Head to Xiamen to Discover China's Hidden Gem
Unless you're a seasoned traveler, have lived in China or are actually from the country, there's a good chance Xiamen isn't exactly on your radar. This garden city, situated in the Fujian province about an hour and a half flight northeast of Hong Kong, has only recently made its way into the international spotlight. Always a top vacation spot within the country, this beautiful city has recently undergone massive and major improvements—like a multimillion-dollar bike path and gleaming upcoming hotels—that have added allure to more than just locals.
A dazzling marriage of historical significance, deep-rooted cultural pride and cosmopolitan appeal makes the city a top runner for one of China's coolest places. With a fashion scene that rivals that of Beijing or Shanghai and a large-scale focus on the arts, a visit to this coastal oasis will quickly make you see why this is the place to be.
A Cyclist's Haven
One of Xiamen's biggest claims to fame is its new elevated cycling path, which is one of the largest in the world. It spans nearly five miles and zigzags through lushly landscaped parks and all-glass skyscrapers. Plus, the path sits at five meters above ground, offering cyclists a way to navigate the city without the fear of traffic.
Expanding the Art & Fashion Scenes
Xiamen's culture has always beat to a creative drum. The epicenter of the hip, young culture in the city is the Sha Po Wei Art Zone, which was once an abandoned fishing port and cloister of old warehouses that has since transformed into a mini enclave of art installations, hipster bars and boutiques, and up-and-coming galleries. After sipping a cold craft beer from Fat Fat Beer Horse or cold-brew coffee from Thank You Cafe outside on the picnic benches, wander into one of the art galleries, like Xinhe Gallery or the Qianji Gallery.
An abundance of art can be found all throughout the city as well. Located on the campus of Xiamen University, the famed Furong Tunnel spans just longer than one kilometer and is covered in street graffiti, ranging from student projects to famous artists' murals.
The fashion industry in Xiamen is also on the rise, thanks in part to the fame and celebrity of local designers Shangguan Zhe (of Sankuanz) and Min Lui of Ms Min. These designers, among others, have set up in shop in Xiamen for a multitude of reasons, including a young and vibrant energy from the wave of Gen Zers and millennials taking refuge in the coastal city to the city's push for expanding and growing its dynamic art culture. Plus, designers like Vega Zaishi Wang from Beijing are relocating to the Xiamen coast, bringing with them an entirely new wave of contemporary designs to Longshan Fashion Center, Xiamen's unofficial fashion district.
With a temperature similar to the Mediterranean, the city is green with tropical plants, flowers and botanical gardens galore. Xiamen boasts the honor of International Garden City, along with Hangzhou, and perfectly landscaped meridians, parks and gardens can be found throughout the city. On the car-free island of Gulangyu, you'll find large, open spaces decorated with lush plants and intricately landscaped gardens situated alongside the historic French architecture. The Botanical Garden spans longer than three miles of greenery on the northern slope of Ten Thousand Stones Mountain and offers guests a look at more than 6,500 species of plants and flowers.
Many of Xiamen's gastronomic specialties are types of seafood, due to its coastal geography. Favorites include sea worm jellies, shark ball soup, oyster pancakes, fish balls and squid tofu. Seafood may be king, but dumplings and rolls are also popular. Gluey noodles, which are primarily found in the Fujian province, are a Minnan speciality. A hearty bowl is filled to the brim with noodles, shrimp, razor clams, oysters and an array of other seafood that's been boiled to make the texture, well, gluey. For dessert, many opt for sweetened peanut soup.
Most of these foods can be found in almost any traditional restaurant in Xiamen; however, no food pilgrimage to the city is complete without trying them in the bustling Bashi, also called the 8th Market. The city's oldest and largest, this open-air market spans city blocks and offers a taste of everything you can imagine. The market sits along some of the city's oldest homes and buildings, and offers one of the best glimpses into daily Xiamen life. You'll find locals speaking the traditional dialect (Minnan) when they're bargaining prices and spot people buzzing through the more than 100 stalls and vendors, picking up produce, seafood, meat and desserts for their evening meals. During festivals, like the famous Dragon Boat Festival or Mid-Autumn Festival, you'll also spot vendors selling speciality sweets and snacks like flavored rice dumplings and moon cakes.
Ding'aozai Cat Street, located right next to Xiamen University, is covered in all things feline—from 20 brightly painted statues to cat cafés, cat graffiti and expansive murals. According to the artist who pioneered the street, the focus on the cat is intended to bring back the old fisherman culture of mainland China. Visitors can also stop in the Cat Museum for more murals and artwork, movies featuring cat leads, and, of course, cat-related souvenirs.
The city's passion for tea stems back to the third century and is demonstrated in nearly every aspect of daily life. No place showcases this quite like Zhongshan Road, which boasts more than a dozen tea shops. Although reservations are helpful, many shops allow walk-ins, where you can partake in a proper tea tasting and even buy an assortment of teas to take home with you. To go with your tea, these tea houses often sell sets and tea wares, as well as decorative statues said to bring good luck.
New Wave of Luxury Hotels
Nothing showcases the changing tides in the Xiamen tourism industry like the luxury hotel boom, which has brought a handful of high-end properties to the coastal city. One of the most notable is the Conrad, which sits in one of the stylish towers located right on the water in the Siming Central Business District. It touts floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the picturesque view, modern rooms, classic lounges and even a patisserie on the first floor. Another highlight is its 1-3-5 program, with itineraries crafted specifically to get guests immersed in the local culture. The Waldorf Astoria is opening in Xiamen next year and will sit in the central urban center of the city, while the recently opened Shangri-La offers more than 320 rooms with seaside views.
Claire is a seasoned writer and photographer with a passion for food and travel. Keep up with her adventures on Instagram at @wayfairingclaire.
Correction: This article has been updated on 4/2/2018 to correct an error that stated Xiamen is south of Hong Kong. The city is northeast of Hong Kong.
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