Must-Go Places in Nanjing

After living in Nanjing for a year now, I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s modern enough to be friendly enough to foreigners, but it’s Chinese enough so it doesn’t feel like a totally international city. Nanjing, or “South Capital,” is located at the top of what is considered the south of China and has served as the on-and-off capital of China through the dynasties and during the Republic of China era, before Chairman Mao led the country. There’s rich history and beautiful places to visit in Nanjing, if you get the chance, so without further do…  

Sun Yat-Sen's Mausoleum in the snow on Purple Mountain.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Cokinis

Purple Mountain

Purple Mountain has had many names over the thousands of years of Chinese history—Zhongshan, Mount Jiang, Shenlieshan, Jinlingshan, etc.—but most seem to pertain to the purple-gold color of copper and the rocks. Purple Mountain is a staple of Nanjing, flooding with tourists during National Day Week and other holidays throughout the year. On the weekends, its many paths and sights—Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum, the Ming Tombs, Zixia Lake, the golden giant Buddha and dragon built into the mountain—bustle with the sound of people climbing and exploring the mountain. It’s wonderful to visit in the spring, way too hot in the summer, perfect in the fall, and absolutely gorgeous in the winter for the one snowfall a year. I have so many fond memories of this place: the first climb to the top, the view of the city, walking up to Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum in the snow, and swimming in Zixia lake near the Ming Tombs on a beautiful July day.

(There are several ways to get to different aspects of the mountain. Use line 2 and get off at Muxuyuan to head towards Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum and the Ming tombs. Use line 4 to Jiawangmiao station exit 1 to find a path leading straight to the top of the mountain.)


Confucius Temple: dragon lights at night. Photo Credit: Alyssa Cokinis

Confucius Temple/Fuzimiao Area

Another iconic sight in Nanjing, the Fuzimiao area boasts original and replica architecture from older times, the area once being an imperial university as well as a temple area. But now long withdrawn from its academic and philosophical perspective, tourists pack the area to admire the beautiful lights at night, which make the entire area glow with an infectious, excited energy. Be warned, though: if you’re a foreigner, you’re likely to be stopped or even grabbed on the arm for a picture, rather than just the usual staring. So if you’re uncomfortable dealing with that kind of situation, maybe the Confucius Temple area isn’t the best idea. (If you’re taking the metro there, you can take line 3 to Fuzimiao station or line 1 to Sanshanjie station.)  

A statue, poem, and its English translation at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Photo Credit: Alyssa Cokinis

Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is an enormous sight to behold, both because of the trauma it recounts and the sheer size of it. Stretching around several blocks, the Memorial Hall holds a museum with a timeline of the events from the massacre by the Japanese and through their occupation of Nanjing, statues lining the way inside with short poems and their English translations written on them, plaques to honor the lives lost, and a lot of open, empty space for thinking about a history most Westerners won’t learn in their general education. Eye-opening and sad, this is definitely an important, grounding stop on your trip in Nanjing. (If you’re taking the metro there, you’ll want to take line 2 to Yunjinlu and follow the signs for exit 2, which is for the Memorial Hall itself.)  

Pillows from way long ago! Just hard ceramic. At the Nanjing Museum. Photo Credit: Alyssa Cokinis

The Nanjing Museum

The Nanjing Museum, located off of line 2’s Minggugong station, is a wonder to behold. Set at the base of Purple Mountain, it is situated inside older architecture. If you’re a foreigner, be sure to take your passport with you, as you’ll need it to enter the museum. The museum itself boasts artifacts from thousands of years ago and several different dynasties and ruling groups. My personal favorite was gawking at the “pillows” used long ago. There are exhibits on artisanship with cooking objects, arches, clothing, etc. Perhaps the neatest part of it all is the basement of the museum, where there is a replica of 1920s Nanjing. You can walk around the narrow cobblestoned streets, immersed in a different time, and even go send a postcard if you want to. All-in-all, there’s so much in the museum that it is pointless to try and explain it all, other than to say it is totally worth it to go! Although if you are into audio tours, you might be out of luck, unless you can understand Mandarin Chinese.  

The “old” part of the Presidential Palace. Photo Credit: Alyssa Cokinis

The Presidential Palace

Located off of line 2’s Daxinggong station, the Presidential Palace is to Nanjing what the Forbidden Palace is to Beijing. One of the really cool aspects of the Presidential Palace is its ability to mold from an ancient garden scene replica to Republican-era Nanjing. At one point, it is as though you really do jump in time by hundreds—no, thousands—of years; and outside the wall of the Palace is of course the modern-day Nanjing. The place is massive, so dedicate an entire afternoon to walking around.   There is so much more available in Nanjing, but this is a good start. Nanjing is a stunning city always pushing itself to develop further, to be better, to be more accommodating. While it is no Shanghai, Nanjing is something in and of itself. Some people flock to Shanghai because of its international-ness, and while I can’t pretend I haven’t done that before for a weekend trip (the high-speed train only takes an hour and a half from Nanjing to Shanghai!) or wished that upon myself, I find the challenges of living in Nanjing also coincide beautifully with my thankfulness that this is the city I was first placed in: it’s safe, holds a lot of history from many different times and may provide more of an overarching picture of what China has been, is, and will become than any other place.