Now Changsha is probably not on your list of places to visit in China, but I’d be doing it a disservice if I didn’t write a blog post on the place, I called home for over 2 years. So here we go, Changsha Hunan Province. Keep reading for 23 things to do in this new first tier city in China.

1. Meixi Lake 梅溪湖

Meixi Lake (and park) is a really cool outdoor space in Yuelu District in Changsha. There are plenty of things to do in the area. The lake, the International Culture and Arts Center, and a few different parks. The International Culture and Arts Center has a grand theatre and an art gallery but is most popularly known for its incredible architecture. The building was designed by Zaha Hadid a British-Iraqi architect and is best known for its curvaceous lines and wonderful white waves. It’s a spectacular building in itself, and photos from the outside are an absolute must. For the best views you can view the building across the lake from a small island park.

2. Orange Island 桔子洲

Orange Island is one of the most popular attractions in the city, named… you guessed it, for its plentiful supply of oranges. The island is long and thin and located on the Xiangjiang River. A bridge passes over the island somewhat in the middle with a tunnel road passing underneath the island. This always freaks me out when roads go underwater, like how do they begin building the road? I just can’t comprehend it. The metro also stops on the island, meaning you can hop off at Juzizhou Station to enjoy your day exploring. There are a number of things to do on the island, but my first suggestion would be to walk the length of the island or a loop if you prefer. From north to south its length is 5km so it’s a nice walk with its width around 50-200m.

Mao’s Head

After arriving at Juzizhou Station you can head (pun very much intended) to Mao’s head. Now this is one of the strangest attractions I have visited whilst travelling. Think of those ginormous U.S. Presidents heads on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, then picture just one Chinese guy’s head proudly by itself, only its 14m taller than the Mount Rushmore heads, I present to you Mao Zedong’s huge granite head. Mao Zedong, Chairman Mao or Mao Mao as I like to call him was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, he went to Hunan First Normal University in Changsha, hence the larger-than-life size granite homage to the man. Imagine if one day the city of Oxford just decided to erect a $300 million statue of Boris Johnson, what an eyesore!

Orange Island Pool

Why not also enjoy a relaxing day in the Orange Island swimming pool. If the sun is shining and, low and behold the blue sky has come to visit, being in the pool feels somewhat comparable to a tropical island. Surrounded by palm trees make sure to stay for sunset, a perfect end to a day on the island. The entrance price to the pool is a little ambiguous, its usually around ¥50 (US$7.70) for foreigners (all day), but I have been with Chinese friends, and they try and charge locals more, because it’s a foreigners owned pool, which is a little strange and unfair! Anyway, that’s the price for the whole day.

Jiangshen Temple

This is a nice and peaceful temple, and it never gets very busy. Be sure to check out behind the temple there is a cute tea shop, pond and miniature bridge and beautiful trees. Take a stroll around the temple during the day but be sure to visit it after sunset at the pool because the temple lights up yellow and is beautiful, especially if the moon is shining.

3. IFS Tower & Kaws Monster

The Changsha IFS Tower is the tallest skyscraper in Changsha, and the 16th tallest building in the world. The Changsha skyline is not full of tall buildings but instead the IFS building stands lonely in the Changsha sky. The IFS building is home to a huge shopping mall, with designer brands in stark contrast to some of the neighbouring streets. One of the rooftops of one of the smaller IFS buildings is home to an amazingly peculiar sculpture by the American artist KAWS. The blue and grey characters are perched precarious on the edge of the sculpture garden roof and look great viewed from above and on the street below. If you are in Changsha near Christmas, make sure to head to IFS. There is often talk in China of banning these more westernized holidays like Christmas and Halloween, with schools being banned from holding events. But as of December 2019, the enormous Christmas tree complete with Tiffany & Co decorations was there to be enjoyed.

4. Walkways & Rivers

One of the things that surprised me greatly about China and Changsha was the amount of accessible city walkways and green spaces. When you see the images of China so often presented in the media, of polluted megacities, you then don’t expect there to be so many places to explore in the big city. In Changsha you can walk along the Liuyang River and stop for photos of the Changsha library at the confluence with the Xiangjiang River. Rent a bike and cycle along the river, from north to south and across one of the many bridges to the other side of the city, and if you get tired you can always take the subway back.

5. Night out at Yu Ren Ma Tou 渔人码头

If a night out on the town is your thing, you can enjoy drinks at Changsha’s River bar area Yu Ren Ma Tou, translated as Fisherman’s Wharf. Head to Commune for some relaxing drinks and decent snack style food or walk down the stairs to eat some spicy lobsters, and when I say spicy, I mean seriously spicy; after all Changsha is the second spiciest city in China. The architecture of 渔人码头 is influenced heavily by Europe with a sort of replica of Italy’s Trevi Fountain.

6. Kaifu Temple

Perhaps the most famous temple in Changsha, Kaifu Temple is located in Kaifu District, easily accessible by the line 1 subway. It is not a visit that will take up much of your day, but the orange hued roofs are beautiful to photograph. Entry into Kaifu Temple is only around ¥10 (US$1.55) and includes a few complimentary joss sticks to burn.

7. Try Stinky Tofu

You’ve all heard of tofu, but have you ever heard of stinky tofu? Stinky tofu is a fermented tofu that has an odor so strong for the first 2 months of living in China I thought my street just had a bad sewage system. Found at the night markets or from street vendors the taste is better than the smell and I encourage you to give it a try, because why not.

8. Claw Machines

You’ve all been to the arcade and had those infuriating claw machine near misses. But claw machines in China are a much bigger deal. Firstly, there are shops lining the streets in downtown solely dedicated to claw machines. Secondly, it’s not like these machines in England that never ever ever ever let you win. You can win in China! Just a small number of tokens and you can definitely walk away with a couple of dinosaurs and a shark.  The Chinese go crazy for these machines, it’s a definite enjoyable weekend hobby for a lot of young people.

9. Pose for Photos @ IKEA

IKEA is a big deal, well at least it was in 2019 having only just opened the previous year. I was loving the fact that IKEA had come too Changsha. It was so nice to see the familiar Swedish furniture store once again, but many Chinese people were flocking to the store for another reason. Photos. Warehouse photoshoots. The warehouse is usually the part of IKEA where you spend the least time, and for me the most boring part, however not in China. The rows of merchandising shelving apparently make for a great backdrop for edgy photos. So, pick up a pair of colourful kitchen scissors and some freezer bags but be sure to take some photos before you go.

10. Central South University (CSU), Hunan University & Hunan First Normal University

Going back to school might not be your first thought when visiting a place, but on the west side of the river lies three of the provinces famous universities. Central South University or CSU is ranked as a Class A university in China. Hunan First Normal University (so strange that its called normal) was the alma mater of Communist Party founder Mao Zedong. And Hunan University is known as the “One Thousand Year Old University”, due to it being developed in 976 AD!!! Making it the oldest university in the whole of China. Set in the foothills of Mount Yuelu it’s a nice place to spend the day wondering from campus to campus and poking around some of the nearby shops. You can also enjoy street food and some good hot pot along Lushan South Road.

11. Yuelu Mountain 岳麓山

Moving along Lushan South road you will reach Yuelu Mountain located on the west bank of the Xiang River. Yunlu Peak is the main peak and is just over 300m high. It is a nice walk up the mountain with a couple of shrines, tombs of famous revolutionary leaders and great views of the city of Changsha. Pick of those rare blue-sky days and you will get a much better view than the usually humid and hazy views of the city. If you’re feeling lazy or tired from the heat you could also take the miniature gondola up the mountain.

12. Hai Di Lao Hotpot (海底捞)

My favourite food in China is Hai Di Lao hotpot. This is not technically unique to Changsha with it actually originating in Sichuan, and now found across China, but you have to try it! Before I talk food, I’ll first start with hospitality. Now for you Brits out there Hai Di Lao’s hospitality might be a little too much. I don’t know about you but I’ve always found American service hospitality intensely friendly, but this is on another level. The moment you approach the door someone is there to assist, and ply you with crisps, popcorn (the best popcorn I have ever had), cucumber and juice whilst you wait. It is a very popular restaurant so evening times you will more than likely have to wait, but you can sit, relax and enjoy your free snacks. Let me take this moment to tell you about their juice. The mysterious drunk juice as I call it. This juice is some sort of berry, and despite having asked many times, apparently it does not contain alcohol. But a combination of this juice and the bubbling hot pot sauces makes me feel entirely drunk!

Once inside you are given an iPad to choose your food, meaning if your Chinese is not up to scratch you can just about pick everything you want to eat. Those robots you see in China and Japan at restaurants, well you can find them here, they are more clean-up robots than delivery-robots but still a cool novelty. You can choose from 4 hot pot sauces for your base, you can even have all of them. Be sure not to forget to order the ‘noodle man’. A man will come to your table and do things with noodles that you didn’t know where possible. He will spin them, twirl them, throw them over your head in a nice thirty second to a minute show before he places them in your hot pot sauce to cook! The food is delicious, it’s pretty expensive for hot pot, food in China is cheap, but with Hai Di Lao I guess you’re paying for the experience as well as the food. It also depends how much you eat of course, but each dish does add up. You can look to be spending anywhere between ¥300 and ¥500 (US$46-77) for a group of 4 people. There is a sort of salad bar where you can pick and make your own soup. Now I must take this time to introduce to you Tim Soup (named after my teaching assistant Tim). Tim’s signature ‘soup’ is chopped celery, herbs, garlic, ground beef and then tomato hot pot sauce. It sounds simple but it’s truly divine and a good dipping sauce for meat, dumplings and much more.

If eating dinner wasn’t enough you can also get a gel manicure or hand spa for free. As soon as you arrive make sure to ask and register a phone number and throughout your meal people are called for their turn at the nail bar. It is slightly strange being called in the middle of dinner to do your nails, but a hot pot dinner is always a lengthy affair therefore it sometimes nice to have a break before stuffing in one last mouthful.

13. Wenhe Laoyou Changsha Lobster Restaurant

This is a cool spot in Changsha, but strange and a little difficult to describe. It feels at complete unease with its surroundings, being a fake old-style building, maybe it reminded me of something from 1984, but Chinese. I want to call it a multi-story building but it’s more like there are multiple floors in a room. Rooms with lots of old air conditioners (for art I presume), a viewing only cableway where empty carriages travel around rather creepily. I don’t feel like I’m doing this place justice, so you’ll just have to see it for yourself. Inside there are lots of tiny kiosk style restaurants, famous of course for lobster, spicy once again. If you go on any sort of national holiday or weekend you will queue down the street to enter and shuffle around once inside, so if you want quick food and to be able to take photos then maybe go during the day but just after the lunchtime rush.

14. Downtown Nighttime Wandering

One of the good things about China is that it is super safe. Well, that is when bridges and buildings are not collapsing, explosions in mines are not occurring and garbage landslides aren’t killing 45 people! Did you know there is an average of 1 CCTV camera for every 11 people in China, that’s some very heavy surveillance, and I think it’s this that makes you feel very safe to walk the streets at night. China is beautiful at night, signs are glowing, lanterns are often lit, and street vendors are plentiful. Walking around Changsha’s downtown area you will stumble across lantern ceiling streets you didn’t know existed and it’s a great time to take photographs.

15. Martyr’s Park

Located on the east side of the city you can take subway line 3 to Martyrs Park East. The park is a really enjoyable and relaxing day out. There are many things to do and see and two closely situated lakes to enjoy, Nianjia Lake and Yuelin Lake. Towers, pagodas, boat rides, pedalo’s and nice paths to walk and explore it’s a great place to visit no matter the season. Tip: be a kid and buy some bubbles from one of the street vendors so that you can take bubble photos in the sunshine next to the lakes.

16. Lucky Knot Bridge

Located just behind previously mentioned Meixi Lake Park, the lucky knot bridge is a relatively new feature in Changsha. It’s a good place for photographs and it’s located over another small river. A nice place to spend an hour or so, you should definitely add it on to your trip to Meixi Lake as it’s just a 20-25 minute walk from the lake.

17. Taiping Jie 太平街 & Huangxing Road Walking Street

COVID has definitely taken the fun out of going somewhere just because its known for loads of people, but when t things get back to normal and you can actually enter China again, you can head to Taiping Jie and Huangxing Road. These are two of the busiest walking streets in Changsha. Go in the daytime and you can walk comfortably but go any time in the evening, particularly on a national holiday and weekend and those who get claustrophobic will be running for the airport. Full of shops, food vendors and balloon sellers this street really is a feast for the eyes!

I will forever love this picture of this tiny smiling man in the chaos of Taiping Jie on national holiday ^

18. Unicorn Museum

Over the past couple of years these experiences seem to be cropping up all over, but the Unicorn Museum is great. A few references to unicorns not as many as I would have hoped for. And the word museum should be used lightly as its not full of relics but instead pink ball pits, pink feathered walls, and lots of glitter…Oh and some screaming yellow rubber chickens! Walk into different rooms and pose for photos against great backdrops, it’s a good couple of hours fun, especially when you want to avoid the rain or the sun.

19. Van Gogh Museum (Fangao Xingkong)

Like the unicorn museum above the Van Gogh Museum is an immersive experience inspired by the works of Van Gogh. This is a really funny couple of hours, of illusions, and modelling opportunities.

20. HB Town the European Replica Town

Whilst in a different country I prefer to surround myself with their culture, but when you’ve lived in a city for a couple of years you want to try all the new experiences that come your way. This European inspired town, well predominantly Italian inspired town, is pretty big, with all the similar architecture you would see in Europe, including a replica Venice. There are a couple of places to eat but I’d advise brining your own snacks, because eating pasta made in China is more disappointing than you can possibly imagine. Throughout the day there are (in my opinion) entirely tacky and cringe-worthy dance and acting shows to “enjoy”, all performed by foreigners. A lot of miming and unintentional comedy, I had had enough at this point and as darkness came it was time for the day to end.

21. Hang out on Rooftops  

Whether it’s the top of the IFS building or your pick of residential apartments, make sure to view Changsha from up high. Lots of buildings can be easily accessed in China so confidently try your look and head to those elevators and press the highest number. With the Liuyang and Xiangjiang Rivers flowing through Changsha there will always been a river and high-rise apartment view for you to enjoy and photograph.

22. Traditional Style Street Art

Street art in China, I hear you say? With all those CCTV cameras who would dare graffiti walls. But this is more a sort of traditional street art or murals to put it better. So, when you are walking around the city be sure to keep your eyes peeled for beautifully painted walls.

23. E-bike Everywhere

E-bikes in China are everywhere, and Changsha is no exception. Rent an e-bike on just about any street and cruise around the city taking in all the sites. If your feeling sleepy from all that exploring, then you can always hire an electric bike to do the peddling for you. Perhaps it was my time spent riding motorbikes in Vietnam, but there is no better feeling than flying through the air on a hot summers day.

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