Xiamen, the most popular destination among Chinese domestic tourists, often gets overlooked by international travelers who are more familiar with the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Xian. The island formerly known as Amoy is one of the cleanest and most attractive cities in Fujian, a province considered to be one of the most beautiful in China.
Xiamen became a foreign concession in 1903, and by the 1930s, nine consulates and more than 500 foreigners called the small island of Gulangyu just off the coast of Xiamen home. The tree-filled island is completely car-free, and much of the old colonial architecture remains. Exploring the island’s cobbled streets and back alleys with the sounds of piano music drifting through the air (Gulangyu has the highest concentration of pianos anywhere on Earth) makes you feel like you’re in some European town instead of a Chinese city of nearly 4 million people.
With a thriving Buddhist community, Xiamen’s Tang Dynasty Nanputou Temple, located adjacent to Xiamen University, offers visitors a glimpse at a fully functional temple complete with saffron-robed monks and an ever present cloud of incense smoke permeating the air. Exiting through the rear of the temple puts you at the base of South Putou Mountain where hiking trails lead up to scenic views of the surrounding city. The area’s selection of vegetarian restaurants cook up some rather convincing replicas of chicken, fish and even barbecue ribs.
While China isn’t known for beaches, the long expanses of sand lining Xiamen’s southern and eastern shores are the best outside of Hainan, and during the sweltering summer months, the stretch of beach just outside the university comes alive with street food vendors, couples riding tandem bikes and swimmers cooling off in the calm waters.
Head 128 miles (205 kilometers) inland from the city, and you’ll find one of the province’s more curious sites. The tulou, a collection of earthen roundhouses built by the Hakka minority group, gained notoriety when the American military spotted them and mistook them for missile silos. These bare earthen fortresses sit in valleys covered in tea plantations amid rural villages where only the very young and very old remain.
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