8 Things to do in Nanjing

After almost four years of knowing my best friend Yuting, I finally got to visit his hometown - Nanjing, China. Before meeting him, I knew hardly anything about it. From what I could tell on a map, Nanjing looked like a small city on the outskirts of Shanghai.

Boy was I wrong.

Not only is Nanjing home to over 8 million people, it was the capital of China until 1937 (there were other capitals of China before Nanjing, but still, that's pretty cool in my book). Having played such an important role in Chinese history, Nanjing has a lot of cultural sights to keep you busy.

If history is not your thing - don't worry! Yuting and I found a ton of parks and natural spaces in and around the city to explore. Keep reading below to learn more.

1. Relax at Xuanwu Lake

Xuanwu Lake is a large lake in Nanjing's Xuanwu district. Here you can rent duck-shaped boats, check out the Nanjing City Wall, or explore the different islands in the middle of the lake.

There are five islands in total on Xuanwu Lake, and all are connected by arched bridges. On the islands, you'll find everything from temples to a rose garden.

Relaxing in the shade at Xuanwu Lake in Nanjing

Since Yuting and I visited Nanjing during the summer, it was way too hot to be out in the sun. Thankfully we found this shady spot at Xuanwu Lake. Not only were we blocked from the sun, this area was surprisingly quiet considering it's in a main part of the city.

We spent the entire afternoon here and could've stayed longer if our stomachs weren't growling. While there's food at the lake, it's mostly small treats and snacks.

2. Explore Purple Mountain

If there's one place I wish we'd spent more time exploring in Nanjing, it's Purple Mountain (also known as the Zhongshan Scenic Area). This vast park is dotted with scenic locations, historical relics, and my personal favorite - trees.

The best part about visiting Purple Mountain though is you don't need to plan out your time there. No matter which way you walk, you're bound to run into something interesting to look at. If you are limited on time though, I recommend starting with Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum. It's the most popular attraction in the park and offers an incredible view from above the tree tops.

The top of the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing

main attractions at purple Mountain:

  • Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum

  • Linggu Temple

  • Purple Mountain Observatory (cable car experience)

  • Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum

  • Song Meiling's Villa

  • Plum Blossom Hill

3. Visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is a tribute to the victims of what is widely known as The Rape of Nanjing. In the span of six weeks during 1937, more than 300,000 people in Nanjing were murdered by Japanese troops. It was a horrific time in Nanjing's history often forgotten about by foreigners.

While not the happiest place to spend your time in Nanjing, I urge you to visit if you have time. This was one of the most well-designed memorial halls I've ever been to, and was very engaging. Unlike a standard museum where exhibits are seemingly random, the path through the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is purposeful and one-directional.

You'll learn about the entire events of the massacre, starting with what led to it and ending with how the world responded.

4. Wander through a Chinese wet market

Before Western-style grocery stores made their way to China, the majority of Chinese grocery shopping was done at wet markets. These markets are similar in style to a farmer's market, where various booths are clustered together and run by different vendors.

See what it's like to shop at a wet market in Nanjing

Take my comparison to a farmer's market lightly, however, for a Chinese wet market is far different than anything you'll ever find in America. Here, not everything is a 'pretty smell.' From raw pig's feet to a tank full of eels, you're in for sensory overload if you've never been to a place like this before. 

Be mindful of what you eat from these wet markets. While often times very fresh, the food here isn't always prepared in the most sanitary way, and can carry bacteria which will make you sick.

Nanjing has lots of cool wet markets to check out

That being said, visiting a wet market is a something everyone should experience. Even if you decide not to eat the food, you'll see a totally different side of Nanjing here than you would if you only visited the touristy sites. 

Where are the wet markets located?

Wet markets are located all over Nanjing. Check with the owner/manager of the place you're staying at for a recommendation close to you.

5. Spend a night out at Fuzimiao

Fuzimiao, also known as 'Confucius Temple,' is an area of Nanjing where all of the buildings maintain a traditional, Chinese style. Here you can eat just about every Chinese snack imaginable, float the nearby Qinhuai River and shop till you drop.

For some visitors, this spot may feel a little too commercialized. However, I really recommend a visit. If not during the daytime, at least see Fuzimiao at night. Every evening, hundreds of lanterns light up the streets and reflect off of the river.

Walking the streets of Fuzimiao was one of my favorite things to do
Visit Fuzimiao in Nanjing and check out the traditional architecture

TIP: Be prepared for crowds. Fuzimiao is one of the most popular spots in Nanjing for both travelers and locals alike.

6. See how the locals live

If you're not used to getting off the beaten path, this one may be a bit of a challenge for you. In China though, seeing a more 'local' way of life sometimes means just venturing off the main road a few blocks.

During our visit, Yuting and I walked down a lot of side streets. We stumbled upon schools like the one pictured below, small shops selling wonton soup for a little more than a dollar, and groups of men challenging each other to rounds of Chinese chess.

See how the locals live while you're in Nanjing
Two Nanjing locals eating wonton soup

These are some of the less 'shiny' places in Nanjing, but places which are full of life and real experiences

Tips for seeing how locals live:

  • Venture down streets away from the main roads (make sure you know how to backtrack though and can find your way back)

  • Explore malls, grocery stores, markets and other places locals might visit

  • Meet locals and ask for their recommendation on where to go

7. Walk along the 'other' great wall

In the 1300's, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming Dynasty and deemed Nanjing the capitol city. To establish his rule and keep out intruders, he had his workers build a massive wall around the entire city.

Taking 21 years to complete, the Nanjing city wall was originally 35 kilometers long. Today, about 25 kilometers of the wall remain.

Make sure and see the Nanjing city wall during your visit

If you're interested in seeing the wall or walking along the top of it, there are many different locations in the city from which to do so. During our trip, Yuting and I stumbled upon it while visiting Xuanwu Lake, and again while in the Fuzimiao district.

For a more detailed guide on the different ways to explore the wall, check out this CNN travel article.

8. Check out Nanjing University of the Arts

While looking for custard buns in Nanjing, Yuting and I stumbled upon the Nanjing University of Arts (also called the Nanjing Art Institute on some of the signs). Here we discovered a bunch of unique art installations, modern buildings and a small temple hidden in the trees.

It was the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon, and a welcome escape from tourists. We didn't see anyone but students and professors here going about their usual business.

Escape the crowds at the Nanjing University of Arts
Visit the art university while in Nanjing
A temple at the Nanjing Art Institute

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8 Things to do in Nanjing, China
8 Things to do in Nanjing

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