Weekend Getaway: Culture-Rich Ancient Capital of China, Nanjing

By Sophie Steiner, June 11, 2021

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Background 

Now the capital of Jiangsu province, Nanjing (which directly translates to ‘Southern Capital’) is one of the most important cities in Chinese history. In fact, it is known as one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China (the other three being Beijing, Luoyang and Xi’an). Located on the south bank of the Yangtze River, Nanjing is the second largest city in East China, and home to one of the world’s most important inland ports.

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The burial sites of several important historical figures are all located in the city, including Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, and Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty – whose tomb has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Fast forward to the 21st century, Nanjing has become a hub for technological development. Several Chinese and multinational brands – including Huawei, Lenovo, Ford and Samsung – have set up R&D centers in Nanjing, while several prominent Chinese universities and research institutions are also based here.

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Many famous artists and poets have also passed through or lived in Nanjing in the past, and its image as one of the most cultured cities in the country carries on today. For tourists, there’s no shortage of temples, historical monuments, scenic lakes and parks, galleries, museums and theaters to visit.

How to Get There

Hop on a high-speed train from either Shanghai Railway Station or Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station and arrive at either Nanjing Railway Station or Nanjing South Railway Station in anywhere between 1-2 hours. Tickets go for RMB139.50-145 for second class seats and run 10-15 times per hour. 

To Do

Niu Sho Shan Cultural Park | 牛首山文化旅游区

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Built on a mountain, this modern cultural park just south of the city center feels like a Buddhist Disneyland. Claiming to house a Sakyamuni skull fragment, over RMB4 billion was poured into the construction of the most outrageously ornate Buddhist temple we’ve ever seen. 

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On the main level, you’ll find a reclining Buddha shrouded in steam, further accentuated by a neon glow, but downstairs is even more surreal, with thousands of gilded Buddhas all encircling a glamorously decked out shrine to all things Buddhism. 

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Aside from the main Buddhist temple, the park also houses other pagodas, lawns, wall carvings and man-made lakes, making it an enjoyable place to spend the entire day. RMB98 gets you into the park, and an additional sight-seeing bus costs RMB20. If you want to skip the bus, plan to walk about three kilometers each way to the main Buddhist temple.  

Purple Mountain | 紫金山

You could easily spend multiple days exploring the different sites across the Purple Mountain, but the key areas include Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, the Purple Mountain Observatory and Linggu Temple. 

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Dr. Sun Yat-sent’s Mausoleum is the resting place of Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the first president and founding father of the Republic of China. Construction on the tomb started in 1926 and was completed in 1929. The entire 80,000-square-meter complex is located at the foot of Zijin Shan’s (Purple Mountain’s) second peak. Its design incorporates both traditional and modern elements. 

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After climbing 392 steps, visitors will reach a tri-arched gate with four Chinese words written by Dr. Sun inscribed on the lintel over the entrance – ‘The World is Commonwealth.’ A marble pavilion built by the Kuomintang to commemorate their founding leader sits right behind the gate, while the main Sacrificial Hall, with a 4.6-meter-tall marble statue of Sun, is a few steps behind it.

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The Observatory was established in 1934 as an astronomical observatory to view planets and meteors, amongst other discoveries. However, due to light pollution, by the late 1980s, its focus shifted to public education.

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The Linggu Temple and Pagoda area involves a scenic walk through the area’s natural surroundings, leading to a Buddhist temple and nearby Pagoda housing an art-deco spiral staircase that winds its way to the top of the structure. 

Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

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To the rest of the world, Nanjing is perhaps best known for one of the bloodiest events in modern history – the Nanjing Massacre. After the city’s capture by the Imperial Japanese Army in December 1937, an estimated 300,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians were brutalized and killed over a six-week period. In 1985, the municipal government of Nanjing built a memorial hall dedicated to commemorating the victims of this horrific event.

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The museum is more experiential, composed of outdoor exhibits, sheltered skeletal remains of victims, and an exhibition hall of historical documents. Inside, visitors can get a sense of the horrific carnage through historical documents, photographs and multimedia presentations, and pay their respects at an area housing excavated skeletal remains of the victims. 

Laomendong

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The Laomendong area is a restoration project to showcase local living style. It’s a photographer’s heaven, filled with ornate architecture, small ponds, gorgeous tree-lined landscapes and picturesque alleys. While it feels like Laomendong was built hundreds of years ago, most buildings were constructed recently. There are many little shops to grab a snack throughout the winding street.

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Nanjng is one of the only cities in China to retain its original city walls. Ming Dynasty Emporor Zhu Yuanzhang ordered the building of the wall in 1386 to protect Nanjing from invaders. Today, about 25 kilometers of the original 35 kilometers of wall remain intact and can be seen at different spots around the city, including at Laomendong. 

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Every night from 7-8:30pm, you can witness the world’s largest 3D lightshow depicting the history and revival of Southern Nanjing through a projection on the Nanjing city wall.

Confucius Temple | 夫子庙

For food, history, and religious significance, the Confucius Temple is worth a visit. Originally constructed in 1034 during the Song Dynasty as a place to worship and consecrate Confucius, this temple has suffered repeated damage. The temple was most recently rebuilt in 1984 in the architectural style of the Ming and Qing dynasties. 

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Now, the whole area around the temple – comprised of the Dacheng Hall, temples and narrow alleys filled with tourist-focused eateries and trinket shops – is known as Confucius Temple. Make sure to snap the iconic Fuzimiao picture along Wende bridge.

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Although a lot of the food found around Fuzimiao (the Confucius Temple) has been marked up to tourist prices, there are a few spots worth visiting. At 68 Dashibei Street, you can choose from over a dozen dessert soup options of pear in a clay pot, a traditional Chinese dessert.

For a lightly sweet and healthy dessert, the snow pears are peeled and slowly roasted inside a clay pot along with various other ingredients that all serve as traditional Chinese medicine, such as goji berries, rosettes and longan. These pears are perfect for a cool summer evening or a refreshing snack.

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For shopping, explore the maze of tiny shops filled with clothes, souvenirs and knickknacks. If you’re interested in haggling and bargaining, this is the spot for you. There is also an underground mall located here, providing just as many shopping opportunities as the main street level. Opposite the Confucius Temple is Aqua City Shopping Center, with internationally recognized brand name stores like Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and Mango.

Librairie Avant-Garde | 先锋书店

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The Librarie Avant-Garde in Nanjing is considered to be one of the biggest and most unique libraries and book stores in the country. The entire space is modern, with clean lines and colorful displays. Owner Qian Xiaohua opened his first location in 2004 in a hidden underground parking lot near Wutaishan Stadium. Another branch exists in Laomendong and a third – and most picturesque – branch is northeast of the city center. 

To Eat & Drink 

Duck Blood Vermicelli Soup

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Now a common noodle soup served at roadside stalls around China, duck blood vermicelli soup is actually a Nanjing specialty that has been popular since the Qing Dynasty. Featuring a mix of duck innards (heart, intestine, kidney and liver) as toppings, the dish showcases an aromatic broth cooked with duck blood, duck bone, ginger, cilantro and various seasonings. According to traditional Chinese medicine, duck blood has a special cleansing property that can help get rid of toxins in the body.

Salted Duck and Jinling Roasted Duck

A rival of the world-famous Beijing roast duck from the north, the Nanjing-style salted duck is an equally iconic dish that has been popular with the locals for hundreds of years – an essential part of Nanjing cuisine since the Qing Dynasty.

While recipes vary from chef to chef, the butchered carcass of the duck is rubbed with salt and various spices and cooked in a large pot before a short pickling and drying process. Finally, the duck is soaked in the cooking liquid again and then sliced up into thin pieces before being served.

During Mid- Autumn Festival, osmanthus is added into the spice mix to give the meat a distinctive floral note.

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The roasted alternative sees a crispier, darkened skin, pulling away to reveal tender flesh below. Most commonly, the duck is served with a sweet and savory soy garlic sauce for dipping. 

Glutinous Rice Dumpling Soup

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This sweet red bean dessert soup is thick and gluey, served with dozens of sweetened tapioca balls and red bean. Lianhu Rice Cake Shop is a Muslim-ran food establishment in the Confucius Temple area, famous for their colorful desserts and a popular place to sample this famous dessert soup.

Beef Potstickers

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Found at the many Muslim restaurants around town, these pan-fried dumplings are stuffed with flavorful ground beef, onion and a steaming soup, before being fried to a crisp in a large flat-bottomed iron wok. Longer and thinner than most other Chinese dumplings, these potstickers are best enjoyed with  beef soup. 

Egg Burgers

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This modern street snack has developed quite a cult following over the last five years with vendors of fried egg burgers popping up in unexpected places. A visit to the OG spot is worth the wait though, just to witness the Burger Queen work her magic. 

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Ran by a boisterous local couple making their version of the egg burger, with a fried egg replacing the bun, baked around the burger meat in the shape of a hockey puck. The meat is seasoned with cumin, garlic powder and chili powder while the egg “bun” is fried until golden brown and crispy.

Cocktails

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Nanjing has quite the up-and-coming cocktail scene, a nighttime alternate to the equally bourgeoning coffee culture. The Sauce, Staff Only and Ben’s Cocktail – a speakeasy that involves walking through a closet situated in a daytime coffee shop with the same name (Ben’s Bedroom) are our top picks. 

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The Sauce churns out expertly brewed coffee beverages during the day, along with coffeetails, like clarified banana, cold brew and Ruby Port, but kicks it up a notch with whimsical cocktails in the evening. Using a rotovap, their cocktail program is all about funky flavor infusions, resulting in drinks like a Pizza Gimlet and a spin on a carrot-flavored Bloody Mary, served with broccoli.  

Final Thoughts

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This culturally-rich city provides the perfect balance of historical and religious sites, outdoor hiking, urban trekking, university town relaxing, snacking and sipping. With a population of over eight million people, Nanjing in the last century has always been seen as Shanghai’s sidekick. 

However, because of the many universities that are located here, the expat population in Nanjing is surprisingly large, so if you’re craving some Western food or a craft beer, Nanjing has got you covered. Loaded with historical sites, temples, food streets and interesting museums, Nanjing is great way to see another side of China.


For more Shanghai Day Trips, click here.

[Cover image by Sophie Steiner]

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