IT is always a pleasure to discover a new place little by little, savoring it with a lot of walking, stopping for snacks, ducking into interesting buildings, chatting with locals, and eating more snacks.
Ningbo is such a place.
Mention Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, and most people think of the sea, seafood and snacks. But the city also has forested scenery, a developed economy and quite a few tourist destinations.
“Ningbo is a leisure tourist destination, with high tourist satisfaction,” said Chen Gang, deputy director of the Ningbo Tourism Bureau.
Officials claim the coastal city has been ranked No. 3 among 60 cities nationwide for several seasons on a “tourist satisfaction index” by China Tourism Academy.
Last year more than 62 million domestic tourists and 1.27 million foreign tourists visited Ningbo, which has 5.8 million residents in the greater metropolitan area and 2.3 in the main urban area.
It is not hard to understand why tourists feel satisfied. The streets are clean and the air is fresh. People aren’t rushing about and talking fast. They like to take it easy in a tea house or restaurant, enjoying tea, seafood and a good life.
In this special issue, Shanghai Daily collects the best spots in the urban and suburban areas and provides travel details so readers can arrange a trip.
In Urban Area
Nantang Old Street
Many Chinese cities feature historic streets but most are filled with stores selling souvenirs, silk scarves and “stinky” tofu. Not Nantang Old Street, which is clean, not too crowded and features nicely decorated restaurants, cafes and other spots.
Bounded by Nantang Canal on the west, it is crossed by an arched stone bridge near the southern entrance. Built in 2011, it is basically a food street where you can check out all the options before you gorge.
Let’s start from the west entrance. The first two stores on the left and right are pastry shops.
On the right side, it sells xiekehuang, or yellow crab shell, a fluffy sesame-coated pastry filled with pickled vegetables. It doesn’t contain crab but looks like a shell.
The snack is popular in Shanghai as well as Ningbo and that’s a testament to the two cities’ close relations. When Shanghai opened as commercial port more than a century ago, many Ningbo people moved there. No wonder the dialects of the two cities are so similar.
A shop on the opposite side sells qiancengbing or thousand-layer cookie, a flaky pastry coated with white sesame and seaweed nori powder — nori is a city specialty. It’s green and salty. In front of the store, a line of ovens shows how the seaweed squares are first baked before they are powdered.
Nori is used in another Ningbo signature snack — youzanzi, a deep-fried dough twist. It’s sold from street stalls and if you keep walking 10 meters, you’ll probably see a line of people, money in hand, walking away with bags of youzanzi.
In other Chinese cities, similar twist pastry is larger and called mahua, but Ningbo-style youzanzi are small, around a palm’s length. Nori is mixed with the flour so the stir-fried twist is more savory than greasy. There’s also a sweet twist made with sugar and without nori.
Ningbo people love the twists and in the 20-square-meter store you can see a dozen workers sitting around a low table, continuously rolling and twisting the dough. Two of them fry the dough in two huge pots. One fellow takes the customers’ money.
Even so, the place is so popular that each buyer is limited to 20 yuan’s (US$3.22) worth of salty and another 20 yuan’s worth of sweet twists. One bag costs 10 yuan.
Keep walking. A wonton store is a great place for a bowl of hot soup to go with the pastry you just bought. Or you can choose xiaolongbao, small steamed buns. The eatery also offers corn-and-meat buns, and the corn is famously sweet.
Caution: never bite right into xiaolongbao, or hot juice and oil from the meat filling will squirt you, or someone nearby. Just bite a corner, put it in a dish with vinegar, let the juice ooze out and let some vinegar in. Enjoy it bit by bit.
After the wonton shop, you will pass a congee vendor and some pastry stores. Don’t miss Wu’s mianjie — a bowl of soup containing a roll of pork wrapped in beancurd.
Keep on going and try another snack you cannot find anywhere else in the world, mimantou (rice buns). These are steamed buns made from rice powder, not flour, so they are more glutinous than the usual mantou and slightly sweet. They can be served hot or cold and Ningbo people like to coat it with nori power and sugar.
Now walk a little further and get your camera ready for another rice-based dessert, pearl balls, or zhenzhu tangyuan. These are steamed balls of red bean paste pudding made with white glutinous rice flour. They look like pingpong ball-sized crystal balls made of mochi rice, chewy and sticky.
There’s also a special Ningbo-style tangyuan, a sweet dumpling made from glutinous rice flour and typically boiled. The store also sells traditional tangyuan, which are rather sweet.
After hitting the food stalls and shops, you probably won’t have the appetite for a proper meal at a proper restaurant. Take a look at the posted picture menus instead and make plans for a return trip. Before leaving, pick up some snacks for friends and colleagues.
Tip: It’s a 5-minute drive from Ningbo Train Station, and a nice way to start your trip after you check into your hotel.
Time: It takes around an hour to walk down the length of the street, but you can take your time, stopping in a restaurant, cafe or tea house.
Many cities have their own museums, but Ningbo’s museum is a landmark and a work of art. It is one of the signature works of architect Wang Shu, who won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2012 for his body of work. He was the first Chinese to win the prestigious award.
There are no sweeping expanses of glass or concrete. The museum is “piled up” from recycled bricks and tiles — Wang’s style. It’s not regular or smooth. The wall texture is rough, bricks and tiles are unpainted. Some walls are aslant at odd angles. There’s no organized pattern of windows, but squares of different sizes are embedded seemingly at random.
When it opened in 2008, locals called it a “bizarre, giant thing” and they lined up day after day to view it inside and out. Today it is Ningbo’s pride.
The design concept is a combination of mountain, water and ocean — all part of Ningbo. The East China Sea especially has been crucial in the history of Ningbo, a trading city. The museum focuses on area history and traditional customs.
The building starts to “tilt” on the second floor, giving the whole structure the feeling of a mountain or a boat. It refers to the geography as well as the city’s seafaring history.
The outer walls are made in two ways. Some are built using millions of old bricks and tiles collected in the area. In the old days, some houses were built in this fashion, with meticulous placement of stone and without cement. Other walls are cement bearing bamboo patterns.
The main exhibit on the second floor covers the history of the Ningbo area, which dates back more than 5,000 years, to the present day.
Exhibits feature ancient cultures, expansion of the city, overseas trade, the development of the Eastern Zhejiang Scholars literary group and the modern Ningbo Commercial Group. Many artifacts, models and old photos are displayed. The third floor contains an exhibition about folk customs as well as intangible cultural heritage. Wax models, building reproductions and technology are used to recreate a traditional commercial street.
Address: 1000 Shounanzhong Rd, Yinzhou District
Opening hours: 9am-4pm (closed on Mondays)
Time: Quick tour takes an hour.
How to get there: Taxi from city center costs around 25 yuan.
Note: This is not “laowai tan,” something for “laowai.” It’s Lao Waitan or the Old Bund, like Shanghai’s “waitan” but older. In fact, this is China’s oldest “waitan” or bund. It is also the old foreign concession area from Ningbo’s days as a treaty port in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today it is still connected with foreigners since it has been designed as a restaurant and entertainment district. It’s a pleasant place to spend evenings, with everything from an Irish pub to Indian cuisine along its cobblestone streets. There’s also a 17th century Catholic church.
On the bank of the Yong River, Lao Waitan contains many international-style bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants. It is a favorite gathering place of the city’s expat community.
Among others, The Shamrock Pub and Office Bar often televises sports events and it contains pool tables.
Another spot, Miss Bar, features a talented guitarist these days. The Studio and Bass Clef offer live music, while Le Cargo and Wonderland are often the last stops of the night for some dancing.
For a relaxed, up-market night in Lao Waitan, try the Constellation Bar, an American-styled cocktail bar with wait staff formally dressed, wearing bow ties and white gloves.
Across the river from Lao Waitan, Heyi Avenue provides an alternative for an evening out. In addition to international cafes, bars and restaurants, it has a number of bars alongside Ningbo’s dancing fountains.
A number of venues offer outdoor seating in warm weather, making for a perfect evening.
This is another pride of Ningbo. The wooden library is the oldest existing private library in China. It is also said to be the oldest such library in Asia and one of the world’s three oldest libraries maintained by a family.
Next to Moon Lake in the western part of the city, the library and its traditional garden have survived 450 years of drama and upheaval.
It once contained 70,000 volumes, many of them priceless and stolen over the years. It was known as the “city of books in South China” for its vast collection of ancient books and manuscripts.
Today, in a separate modern building, it contains 300,000 volumes, mostly rare Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) printed and hand-copied books.
The library was built by Fan Qin, a vice minister of war in the Ming Dynasty. The two-story wooden structure was used as the blueprint for imperial libraries, including the one in the Forbidden City built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The books themselves have been moved to a facility with temperature control and other protection, but the original building itself can still be appreciated.
Next to the library is a mahjong museum, explaining the history and development of one of the most popular games in China.
Suggested itinerary: West Gate — Embossed sculpture — Dongming’s Lodge — Baoshu House — Zunjing Pavilion, Stone Tablet Collection, Chamber of Thousand Jins — East Garden — Lotus Island — Tribute Ancestral House of the Qin Family — House of Drawings and Calligraphy — South Garden.
Opening hours: 8am-5:30pm in summer, 8am-5pm in winter.
Admission: 30 yuan
Address: 10 Tianyi St
Time: A tour takes around one and a half hours.
Shipu Fishing Port Ancient Town
The best place to try Ningbo seafood is on East China Sea, where visitors can also go fishing and tour fishing villages.
The town’s motto is “Half sea, half town,” and that’s about right. The town faces the sea and is itself an ancient town built on a small hill.
The buildings are mostly wood and stone. Fishermen’s families sell seashell crafts on the street.
It only takes around 30 minutes to tour the town, so you can spend most of your time sea fishing, or netting fish.
A three and a half hour trip on a fishing boat for six passengers costs 200 yuan per person. All equipment is provided for fishing and netting. To charter a boat for 20 passengers costs a total of 3,800, and the boat owner can assemble the passengers.
If you like fishing, then go for the short trip, but the size of your catch depends on your luck and skill. If you try netting, the secret to getting more fish, crab or shells is to give a pack of nice cigarettes to the captain and ask him to leave the net open for a few more minutes.
What to do with your catch? Take it to any restaurant. For tens of yuan, seafood can be cooked any way you like. The restaurant may buy any surplus, or you can take it home in an ice chest, if you’re driving.
If you don’t have time for fishing, then try the restaurants. They are all excellent — you can’t go wrong with the freshest seafood.
Local specialties include steamed yellow croaker, pepper and eel soup, fish and rice soup, fish’s bladder (yes, it’s edible, and tasty), preserved crab (it’s raw, salty and goes with congee and alcohol).
How to get there: Take a coach to Shipu, then No.2 bus to Haifeng Square.
If you drive, take Tongsan Expressway and exit Ninghai-Yongtaiwen Extension Expressway. Follow directions to Xiangshan until you reach Dancheng. Follow directions to Shipu.
For sea fishing reservations, call 0574-6596-9111; for netting, call 139-0660-1033.
Tickets to enter the ancient town: 60 yuan. If you only go fishing, you don’t need to enter the town.
Time: It takes half day to tour the town and enjoy seafood, one day for fishing.
Qiantong Ancient town
There are many ancient towns south of the Yangtze River. Many are commercialized reproductions with neon lighting on ancient-style pagodas. Some are authentic, or fairly authentic, having been rebuilt a few times over hundreds of years (and not last year to attract tourists).
Qiantong Ancient Town is the real thing, built in the 13th century. It contains more than 1,300 ancient houses, most of them built in the Ming and Qing dynasties.
This is a special place because the town was located and laid out according to ancient principles of fengshui or geomancy, so that it would benefit from positive energy and the natural environment. It is shaped like an octagon (eight is an auspicious number in Chinese philosophy) and in the center a stream forms a circle so that every household can draw water and wash vegetables and clothes. Families still do it today.
Some residences are quite grand, with courtyards and paths paved with cobbles and pebbles in elaborate, auspicious patterns. Overhead, visitors can still make out the intricate carving in heavy, weathered beams.
Address: Qiantong Village, Qiantong Town
Admission: 40 yuan
How to get there: Take a bus from Ningbo to Ninghai, then a taxi to Ninghai West Bus Station, then a shuttle bus to Qiantong.
If you drive: Take Tongsan Expressway, exit Ninghai South, turn right to Chalu Town then Qiantong Ancient Town.
Xujiashan Stone Village
Forty kilometers from Qiantong, Xujiashan Stone Village is typically the next stop on a driving tour. The scene is stunning because all the structures — houses, bridges, temples, pigsties — are built from local mountain stone.
Large, stone steles are scattered about.
Stonemasonry is the livelihood in the 400-year-old village, and tables, chairs, stools and other furnishings are all made of stone. Naturally, the street is paved with stone.
How to get there: Take a coach from Ningbo to Ninghai, then buy a ticket for the bus to Chayuan, which goes to Stone Village.
If you drive: Tongsan Highway — Ninghai exit — Taoyuan Road N. — Taoyuan Road M. — South Coastal Line — Chayuan Village — Turn left at the fork. Go straight, follow the signs for Xujiashan.
Ninghai Forest Hot Springs Resort
Considered by many to be one of China’s best hot springs, this natural spring bubbles from the ground at 49.5 degrees Celsius and contains more than 20 minerals and micro-elements. Mineral baths are considered beneficial to the health.
The hillside resort offers numerous pools of different temperatures, some near outcroppings of rock, some under shade trees.
Though the cold-weather peak season for hot springs has past (thankfully), hundreds of tourists a day still visit. Be prepared.
Address: Shenzhen Town
Admission: 168 yuan (for bathing)
How to get there:
Take a coach/bus to Ninghai, then a bus/coach to Shenzhen town. Call for a pick-up shuttle.
If you drive: Take Tongsan Expressway and exit Ninghai — Plum Forest — Shenzhen Town. Follow directions to Ninghai Hot Springs.