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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Nanjing City Guide

Officially, the Chinese government does not define cities into tiers, but China analysts often do. First tier are the commercial megacities; second-tier are generally provincial capitals; third-tier important provincial cities. Nanjing is in the second tier. This Nanjing city guide is for foreign vistors coming to the city for the first time.

Nanjing city center
Downtown Nanjing city center

Nanjing is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It has a rich cultural heritage, sizable expat community, and even a city subway. Nanjing has a sizeable foreigner population made up of Europeans, North Americans, Africans and Asians. The foreigners you will meet in Nanjing include international students, teachers, corporate workers, and entertainers.

Stacking Nanjing against the first-tier mega-cities:

CityPopulationGDP per capita (in $USD)# of expats# of universities for foreign students
Shanghai22 million$14,000209,00010
Beijing19 million$15,000107,00025
Guangzhou11 million$19,000118,0007
Nanjing8.12 million$16,00017,0008

Nanjing is well-developed. It’s connected to both Shanghai and Beijing with highways and high-speed rail connections. By train, it takes seven hours to Beijing and three hours to Shanghai.

Nanjing city transport has many options. It’s a great city for cycling. You can also make use of taxis; public buses; a metro service; tourist buses. Even if you don’t speak Chinese, using local transportation is cheap and efficient.

Nanjing is 75 minutes to Shanghai by high-speed train.
Nanjing is 75 minutes to Shanghai by high-speed train.

It is an attractive city by Chinese standards. There are leafy boulevards, Ming walls in riverside parks and international shopping areas.

Check this Google map to see the best places to live in Nanjing.

Travel Essentials

This section covers all of the basics for first-time visitors.

Nanjing’s back streets teem with kaleidoscopic stimuli. Pic: Ken Marhsall
Nanjing’s back streets teem with kaleidoscopic stimuli. Pic: Ken Marhsall


Nanjing used to be called one of the “four furnances of China”. In reality, it’s not even top-5 hottest cities in China. In 2013, one source had it ranked 14th, another ranked it 8th hottest.

  • Spring: March-May. Temperatures gradually warm and humidity increases until the summer furnance hits.
  • Summer: June-Sept. Extremely hot and humid with heavy rains in June and July.
  • Autumn: Oct-Nov. Pleasant, cool and dry; the best time to visit. Evenings tend to get cool.
  • Winter: Dec-Feb. Cold and humid with occasional snow. Temperatures drop as low as -7 °C (19 °F).

Getting to Nanjing

By train: there are two main railway stations. Nanjing Station is on the north shore of Xuanwu Lake. Nanjing South is at the Zhonghuamen Metro Station. The former only serves some routes to Shanghai, Zhenjiang, Changzhou and Suzhou. Nanjing South serves long-haul high-speed trains across eastern China. Destinations include Beijing, Shanghai, Xuzhou, Zhengzhou, Wuxi, Suzhou, Kunshan, Jinan, etc. There are two 300kph high speed trains that reach Shanghai in 75 minutes. Slower options that take upwards of 4 hours.

By bus: overnight buses connect Nanjing with large hubs like Beijing and Guangzhou. Other popular bus routes go to Shanghai, Hangzhou, and the nearby provinces.

By air: Nanjing Lukou International Airport is 35km from the city center. From here you can catch flights to most cities in China. There are also direct flights to Asian destinations. These include Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. From the city center, taxis cost around 150 RMB (45 minutes). 20 RMB shuttles leave every 20 minutes from the Zhonghuamen Long-Distance Bus Station. Subway line S1 costs 6 RMB and takes around 30 minutes to get into town.

Getting around Nanjing

  • Taxi: taxis are everywhere, but getting one in rush hour is nearly impossible. All taxis use meters.
  • City bus: Nanjing buses are cheap and easy to use. Get help from local friends to figure out the basics.
  • Subway: there are 2 main lines that well cover most main destinations. Line 1 runs north-south, line 2 runs east-west. Trains run every 6 to 8 minutes. Fares charge by distance, generally between 3-5RMB.
  • Bicycle: most areas have bike lanes. Coin-operated public bikes are available for rent all over the city. There are several high-end mountain bikes in town as well. But theft is a major problem — thieves dump locked bikes into trucks and drive off.


The Chinese currency is the rénmínbì (RMB). The basic unit is the yuán, which is also referred to as kuài. Bills are issued in denominations of ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100.

If landing in Nanjing, you can change most major foreign currencies into RMB at the airport.

In the city, ATMs accept most international credit and bank debit cards to draw out cash. You can exchange currency at most banks with your passport (M-F, 9 am-5 pm).

Potential dangers

Nanjing is one of China’s safest cities: violent crime against foreigners is rare, but troubles can potentially arise.

  • Theft: pickpocketing is most common around the Fuzi Miao (Confucius Temple) area. Some report stolen cameras in Purple Mountain Park.
  • Bike theft: if you have a nice bike, be careful. If thieves can’t cut your lock, they will toss your locked bike into a flatbed. If security guards are around, expect them to shrug their shoulders.
  • Taxi scams: in-city taxis are generally solid. Look out for unlicensed taxi operators at the airport and train stations. They charge triple prices
  • Teahouse scams: beware of friendly, attractive Chinese females striking up a conversation on the street. They will claim to be a “culture guide” and take you to a teahouse. Once the tea gets served, the girl disappears. Then a Chinese bouncer will give you a bill for a few hundred dollars. Your options are to pay the money or take a beating.
  • Crazy Traffic: the biggest threat in Nanjing is the traffic. China has only 3% of the world’s drivers, but one of the highest per capita rates of road fatalities. Driving on the sidewalk is common. Mashing horns is normal. It’s chaos 24 hours per day.
  • Bar brawls: take the 2013 Shanghai Crime & Safety Report’s advice. “Violent crime affecting the expat community most often occurs in the bars and clubs. Bar fights occurr due to cultural conflict, xenophobia, and alcohol. Prostitutes and drugs are present in some clubs.”

Expenses and income potential

A broad look at expected costs for visitors to Nanjing (prices in $USD):

Pricing Comparison

1-bdrm apartment$1,628$850$560
Gasoline (per liter)$1.16$1.06$1.07
Local bottled beer$1.21$0.89$1.53
Pack of cigarettes$3.23$2.70$2.42
Fitness club membership$41.00$59.00$33.00

Data by Planet Asia, Humuch.com and Numbeo.com

Tourist Expenses

  • Guesthouse dorm bed: 250 RMB ($40.00)
  • Street cafe meal: 40 RMB ($6.50)
  • Local draft beer in a restaurant: 20 RMB ($3.20)
  • 3-star aircon hotel: 400 RMB ($65)
  • Expat restaurant meal: 100 RMB ($16.25)
  • Bottle of imported beer: 50 RMB ($8.00)

The biggest expense for most people will be alcohol – per-unit prices are cheap, but add up fast!

Sightseeing Highlights

Nanjing is a popular tourist town with plenty of easy day-trips to enjoy.

Aerial view of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, nestled in the foothills of Purple Mountain. Pic: source
Aerial view of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, nestled in the foothills of Purple Mountain. Pic: source

mini2For directions to each place listed (plus more), check out our Nanjing tourist attractions on Google maps.

Recommended highlights:

  • Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum: located at the southern foot of Purple Mountain, this serves as a tribute to the ‘father of China’. There are marble archways, copper gates, and a huge statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.
  • Presidential Palace: after the Republic of China formed, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen took the oath of Provisional President here. After Japan’s defeat in WWII, the Nationalist Government returned to Nanjing. They declared the compound to be the Presidential Palace in 1948.
  • Nanjing Museum: this museum covers 129,000 square meters. It’s packed with historical and revolutionary cultural relics. These include porcelain from the palace of the Qing dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC). There are also relics from the Shang dynasty (16th – 11th century BC).
  • Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall: this memorializes the Chinese killed by Japanese troops in Nanjing in 1937. The 28,000-meter memorial has three main sections. There are outdoor exhibits; a presentation of excavated bones; a multimedia presentation. There, films, audio, text, and images explain the story of the massacre in both English and Chinese.
  • Confucius Temple (FuziMiao): pickpocket central is crowded and dirty but the punters flock here. The temple was built in 1034 to honor the great philosopher Confucius. Around the main buildings is a labyrinthine of market stalls, food vendors, a KFC and a McDonald’s.

Bars and Restaurants

In 2019, the Nanjing food and beverage scene is easy to figure out: Shanghai Road features the densest cluster of expat-friendly places, several good spots are scattered around the downtown area, and the 1912 district has a huge block of clubs and higher-end restaurants.

Nanjing girls partying in 1912
Nanjing girls partying in 1912

For directions of the best places, check this Nanjing food and drink Google map.

Local cuisine

According to a 2014 survey of foreigners in Nanjing, Jiaozi (Chinese ravioli)is the bomb.
According to a 2014 survey of foreigners in Nanjing, Jiaozi (Chinese ravioli)is the bomb.

The best way to discover Nanjing cuisine is in the company of a local. If you don’t know anyone, wander around Nanjing Normal University’s campus. Ask a Chinese student to join you for lunch.

On your own, there are plenty of local food shacks near the main bar areas. If you lack language skills, make sure the place has picture menus and you’re set.

Things to look out for:

  • Salted duck: in the 14th century, Nanjing was under siege. Local farmers began salting and pressing ducks to smuggle in for hungry residents. It became the city’s signature dish: often served boiled, sliced and cold.
  • Duck blood soup: locals use every part of the duck. This soup includes congealed chunks of blood served in a thin broth with coriander.
  • Jiaozi (Chinese ravioli): Nanjing dumplings are super popular. You’ll find these served in carts, shacks, and shops all over town. Filled with ground meat or vegetables, they are most often served in broth.
  • Baozi (steamed buns): steamed bread with fillings. Famous China-wide, Nanjing varieties include ground pork, tofu mince, and steamed greens. These are cheap, filling, and served out of small shops all over town.

Nanjing Shopping

In China, shopping malls are for day-trippers and rich people – shoppers buy online.

  • Clothing & general goods: Taobao fronts with clothing, toys and similar Amazon fare, but their back room is the true Silk Road – a goldmine of countercultural delights.
  • Electronics: the fear of buying fakes from local shops (including fake warranties) is mitigated with JD.com, the Chinese version of Newegg. They sell guaranteed authentic products delivered to your door, cash paid on delivery.
  • Organic food: Fields China offers organic meats, vegetable and a wide selection of imported products. They charge a premium, but deliver to Nanjing with superb service.

To order from Taobao or JD.com, you will need help of a local.

Accommodation in Nanjing

Lower-end cities units like these rent for around USD$450 monthly.
Lower-end cities units like these rent for around USD$450 monthly.

Here are some solid basic to 3-star motels that go as cheap as 200 RMB (USD$33). For long-term stays, there are a few cheap student dorms. Plus there are dozens of agents around town who will help you find a place. Highlights:

  • Jasmine Youth Hostel: located in the student district, this hostel is in a large garden compound. It has cheap rooms and a social lounge with a fully-stocked bar. Dorm beds start at 60RMB nightly ($9.70) (book online).
  • Super 8 Motels: a cheap and reliable option (rooms start at 268 RMB ($43), with 11 locations around the city (book online)
  • Long-term rentals: budget private accommodation in Nanjing rents for around 3,000 RMB monthly ($480) and will require use of an agent (Chinese landlords tend to be prickly).

Check this Google map to see the best places to live in Nanjing.


Gazing across Xuanwu lake to the city center.
Gazing across Xuanwu lake to the city center.

Cash still flows through Jiangsu province and Nanjing is the hub of that. Most of the tourists coming through town are Chinese – foreigners tend to come here for business or to live.

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