Animal magic: Chengdu

Beijing maybe the political and cultural capital of China but it’s Chengdu - home to China’s most famous face, the panda - that is the headline act in 2013. British Airways launched direct flights from Heathrow to Chengdu in September and the Sichuan city has just become the fourth city (after Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou) to offer visa free stays of 72 hours for transit passengers. All of which means that is now easier than ever to get up close with China’s cuddly national icon. Kaye Holland shows you the way to go

What to see and do
First and foremost, it’s all about the pandas as Chengdu is home to around 80 giant pandas. The city’s famous residents live at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base which lies about six miles north east of Chengdu. Only a philistine would travel all the way to Chengdu without bothering to see the bears but you’ll need to rise early. The pandas tend to wake up for a breakfast of bamboo (99 per cent of a wild panda’s diet is made up of bamboo) at 8.30am before taking a long nap around noon. To reach the Panda base,take the 902 bus from Xinnanmen bus station. The bus departs every 15 minutes or so from 8am-4pm and costs a bargainous 2RMB (20p).

Pandas aside, you could check out the Chairman Mao statue in Tianfu Square - aka the heart of Chengdu - which is set against a backdrop of floodlit fountains. I’d also recommend making a pilgrimage to one of the city's many temples, in particular Wenshu - Chengdu’s best preserved (and biggest) temple. Wenshu also has an outstanding vegetarian restaurant should hunger pangs kick in. Other notable temples include Wuhou which honours several key figures from the Three Kingdoms period (take a bow Emperor Liu Bei and the celebrated military strategist Zhuge Liang) and Green Ram - Chengdu’s most extensive Taoist temple. Lastly don’t overlook Jinsha Site - containing ruins of the 3000 year old Shu kingdom - which was discovered by archaeologists in 2011.

Best bites
Be prepared to spice up your (culinary) life: Chengdu is famed for its fabulously fiery food. Don’t miss the mouth numbing mapo tofu, the spicy chicken with peanuts or fish smothered in chilli. If you’re feeling brave, hot pot is a must have. This Sichuan speciality is a veritable cauldron of chillies and peppers into which every ingredient under the sun is dipped. Be warned: your nose will run and you’ll need lots of liquid refreshment, but hot pot can be food heaven. However if the aforementioned sounds a tad too spicy for your liking, try a teahouse. Chengdu is celebrated for its tea house culture and, as such, lost-in-time teahouses abound in Chengdu’s ginkgo-lined parks. My pick? The 100 year old Heming teahouse in People’s Park. Can’t decide which cha to try? A cup of Bamboo tea can’t be beaten while watching grandfathers playing mah jong, grandmothers practicing tai chi or line dancing - Chinese style - and locals of all ages having hair cuts or even their ear wax removed!

Top shops
Chengdu - like most of China’s mega metropolises - has enough shiny, modern malls to clothe you for life and the majority can be found on pedestrianised Chunxi Lu. But if it’s traditional trinkets you’re after, wander to Wuhouci Dajie where you’ll find a cornucopia of tea shops selling some spectacular Sichuanese gaiwan chas. Chengdu’s Tibetan Quarter also rewards a visit: streets such as Wuhouci Hengjie and Ximianqiao Hengjie hum with vendors pedalling woollen rugs, prayer flags, hand crafted jewellery and Buddhist statues.

After dark
When night falls, Sichuan opera is where it’s at. Nothing like the opera you know and love back home, Sichuan opera features fire breathing, gymnastics and men dressed as women. However the highlight is face changing (bianlian) which sees the performers magically swap masks. Jinjian Theatre stages shows most nights with tickets costing a reasonable 130RMB (£13).

Best excursion
Look no further than the riverside town of Leshan - home to the world’s tallest Buddha statue at 71m tall. The impressive reclining Great Buddha statue - whose ears with ears are 7m long - was carved into the riverside cliff face more than 1200 years ago and is an easy day trip from Chengdu.