Xiamen is in Fujian province just across the strait from Taiwan.
It’s a laid back, warm, relaxed coastal city with the perfect atmosphere for a holiday or a beach getaway.
Xiamen has been a popular holiday destination among Chinese people for years, but it’s only recently that it’s become known to the rest of the world as well.
I spent a few days relaxing in Xiamen, eating seafood and enjoying the warm weather. And I really recommend this city for a quick break away from the busyness of the rest of China.
Here are the best things to do in Xiamen from my perspective.
1. Spend a day on Gulangyu Island
This island is the top attraction in Xiamen, and it’s located just a short trip from the mainland on the ferry. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right.
Gulangyu Island became an international settlement in 1903 when it became a treaty port. Over the years, it has played host to traders from France, Japan, England, and the Netherlands.
Because of this, the island is filled with mansions, colonial churches, government buildings and schools with a unique architectural style known as the Amoy Deco Style.
Even if you don’t like architecture that much, the island also has nice beaches, natural landscapes, gardens, and lots of places to eat.
Just make sure that you wear comfortable shoes when you’re on the island, as Gulangyu is car-free and you’ll have to walk everywhere.
Here’s what I recommend you see and do on the island:
- Spend time at the Piano Museum
- Stay the night to explore without the crowds (there are plenty of accommodation options)
- Explore the Sunlight Rock Scenic Area and its many attractions
- Wander around Shuzhuang Garden
- Explore more than 300 cultural relics and historical records at the Zheng Chenggong Memorial Hall.
Some places on the island (e.g. Piano Museum) attract an entrance fee, so you can pick and choose what you want to see.
Also note that you can’t swim in the island’s beaches, as blogger Mike points out in his Xiamen itinerary.
2. Snack your way along Zhongshan Road Walking Street
Yes, I will admit it, I mostly travel to eat, so my first stop in new cities is always the snack street. And Zhongshan Road Walking Street is the perfect place to have a meal or snack.
Although it’s not as large as other food streets in China, the food is still plentiful and good.
Zhongshan Road Walking Street is the oldest commercial street in the city, and it’s decorated with pretty, pink and white buildings. The street is at its best at night, when all the vendors come out with their sweet and salty snacks.
A lot of the food in this street is from Taiwan and you can also buy souvenirs at the many shops and stalls.
3. Hold your nose at Eighth Market
Not far from Zhongshan Road is Eighth Market. The locals call it “Ba Shi” (八市), and it’s the city’s original food market.
Ba Shi specializes in seafood, but you’ll also find lots of other weird and wonderful delicacies there. So hold your nose!
Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s nice just to wander down the alleys and imagine what Chinese market life would have been like a century ago.
With the exception of paying via phone, probably not much has changed.
4. Relax at Xiamen University
It might sound strange to say that you should spend time at university during your holiday, but it really is worth your time.
Xiamen University is often described as the most beautiful university in China for its architecture as well as its mountain and ocean scenery. It’s also one of the top ranked universities in the country and was the first university founded by an overseas Chinese person.
Seated at the foot of Wulao Mountain and by the ocean, the university offers great views and easy access to other sites like beaches, temples, and Hulishan Fortress. Just be aware that you might get stared at by some of the local students or asked to be in photos with them during your visit.
If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll be pleased to know that appreciating the university’s grounds doesn’t cost a cent.
5. Zen out at Nanputuo Temple
Nanputuo Temple, also known as South Putuo Temple, was built during China’s Tang Dynasty.
It’s located is at the foot of the mountains overlooking the sea and is surprisingly beautiful and colorful and decorated with dragons and decorative figures.
When I took the time to wander around the temple complex, I loved the peaceful, graceful prayer halls including the Hall of Heavenly Kings. The temple grounds were also amazing, filled with gnarled trees and stretches of green.
The complex itself is huge, with lots of golden buddhas and other figures as well as a path behind the temple that leads up the mountain.
Entry into the temple is free but you will have to register first on a phone app before entering.
6. Explore the past at Hulishan Fortress
Hulishan Fortress is located on top of Huli Mountain in Xiamen’s south, overlooking the sea. The views it offers are spectacular, particularly on clear days, but the site’s history is equally important.
Hulishan Fortress has stood guard over Xiamen for over a century. It was first built in 1894 in the Qing Dynasty and has been recognized as an important historical site by the government.
The castle itself is made of granite and spreads over 13,000 square meters. There’s also a sentry platform, barracks, a commanding tower, and an ammunition depot to explore. And if you’re into old weaponry, make sure that you stop by the Rongguang Museum for artifacts from the site before you leave.
You can also get there early for the 8.30 open, when you’ll see guards in traditional uniforms opening the gates to visitors.
7. Be amazed by the Fujian Tulou Clusters
This is one of the best things to do in Xiamen.
The Fujian Tulou Clusters are technically located a couple of hours away from Xiamen, but they’re definitely worth the trip. Built by the local Hakka minority from the area, they’re a World Heritage Site and are some of the strangest yet spectacular constructs I’ve ever seen.
The buildings look like forts, but they’re actually mostly strange looking large residential buildings.
They come in a variety of shapes, from round buildings to fan and umbrella shaped ones, and look really striking against the lush greenery. That’s why spring is the absolute best time to see this historical relic.
There are many buildings and sites which make up the Fujian Tulou, and the Chuxi Tulou is one of the most stunning. You can ask your tour guide to take you there.
If you have the time, make sure that you stay in the area for a night for the chance of enjoying a homestay in one of these primitive, historically significant homes.
8. Have a picnic on Baicheng Beach
Just to get this out of the way, it’s not a good idea to swim at this beach, in fact it’s prohibited.
But it’s still the best place to get some sun and enjoy the beautiful scenery, without leaving the city center.
Baicheng Beach offers soft sand, sunset views, and is a great place to just sit, eat your lunch, and enjoy some local flavor. Visit in the morning to see the locals fishing and at dusk if you want to eat your meal under the colors of the sunset.
9. Relax in Xiamen Botanical Garden
Also known as Wanshi Botanical Garden, this is one of the most famous gardens in all of China. It’s located on the southern slopes of Balcony Mountain and boasts ancient Chinese architecture and landscaping.
This garden is an idyllic oasis in the middle of the city, housing more than 1.8 million trees and over 4,000 types of plants. There are several different gardens within the main complex, but if you’re short on time, then I recommend you visit the Rose Garden and the Bamboo Forest first.
There are also several temples dotted throughout the gardens, including the famous Tiger Stream Temple, the Night Moon Temple, and The Purple Bamboo Grove Temple.
The gardens are near both the Nanputuo Temple and Xiamen University, making it quick and easy to get from place to place by Didi (China’s Uber) or even by foot.
10. Get crafty on Longtou Road
There are several popular shopping spots in Xiamen including Zhongshan Road, which is known for its food as well as its shopping, but there’s also Longtou Road.
Longtou Road is the main commercial street on Gulangyu and is lined with souvenir shops aimed at tourists.
This may seem a little too commercialized, but it’s the best way to see and buy local arts and crafts if you’re pressed for time.
Some of the crafts you can find in this little street are:
- Painted sculptures
- Pearl embroidery
- Carved lacquer wares
Just be very aware if you’re buying ‘antiques’ in China that they’re probably not authentic.
This kind of purchase is best left to experts, so focus your attention on what you like and want to enjoy personally rather than what you think might be valuable in the future.
11. Enjoy the local culture at Zeng Cuo An
This is an artistic fishing village. This might sound like a contradiction, but it shows how places can change over time.
In the past, Zeng Cuo An was a tiny little fishing village and it’s only recently that it’s grown up to become one of the most culturally significant villages in China.
This village is filled with unique shops housed in a mix of modern and quant buildings as well as some of the best guesthouses in China. If you want to stay in a fishing house, traditional courtyard, baroque villa, or quirky hostel, then you’ll have your pick in this area.
The food in this village is amazing as well, particularly in the 5 streets and 18 lanes area, and the village’s nightlife is filled with popular bars and folk music.
12. Take a trip to Quanzhou
Located less than an hour from Xiamen by high-speed train, Quanzhou is an ancient city that packs a thousand years of history behind its walls.
This city was one of the major hubs of the Maritime Silk Road and drawn in merchants from all over the world for centuries. This is why the city boasts some amazing Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Christian, and Islamic religious sites.
Quanzhou holds onto its past very tightly. Throughout the city, you’ll find buildings from different dynasties, old-style tea houses (where you can try local food and teas), and religious rituals everywhere you look.
This city is truly a unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience a unique culture and the past all at once, so make the time in your travel schedule to savor it.
Psst! A quick travel tip
Are you heading to Xiamen soon?
If you want to use Wi-Fi in China, you won’t be able to survive without a virtual private network (VPN) on your phone.
The Chinese internet is censored, and without a VPN all of your favorite sites and apps (e.g. Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Google, etc) are banned.
Just remember to download the VPN before you arrive as VPN sales are blocked in Xiamen as well as the rest of China.
The takeaway: top things to do in Xiamen
For me and for lots of other people, Xiamen was a time to relax and get away from the noise, busyness, and rush of China’s biggest cities.
The climate is hot in summer and bearably cool in winter, so it’s the best place to visit at any time of year if you prefer warmer, subtropical temperatures.
It might sound strange, but my favorite place in the whole city was Xiamen University. The grounds were large and green, and we found an ice cream shop inside where we ate waffle cones as the sun went down.
Main image credit: Supplied by Mike Cairnduff.
FAQ about things to do in Xiamen
What can you do in Xiamen?
The most popular tourist attractions are Gulangyu Island and the Fujian Tulou earth buildings – both world heritage sites. You can also visit the huge botanical gardens, walk along the city beach, and go shopping on Zhongshan Road.
Are there things to do in Xiamen at night?
Shops are open until late in China, so shopping and eating are the best things to do in Xiamen at night. As Xiamen is a coastal city, you can find some delicious seafood restaurants. The tourist ferry to Gulangyu Island stops in the evening, so if you’ve booked accommodation there then keep this in mind.
Are there things to do in Xiamen for kids?
Yes, there’s Xiamen Underwater World, which is located on Gulang Island. It’s a good place for kids who want to learn about marine life. While the Fujian Tulou buildings are an amazing attraction for adults, kids might get bored and they’re a couple of hours away from Xiamen by car too.
Is Xiamen expensive?
As a tourist in China, Xiamen isn’t any more expensive than the other big cities. I’d say it’s probably average in terms of the cost of food and transport, etc. However, living in Xiamen can be expensive due to the cost of housing.
Is Xiamen safe?
Yes, it’s a safe city like everywhere else in China.
How do you pronounce Xiamen in English?
You can say it like this: “see armen”.