The islands and coastline that make up the city of Xiamen, once known as Amoy, make for a more relaxed and cleaner escape from China’s bigger cities. While there’s plenty to do in and around the city to fill in a week-long-or-more holiday in Xiamen, with just a two hour-and-45-minute weekend trip. So during the last long May Day weekend, my friend Scott and I left Shanghai to visit our friend Ben who was studying business in Xiamen for three days of beaches, historic architecture and mechanical bull rides. Here’s how I enjoyed my weekend in Xiamen, and how you can enjoy yours, too….
The winding alleys and charming hostels of Zeng Cuo An
The main reason for my trip south was to catch up with my friend, but when I asked him his recommendation about where to stay not far from his campus, he told me one place: Zeng Cuo An. Full of cheap hostels and conveniently located, Zeng Cuo An also had a number of bars and restaurants. During holidays, rooms book up quick, so it’s good to secure a place quickly on arrival. In my case, despite a late arrival, I was able to secure a room for the night. Even if you don’t stay in Zeng Cuo An, it’s worth exploring. The narrow roads are mostly closed to cars and local entreprenuers have opened up a number of cafés, restaurants and bars in addition to the plentiful hostels. One standout is the Temple Café, built in an old temple (or at least in the style of an old temple), which offers a solid Western menu, from breakfast to burgers along with beer and other drinks. Zeng Cuo An is also just across from the beach. On my first night in Xiamen, I joined the guy who ran my hostel and his friends for a few night beers on the beach. (Article continues after gallery below.) [showtime]
Xiamen U’s art tunnel
Our first day in Xiamen, Scott and I went to meet Ben at the Xiamen University campus where he was studying. Having seen a number of Chinese univeristies, I was suprised just how nice the campus was. The center of the campus is a park with a large pond in the middle and big green hills behind it. We met Ben on a palm-lined walkway leading up from the park and started our tour of the campus. He took us on a rambling path through the older buildings of the university (founded in 1921) and back to the east side of the campus to the Furong Tunnel. The more than 1,000 meter-long (1,094 yd) tunnel was filled with detailed murals and paintings and we took 20-30 minutes to stroll through and look at them all.
Dining, drinks and amusement
Our first night out in Xiamen, Ben and his girlfriend took us to his favorite local restaurant, Oyster House at 244 Xiahe Lu . The four of us ordered a bit of finger food and several big oysters each, cooked up together with a selection of different ingredients (options included cheese, garlic and black pepper). While my request for a garlic and cheese oyster was turned down, I was most definitely not disapointed by the seperate cheese and garlic oysters. After we sauntered out with our full and satisfied bellies, we were off to drinks at Haiwan Park on the western side of Xiamen Island. Several Western-style bars stand in a line beside the water on the southwest side of the park, with great garage-door-like sides open to the outside with big stages for live music. When we arrived at J.J.’s Bar and Grill, the Chinese holiday crowd was out in full force, sharing beer towers and listening to the Filippino cover band. But what caught our attention was the mechanical bull.
It wasn’t being used when we arrived, but passively challenged us like a bouncy ball in a china shop, so we finished our beers, spoke to the wait staff and got ready to ride. Neither Ben nor I made it to eight minutes, but we had the crowd on our side of the restaurant cheering and sending up brave souls to take their turn on the bull. When we had our fill, Ben took us to a small amusement park north a short walk from the bars where we faced off in the bumper cars (RMB 10) before the staff politely asked us to leave so that they could close for the night.
Gulangyu: Xiamen’s biggest attraction
Before we left Xiamen, we decided we needed to see a few of its top sights. And for most people heading to Xiamen, the main draw is Gulangyu. The island, reachable by regular ferry, was part of Xiamen’s foreign concession. Many of the remaining historic buildings, along with newer ones constructed in their like, house guesthouses, cafés, tea shops, Fujianese seafood sellers and more. Being there during a holiday weekend, the main arteries through Gulangyu were packed, just as the ferry ride over had been, but with a little bit of wandering, we were able to leave the bulk of the crowd behind. Signs along the roads pointed out numerous Xiamen attractions: the Piano Museum, Koxinga Memorial Hall and Shuzhuang Gardens, among others. Our half-hearted attempts to follow the signs, debating between one spot and another, took us close to Underwater World Xiamen and our desire to get out of the heat and into some air conditioning pulled us in to the lair of the giant bronze octopus to spend an hour or so fish gazing before our trip to the airport.
Plenty more to see and do in Xiamen
- Do some shopping on Zhongshan Lu
- Nanputuo Temple — First built in the Tang Dynasty, this Buddhist temple sits near the Xiamen University campus.
- Strange Slope — Roll uphill (or at least look like it).
- Huli Shan Fortress — This massive compound built to defend the port city has secret tunnels, barracks, high walls and towers as well as a huge cannon.
- Hit the water for some kitesurfing
- Take a boat to Jinmen Island — If your visa allows for multiple entries to China, head to this island that belongs to Taiwan.
- Visit the Hakka tulou — Found in several places in Fujian outside of Xiamen, these round buildings were added as a UNESCO heritage site in 2008.