Verdant hills dense with bamboo. Exciting numbness on the lips, torturous heat on the tongue. Vast rivers bending around huddles of skyscrapers. And fog – lots of it. These are the images and sensations that dominate a trip to Chongqing.
It’s a way of reducing an enormous city to its most basic elements, of making it a mentally more manageable place. By area, Chongqing is the size of Austria. It is 30 times the size of Hong Kong.
‘You could drive out from the city centre and still be in Chongqing several hours later,’ says Giorgio Olivotti, general manager of the new Niccolo Chongqing hotel, as we gaze out the windows of the 62nd floor. Through the fog, which is especially persistent and thick from the end of autumn to early spring, I could just make out bridges stretching over rivers and the modern skyline of Jiefangbei CBD. ‘If it weren’t for the fog, you could see mountains surrounding all of this in the distance.’
One reason for Chongqing’s large size is its status as one of China’s four municipalities directly overseen by the central government (the others are Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai), which are designed to encompass a central urban area and sprawls of surrounding rural communities. It was once part of Sichuan province – known the world over for its spicy food and pandas – but its municipality status means it now stands alone as a powerhouse in southwestern China, with a focused economic push from above.
It’s an overwhelming place, and more people are eager to discover it: the World Travel and Tourism Council projects the city’s tourism to grow the fastest in the world, with an increase of 14 percent annually from 2016 to 2026.
We can’t cover everything there is to see in this city. Here are the most fascinating, the most scenic and, yes, the biggest highlights.
Journeys on the mighty Yangtze
Let’s start in the city centre. Just off the banks of the central business district, Jiefangbei, is where the muddy, brown Yangtze – China’s longest river – mixes with the clearer, bluer Jialing River. Chaotianmen Square, a squat building with a wide plaza, faces the confluence and is the best spot to see this natural phenomenon. This is also the docking point for cruises, of which there are two main varieties: two-hour dinner cruises with a bit of onboard entertainment, and multiday journeys on the Yangtze River, mostly heading to Yichang in Hubei province to the east. Yichang is home to the Three Gorges Dam, a imposing concrete wall that stretches across the river and a feat of engineering that’s an attraction in its own right. Along the cruise, tourists take in sights of towering cliffs and jade-coloured expanses of water. On-land excursions include temple visits and Fengdu Ghost City, a sort of theme park displaying images of hell according to Chinese mythology.
Lost in local nostalgia
Hongya Cave’s concept sounds a little tacky: it’s a large complex for shopping and dining that imitates the architecture of Chongqing’s cliff-side buildings in the Ming dynasty, built in 2006 right downtown. But at night, one can’t help but be drawn to its glowing lanterns and yellow lights running prettily along its faux-traditional eaves. Its maze-like layout over 11 floors and river views will keep you intrigued, while snack stalls, hotpot restaurants, a theatre and a waterfall provide hours of entertainment.
Meanwhile, Ciqikou (‘porcelain village’) is Chongqing’s old town, a block of authentic Ming and Qing buildings connected by narrow steps and swarming with tourists. But quiet is easy to find: just duck into one of many atmospheric teahouses hiding in the nooks.
Devotion writ large
While there’s no shortage of kitsch in Chongqing, there is also impressively well-preserved ancient art. Sure, you could go to famed Buddhist grottoes such as Dunhuang on the edge of the Gobi desert, but Chongqing’s Dazu Rock Carvings win for their accessibility. Just a 90-minute drive from the city centre and you’ll be staring at hills carved between the ninth and 13th centuries into intricate Buddhas and all manner of deities, animals and demons, while surrounded by wild greenery.
It wasn’t always so easy to get here; in fact, remoteness was what saved the site from the anti-religion destruction during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. New infrastructure has changed that. If you don’t think religious carvings are your thing, you’ll just have to try gazing up on serene, seven-metre-tall saints, knowing they’ve withstood the elements for 800 years, or a wall carved with 1,007 slim hands fanned out like a peacock tail and covered in gleaming gold. It’s a mind-boggling experience.
More Chongqing travel experiences:
Art that sprawls
The most famous traditional art form in Chongqing is Sichuan’s face-change opera, in which performers swap out dramatically painted masks behind the flick of a fan; how it’s done is a secret guarded by the fraternity of performers.
But a newer, decidedly young art scene has thrived, exemplified by a 1.25-kilometre stretch of graffiti-covered buildings on Huangjueping Street. The project was completed in 2007, so much of the art on the ground level of the structures has been defaced, but what’s impressive is that the murals often reach nearly 10 storeys high, painted across rows of apartment balconies.
The area is home to the older campus of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, where you’ll find Tank Loft, a collection of former armoury buildings that now serve as art studios and coffee shops, with a decommissioned tank on display. And in 2017, the school’s newer Huxi campus opened the Luo Zhongli Art Museum, a large structure covered on its exterior walls with murals inspired by the works of Luo Zhongli, a prominent Chongqing-born contemporary artist.
Five smaller treasures in Chongqing
Chongqing’s speciality dish xiaomian – literally ‘small noodles’ – is a simple bowl of spicy goodness. Hand-made noodles are mixed with chilli sauce and chilli oil, with meat and various other toppings optional.
Yangtze River Cableway
Back in the day, residents relied on a cable car for river crossings, but this mode of transportation has lost its importance since trains and bridges appeared. The cable car still runs and has become a huge attraction, offering great views and a retro experience, as well as long queues.
Bar 62 at Niccolo Chongqing
Love a good hotel bar? Niccolo Chongqing’s 62nd-floor night spot has got it all: classic cocktails, sky-high views, glamorous decor and a live singer. Booths in the back offer more space and privacy for larger parties.
Hongyan Revolutionary Memorial
Here’s one for the history buffs. The city was the provisional capital during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), and this peaceful estate housed top officials Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai at various times. Beautiful hillside trails make for a great easy hike.
No. 2 train
Take the No. 2 transit line to experience an elevated train that goes through the middle of an apartment building. Noise-reduction technology has made it bearable for residents, who also get to catch a train at the station located on the sixth to eighth floors.