Deciding to visit China can sometimes be the easy part.
First, there’s the online research to wade through. Plus, all the questions:
- Will the place you pick be safe?
- Will there be tours available?
- What’s the best hotel option?
- How will I travel there?
When looking for a unique place to visit in China, one city with an interesting history is Nanjing.
The old capital of China has held the leadership of various dynasties, kingdoms and republican governments from 229BC to 1949.
It was a surprise to find these unique things to see in Nanjing, so we suggest you add them to your travel planner.
With a fast train from Shanghai to Nanjing taking 1.5 hours, a day trip to Nanjing from Shanghai is possible.
But to be honest, three days in Nanjing should be the minimum.
So, let’s look at nine places to visit when in Nanjing.
Nine Things to See in Nanjing
When you have an idea of what to see in Nanjing before you arrive will save you precious time.
Apart from visiting Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge and Purple Mountain, most of what you see in Nanjing can be walked or by metro if staying near the Presidential Palace.
- Wander Xuanwu Lake Park and Five Isles
- Visit the Jiming Buddhist Temple
- Enjoy the Nightlife at Fuzimiao
- Walk the Ming City Wall
- Respectful Silence at the Memorial Hall
- Enter the Presidential Palace of Nanjing
- View the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge
- Check out the 1912 Quarter for Dinner
- Visit Purple Mountain
So, let’s book the train and find some accommodation.
Take the Fast Train from Shanghai to Nanjing
Our Shanghai to Nanjing train was easier to organize for this trip. It was our third fast train in just over a week of arriving in China.
Knowing there would be security and bag checks at the metro entrance and the entrance to the train station, we timed it perfectly.
Train travel in China is an efficient process. It’s just the massive hall of travellers in the station, which is daunting. So many people.
Our first time booking a fast train was at the train station.
We were overwhelmed by finding queues and queues of people. Our first step was to find the correct ticket window showing the time of the train we wanted. Then we had to wait in the queue with our passports ready.
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Luckily, there is a better way.
The alternative is booking online with China Highlights. So much easier.
If you are travelling as a couple, you may not be seated next to each other.
No problem; the online booking service can forward an email written in Chinese. By showing the email to a fellow passenger, we were able to sit next to each other.
Where to Stay in Nanjing
Arriving in Nanjing and feeling confident about our independent travel, we decided to take the metro rather than a taxi to the Eastern Pearl Hotel.
Metro: Take Line 3 to the Fuqiao Metro stop
Arriving at our metro stop, we were surprised to walk out of the metro, turn right, and find the hotel. Brilliant.
Finding a comfortable hotel in China, like the Eastern Pearl Hotel, meant we had to increase our travel budget. The reviews were good, so we took the chance and booked our stay.
Eastern Pearl Hotel was within easy walking distance of the things we wanted to see in Nanjing. We found a variety of restaurants and a supermarket near the hotel.
With the hotel sorted, we took our time to discover Nanjing’s history and culture.
Getting around Nanjing
You’re in luck.
The metro is fast, efficient and great for your travel budget.
With ticket machines available in English and metro signs in English, Nanjing Metro is easy to navigate.
1. Wander Xuanwu Lake Park and Five Isles
Walking in the general direction of Xuanwu Lake Park, we come across what we think is the entrance gate. But, perhaps the large police presence means we are actually at the entrance to a government building.
Yip, it is. A security guard shakes his head and wags his finger for us to move on.
Walking another kilometre, we got to walk through part of the old Nanjing wall.
When reading about the history of Nanjing, we saw that its wall was a solid construction. No wonder they had to cut through it to allow cars access.
We found Xuanwu Lake Park with electric carts at the entrance. Normally, we walk, but with the heat, we handed over our Yuan for a tour of the park.
Thank goodness we hired the cart, as the park is massive.
Xuanwu Lake Park and Five Isles are a bit more rustic than beautiful Hangzhou.
It is not well kept and is more of a destination to come boating in a very large yellow duckie or a paddleboat.
Related Post: Three Stunning Days in Hangzhou
2. Visit Jiming Buddhist Temple
The oldest Buddhist temple in Nanjing is the Jiming Temple, dating back to 265 AD.
With its views of the Xuanwu Lake Park and a walkway to the Old Nanjing City Wall, it is one of the places to see in Nanjing. There is a small entrance fee, which includes sticks of incense.
Jiming Temple can also be viewed near its museum from the Old Nanjing City Wall.
Located: 39 Beijing E Rd, Xuanwu Qu, Nanjing Shi, Jiangsu Sheng
3. Nightlife at Confucius Temple at Fuzimiao
Fuzimiao area is a restoration of the streets of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The area was developed to help with local tourism using the Qinhuai River, which is popular for night cruises. It’s also one of the places to visit for street food.
Make sure to visit the Confucius temple, the fourth largest temple in China.
The temple was reconstructed during the Song Dynasty and rebuilt after many wars.
4. Walk the Ming City Wall
When people think of China, it’s often the Great Wall of China near Beijing.
A unique fact about Nanjing is that the Old Nanjing City is surrounded by its great wall.
The Nanjing Wall was built in the Ming Dynasty from 1366 to 1393 to include four sections:
- Imperial City
- Forbidden City
- Capital City
- Outside City
Construction took 21 years using over one million people.
It is one of the largest city walls in the world, being 60 km long with 13 gates, 10-14 meters in width, and 14-21 meters high.
The quality of the bricks supplied was ensured by stonemasons having to inscribe their names. Take a look at the stones to find their initials.
Another unique feature of the Nanjing Wall is the resin used to waterproof the bricks. This was to ensure the width and height would not be corroded by water.
There is an entrance fee to walk along this historic wall.
As you walk the wall, you’ll find plaques with the history of attacks on the city. But the small museum (on the wall) has more information on the attacks and the construction.
You’ll also have views over Xuanwu Lake Park and the city.
This ancient military defence and gates can be viewed around the city, a testament to the many attacks over the centuries.
Even the Japanese had difficulty breaching the walls when they invaded.
Located at: Lanqi St, Qinhuai Qu, Nanjing Shi, Jiangsu Sheng.
5. Respectful Silence at the Memorial Hall
From the 13th of December 1937 to the 1st of January 1938, the Japanese invaded Nanjing.
As the Japanese army moved on from Shanghai and Hangzhou, they massacred 300,000 Nanjingese.
The Memorial Hall to the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Forces of Aggression is built near the Jiangdong Gate of the Nanjing Old City Wall. This was where 10,000 bodies were found in a mass grave, killed by Japanese soldiers who had a directive to destroy the communist regime.
The soldiers went about pilfering houses and farms, burning the city for the period of the invasion, raping women and children, and killing anyone in their path.
The memorial is a very sobering experience reading about the invading “Devils.” But also about German and American families who took in local Chinese to protect and feed them.
You emerge from the Memorial Hall into the Peace Park to reflect.
Located at: 418 Shuiximen St, Jianye Qu, Nanjing Shi, Jiangsu Sheng – Metro Stop Yunjin Road
6. Enter the Presidential Palace of Nanjing
The Presidential Palace in Nanjing has some fascinating ancient history but also some more modern history for us to relate to.
The Ming and Qing Dynasties occupied the palace until the Xinhai revolution in 1911. Sun Yat-sen, who was a main figure in the revolution, was sworn in at the Presidential Palace as the provisional President of the Republic of China.
It occurred on 1st January 1912 but lasted a short three months when he resigned power to Yuan Shikai.
The Presidential Palace then became the Headquarters of the Nationalist Government except for the period of the Japanese War (1937–1945).
In 1949, near the end of the Chinese Civil War, the Communist forces captured Nanjing, and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan. Chairman Mao declared the People’s Republic of China with the capital in Beijing.
A walk through the Presidential Palace highlights the unique 1900s Chinese brickwork of enchanting gardens, rockeries, and ponds.
The palace is now a museum, so exploring some outer buildings is very interesting to read how “western-style” corrupted the Chinese culture!
7. View the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge
Seeing the Yangtze River is a must in China, and while most people take a cruise, we took an unusual approach.
We made a trip to the double-decker Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge.
The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge was constructed in 1960-1968, and the Shanghai to Beijing railway was completed. Its unique feature is having a road above and a rail line below, all on the same bridge.
To have a closer view of the bridge and the Yangtze River, you can access the bridge tower for a small entrance fee.
Getting to the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge
Your best option is to take a taxi to Bridge Park near the Shangyuanmen District.
It’s certainly interesting seeing a different area of the city. We got more than our fair share of stares near the entrance of the park.
The entrance fee to Bridge Park covers access to the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge tower.
The walk to the tower is to the right of the park, which was sparse, so we didn’t venture too far to investigate.
Views of the Yangtze River
Chairman Mao greets you as you enter the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge tower.
We feel he would be disappointed not only with Bridge Park but also with the access to the bridge, which desperately needs a facelift.
We squeeze into the lift with a bunch of noisy Chinese tourists.
Maura has to smile and reassure the lift operator all is well as he lets out a huge sigh. Unfortunately, this bridge is known to have the highest number of suicides in the world.
We take photos of the amazing Yangtze River before descending again and walking back to the park entrance.
We decide to find our way back to the Eastern Pearl Hotel and take a local bus. Not really sure where this bus is headed, we follow it on MapsMe.
Fortunately, the bus travelled along the streets in the general direction of our hotel. As it neared a metro station, we travelled the rest of the way by metro.
8. Check out the 1912 Quarter for Dinner
The 1912 Quarter is a unique place to find bars and restaurants.
Checking the beer price of a restaurant known as the “Fishing Restaurant,” we tried to decipher the Chinese menu. Fortunately, someone speaking some English helped us choose some delicious plates.
Marinated grilled pork dish (yum, yum) with vegetables and a spicy beef dish.
What made us laugh as we initially asked for pork or chicken dishes and were told no, then the pages were turned to the pork dish, and we were told it was “good.”
The waitress was very helpful in getting Terry utensils when he eyed the chopsticks being handed to him.
We had an awesome night.
9. Visit Purple Mountain
One important thing to do in Nanjing is to visit Purple Mountain.
The area has around 200 historical sites, including the Ming Dynasty Tomb and the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum.
You have a couple of options to get there:
- take a taxi directly to the entrance
- take the metro to the base of Purple Mountain and walk or take a local bus
You will find the walk is easy through a forest pathway with plenty of signs giving directions to many historical places on the way.
Visit the Ming Dynasty Tomb (Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum)
Visiting the tomb of the Hongwu Emperor, the resting place of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And what you’ll find captivating is the Sacred Way, lined with sculptured animals guarding the tomb.
The tomb dates to 1381, with completion in 1431, so expect to spend a couple of hours here to enjoy the gardens and views of Nanjing.
Entrance Fee: about USD10
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum
One of the best things to do in Nanjing is to visit the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum, who, for three short months in 1912, evoked the idea for “the mass people to build the Republic of China.”
The mausoleum in his honour took three years to build after his death in 1925.
The mausoleum is an area of over 80,000 sq meters, which includes a hill walk through tree-lined paths passing through archways, a gate hall, and the steps of the memorial vault.
There is no cost to visit the mausoleum.
Nine Reasons to Visit Nanjing
Nanjing was the capital of 10 dynasties, which makes it a captivating city to spend time in.
With landmarks like its impressive Ming City Wall, the Chinese architecture of the Presidential Palace, and the resting place of Sun Yat-Sen on Purple Mountain, it easily deserves a 3-day exploration.
And China is more than its two large cities of Beijing and Shanghai.
For a cultural experience, you can organize yourself; Nanjing is an easy city to navigate to visit its notable landmarks.
You’ll also find dining out to be an authentic taste experience.
It’s time to add Nanjing to your next China experience.