5 MUST-DOs in Nanjing
The city of Nanjing has always been far up on my travel bucket list in China. Especially its history had intrigued me since the city was the capital of numerous dynasties and was even named “the capital of the world” during the Tang Dynasty, when China was an extremely wealthy empire with a high standard of living and a high pride of poetry, the arts and simply enjoying life.
Already when I first arrived in Nanjing on a late afternoon in February, I felt an overwhelming vibe that this city conveys. It seemed as if all the emotions from the people living in the city were contained and absorbed. I felt it was a truly remarkable place to visit.
Nanjing’s Historical Value
I was intrigued by its vast history from a flourishing southern capital of the Kingdom of Wu during the Three Kingdoms, Eastern Jin Dynasty, Liu Song Dynasty, Southern Qi Dynasty, Liang Dynasty, Chen Dynasty, Southern Tang during the Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, Ming Dynasty before Yongle Emperor moved the capital to Beijing. It was also the capital of the Taiping Tianguo (Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace and Prosperity) during the Taiping Rebellion. Known as Tianjing (天京，literally ‘Heavenly Capital’) between 1853 and its fall in 1864 and of the Republic of China after the Northern Expedition until the Japanese invasion in 1937 of WWII.
Nanjing was marked by the glorious influence during prosperous dynasties: The city wall, Ming tombs, the ruins of the Nanjing Forbidden City and lots of ancient temples are all witness of its fascinating past. However, there’s also dark in Nanjing. The city was victim to unspeakable crimes during the Japanese takeover witht he infamous Nanjing Massacre being its peak. Despite, Nanjing is truly a jewel for history lovers.
1. Confucius Temple Area
The first thing I did when I arrived in Nanjing, was to stroll around the famous Confucius Temple Area at night. It’s a wonderful traditional place with canals, local restaurants, souvenir shops and a pretty temple. I recommend going there once at night and once during the day. You can get on a boat and float along the canals through the area or simply walk and take dozens of beautiful bridges to get from one side to the other.
2. Nanjing Lion Bridge Restaurant
I discovered this amazing restaurant on my first night in Nanjing. Not too close from the Confucius Temple Area, there’s a huge modern shopping center called “Shopping Fun” or “水平方” in Chinese. On it’s top floor, there’s an authentic Nanjing restaurant offering a beautiful ambience and reasonably priced local dishes. It’s a must when in Nanjing! The layout of the restaurant makes it look as if it was outside during the Tang Dynasty when Nanjing was one of the richest cities in the world at the time. The beautiful traditional lanterns and the wooden furtniture makes you never want to leave the place.
It can get very crowded during weekends and holidays but it’s a big restaurant. On some occasions, you can see traditional musicians playing with Chinese instruments. It’s simply gorgeous. I ordered lamb noodle soup, Nanjing style cold tofu, rice in bamboo and red bean pudding dessert.
3. Ming Tombs and Sun Yat Sen Mausoleum
One of the greatest sights in the whole city is the area on Zhongshan Mountain. You can spend half a day wandering around the beautiful area. I started off visiting the yearly plum blossom garden which featured a variety of different blossoming trees in pink and white. It was stunning. I continued my way to the Xiaoling Mausoleum of Ming Dynasty which dates back over 600 years when the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and his queen were buried. It’s an important sight because he was the only emperor who was buried outside of Beijing. On you way to the tombs, you will see the winding 1800-meter long Sacred Way.
Probably the most interesting sight to see on the Zhongshan Mountain area is the Sun Yat Sen Mausoleum covering an area of 80,000 square meters. As the mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Republic of China, it is considered the Holy land of Chinese people both home and abroad. The entrance ticket for the area is 70 CNY which includes the plum blossom garden, the Ming Tombs and the Sun Yat Sen Mausoleum.
4. Nanjing Massacre Memorial
When you hear about Nanjing you probably first associate it with the tragic massacre that took place in the city during the Japanese takeover when, on December 13, 1937, the Japanese army occupied Nanjing – then the capital city of the Republic of China. It is widely accepted that during the first six to eight weeks of their occupation, the Japanese army committed numerous atrocities, including rape, arson, looting, mass executions, and torture. It is without a doubt the darkest part of history for Nanjing and would forever destroy the relationship between China and Japan.
The memorial hall includes a museum which was first built in 1985 and updated ever since. It’s one of the most impressive historical sights I have ever seen. It’s a very morbid place as it is showcased as if the Massacre is happening right there, right now. Bombing sounds and screams follow you along the journey through the museum when looking at all the 300,000 victims and heros who will be forever remembered. It’s a very dark place and makes you feel very uncomfortable during the entire visit.
5. Nanjing Museum & Forbidden City
This museum is without a doubt the best museum I have visited in China. This is not only due to the great collection of ancient artifacts but more due to the highly organized flow of the collections and exhibitions. On other museum visits I got lost numerous times and couldn’t follow the historical timeline of the museum but the Nanjing Museum displays its collections in a very unique and logic way which is super easy to follow and very great to enjoy. As in other Chinese museums, there is no entrance fee.
Not many people know that Nanjing was home to a Forbidden City, called 明故宫 Míng Gùgōng. It was built in 1367 as the imperial palace of the early Ming dynasty, when Nanjing was the capital of China. Only around 50 years later, however, the imperial family returned to Beijing and started to built the Forbidden City in Beijing. Very unfortunately, the Ming palace was gradually demolished during the following Qing Dynasty. Stones and carvings were taken away to be used as building material and decorative elements on other projects. Today, only ruins remain of the once so glorious Forbidden City of Nanjing. It’s located only a few minutes by walking from the Nanjing museum and is great for strolling around like a park. No entrance fee.
I believe Nanjing is one of the most underrated places in China! Mostly because when in the area, people tend to visit nearby Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou instead. However, Nanjing is a wonderful place rich with history and great food! I will never forget what a great time I had in this city and I hope you are planning your next visit to Nanjing.