Nanjing Travel Guide: 6 places to see in China’s former capital

Last August 2014, I went to Nanjing, China to cover the 2nd Summer Youth Olympic Games as part of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Young Reporters Programme. It was an intense 3 weeks of covering sports events, writing stories, and learning from Olympic journalists and experts. (More about that here)

But beyond covering sports and participating in the IOC’s various cultural programs, I had the opportunity to travel around the ancient city of Nanjing. Located a few hundred kilometers from international financial capital Shanghai, Nanjing has always been one of China’s most important cities, having been its capital in various periods.

Nanjing is caught between modern advancement and ancient tradition. This is apparent in the various infrastructures and monuments around the city. While some sites are very important to Chinese history, Nanjing is also home to world-class infrastructures and international centers. Its streets are rich with history, a witness to two thousand years of Chinese tradition.

One of the shopping streets in the Confucius Temple complex in Nanjing. All photos in this article are mine.
One of the shopping streets in the Confucius Temple complex in Nanjing. All photos in this article are mine.

Basing from the 2 days that I had to go around the city, here are my 6 recommendations on what places tourists cannot miss when visiting Nanjing.

1) Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum (Purple Mountain)

The capital of Jiangsu province, Nanjing traces its history back to the Wu Kingdom during China’s Three Kingdoms Period. Fast forward to two millennia after that period – during the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 – the first president, Dr Sun Yat Sen, chose Nanjing to be his capital.

When Sun Yat-sen was replaced by the next president, Beijing became the new capital. But in 1927, during Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang rule, Nanjing once again became ROC’s capital. It is only when communist forces toppled the ROC government – after WWII – that the capital was again changed to Beijing.

Both Taiwan (Republic of China) and China (People’s Republic of China) look up to Sun Yat-sen as a revolutionary and a founding father. It is only fitting that his remains were buried in the city where he established his government.

The Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in one of the sides of the Purple Mountain.
The Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in one of the peaks of the Purple Mountain.

The Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing is found on the foot of the second peak of the Purple Mountain and it has been there since 1929. Tourists have to walk some 392 steps to get to the majestic mausoleum, built in a blend of traditional imperial tombs and modern Chinese infrastructure.

The view on top of the mountain is very picturesque as one can see the lush mountain side. Inside the mausoleum is a sitting statue of Sun Yat-sen, with an ROC flag drawn on the ceiling above his head. Most Chinese go here to learn more about Sun Yat-sen’s life as well as to pay respects to their hero.

Sun Yat-sen's statue inside his mausoleum.
Sun Yat-sen’s statue inside his mausoleum.

Aside from the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, there are many other important shrines in the Purple Mountain. One place to watch out for is the walkway with statues of Chinese animal guardians lined up. Some statues date back to the ancient times and yet, are in pristine condition.

You can spend an entire day going around the Purple Mountain park. Stalls and shops are found near the important stops so it’s also a nice place to buy traditional Chinese souvenirs.

One of the many animal-guardians found in the park. I have no idea what this animal is.
One of the many animal-guardians found in the park. I have no idea what this animal is.

2) Nanjing City Wall

Built by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang during the Ming Dynasty, the Nanjing City Wall looks like a miniature Great Wall protecting the city. According to the displays in the museum, the wall took 21 years to complete and used some 200,000 laborers to finish the entire thing.

The 600-year-old wall at the time of the Youth Olympic Games.
The 600-year-old wall at the time of the Youth Olympic Games.

On top of the well-preserved wall, one can see the Xuan Wu lake, as well as some residential and commercial parts of the city. Inside one of the entrances is a mini-museum that tackles the wall’s history and the important role it played in ancient Nanjing.

Since I visited the 600-year-old city wall during the Youth Olympic Games, there were big Olympic rings and Chinese cultural booths on the higher part of the wall. I played traditional Chinese games, used traditional Chinese printing, and even flew a kite on top of the wall.

A view of a portion of the Nanjing City Wall and the Xuan Wu Lake from where the Olympic Rings were put up.
A view of a portion of the Nanjing City Wall and the Xuan Wu Lake from where the Olympic Rings were put up.

I went to the City Wall as part of the YRs’ city tour so I’m not sure how much it regularly costs for tourists (I think it’s around 30 Yuan). The present wall spans to about 21 kilometers so there are many gates tourists can use to enter.

3) Confucius Temple

“Fuzimiao” as locals would call it, the Confucius Temple in Nanjing is both a place for taking scenic photos and shopping souvenirs! The infrastructures in the temple complex follow a traditional Chinese motif so you get a feel of how things were like during the Song Dynasty when it was created.

A big statue of the Chinese philosopher is stationed at the entrance of the temple proper.
A big statue of the Chinese philosopher is stationed at the entrance of the temple proper.

Outside the temple is the best place to shop for souvenirs in Nanjing, in my opinion. You can get everything from Chinese tea to branded clothes to locally made products. This is also a good place to start your Nanjing food trip as the restaurants in the area offer diverse food choices.

Having seen various Chinese temples in Taipei and Hong Kong, the Confucius temple itself, for me, wasn’t extraordinary. The temple is dedicated to Confucius (of course) so his images are all over the place, from the statues lined up outside to the shrine itself.

Since my friends and I had Youth Olympic Accreditation Cards, we didn’t have to pay anything to enter the temple. Regular tourists pay around 30 Yuan to enter the relatively small temple proper.

Tip: Looking for cheap branded clothes in Nanjing? Head out to the mall across the temple complex to the Nanjing Xi Lu mall. You can find everything there from Uniqlo and Sephora to H&M and Zara.

4) Xuan Wu Lake

After an entire day of traveling around Nanjing, take some time to relax in the Xuan Wu Lake park. This park will literally and figuratively give you a breath of fresh air in a somewhat polluted city. Plus, you can do many things in the park aside from just walking.

For one, you can join the old people holding dance and Tai-Chi classes in the park. Based from our experience, they’re quite friendly and will welcome anyone who wants to join. The fact that you don’t have to communicate with words makes this much easier.

I only had this photo of the lake cruise, unfortunately. I was too tired to care!
I only had this photo of the lake cruise, unfortunately. I was too tired to care!

If you’re a foodie, you can try the different stalls in the park. They have everything from donuts to dried fruits. You can also opt for the healthier options if you just finished exercising.

My recommendation: Try the lake cruise at night! It’ll give you a wonderful view of the Nanjing city skyline and it’s a nice way to cool down after a long day. Again, we tried this during the YR city tour so I don’t know the regular costs.

5) 1912 Street

Beer is cheap in China compared to other neighboring countries. So why not try lots of them while in Nanjing?

The best place for night outs in Nanjing is the 1912 street. It’s a whole stretch of pubs, clubs and bars. Most of the expats in the city hang out here at night so you won’t feel left out as a tourist.

Yup, this is where we mostly got drunk during our stay in Nanjing.
Yup, this area is where we mostly got drunk during our stay in Nanjing.

Interestingly, most of the clubs don’t play Chinese pop music. The bars we went to usually played English and Spanish songs. (This got my Latino friends crazy on the dance floor!)

As in most of China, language might be a barrier in some clubs as most waiters don’t really understand English. We often had to talk to the managers to get our orders (except when we were with our Chinese friends).

"Macarena" was playing when I took this photo, I think.
“Macarena” was playing when I took this photo, I think.

It’s relatively safe in 1912 street at late night but still exercise caution. I’ve seen some drunk Chinese locals get crazy and shout at foreigners passing by them. Also, don’t take the cabs parked along the side of the street. They will rip you off and offer much higher prices compared to what you’ll get if you use the meter.

6) Nanjing Olympic Sports Center

Of course, I have to add this! Nanjing recently made history again by hosting the 2nd Summer Youth Olympic Games. It has not only become a symbol of sports excellence to the world, but also an example of how hospitable the Chinese people are.

The Nanjing Youth Olympic Stadium before the Olympic flame was lit.
The Nanjing Youth Olympic Stadium before the Olympic flame was lit.

The Nanjing Olympic Sports Center (NOSC) is where most of the sports and ceremonial events happened. This is also where the Olympic flame was lit throughout the 13 days of the YOG. The center, I think, will be one of the most iconic areas in Nanjing in the years to come so do check it out.

Other YOG-related places you might want to visit are the Youth Olympic Village, the Youth Olympic Park and the Nanjing International Expo Center – all located a few kilometers from the NOSC.

Bonus: Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

By now, I think most of you who’ve been to Nanjing are asking, “Why did you left out the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall? Isn’t it an important place in Nanjing?”

The answer is simple: I didn’t have time to go there because of our busy schedule in the YR Programme.

Yes, this place is definitely a must-visit site in Nanjing as it documents and immortalizes, perhaps, the darkest side of the city’s history. If you’re not familiar with the “Rape of Nanjing” – where Japanese forces committed mass murder and mass rape in Nanjing during WWII – this memorial will teach you some valuable history lessons.

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall will be top on my list if ever I get to visit Nanjing again in the future. And yes, I most certainly would like to go back.

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Xie Xie!

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