Beijing may be the political center of China—as well as a cultural and culinary hub—but the most dynamic Chinese city at the moment is more than a thousand miles south, in the mountains of Sichuan province. Chengdu has one of the fastest-growing economies in China—roughly half the world’s iPads are reportedly made here, and there are high-rises as far as the eye can see—but the way of life is much more laid-back than in other large Chinese cities (Chengduites are known for taking long, leisurely meals). In recent years, the contemporary-art scene has exploded—Chengdu hosted its sixth Biennale in 2013—and the city’s live-music venues are the most rocking outside Beijing, showcasing everything from punk to Grateful Dead–style xipishi jam sessions. The Buddha Zen (rooms start at $75; buddhazenhotel.com), built in an ancient-Sichuan-style complex, is just one of the snazzy boutique hotels that have opened in recent years, while rooms at Chengdu’s branch of the luxe Shangri-La hotel chain (shangri-la.com) start at just $295. And those looking for a quick day trip can head to the idyllic nearby countryside: Qingcheng Mountain, the birthplace of Taoism, is dotted with temples and pavilions, and the village of Shangli hasn’t changed much since its Silk Road days, with ancient wooden houses serving fruit wines and rosewood tea. Oh, and Chengdu has something else the capital doesn’t: a panda refuge, with more than 100 free-roaming pandas and a new brood of fourteen cubs born over the summer.
Population: 14 million
Distance from Beijing: Two-and-a-half-hour flight.
Plus, the Food Is Spicier
Thanks to its famous, fiery cuisine, Chengdu was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2010. Local food blogger Jenny Gao ranks her top dishes from kinda to insanely spicy.
Salt and Sichuan peppercorn cookies
“Gong Ting Bakery (58 Wuyuangong Jie; 8694-2646) is an institution—every grandmother goes there. You can see people lined up from a mile away. (Don’t worry, the line moves fast.) They use ingredients you won’t see anywhere else in China and have a cookie called jiaoyan taosu that’s seasoned with salt and Sichuan peppercorns—it’s such a complex flavor combination.”
Tianshuimian (sweet water noodles)
“This is a classic Sichuan street dish. Zhang Liangfen (39 Wenshuyuan Jie; no phone) does it amazingly. They are traditionally served cold and are really thick—imagine twice the size of an udon noodle and super-chewy, like gnocchi. They ladle a mixture of sauces on top and then sprinkle it with sesame seeds. The combination is divine.”
Pig-brain mapo tofu
“Sichuan food is defined by ‘fly restaurants’—basically tiny, hole-in-the-walls known for the most flavorful food. One of the most famous is Ming Ting (30 Yijiefang, Waicaojia Xiang; 8331-5978), and their best dish is an unusual take on mapo tofu. The pig brain adds a really interesting texture to it, and the dish is super-spicy. The thing about Sichuan food is that it’s well balanced, so all the sweetness and savoriness balance out the spice.”