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NANJING, China — Confucius says year of the dog (2018) is the year to get yourself to Nanjing. There’s more to the Land of the Red Dragon than the Great Wall and fantastic dumplings (although both are reason enough to book a trip). A 75-minute, high-speed train ride north of Shanghai to Nanjing delivers travelers to bustling city streets, ancient festivals, blossoming plum orchards, and fabulous delicacies that come together in a city that’s just far enough off the beaten path to make it feel like an insider’s secret.
Surrounded by the Yangtze River to the west and north and the Ningzheng Ridge to the east and south, Nanjing is the cultural and educational hub of modern China. A lively scene for contemporary and folk art has drawn in-the-know creative types for years, but the city has mostly flown under the radar. A trip to the former capital of ten Chinese dynasties has plenty to keep lovers of art, culture, food, and history busy, happy, and satiated.
Follow this calendar to plan the trip that best suits your tastes and passions:
Spring (March-May): Plum Blossoms, Duck Disputes, Confucius Wisdom
The month-long , China’s answer to Japan’s cherry blossom season, is a celebration of the country’s national flower and the most Instagrammable opportunity of your trip. Think 35,000 trees with vivid pink, purple, orange, and magenta plum blossoms on a 250-acre park on Plum Blossom Hill at the southern foot of Purple Mountain along the Ningzheng Ridge. During the official festival, you can see traditional Chinese music and dance performances. And while you’re at Purple Mountain, check out the mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China.
Nanjing might be known for world-class duck dishes, but the origins of the most famed, iconic duck dish of all, Peking, is hotly contested. Both Nanjingers and Beijingers claim ownership, and legend has it that emperor Zhu Di triggered the migration of the dish from Nanjing to Beijing when he moved the capital. Why not taste both and decide for yourself? (Beijing is a two-hour flight from Nanjing.) You can never have too much crispy-skinned goodness.
Now’s the time for a scenic cruise along the Qinhuai River, stopping at Confucius Temple to quench your thirst for knowledge of the city. Originally dating back more than a millennium to 1034, it was reconstructed in the 1980s in Ming and Qing dynasty architectural styles and is now Nanjing’s cultural center. You’ll find one of China’s largest Confucius figures (just over four meters tall) in Dacheng Hall, and an incredible collection of 38 jade, gold, and silver panels detailing the philosopher’s life. The riverfront area is a great spot to hear traditional Chinese music played on a guqin (a seven-stringed zither) or a lusheng (a reed-pipe wind instrument), while sampling local teas, snacks, and souvenir shops.
Summer (June-August): Wooden Boats, Dozens of Dumplings, Emperor's (Old) Robes
The summer season is perfect for the , one of China’s oldest traditions, circa 340 B.C. Dragon boat racing is said to originate from a Chinese legend where people paddled their boats on the Miluo River in search of the body of poet Qu Yuan, who lost his life on the water. Watch teams compete in long wooden boats with up to 60 people paddling in boats colorfully decorated to look like Chinese dragons. Spectators sit on the riverbanks, eating sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves and flavored with nuts (zongzi) as hundreds of athletes paddle in sync to a beating drum.
You’ll want to work up an appetite, if only for the two types of specialty dumplings. Tangboa (soup buns) are a steamed dough dumpling filled with pork and broth; niu rou guo tie (pan-fried beef dumplings) are crispy, doughy purses stuffed with beef, ginger, and spring onion. Sesame pancakes are a Nanjing staple stuffed with a savory minced pork or topped with sugar for a sweet treat. Both are given a pat of duck fat, then baked and topped with sesame seeds.
The showcases the 1600-year-old tradition of cloud brocade, or yungin, a uniquely sophisticated weaving method that renders beautifully detailed textiles. Once reserved exclusively for the emperor's dragon robes, the technique often incorporates precious materials including silk, gold, silver thread, and peacock feathers. Visitors can watch expert craftsmen at work producing what UNESCO has identified as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Autumn (September-November): Hairy Crabs, Salty Ducks, Golden Ginkos
Passionate gourmands and hard-core foodies should plan their trip to Nanjing in the fall for the season of Hairy Crab, the crustaceans famed for their vibrant orange roe and rich buttery texture. Sourced from Gucheng Lake in Nanjing’s southern suburbs, they can be found at restaurants throughout the city and are also sold by stall vendors during the in Gaochun County. According to locals, the female crabs are best eaten in mid-September, while the males peak around a month later. The traditional preparation — steamed, cracked open, and dipped in vinegar — is not to be missed.
In a city famed for its duck, one dish stands above them all. Nanjing salted duck, the city’s signature dish, is the last word in duck-based dishes. With pale skin and pink meat, this classic Qing Dynasty recipe, which sees the duck simmered in a special brine and hung to dry for three days, is served sliced and cold. Sampling it shortly before or after mid-autumn allows for the sweet, newly blossomed osmanthus flowers to be at their best when added to the spice mix.
Autumn is also a great time to visit the weeping willows and paddle boats of in downtown Nanjing, as the golden ginkgos and red maples are in season. Although each season at the park showcases a different color — pink cherry blossoms in spring, emerald lotus leaves in summer, and snow-covered pines in winter — the less humid temperatures of autumn make it there perfect time to stroll the park’s grounds and five bridge-connected islands.
Winter (December-February): Billions of Lanterns, Buddha’s Remains, Duck Blood Soup
Chinese paper lanterns, lion and dragon dances, beating drums, gongs, and cymbals — think of any quintessential Chinese festival, and you’ll probably have a good image of the . A sea of red paper lanterns takes over Nanjing, flanking the old city walls, as it hosts China’s largest lantern gathering, a celebration of family and good fortune. Keep an eye out for riddles attached to lanterns — there might just be a prize for getting the answer — and get in on the action by purchasing lanterns from the markets.
Pairings don’t get much more iconic than winter and soup, but after a visit to Nanjing you might not look at your local noodle shop in quite the same way. The culinary scene, shaped by traditional Huaiyang cuisine, is seasonally influenced, and winter is the perfect time to get your hands on a warming bowl of duck blood soup. Cubes of coagulated blood with a texture reminiscent of bean curd sit in a duck stock alongside deep-fried tofu, vermicelli, and duck organs. For the less adventurous, the city is also known for its shredded tofu in chicken broth, a light soup that includes ham, bamboo shoots, and shrimp.
When recent excavation of the Porcelain Temple site unearthed a reliquary believed to hold the remains of Buddha himself, donations came flooding in to rebuild the landmark. The reconstruction of an original nine-story tiered Ming Dynasty pagoda, one of the Seven Medieval Wonders destroyed by rebels in the 19th century, is topped by a golden pineapple, the very symbol of hospitality.