characters. It’s harder than it looks, but a lot of fun.
2. Purple Mountain
Nanjing has so much to offer, but I think my favorite place was Purple Mountain because it combined two of my favorite things – history and outdoor activity.
One of the four most famous mountains in Southern China, the mountain was named for the purple clouds that sometimes hover near the peak of the mountain. The site is not only striking but also rich in history and culture.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum
Of the more than 200 heritage sites and scenic routes on Purple Mountain, the most famous is the mausoleum and burial site of Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) – the father of the Republic of China, and probably the most important political figure and revolutionary in China from the turn of the 20th century. Led by Dr. Sun, the Chinese people brought down the corrupt oppression of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and ended the 2,000-year-old feudal monarchy system, leading the society into a new age.
Constructed from 1926 to 1929, the site is a state-protected holy spot and pilgrimage site for Chinese people. The 20-acre site is known as the “First Mausoleum in the Architectural History of Modern China.”
I had to climb 392 stairs, passing three arched pavilions before I got to the top. Step, after step, after step, I stopped a couple of times to catch my breath, but once I got to the top, the panorama of the stairs, pavilions, and famous Purple Mountains on the horizon was spectacular!
Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs
Our brisk morning began on the lovely path of the Sacred Way. Similar to the Sacred Way/Ming Tomb I visited in Beijing, the mile-long, paved walkway meanders through meticulously cared-for gardens, stone bridges, and pagodas. The middle section is lined with matching pairs of massive stone sculptures on either side, such as lions and elephants.
There is definitely an air of tranquility as you walk along the trails and through the gardens, worthy of respect and reflection.
Xiaoling Mausoleum of Ming Dynasty
Holding the remains of Emperor Chengzu Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty and Empress Ma, the imperial tomb is one of the biggest in China. Constructed in 1381, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its unique stone carving and historical significance, which influenced the architecture of imperial mausoleums for the next five hundred years.
3. Qinhuai River Cruise
Branching out from the Yangtze River, for thousands of years the 68-mile Qinhuai River has been the romantic backdrop of stories and poems. The river passes by beautiful scenery, making boat rides a favorite attraction, especially at night when the structures on the banks (once the gathering places for wealthy families), pagodas, towers, and stone bridges are lit up. There are floating lights on the water and ongoing live performances along the banks.
Ornately painted boats depart from piers all along the river and offer a unique view of some of the city’s most dazzling sites including the Bailu Zhou Garden, the Confucius Temple, the Zhanyuan Garden, and the Zhonghua Gate. The trip is narrated, but in Chinese only, so a local tour guide is recommended to translate.
4. Niushou Mountain
We spent a great day at the unbelievably impressive Niushoushan Cultural Park in Nanjing. The Buddhist complex includes towering pagodas, ornate temples, monastery, landscapes, and relics.
Getting to the landing at the top involves a lot of stair climbing, and then an escalator. The first thing you see (apart from the jaw-dropping 360-degree panorama) is the lovely nine-floor Usnisa Pagoda.
Near the pagoda is the Usnisa Palace, divided into two parts: the large dome (external) and the small dome (internal). The dome houses nine floors, with six floors underground and three floors above ground. Built into the side of the mountain, the six underground floors contain the exquisite Thousand-Buddha Hall (do put on the booties and see this eye-popping room!) and Usnisa Worshipping Palace.
Just opened in 2015, the whole Niushou site is glitzy, gilded, and modern, but extremely well-done and a nice contrast to all the wonderful ancient sites in Nanjing. Oh, and there’s a working Buddhist monastery on site.
5. Great Bao’en Temple
Part of the Great Bao’en Temple, the Porcelain Tower is a major attraction in Nanjing. Once heralded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval Age, the nine-story pagoda was originally constructed in the 15th-century during the Ming Dynasty using white porcelain bricks that were said to reflect the sun’s rays during the day. The tower was destroyed in the 19th-century. In 2010, a Chinese businessman donated US$156 million to the city of Nanjing for its reconstruction.
The best part about the new, ultra-modern steel, marble and glass tower is getting to the top for the views over Nanjing.
We were also treated to another tea ceremony at the site, and a private class that taught us how to make incense in the ancient Chinese tradition.
6. Master Gao Brewery
I was born and raised in Rhode Island (USA)…..who would think the master of China’s craft beer insurgency would hail from the same state, half a world away! I had the opportunity to meet Gao Yan one of his three brewpubs and, oh, what a hoot he was!
China is the largest beer consumer in the world and because of the ever-growing middle class, the Chinese are just starting to turn to craft beers and IPA’s, like their western counterparts. While in the United States craft beer makes up 12 percent of the market, in China, it barely registers – but that’s starting to change.
Gregarious and charming, Gao kept our little group in stitches, filling and refilling the empty glasses with his many varieties of award-winning beer.
“Taste this one,” he said. “Chinese beer used to taste like cat piss. Now it’s delicious.”
His beer is his personal brand: Master Gao. Well-suited.
Disappointment reigned on both sides when we announced we had to leave for a pre-arranged dinner reservation.
Oh, and Gao attended Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, as did I. You can’t make this stuff up.
I’m not a fan of beer, but I am a fan of Gao Yan.
7. Nanjing Massacre Memorial
Sobering, much the same as visiting the Holocaust museums, the Memorial Hall to the Victims in the Nanjing Massacre is located in Jiangdongmen, one of the execution sites and mass burial places of the massacre. In 1937, troops of Japanese military attached and occupied northeast China, including Nanjing and Shanghai.
During the six-week onslaught, soldiers conducted a savage and bloody massacre on Nanjing citizens, killing 300,000 innocent civilians, including women who were raped and children, and the city was razed. In 1945 the invaders were driven out, but not without leaving a deep scar on the people of Nanjing.
The Memorial Hall to the Victims in the Nanjing Massacre consists of three parts: the outdoor sculptures, the actual remains (bones which were excavated in 1985) of the victims, and the exhibition hall which displays gruesome photographs and historical documents.
8. Confucius Temple
Constructed in 1034 of the Song Dynasty (420-589), the famous Confucius Temple (a.k.a. Fuzimiao) is a memorial place to worship the great sage and philosopher. In 1937, the temple sustained damage by fire at the hands of Japanese soldiers but has been restored in the architectural style of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
The immaculate square and streets surrounding the Confucius Temple are flowing over with shops, restaurants, and tea houses, also constructed in the Ming and Qing style, lending an attractive and cohesive vibe to the area.
9. Nanjing Impressions
If you only eat at one restaurant in Nanjing, make sure it’s here. The ambiance is just as intriguing as the food! A large open dining room is decorated to look like a rustic 200-year-old Chinese teahouse, with aged wooden pillars and hanging paper lanterns. The cavernous room is a cacophony of sound, movement, and smells. Customers can watch the food being prepared behind giant carcasses.
There are also two private rooms leading out from the main dining hall, which is where our party of ten dined, still in earshot of the nearby buzz. Our massive table had an equally giant lazy Susan in the middle on which endless dishes were brought out, one-by-one to share until the entire circle was filled.
The restaurant serves Nanjing dishes, a sub-category of Huaiyang cuisine, one of the Four Great Traditions in Chinese Cuisine. We tried salted duck, many varieties of dumplings, Lion-Head meatballs, sesame-scented beancurd, and chi dou yuan xiao – a gooey soup laden with large lotus seeds, just to name a few.
10. The Grand Mansion
The Grand Mansion is part of the Luxury Collection Hotels in Nanjing. The 5-star hotel seamlessly combines ancient-style architecture with modern amenities. Some rooms have stunning views of the city skyline – complete with a small pool just for the hotel’s two resident black swans in the foreground. How can you beat that?
Click here for more places to stay in Nanjing.
Why Visit Nanjing?
I’d never heard of Nanjing before traveling there. What a wonderful surprise! I loved everything about it. The city is immaculately clean, and there were so many diverse sights.
This was my second trip to China, and both times I found the locals very friendly. My long blonde hair is always a curiosity, drawing a lot of stares, but more often than not people would approach me and ask if they could have their photo taken with me. Of course, I always said “yes.” Why not? Any opportunity to form a global bond is a win/win for everyone, right?
If you’re planning a trip to Shanghai, you won’t want to miss doing a few days in the fascinating city of Nanjing!
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Travel Nanjing during her stay in China, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. Patti has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.