Nanjing, an unassuming historical metropolis

Nanjing (南京), literally the "southern capital," doesn't seem to be on the travel list of many foreign visitors. The city is one of the four great ancient capitals of China, though it trails Beijing and Xi'an in popularity. Who wouldn't want to see the famous Forbidden City and Great Wall in Beijing, as well as the Terracotta Warriors (兵马俑) in the Mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin (259-210 BC) who united China and ruled from Xi'an two millennia ago?

It is true that the capital city of Jiangsu Province doesn't have many well-known places to visit. Even China's only UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ming Xiaoling (明孝陵), or the Mausoleum of the First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), belongs to a wider cluster of imperial tombs of the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Most of these tombs are near Beijing. (The first emperor did in fact start the Ming Dynasty in Nanjing, but his son Yongle moved the capital to the north.)

Nanjing, however, is a city dear to most Chinese people. It is one of the most famous places to enjoy the spring and fall foliage, especially Purple Mountain (紫金山). Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹), author of one of the greatest Chinese classical books, "A Dream of Red Mansions" (红楼梦; also known as "The Story of the Stone"), was from Nanjing. The novel's central characters, the Twelve Beauties of Jinling (金陵十二钗), were all from Nanjing. Jinling is Nanjing's old name.

The Nanjing Museum, one of China's oldest, has a sizeable collection of Ming and Qing royal porcelain. While Nanjing's imperial palace no longer exists, its power and might can still be felt today because it provided the blueprint for the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Nanjing, an unassuming historical metropolis
Louis Lee

Nanjing City Wall is the longest city wall in China.

In general, Nanjing is a city of great history and learning. Six centuries ago, it was the largest city in China and, probably, in the entire world. One way to feel the city's grandeur is to visit the city walls of the Ming and Qing dynasties. They are on the UNESCO World Heritage Site's tentative list.

After getting off the train at Nanjing station, take Metro Line 3 for two stops to Jimingsi (鸡鸣寺). Head north toward Lake Xuanwu (玄武湖) for the walls. Entry costs 20 yuan (US$2.7). As you climb up the stairs, watch out for the slope next to them, on which horses used to be pulled up. As you walk on the walls, pay attention to the individual bricks. Many of them will have Chinese characters on them. The characters record both the origin of the brick and the identity of the maker. What a great way to hold people accountable!

Head toward the Drum Tower (Gulou 鼓楼) area after that. On the way, you'll pass by Jimingsi, or Jiming Temple, a fabled place for viewing cherry blossoms in the spring, and the Nanjing Paleontological Museum (南京古生物博物馆), both of which are worth a visit. There are two reasons to make the trip to the Drum Tower area: good food and good books. Nanjing University (南京大学) and its vicinity promise us both.

Nanjing, an unassuming historical metropolis
Louis Lee

Inscriptions can be seen on the Nanjing City Wall bricks.

You may have your own favorite small eateries, but my favorite is the recently opened Golden Lane Bakery (黄金巷面包坊) at 10 Qingdao Road (青岛路10号). It boasts both elegant and tasty dishes, like scones made from a recipe that the late Queen Elizabeth II of Britain gave to former US President Dwight Eisenhower and bagel à la Hangzhou, which is made with Hangzhou's famous osmanthus flowers and Dragon Well tea leaves.

The owner, surnamed Wu, is in his early 30s and was born in Shanghai. He went to school in Hangzhou, Prague, Seattle and Dresden, and speaks six languages. He chose the English name "Golden Lane" for his outlet because it's easier to remember, but its sign carries the Czech equivalent "Zlatá Ulicka" in its logo. Golden Lane, of course, refers to the famous Prague attraction in Prague Castle.

Wu didn't waste any time telling me what to do after I tried his Americano. He suggested I head down the road to Scholar Bookstore (学人书店) at 101 Qingdao Road (青岛路101号). Don't let the unassuming storefront fool you. The two-story bookstore is well-stocked with not only books of all kinds (I almost bought an English guide to the monuments of Albania) but also a wide range of memorabilia, from the Republic of China-era publications (Nanjing was the capital at that time) to old postcards and stamps from all over the world. I did get some old German stamps that were made to honor the composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

If you want to buy new books instead, you can always go to Librairie Avant-Garde (先锋书店) at 173 Guangzhou Road (广州路173号), touted as one of the most beautiful bookstores in China. It is worth visiting for its design alone – it used to be an underground parking lot.

Nanjing, an unassuming historical metropolis
Louis Lee

The Nanjing City Wall Museum opened last year.

Round up your day with a visit to Nanjing's excellent suite of museums, the Nanjing City Wall Museum, which is next to the city's grand southern gate, the Gate of China (中华门).

The museum provides detailed information about not only the design of the walls through the centuries but also intricate city planning. You will discover that, in the Ming Dynasty, there were in fact three sets of city walls: one for the palace, one for the city, and one for the capital to protect the city.

You will also discover that the city, which is unusually irregular in shape among Chinese capitals, was planned with astrological considerations. Most interestingly, you will discover how the characters on wall bricks shed light on Ming Dynasty society – there is now concrete evidence of women brickmakers, despite the lack of evidence in official historical records.

If you go:

Trains leave from both Shanghai and Shanghai Hongqiao stations multiple times a day and take roughly an hour and 40 minutes.

Additional info:

Nanjing City Walls Administration:

About the author

Dr Louis Lee is an award-winning author, educator, and radio presenter who has visited over 70 countries and regions. He has covered China extensively.