If this city in southeastern Fujian feels familiar, it may be because many Tsinoys have their roots in the region. For over a century, Xiamen has been an important cultural link between the Philippines and China. These days, it’s also an excellent — and not too expensive — first taste of the big “mainland”.
*US$; hotels, airfare and spontaneous brunching not included
Day 1: From mountain to sea(food)
A Chinese meal can be a sit-down feast, or it can be a grazer’s delight that spans a few hours and several hundred meters. Opt for the second option on your first morning in Xiamen. Head off to the corner of Kaihe Road and Xiahe Road, where a sprawling street market starts. This is the place to visit for local breakfast bites, and they’re all in plain view for everyone to choose from. Grab a bottle of warm soybean milk (US$0.75) from the nearest drink stall, then check out the offerings at the nearby hawkers. There are huat kweh (US$0.75) steamed cakes, you char kway fritters (US$0.45) and different kinds of deep-fried mantou breads (US$0.75). Another stall should have the time-honored Tsinoy favorite: crunchy-chewy jian dui sesame and lotus pastries (US$0.75). You can also sample the heavier bak chang — a tasty mound of sticky rice and pork wrapped in lotus leaves (US$2.20). You’ll have to eat on your feet, though, but the utterly cheap cost of this market fare — and the calories you’ll burn in the process — will more than make up for it.
From here it’s a quick bus ride away from busy downtown to the island’s quieter south side. The hefty breakfast you just had will serve you well at Nanputuo Temple (entry is free), one of the most important religious structures on the island. Built over three centuries ago, it hosts China’s earliest Buddhist institute and remains a major center for religious studies. If you’re lucky today, the crowd of devotees and tourists won’t be too thick; saunter over to the four main halls to admire the intricate southern Chinese architecture. Inside, ornate wood, marble and ivory sculptures adorn the altars and the ceiling.
Further to the rear, a pathway leads to the slopes of Wulao Peak. Yes, we’re climbing this sacred pile of rocks. But don’t worry, the walkways are paved and clearly marked — and the peak is an easy 184m high. There’s a number of other shrines to visit on the way up, but the goal on this mini climb is to enjoy the stunning view of the city that waits at the top. From up there, Xiamen shows off its skyline as an ultra-modern metropolis.
It takes a few hours to explore Nanputuo Temple and Wulao Peak, which means the lunchtime crowds will have thinned by the time you return. Ride the bus a few stops down to the line of food shops at Ding’aozai street — we recommend one of the ubiquitous sha cha mian eateries, which offer local “sand tea noodles” in a spicy, peanut-laced broth (US$6.60). Afterwards, get your Instagram selfie fix at the neighborhood’s many cat-themed sculptures and wall murals. You can spend the rest of the afternoon chilling among flowers and picture-perfect city views at Bailuzhou Park, before ending the day with a Fujianese seafood dinner (US$14.70) at the Taiwan Gaoxiong Luhe Night Market on Renhe Road. This strip is famous for its row of cheap and cheerful eating houses. Although there isn’t much souvenir shopping to be done here, the meal that’s sure to come will keep you happily burping the whole night.
- Day 1 costs: Meals US$26.95; Entry fees are free; Total: US$26.95
Day 2: The “piano island”
The island of Gulangyu is one of southern China’s most popular tourist destinations, and the perpetually long queues at the ferry station are proof of that. To get ahead of the lines, a pre-booked ticket (US$6.65) is necessary. These are available via Klook (klook.com). It’s also a good idea to take one of the first ferries to the island (trips start at 7am). That way, you get to savor the Unesco World Heritage site before the rest of the tourists arrive.
With just around 2km2 of space, Gulangyu is a tiny strip of land — yet it enjoys a rather large space in the history books as one of the first international settlements on Chinese soil. In its heyday in the early 1900s, the island hosted the consulates of 13 countries, and it had its own Westernized schools, hospitals and administrative buildings. These structures are still present, but many have been converted into boutiques, restaurants and hotels.
While the crowds are still thin, you can get lost amid the narrow walkways and imagine life in this affluent corner of 19th-century China. Later in the day, check out a number of must-see spots, like Shuzhuang Garden (US$4.45), an estate that blends picturesque seaside walkways with traditional Chinese pavilions. Within this property there’s also the Piano Museum, a quirky collection of antique pianos that attest to the island’s penchant for producing world-class musicians. Not too far from here, you can also visit the Hai Tian Tang Gou Mansion (US$13) on 38 Fujian Road, to witness traditional Chinese performances. Built in the 1920s, this villa is composed of five opulent buildings that display a curious mix of Western and Chinese architecture. When you get hungry during this excursion, make a beeline for Longtou Road, in the main village of San Qiu Tian, where a dizzying row of food stalls and eateries awaits. Try the tasty yu wan tang fishball soup (US$3) at number 183 and the crispy flatbreads (US$2.20) at number 274, which come with a savory filling of mushroom and stewed onion.
- Day 2 costs: Gulangyu round-trip ticket US$8.15; Shuzhuang Garden US$4.45; Hai Tian Tang Gou Mansion US$13.00; Meals US$5.20; Total: US$30.80
Day 3: Xiamen’s garden
After day two’s excursions, you deserve an easy start to your last day in the city. Hop over to Huang Zehe Peanut Soup on 22 Zhongshan Road for another helping of local delicacies. The shop serves up its sweet specialty peanut soup (US$1.45) with accompaniments ranging from stuffed meat buns to glutinous rice and fried dates (US$2.20). Then, proceed to the Xiamen Botanical Garden (US$6). This 5km2 nature reserve has 29 sections that host over 4,000 species of plants. Sightseeing buses (US$1.45 per ride) are available to shuttle visitors between the sections. Don’t miss the Bamboo Forest and its collection of Bambusoideae trees from all over the world. Intriguingly, this area was frequented by scholars in centuries past — see evidence of their presence in the many calligraphic inscriptions visible in the park.
Another short bus ride takes you to Zhongshan Road, a center for food and shopping — you’ll know that you’ve arrived when you see restored 1920s-era buildings hemming in both sides of the road. For over a century, Zhongshan Road has been the commercial heart of Xiamen, with period architecture in a mix of Eastern and Western designs. Most of these now house F&B and entertainment centers, which have transformed the neighborhood into a trendy hangout.
Feel free to browse the shops and chill as the locals do — with a selfie-stick-mounted phone in one hand and a cup of bubble tea (US$2.20) in the other. You can also stroll over to Taiping Road for another street-eating expedition. There’s good shao kao (Chinese barbecue; US$3 a stick) here, and the very addictive Shang Yuan Mei “flavor wheel cake” (US$3) in front of 29 Taiping Road — that’s a fist-sized pancake loaded with sausage bits, ground pork, scrambled eggs, coriander and a salty chili sauce. This final, fiery feast should put the exclamation mark on your Xiamen weekend. You can head for the airport with a smile on your face, knowing that you’ve sampled the city’s charms without breaking the bank.
- Day 3 costs: Meals US$9.65; Xiamen Botanical Garden US$6.00; Sightseeing bus US$ 1.45; Bubble tea US$2.20; Total: US$19.30
What to eat in Xiamen: Minnan pastries
Pinoys who visit a traditional pastry shop in Xiamen will make a delightful discovery: many time-honored snacks in the Philippines are, in fact, direct descendants of Hokkien delicacies. In the Chinese city, they’re called Minnan pastries — and they look and taste just like the ones made by the corner bakery in your Philippine hometown. Check out bites like the crackly lohua rice rolls, which in the Philippines are known as ampao.
How to get around Xiamen
Xiamen’s public transportation system is efficient and comes in three parts — the AMTR (metro), the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) and the regular buses. Line 1 of the AMTR runs north to south and connects the island with high-speed railway stations. On the other hand, the BRT has a dedicated roadway for buses, and works pretty much like a train network. For tourists, BRT lines 1 and 2 are the most useful as they connect to the Wucun Bus Station, where airport express buses can be found. But all you really need to explore Xiamen are the regular buses that ply the city’s generally traffic-free roads. Fares start from as low as RMB1 (US$0.15) a trip.
Data for emergency use only: The “Great Firewall of China” is notoriously strict in blocking access to websites and apps like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Gmail. If you must stay on social media or email, you’ll have to use a virtual private network (VPN) — that’s a service that routes your usage through a network and keeps it away from censors. But not all VPNs are able to bypass the Great Firewall — techradar.com keeps an updated list of the best VPN providers.
This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of Smile magazine.