Gulangyu (or Kulangsu in the local Minnan dialect) is a tiny pedestrian-only island just off the coast of Xiamen, offering a picture-perfect mix of diverse architectural styles and a totally chilled-out coastal vibe. With basically all the makings of a Southeast Asian island resort, this 'garden islet' is ideal for a bit of R&R. Also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (as of July 2017), Gulangyu has a rich history to explore – with roots in Minnan fishing culture and an influx of colonial establishments whose mansions and villas shaped the island’s outlook.
Since you can’t really say you’ve been to Xiamen without gracing the soils of Gulangyu, make it your first stop. The ferry is well connected to the airport and train station and can ship you over in 20 minutes for 35RMB return. At a leisurely pace, it'll take you about three hours to walk around the whole islet – but you'll want to leave extra time to get lost wandering through the banyan-tree-studded alleyways.
Insider tip: The fruit is incredible, so take advantage of the fruit sellers hawking cups of freshly sliced mango, papaya and dragon fruit.
Boasting 31 kilometres of scenic, cyclist-friendly coastline, the Huandao Ringroad is the best place to see the city and its surrounding islands and islets. Whether you rent tandem bikes (from 20RMB per hour plus 300RMB deposit; multiple vendors along the road) or hop on a Mobike, choose a sunny day to make the most of the coconut tree-lined boulevards and sandy shores.
Start in Shapowei and cycle east. Once you’ve passed the late-Qing dynasty Hulishan Cannon Fortress and Zengcuo An Village, the road ahead will open up to offer coastal views with Taiwan’s Kinmen Island on the horizon. Refuel with grilled squid, seafood stir-fries, oyster omelettes and more from one of the city's many seafood stalls and rest your legs in the Yefengzhai tourist area, before you venture on towards the International Convention Centre.
What to eat and where to find it
Like other former fishing towns (Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Taipei), the best way to explore Xiamen's food scene is by heading to a food court or a market. These markets usually consist of individual stalls each serving a variety of specialities, and the tapas-style servings mean you can try a bit of everything. Here are the big hitters:
Hailijian 海蛎煎 (oyster omelette)
One of the city's signature dishes, hailijian – an omelette/pancake made with oysters, spring onion, egg and sweet potato flour – combines the freshness of surf and earthiness of turf. It has a very strong fish flavour that might be off-putting for some, but if you're a fan of strong ocean flavours you'll likely be going back for more. It's best when paired with a pint of Tsingtao on a warm evening.
Guwei Eatery 古味小吃店 4 Zhonghua Lu, near Zhangzhou Lu, Gulangyu.
Wuxiangjuan 五香卷 (five-spice pork rolls)
A dish whose anatomy is most comparable to Cantonese cheung fun (rice noodle rolls), wuxiangjuan are additionally fried and packed with grease. The filling of minced pork, water chestnuts and spring onions is seasoned with sugar and soy sauce and wrapped in thin sheets of beancurd, which are then deep-fried and served with sweet chilli sauce. Locals normally eat it with a humble bowl of congee.
Shapowei Food Castle 沙坡尾吃堡 Shapowei, near Daxue Lu.
Yamianxian 鸭面线 (duck noodles)
A proper serving comes with a herbal broth, local duck meat and mianxian – extra thin noodles commonly used in Fujian and Cantonese cuisines. It might sound plain, but a sip of this home-style soup will warm you up from the inside out in an instant.
Weiyou Food Courts 味友美食城 3 Lujiang Lu, near Zhongshan Lu.
Think qingtuan, mochi, daifuku
, but better. This delightful sweet is essentially a glutinous rice ball coated in – and filled with – roasted ground peanuts and black sesame. It's nutty inside and out, and made into bitesize pieces for an easy snack on-the-go.
Find it on Longtou Lu, near Xinhua Bookstore, Gulangyu.
View of the City of Xiamen from Gulangyu.
Banshake Milk Tea & Café
While it's easy to get bored of commercially brewed milk tea, head off the beaten track to the end of Fujian Lu, where you’ll find local roastery/bar Banshake. A small hole in the wall with a bar and seating area, Banshake is one of the last independent cafés still standing after a ten-year run. Here you can choose from a wild selection of drinks whose ingredients remain strictly confidential.
35RMB for an iced coffee.
It's controversial, but Juicy Supply's durian tartlet is a melt-in-your-mouth masterpiece. Or, if durian really doesn't do it for you, there's also the rosewater and pistachio cake, strawberry mousse cake and a very special 'flow heart' cheese tart.
92 Daxue Lu, near Shapowei. 15RMB for a fig baguette; a slice of cake from 30RMB.
Barista Honour Café
For a decent cup of coffee to go.
2 Daxue Lu, near Fengchao Shan Lu, Shapowei. 22RMB for a flat white.
Wormhole Bookstore & Café
For a cuppa and a seat on the breezy verandah.
34 Fujian Lu, near Fuxing Lu, Gulangyu. 28RMB for a cappuccino.
Where to stay
Courtesy: Conrad Xiamen
Owned by Hilton, this five-star hotel occupies floors 37 to 54 inside the Gensler-designed Shimao Towers
. Boasting panoramic sea views and a premium location next to the up-and-coming Xiamen University area, Conrad Xiamen is a great choice for those seeking a luxurious weekend away.
Standard double room (breakfast inclusive) from 2,300RMB per night. Book online.
Gulang Villa Hotel
For something on the cheaper side, Gulang Villa Hotel is a quaint three-star hotel on Gulangyu. It's a quiet space away from the madding crowds, making it ideal for a romantic getaway.
Dozens of domestic airlines fly from Shanghai Pudong International and Hongqiao airports to Xiamen’s Gaoqi International Airport daily.
Return tickets from 600RMB.
Return ticket price for HSR trains from Shanghai Hongqiao to Xiamen North is not necessarily cheaper than flying. And if you take the one-hour trip from Xiamen North to the city island proper, flying is definitely an easier and comfier option.
Return tickets from 800RMB.
Getting from A to B in Xiamen
BRT (Bus Rapid Transit)
These elevated roads are built for buses and buses only. There are currently three BRT lines in Xiamen interconnecting the Gaoqi International Airport, the port area where all the ferry terminals connecting the nearby islets are, and the International Conference & Exhibition Centre facing Kinmen Island (Taiwan).
2RMB single ticket.
Ferry to Gulangyu
Since the enlisting process of Gulangyu as a UNESCO World Heritage Site started, the government has placed particular attention on controlling the influx of tourists to the little island. This means more hassle for tourists, who now have to trek up to the Dongdu Terminal for an approximately 25-minute ferry ride to Gulangyu’s Sanqiutian or Neicuoao Terminals.
35RMB round-trip. Follow WeChat ID ‘xmferry’ to prebook and avoid queues.
Xiamen’s Metro Line 1 has been operational since 31 December 2017 and connects Zhenhai Lu (south of the island near Xiamen University) to Xiamen North Railway Station.
Here's the bottom line...
It’s a rare example of a city which has got the nature-culture balance figured out. It's super pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly, and you can count on clusters of food stalls awaiting at the end of a rocky hike or a scenic bike ride. Want somewhere that promises sunshine and sea air a two-hour flight away from Shanghai? Xiamen is for you.