There are so many things to do in Chongqing, it’s the perfect place for a China city weekend break
Chongqing wasn’t one of the places I was super excited about visiting when I went on a months-long China tour. I’ve never been crazy about hotpot, the city’s most famous export, and all I really knew about the place was that it was China’s biggest urban centre, a landlocked megalopolis so large that it had to be siphoned off from Sichuan in 1997 and made into its own province. The picture I had in my head was an endless sea of grey apartment blocks, choking traffic, and factory fumes; in short, not very inviting.
When I arrived, however, Chongqing completely upended my expectations, and instantly shot to the top of my list of the coolest cities in China.
Read on to see what makes this landlocked megacity worth a weekend (or more).
1. Unbelievable infrastructure
Chongqing has a population half the size of France, crammed into a less-than-spacious mountain valley, where two immense rivers coverge. Ensuring that such a huge number of people can exist and move about here with relative ease required some serious design acrobatics, and the result is a series of spectacular feats of civil engineering that leave you open mouthed as you wander the streets.
As well as having a ridiculous number of towering skyscrapers that stand shoulder to shoulder for miles on end, Chongqing is laced with gravity-defying freeways that weave through one another in impossibly complex patterns; a metro system that, at one point, passes directly through the mid-level floors of a residential apartment block; and more than 20 huge bridges that connect the buildings lining each of the four riverbanks.
If you’re a sucker for a city skyline, Chongqing should be on your bucket list. It feels like walking into a city from the future.
2. Rooftops, rooftops, rooftops
Unsurprisingly for a city with such great urban views and a warm climate to boot (Chongqing has extremely hot summers and mild winters), Chongqing is brimming with rooftop bars, cafes and restaurants. What’s more, because of the outrageous amount of river available, many of them also have river views, particularly fantastic at night when the glittering lights are reflected on the water.
Notable venues in the city centre include The Crystal, a complex found at the top of Raffles City (重庆来福士) that juts out into the sky; Xiao Zuo Yuanzi (小座院子南滨路店); a less vertigo-inducing café-bar on the southern riverbank; and the River Terraceon the 7thfloor of the Regent Hotel (重庆丽晶酒店露天酒吧). These are far from the only options; searching “rooftop” (楼顶) on Dianping will bring up a host of suggestions for pretty much any area of Chongqing you find yourself in. Dreamy.
3. The Food (and Drinks)
Everyone knows that Chongqing is the place to go for hotpot, but there’s so much more to eat here apart from that, and it’s all incredibly cheap. Food is everywhere, with restaurants on every corner and more than 10 designated “food streets” throughout the city.
If you like spice, the noodles from humble roadside Chongqing xiao mian（重庆小面）restaurants are to die for; if you can, ask a local for spot recommendations, as they will know which are best. Chongqing is also famous for its roadside shaokao stands, serving spicy skewers of barbecued morsels for a few yuan each that taste especially good after a beer or three. If spice isn’t for you, make sure you learn how to request “wei la” (slightly spicy) or “bu la” (no spice) in Mandarin, and you should be fine. If you’d rather not trust the discretion of your server, take a look at this echinacities guide of suggested non-spicy dishes to order instead.
4. “Red Culture”
Partly due to propaganda policies instilled by municipal party officials in the early 2000s, and partly as a result of a politically charged history and location, Chongqing is full of “red culture”, shorthand for anything to do with the Communist party.
Traces of this range from the serious, like the former residence of Governor Stilwellor the Hongyan Revolutionary History Museum, to the kitschy, like the Cultural Revolution themed hotpot restaurants found around Three Gorges square where the staff dress as Red Guards and Chairman Mao gazes at you from under the urinals. Whichever sounds more appealing to you personally, both are a reminder of Chongqing’s distinct identity and suprising importance in the development of China through the last century.
5. It’s Unlike Any Other First Tier City
If you’re anything like me, you like the idea of going to places that aren’t triple underlined in a travel guide.
Chongqing has the reputation of being a “Chinese city for Chinese people”, and true to this adage, in the four days I was there, I managed to see exactly zero foreigners.
This could be a positive or a negative thing, depending on who’s talking, but what’s for certain is that it’s a unique thing for a city this huge. There seems to be none of the atmosphere that some complain of in Shanghai or Beijing, that the city’s idiosynchracies are being bulldozed away, creating a shiny, bland international city like any other. Instead, Chongqing very much retains a distinctive soul of its own, a breakneck-pace culture woven in somewhere between the jigsaw of vast glass buildings, well-dressed crowd and endless traffic.
Go check it out for yourself.