The Coolest City in Mainland China
When I first arrived in China, I travelled a lot. I must have been to at least twenty of China’s cities. In my memory, over the years, most of them have blurred together into one big, grey lump of communist-style architecture and dust. Shandong Province’s Qingdao smashes that stereotype completely and has become my favourite spot for a weekend getaway from Beijing.
A good 700km drive from Beijing, Qingdao used to be best accessed by plane. A 1.5-hour flight will get you there, but the airport is almost an hour away from the beachside town by taxi. So when you factor in the wasted airport time on either side of the flight and the headache that is an airport, with checking in and security, it wasn’t all that convenient. A few years ago, the brilliant bullet train system connected Beijing and Qingdao, making it only 4 to 5 hours city to city.
Qingdao Railway Station 青岛站 is in the old part of town, on Tai’an Road, on the peninsula, and the best possible location to find a great place to stay. Train tickets cost 314 RMB for second-class tickets, 474 RMB for first-class, and 984 RMB for business. It is one hundred percent worth paying the tiny bit extra to go first class. I don’t know about business, I aint that fancy. You can buy your tickets at Beijing South Railway Station, or online. For an English service, check out Ctrip here.
Things To Do
Tsingtao Beer Factory 青岛啤酒厂
No. 56, Dengzhou Road 登州路
First, let’s understand why the beer is called Tsingtao and the city is called Qingdao, even though they are pronounced the same. Pinyin is the official standard Romanization of Mandarin Chinese. This was not really a thing until 1979. Before that time, sounding out Chinese words was just a free-for-all with various different ways of spelling things (kind of like Thai is these days). Tsingtao was the old name and, since the brewery was founded 1903 by German settlers, that’s the name that stuck.
The museum is a part of the main factory producing Tsingtao beer. You pay around 60RMB for a tour starting in the former main office building. This building is a German-style mansion, though a little shabby, it has been relatively well maintained. Afterwards, you walk through some parts of the factory and can see the beer production process with creepy mannequins depicting the old methods, machinery and implements on display, while giving a glimpse of the present-day production facilities for each step in the process along the way. The regular entrance price of 60RMB includes 2 small glasses of beer per person – one of raw beer and one of the finished product – plus some beer nuts. At the end of your wander through the factory, you will exit through a gift shop, this is important because this is where you will be able to buy those giant, plastic yard glasses. These yard glasses are necessary to make a trip to Qingdao really pay off. Along the streets of the city, you will see folks with a keg, plastic bags and a scale, selling beer, fresh from the factory by the pound! This fresh beer is delicious, and as you explore the city, it is great to have your own refillable container rather than drinking out of plastic bags.
Beer Street Restaurants 青岛啤酒街
On the same road as the brewery, are dozens of indoor/outdoor restaurants all serving up the same thing, seafood. This is certainly a fun place to eat, and choosing your fish from the tanks on display assures you of their freshness, but any local will tell you to never eat here. It is only for tourists, it is way overpriced, and you will have to fend off buskers throughout your meal who will insist on playing you a song for a tip.
Usually, I would dead against a place like this, but for some reason, I still love to go there. Even if the clams are three times the usual price and the buskers are annoying, if you are in the right frame of mind and want some jovial atmosphere it is a great place to get a bite with friends. Go once, not every night.
The (not so) creatively named, Number 1 Bathing Beach is my favourite place to hang out for the day. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not Thailand, this is not Bali, this is Central China. The beaches are not perfect. Ignore photoshopped images of white sand and crystal water. Get your hopes back in place, lower your expectations. The beaches are adequate and even pleasant. The water quality varies, but when I have been, it is clear enough and definitely swimmable. The beach is a really fun place to people-watch, with the old ladies in their facekinis and the old men in their saggy Y-fronts working out like they are on Venice Beach.
Hua Dong Perry Winery 华东葡萄酒庄园
Laoshan District, Nanlongkou 崂山区南龙口
Hua Dong Winery was founded in 1985 by Briton Michael Perry with Chinese partners and used what they describe as a “European wine garden model” to develop China’s first European wine estate. It covers more than 2,000 acres and is home to several international award-winning wines, and they produce around seven million bottles a year. You can wander among the grape vines, tour the museum, check out the castle, the barrel storage rooms, and the modern grape processing facilities. It really is a stunningly beautiful place and do grab a few bottles of chilled white and drink them on the balcony before heading back into town.
The vineyard is open from 8 am to 5 pm. Entry tickets start at 50 yuan per person. But you can get a VIP pass for 100 yuan which will get you some extra perks, like a short tour, some wine tasting and snacks. The best way to get there is to take a cab and ask him to make it a round trip. You can negotiate this for a couple of hundred yuan.
St. Michael’s Cathedral 圣弥爱尔大教堂
15 Zhejiang Road 浙江路
Built by German missionaries in 1934, you do not have to be a religious person to love a visit to this beautiful cathedral created in the style of Romanesque Revival architecture. It can be found in the oldest part of the city where you can see many examples of beautiful European design. This church has had a rocky and fascinating history. It was damaged and defaced in the 1950s during the Cultural Revolution when anything western was considered Capitalist and therefore had to be destroyed under the rule of Mao Zedong. It was then saved after 1979 when Vice Chairman Ye Jianying declared the Cultural Revolution “an appalling catastrophe”. Efforts were made to restore many of China’s relics and St. Michael’s was fixed up and reopened in 1981.
The church holds daily mass at 6 am in Chinese and Korean. There are special services on holidays and Sundays. When mass is not in session it is open for the public to go in and enjoy the serene beauty.
May 4th Square 五四广场
Donghai Xilu 东海西路35号
Nothing really to see here, just a big, red, sculpture thing on a wide, green lawn, filled with people flying kites. Don’t expect too much from a visit to this landmark, however, there is a really neat little market along the boardwalk by the ocean. You can pick up some great souvenirs and very cheap pearls to impress mum with when you get back home.
Old Town 青岛老镇
Qingdao is huge. Coming from someone who lives in Beijing, that is really saying something. From May 4th Square in the CBD to Old Town is a half-hour in a taxi and that only covers a tiny fragment of this cool city. I have found that the CBD has little to offer and I usually spend most of my time around Old Town where the architecture is cool, and the streets are tree-lined and hilly. There are great restaurants in this area and Pichai Yuan 劈柴院 is a must-see. Built in the early 1900’s during the German occupation it was restored in 2007 in the traditional Chinese style to reflect a way of life somewhat forgotten. It is just a pocket of shops and eateries surrounding a courtyard and a few little alleys. But it makes you feel like you are on the set of an old Kung Fu movie.
Xiaoyushan Pagoda 小鱼山
For the best view over Old Town, take the day to hike up to this beautiful, colourful pagoda, built in the 80s. It provides the most amazing 360-degree panorama and getting there involves walking through Qingdao’s prettiest streets. Sadly when I was there with my camera, the fog/smog was thick and the view was non-existent, you will just have to trust me here.
Underwater World Qingdao 青岛海底世界
Open from 8 am to 5:30 pm Number 2 Laiyang Road 莱阳路2号
Just another aquarium, but I always love any opportunity to look at some fish. Tickets are 130 yuan per person, don’t buy the cheap ticket on offer, it will only grant you access to the museum portion, which is no fun.
Check out all of the cool old and new military boats, and take a trip around the peninsula on one of the many private charters or public ferries available.
When to Visit
If you are a total party animal, love crowds, and drunken madness, then go during August for the International Beer Festival. This event starts the first Saturday in August every year and has evolved into a month-long citywide celebration of beer. The city is a circus, hotel prices are sky high, and the beaches are packed with ne’er do wells. But it’s kind of fun if that’s your bag.
If you are a smart traveller, want to see the city in peace, and lay on the beach sipping beer almost alone, then go in the lovely months of April, May, and June. Alternatively, September and October are great times to visit. November, through February is just way too cold to do anything much in northern China. Even if the beach isn’t your thing, avoid travelling during these frigid months, with temperatures dropping as low as minus 15 degrees Celsius in the wind.
That’s Qingdao is a great resource for the expat or the tourist. It has everything you will need and includes addresses in Chinese to show to taxi drivers and help you navigate.
Qingdao Expat Survival Guide is a great blog with tonnes of tips from foreigners who live there.
The Qingdao China Guide also has great listings and especially good restaurant advice
Check out their list of bars for when the fresh street beer gets too much.
China has the fewest number of English speakers per capita with less than 1% of the population speaking EnglishTravellingng in China is not like travelling in the rest of Asia. You will need a translator app or photos of Chinese characters to find places. Cabbies won’t even know the names of landmarks in English. Be prepared for a lot of sign language. Have your hotel name and address printed out in Chinese before your trip.