Finance and temples
Seen from afar, Nanjing looks like just another modern city, its skyline dominated by skyscrapers. Yet there is more to Nanjing than meets the eye. While it’s true that the central Xinjiekou district is all about business and international trade, with the architecture reflecting that, the city around this area is completely different. And truly get to know it, the best place to start is with its many millennia of history.
Take the Chaotian Palace, for example. The buildings now standing on the site were built in the 1800s, but the first structures to stand here date back to around 2500 years ago. There is just as much history behind the city’s two main temples: Jiming Temple (close to Xuanwu Lake) and Confucius Temple (Fuzimiao). First built in 1034 and later reconstructed in the Ming style in 1984, Confucious Temple is a sprawling complex built around a canal coming off Qinhuai River.
There are plenty of traditional restaurants here - and lots of places to pick up something to remember the city by! Only the ruins remain of the Ming Palace, built in the 14th century. It's a real shame too, because the complex was the inspiration for the magnificent Forbidden City in Beijing.
The Memorial of the Nanjing Massacre has a much more recent history, with statues, photographs and interactive installations commemorating the thousands of local people killed by the Japanese army in 1937. It’s moving, almost agonisingly so, but unmissable.
The return of a wonder
When the first European explorers reached Nanjing, in the late 17th century, they found a structure so amazing that they named it one of the Seven Wonders of the World: The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing. This octagonal building stood around 60 metres tall and was completed in 1429. Festooned with coloured porcelain tiles, the tower reflected the sun during the day and the light of the lanterns hung on the outside by night. The Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century completely destroyed the tower, but in 2015 a modern reconstruction has been open for visits in the Porcelain Tower Relics Park, which is also home to a museum dedicated to the original tower.
On the subject of museums, located nearby is the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom History Museum, which documents the Taiping Rebellion and is worth visiting if only for the surrounding Zhan Garden - it’s the oldest garden in the city and one of the few remaining complexes from the Ming era.
Purple Mountain and the parks
It’s more of a hill than a mountain in truth, but Purple Mountain (Zijin Shan) is without a doubt one of the most symbolic places in Nanjing. There are plenty of attractions to visit in the park, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum - a UNESCO World Heritage site and the resting place of the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. The mausoleum features a unique walkway flanked by countless statues of all shapes and sizes.
Situated a short distance away is the imposing Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, dedicated to the father of Modern Chinese politics. A few metres further and you reach Linggu Pagoda, which offers a stunning view of Nanjing from its summit.
Yet Purple Mountain is just one of the many parks and green spaces to be found in the city. One of the best encompasses the man-made Xuanwu Lake and is a place that the local people go to get some peace and quiet. Tourists might like to rent an electric boat with their better half, for a romantic trip on the water. The park is surrounded by the remains of the gigantic city walls, which were built at the end of the 14th century and took a full 21 years to complete. Visit the Nanjing City Walls Museum to find out how it was done.
If you have enough time, there are two other parks that are worth visiting: Mochou Hu, home to another man-made lake, and Bailuzhou, where you can round the day off with dinner on the banks of the Qinhuai River.
On the subject of food, if you want to get a true taste of the local cuisine, start with tangbao - the steamed buns that have gained popularity in Europe too - or duck blood soup, which might be more of an acquired taste!
If you like duck, you must order salted duck, one of Nanjing’s traditional dishes with a history dating back centuries. Last but not least, during the colder months, you have to try a restorative hot ginger soup, which is sold everywhere - even at the entrances to the metro!
A unique evening
What to do after dinner? Nanjing certainly doesn’t shut up shop. The majority of the city's nightlife is concentrated in the beautiful Nanjing 1912 district, whose name references the year in which Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty and founded the Republic of China.
There are all kinds of night spots here, from restaurants to pubs, karaoke bars and clubs. The most popular are Scarlet and Una Club, both popular with tourists and Chinese alike.
If you prefer something more cultural for your evening entertainment, Nanjing has a lot to offer. Completed in 2017, the Jiangsu Grand Theatre is a majestic modern structure used for performances of opera and music. It represents a new cultural hub for the city and the region as a whole - well worth a visit for anybody interested in exploring the arts during their stay in the Southern Capital.
Yet art and culture permeate the spirit of the city in other ways too. Nanjing is home to institutions such as the Nanjing University of the Arts and the Sifang Art Museum, which showcases the best of contemporary art and architecture.
In order to enter the People’s Republic of China, you need to apply from an entrance visa in advance from the Chinese embassy or consulate in your country or go through a travel agency.
No visas can be issued at the border.
In order to apply for a visa, you must have a passport with at least six months’ validity. If the document has recently been renewed, the Chinese authorities also require a copy of the previous passport. Failure to do this could result in your visa application being rejected.
If you wish to visit Hong Kong or Macau during your trip to continental China, you will need to request a visa valid for multiple entrances.
Finally, be aware that some recent visa requests have been rejected due to the presence of stamps or visas from Middle Eastern countries or Turkey.
Nanjing has a mild climate, with the temperature varying dramatically between cold winters (when the minimum temperature is below zero and the maximum is around 10°C) and hot, muggy summers (highs of well above 30°C, night-time temperatures of between 20°C and 25°C). There isn’t a proper dry season in Nanjing, with rain falling relatively evenly throughout the year, though the showers are more frequent and heavier in autumn and winter.
For this reason, a good time to visit Nanjing is in early autumn, when the climate is mild and relatively stable. The climate is good in spring - between late March and mid-May - too, though there is generally more rainfall in this period.
In 1993, the students of Nanjing University chose 11 November as the day for a brand-new holiday: “Bare Sticks Holiday”, commonly referred to as 11/11. We might know it by its western name - Singles’ Day! Now famous around the world, the holiday is particularly popular in China, where many parties and events are held.
There are even special sales organised, nominally for singles only but actually open to all! If you prefer holidays that are less commercial and more traditional, the Qinhuai Lantern Fair (which coincides with Chinese New Year between 21 January and 19 February) offers the stunning spectacle of the Confucius Temple complex adorned with coloured lights and lanterns.
Between late February and early March, meanwhile, the Plum Blossom Festival turns Purple Mountain into a mass of pink and white - and the origin of the mountain’s name suddenly becomes clear!
Nanjing might be less popular among western tourists than the classic Chinese destinations like Beijing and Shanghai, but in some respects the city has more to offer tourists who decide to spend a few days there. Situated on the banks of the Yangtze, around 300 kilometres from Shanghai, this large city is quickly developing into a cosmopolitan metropolis, yet the place still maintains a close link with its quintessentially Chinese history, traditions and culture. Nanjing has previously been the capital of China (the word Nanjing means “Southern Capital”). Its first stint as capital came in the 3rd century, then again at various times during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and most recently in the early days of the Republic of China, at the start of the 20th century. This rich history makes the city a fascinating tourist destination and a place of great historical importance for the Chinese.