Southern Capital from 265 AD - Nanjing
As one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, along with Beijing, Xi’an, and Luoyang, Nanjing has a history dated back to 2,500 years ago. Having served as the ancient capital city of 10 regimes, Nanjing has long been renowned for its rich and impressive historical and cultural heritage. Though the city’s profound and glorious history is stained by the well-known tragedy, it serves as the capital of China’s eastern Jiangsu province nowadays, remaining its significance and glory as ever. Lying on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, it also plays a leading role as the cultural and educational center in the Yangtze River Delta.
Thanks to its long history, Nanjing is brimming with plenty of time-honored palaces and buildings of huge cultural significance, each harboring a wealth of fascinating history begging to be explored, such as the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, the Presidential Palace, the Confucius Temple, and the Linggu Temple. The city’s charm is palpable not only in these historic landmarks but also in its many museums, such as the Nanjing Museum and the China Modern History Museum, which are generally recognized as some of the superb in China. It can be said to be a must-see historical city during your tour to China.
Top attractions to see in Nanjing
Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum
Lying at the foot of Purple Mountain, it’s the tomb of the founding emperor (Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang) of the Ming Dynasty and his Empress Ma. With a history dating back to 1381, it is one of the largest imperial structures in China. As an excellent example of combining Chinese architectural arts and natural environment, it formed the frame imperial mausoleums would be built forever afterward. Ranking among Nanjing’s top historical sites, this UNESCO-listed mausoleum is impressive enough with an iconic walkway adorned with massive stone animal statues guarding the tomb against evil spirits. With tree-lined pathways, pavilions, bridges, and lakes filled with water lilies, it is an ideal place for strolling in a quiet morning meditating on the history that was lived here.
Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum
The mausoleum for Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who is the “Father of Nation'' in the Republic of China and one of the greatest leaders of modern China. Its construction took over 3 years from 1926 to 1929, and its shape was designed to be an alarm bell, giving the implication of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s instrumental role to awaken all Chinese people from the superstitious darkness of ancient China. Standing at the south slope of the Purple Mountain with a tremendous stone stairway - a wheezing 392 steps, the mausoleum is an indispensable stop for most travelers to Nanjing, either for commemorating this great person in China or for a further understanding of the history of China’s Republican era.
The over 600-years-old Presidential Palace has its history dating back to the Ming Dynasty as a royal residence. Used to be the office of the president of the Republic of China’s Nationalist Government, it is a beautiful 90,000-square-meter space where western-influenced Republican-era architecture smoothly integrates into the aureate layouts of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom era and the courtyards and pavilions of China's Imperial eras. Nowadays, it serves as a museum called the China Modern History Museum, offering rare insights into China's history from the 20th century onward. There are frequent historical displays and exhibition held in its three main areas: the Central Area, where is the main base of the Nationalist Government; the West Area, where the office of Sun Yat-sen and the Xuyuan Garden is located; and the East Area, where you’ll find an administration building, the stables, and the East Garden.
The Confucius Temple was originally built in the year 1034 during the Song Dynasty to worship Confucius, the great philosopher, and educator in ancient China, and reach its pinnacle in the Ming Dynasty when Nanjing was the political and cultural capital of China. Standing at the center of Nanjing’s historic district, the Confucius Temple meets the scenic belt along the Qinhuai River, presenting a fusion of past and present, a marvelous scene that combines both calm cultural sites and bustling eateries and stores. With the largest figure of Confucius in China and a collection of paintings and carvings detailing the wisdom and teaching of Confucius, it shows how Confucian thought played an important role in shaping Chinese culture and identity. It also includes the legendary Jiangnan Examinations Office where ancient Chinese scholars took the imperial examinations in the hopes of becoming government officials.
Zhonghua Gate (Nanjing City Gate)
Zhonghua Gate, previously called Jubao Gate which means ‘Gathering Treasure Gate’, is the largest one of the thirteen city gates of Nanjing’s Ming City Wall. Being reputed as “First Inner Barbican in the World”, it is a best-preserved fourteenth-century defensive complex with the largest and the most complicated barbicans. The practical design of three barbicans which were connected by four arched gates makes it almost invulnerable and could house a troop of 3,000 soldiers in basements of the main arched gate building. Each arched gate was equipped with a pair of wooden doors with a vertical indent, which enabled a vast stone gate that could be up and down between the doors. Its rigorous layout and unique structure provide an important record to learn ancient Chinese military installations.
The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders
Built on the original site - Jiangdongmen Street where thousands of victims’ bodies were buried. So it was also called Jiangdongmen Memorial Hall before. The Memorial Hall, with a grey and solemn appearance, is a record of the most painful memory of Nanjing city as well as all Chinese people. Every December 13, people will resemble there for the national memorial ceremony for the victims of the Nanjing Massacre. It also serves as an important museum, displaying a series of historical records, artifacts, photographs, and sculptures that documented the atrocities committed by Japanese invaders against the innocent Chinese people during the occupation of Nanjing in 1937. Most essentially, it is a great place not only for looking back on history but also for promoting a peaceful world.
Originally built in 515 in the Liang dynasty and used to be at the site where the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum is located. Since the site was selected by the Hongwu Emperor as his mausoleum, then the temple was moved to the current site, about 1.5km east away from Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum. Surrounded by a large park, the temple is an expansive Buddhist temple complex, housing the Xuanzang Memorial Hall where Xuanzang and his relics are enshrined and worshipped, the Wuliang Hall, also called Beamless Hall - a brick and stone structures with no beam supports, and the nine-story Linggu Pagoda which is a sign of remembrance for the soldiers who lost their lives in the War of Northern Expedition.
Ming City Wall
The 25.1-kilometer-long Ming City Wall is the longest, largest, and best-preserved city wall ever built. Constructed from 1366 to 1393 during the Ming Dynasty to protect Nanjing from invaders, it is a testament to Nanjing’s ancient roots. The fabulous city wall is an exception to the usual rectangular layout of its time, yielding to the natural military fortress, zig-zagging around Nanjing’s mountains, rivers, and lakes. The brick-made wall has each brick with the inscriptions of origin, including the place it came from, the inspector’s name and rank, the brickmaker’s name, and sometimes the date, to guarantee the quality of bricks. These inscriptions act as a part of a historical scroll, providing a critical record of Chinese characters. There are several sports to get up on the wall. One of the best routes is a 5-km walk from Shence Gate to Taiping Gate, which offers great views of Xuanwu Lake, Purple Mountain, Jiuhua Mountain, and Jiming Temple.
The glassy Xuanwu Lake is housed in Xuanwu Park, a lovely and verdant royal garden which is reputed as “Pearl in Nanjing''. Xuanwu Gate, a part of the towering Ming City Wall, is the main entrance to Xuanwu Lake Park. Dating back to a long period before the Qin Dynasty, Xuanwu Lake has enjoyed good fame among Chinese literature and writings. Overlooked by Nanjing’s tallest building - Zifeng Tower, the lake is decorated by five isles which are interconnected by arched bridges, as well as some chic temples, elegant pavilions, bonsai gardens, bamboo groves, camphor, and cherry-blossom trees. It's a delightful green escape from Nanjing's urban life, and it is worthy of an extensive but enjoyable 9.5-kilometer lake circuit. There are also relaxing boat rides and miniature train rides to fully enjoy its scenery.
Special activities in Nanjing
Qinhuai Lantern Fair
Qinhuai Lantern Fair, also called Jinling Lantern Fair, is an annual large-scale fair held at the Confucius Temple from January 8th to 18th in the Chinese lunar calendar. As a part of folk custom celebration widely spreading in Nanjing area for the Lantern Festival, it claims to be the best lantern fair in China. Apart from lots of lantern sculptures, performances, and food, it boasts numerous cultural heritage that originates from Chinese folk art. The color woodblock printing and multicolor printing of arch flowers which can be seen at the fair showcases the highest level of Chinese ancient color printing.
Nanjing International Plum Blossom Festival
Plum blossom, Nanjing’s city flower, is honored as one of the "four gentlemen" of flowers in Chinese culture, together with bamboo forests, chrysanthemums, and orchids. Every early spring when the plum blossom is blooming, the Purple Mountain starts to awaken with its color and fragrance. Stretching nearly a month from end-February to mid-March, Nanjing International Plum Blossom Festival takes place on Plum Blossom Hill, presenting 35,000 plum blossom trees in 120 varieties, including China’s oldest, along with exhibitions on plum blossom themed calligraphies and paintings, plus traditional music and dance.
Best time to visit Nanjing
The best time to visit Nanjing is from October to mid-November. Nanjing boasts a humid subtropical climate characterized by distinct four seasons and plentiful rainfall. Summer (June to September) marks the city's scorching hot season, while cold winter (December to February) can deter even the most avid sightseers. The short autumn, however, is a sweet spot for tourism with comfortable and cool weather at an average temperature of 20˚C. Meanwhile, spring (March to May) offers lower lodging rates as well as warmer temps, but you'll likely encounter some rain and cooler breezes.
How to get to Nanjing
As a critical hub in the Yangtze River Delta region, located about 300km away from Shanghai, Nanjing is well-connected to all parts of China by a comprehensive transport system, including air, train, long-distance bus. There are also a few direct flights connecting Nanjing and overseas cities, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Tokyo. From Nanjing Lukou International Airport to the city center, it is about 40km/50min driving. For travelers coming from Shanghai or other cities in the Yangtze River Delta region, such as Hangzhou, Suzhou, Ningbo, the high-speed or bullet train is the best way to get to Nanjing, with a train ride within 2 hours.
Lodging and dining in Nanjing
Where to stay in Nanjing
Lodging in Nanjing runs the range from 5-star luxury international chains, moderate hotels, to 3-star budget ones with all the amenities. You can expect a cost ranging from CN¥ 200 to over CN¥ 1,000, depending on what kind of hotel you prefer. Most travelers will want to stay in Qinhuai River District, with the Confucius Temple being adjacent. It is active and vibrant with fantastic night views. First-time travelers who enjoy sightseeing might select the city center around Xinjiekou, which provides easy and convenient access to anywhere in Nanjing. Some travelers also prefer a stay in Xuanwu District. This trendy neighborhood, housing the Xuanwu Lake and close to the Nanjing railway station, is chock-full of eateries.
Fooding in Nanjing
In addition to numerous incredible sites, the city’s cuisine is worth an exciting adventure for your tastebuds, from alleyways filled with humble food stalls to stylish fine-dine restaurants. Nanjing’s homegrown dishes emphasize an exquisite presentation on both taste and appearance, providing some of the delicious examples of Jiangsu cuisine. In a city with duck fever, one duck delicacy is a mandatory order, either it is marinated or roasted, either it is duck meat or duck blood. As the local saying goes, "No meal is proper without duck”. We would recommend trying the famous Salted Duck or the duck blood soup. Other distinctive Nanjing delicacies to try are pan-fried beef dumplings, Tangbao, Jinling roast duck, Egg Shaomai.