Check out: Gulangyu, one of China's UNESCO Heritage Sites
China may be synonymous with rapid development and large, sprawling cities. However, there are a host of options of those seeking a quiet respite – one of which is the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, Gulangyu.
This tiny island off the coast of Xiamen offers tranquility and a rich cultural history – thanks to its role as a port during the colonial era. It was the only other place in China aside from Shanghai where foreigners were allowed to settle and, in fact, was once home to all 13 foreign consulates that had a presence in China.
Today, colonial buildings form the island’s architectural backdrop -- a cultural touchstone that differentiates this unique location from the rest of China. Many of these buildings are now restaurants, small hotels and quaint stores, offering much for tourists to explore.
The only access to Gulangyu is by a ferry from Xiamen Dongdu international Terminal . Begin your adventure at either Dongdu or or Youlun Ferry, with ferries available every 20 - 30 minutes. Ferry fees start at 35 yuan and operate from 7am to 5:30pm from October to May or 6:40pm from June to September. Note that the island is a traffic-free zone, and it’s small enough to walk around within a day.
What to do
Hike at Sunlight Rock and catch a breathtaking view of the island
(Image credit: Peter Iveson)
Looking for the best view of the island? Catch it on Sunlight Rock, the highest point of Gulangyu. Enjoy the views of quaint terraced houses juxtaposed against the skyscrapers of downtown Xiamen. One might even be lucky enough to catch views of Taiwan’s Jinmen Island on a good day.
Address: 56-64 Huangyan Road, Gulangyu, Siming District, Xiamen
Opening hours: 5:30am – 9pm from June to September, 5:30pm – 8:30pm from October to May.
Admission fee: 60 Yuan
Take in Gulangyu’s international history at Kulangsu Gallery of Foreign Artefacts
(Image credit: Imagine China)
While the island’s history dates all the way back to the Ming Dynasty, Gulangyu began emerging in prominence as it developed into a trading port in the 1800s. This was a cosmopolitan outpost home to residents from 13 countries that established consulates here. See some of that history at the Kulangsu Gallery of Foreign Artefacts which houses a fascinating collection of objet d’arts from ceramics to intricate metalwork from Europe, North America and East Asia. These artefacts stand as evidence of Gulangyu’s role in intercultural exchange and China’s international relations.
Address: 60 Guxin Road, Gulangyu, Siming district, Xiamen, China
Opening hours: 9 am – 5 pm Tuesdays to Sundays. Closed on Mondays.
Admission fee: 10 Yuan
Learn about local hero Zheng Chenggong
Learn more about Koxinga, or also known as Zheng Chenggong, at the Zheng Chenggong Memorial Hall, just a stone’s throw away from Sunlight Rock. He is a rebel pirate famed for holding out against the encroaching Manchus and led an army to battle against the Qing Dynasty. The Zheng Chenggong Memorial Museum was built to educate future generations about his success and achievements in the country.
Gardens occupy a special place in Chinese culture and it is an artform with thousands of years of history behind it. Shuzhuang Garden is a stunning example of this and was created in 1913 by a Taiwanese merchant who fled Taiwan upon the Japanese occupation. The garden is divided into two main areas that make the most out of its natural terrain to achieve an illusion of infinite space. The areas include the ‘Garden Hiding the Sea’ which faces the sea and the ‘Garden Making-up Hills’ which faces the hills.
A trip to Shuzhuang Garden would not be complete without checking the most distinctive area, ‘Garden Hiding the Sea’. As literal as it sounds, the hidden element of this garden is the sea itself. Despite having the garden to be constructed by the shore, visitors will only be able to witness the unparalleled view of the sea and sky as they enter deeper into the garden.
Pay homage to the island’s musical history
Music aficionados can head to Gulangyu Piano Museum, located within Shuzhuang Garden. The quaint building is shaped like a Grand Piano and sits one of the world’s biggest piano collections from all over the world. Among the pianos sit the Royal Piano of the German Royal Family – the earliest quadrilateral piano.
For another dose of harmony, visit the Kulangsu Organ Museum at Bagua Mansion. It is not only the only organ museum in China, but also the largest one in the world. It houses China’s largest pipe organ, towering at 13-metres high and weighs about 3152 kilogram. The exterior of the Kulangsu Organ Museum is a sight to behold as well. With a beautiful European styled dome, the building combines various architectural styles across the globe, including ancient Chinese architecture, a Pakistani mosque, an Athenian temple and a Roman Catholic church.
Address: 8:15am - 6:15pm June to September, 8:15am - 5:45pm October to May.
Opening hours: 8:30am to 5pm daily
Admission fee: 20 yuan
What to eat
Local delights take center stage in Gulangyu and seafood-based street food dishes are a signature here. One much-loved treat is the boiled Shark Balls -- an interesting take on the regular fish balls. Inside each cushiony morsel is a stash of savoury ground shark meat that bursts with flavour.
(Image credit: Kulangsu)
Try: Long Tou Shark Balls at 183 Longtou Road, Gulangyu, Siming District, Xiamen, China
Another favourite is the Oyster omelette, made with eggs, vegetables, sweet potato flour and fresh local oysters, pan-fried on a hot iron griddle. It’s served with a spicy sauce on the side and is the perfect mid-afternoon pit stop for any weary traveller.
(Image credit: Kulangsuisland)
Try: Kang Family Oyster Omelette at 189 Longtou Road, Gulangyu, Siming District, Xiamen