Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, is well off the radar for most travelers to China. It’s mainly known as a place to pass through on the way to Zhangjiajie National Park. But the city of several million is more than just a transport hub. It has thousands of years of history, and a lot more to offer than first meets the eye. In this guide we’ll be going over the top things to do in Changsha – east of the river, at least. As covered here, Yuelu Mountain is worthy of its own day trip.
All of the locations mentioned below are relatively close to the city center. And thanks to the local subway system, Changsha is pretty easy to navigate. With that said, seeing everything below in a single day might be pushing it. At least a day and a half is recommended to see the city’s highlights (Yuelu Mountain not included).
The pedestrian avenue known as Taiping Street was an important part of historical Changsha. And today it happens to be one of the trendiest areas in the city. People gather here to hang out, shop, or grab some street food such as the appropriately named ‘stinky tofu.’
The street has been a major part of the city since the Han dynasty over 2,000 years ago. And it continued to flourish throughout later eras, with major temples and local government offices being built here. Sadly, mostly everything was destroyed in a massive 1938 fire which ravaged the city. In honor of the area’s history, the street now features numerous plaques which indicate what used to stand at a particular spot. It may be something like a bank, tea shop or opera house.
That’s not to say that history lovers are totally out of luck, though. There are a few small museums and historical sites still standing amongst the snack and souvenir shops. One of the most noteworthy landmarks is the former residence of Jiayi. The house was first established 2100 years ago but rebuilt many times since. The house still even features an ancient well that’s been there since the beginning.
But who was Jiayi? He was a Han dynasty politician and writer who worked for the local king. Unfortunately, though, his house was closed each time I tried to visit, despite arriving there during official opening hours. Maybe you’ll have better luck.
There are a few other attractions for those who aren’t into shopping, like a museum displaying old crafts and ceramics. And apparently, little alleyways off of the main street only start to come alive at night.
Nearby Taiping Street is a much wider and more modern shopping street called Huangxing Walking Street. Around here you’ll come across multiple departments stores and chain restaurants, but there are some delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurants around here too.
Just off of Huangxing you can find the Huo Gong Dian Fire Temple. The temple was first dedicated to Emperor Ku (a descendant of Huangdi), who established the first fire department over 2,000 years ago. But fire has also become synonymous with Hunan culture in general, as the region is known for having especially spicy food by Chinese standards.
Sadly, the local Fire Temple could not prevent the fire which ravaged most of the city in 1938 (more details down below). Today the temple still stands, but the courtyard is home to some modern restaurants.
Tianxin Pavilion is where you can find Changsha’s ancient city walls. The pavilion itself dates back to the 14th century, while a modern garden surrounds the whole area. Probably in part due to the ¥32 RMB entrance fee, Tianxin Pavilion doesn’t get many tourists. But that just makes it even more appealing to those hoping to escape the crowds.
Inside the pavilion, visitors will find plaques detailing the history of ancient Han dynasty battles that occurred here, back when the first city wall was made of mud. The pavilion itself did not exist until the Ming dynasty, however. And in recent history, the pavilion and city walls played a major role in events of the 19th century Taiping Pavilion.
Lasting from 1850-1864, the Taiping Rebellion is one of world history’s bloodiest civil wars. It saw the ruling Qing dynasty defend China against the emerging Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The breakaway state was formed in southeastern China by Hong Xiuquan, a Christian convert who not only wanted to overthrow the Qing dynasty, but to completely revamp Chinese society.
During the Battle of Changsha which took place in the 1850’s, Taiping forces launched fire arrows over the city walls. And while Qing forces were distracted, the Taiping army were building underground tunnels. During some intense fighting, gunpowder buried by Taiping forces exploded, blowing large holes in the walls.
Fortunately for the Qing army, reinforcements began to surround the Taiping rebels from the outside, causing them to flee. But the Taiping army returned once again, and they were eventually repelled by canons moved to the walls from other parts of the city.
Eventually, the Taiping Army did manage to take Changsha in 1855, but they were kicked out just a year later by a local militia known as the Xiang Army. Miraculously, the wooden pavilion mostly survived intact throughout all the fighting.
But it wouldn’t survive the 20th century. During the invasion by the Japanese Imperialist Army, Chiang Kai-shek felt that if they were able to breach the city walls, all of Changsha should be destroyed on purpose. This was to prevent the Japanese from making use of anything that could give them an advantage for future attacks.
According to the plan, if the Japanese successfully entered the city, someone would light Tianxin Pavilion on fire first, thus signaling others around the city to follow suit.
But when a hospital fire nearby Tianxin Pavilion was mistaken for the pavilion itself burning down, the entire city was engulfed in flames prematurely. The pavilion ended up getting burnt down for real, and what we see today was recreated in the 1980’s.
After exploring the main pavilion and its multiple floors, go check out the wall where you can see one of the original cannons used to defend the city from Taiping rebels.
And then there’s the wide park area surrounding the entire site, which stretches out to 30,000 square meters in total. It’s a good place to sit down with a book. Or, save your relaxing time for Martyr’s Park mentioned down below.
Kaifu Temple, located in the northern part of the city, is arguably Changsha’s most impressive temple. It dates back to the 10th-century Five Dynasties period which followed the Tang dynasty. But over the next 1,000 years, it was destroyed and rebuilt on multiple occasions.
First came the 13th-century Mongol invasion, and it was rebuilt during the Ming dynasty around the same time as Tianxin Pavilion. The Qing dynasty later destroyed it, but then rebuilt it again. It was destroyed yet again during the 20th-century Chinese Civil War, and then rebuilt after the Communists took control. Be that as it may, many relics were removed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Many of the halls standing there today were built in the 1990’s. As a result, present-day Kaifu Temple has both an ancient and modern feel to it.
After walking through the elaborate front entrance gate, visitors pass over a wide bridge before encountering a tall white sculpture of Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. And only after passing a couple of small shrines does the central hall of the temple finally come into view.
The central image of the hall is a stunning sculpture of Avalokiteshvara, depicted in a multi-armed and multi-headed form. This divinity is actually the male form of Guan Yin. According to Buddhist belief, bodhisattvas are beings who’ve attained enlightenment, but who’ve chosen to put off entering the formless realm of nirvana in order to assist the rest of humanity.
Nearby, don’t miss the Pilu Hall, or the ‘Hall of Sunlight Buddha.’ Around the central Buddha image are an enormous amount of miniature figures of arhats, or enlightened beings. Each one stands at around .4 meters high, and in total there are 500 of them! Walking around the room you’ll see that each one is unique, with many of them forming different symbolic poses, or mudras.
The other major hall is the Hall of Great Compassion, dedicated to the feminine form of Guan Yin. While Guan Yin stands tall in the center, she’s surrounded by countless other colorful figurines of various celestial beings.
All in all, the massive temple complex covers an area of around 48,000 square meters. You’ll also find long galleries which surround a massive pond, while walkways can even take you to some of the pavilions on the water. And despite its local fame, Kaifu Temple doesn’t get too crowded. Outside the main halls, you may even find yourself alone.
Kaifu Temple is well worth going out of your way for during your time in Changsha. Not that it’s that far out of the way to begin with. The temple is easily accessible by metro, and it’s an easy walk from the Kaifu Temple station.
While probably the least essential of the attractions on this list, the park is well worth checking out if you have a few hours to kill in Changsha. Public parks in big Chinese cities are much more than patches of grass with some benches. In fact, Martyr’s Park, which is free to enter, covers over 340 acres.
The focal point of the park is the Martyr’s Monument, which was built in 1959, six years after the park’s establishment. The marble and granite tower is dedicated to those from Hunan Province who died for the Communist side in the Chinese Civil War.
The bottom level of the 58m-high monument features a memorial museum. But if that’s not of special interest to you, there’s still plenty more to see around the park.
Around the area, you’ll come across numerous forested walking paths, gardens and ponds. Martyr’s Park, in fact, is home to hundreds of different plant species. And for those with children, the park grounds even contain some amusement rides and a zoo.
But the real highlight is the scenic Nianjia Lake. You can not only walk around it, but across it. This is in part thanks to the Yingfeng bridge built in the style of the ancient Song dynasty.
You can also take a boat ride around the water and admire the nature – along with Changsha’s skyscrapers – all around you.
Hunan Provincial Museum
Opened in 2017 after five years of construction, the Hunan Provincial Museum is known mainly for one thing: being home to one of the world’s best preserved mummies. And aside from the mummy itself, there’s also an excellent exhibition of all the Han dynasty era artifacts uncovered in nearby Mawangdui.
But that’s not all. The museum, which is mostly bilingual, is home to all sorts of art and artifacts from various regions around Hunan Province. Most notable are those from the ancient Chu kingdom, which existed from 11th to 3rd century BC. The state encompassed much of southern China, stretching from present-day Hunan all the way to Shanghai. And Chu culture would go on to greatly influence the Han dynasty.
Chu people largely practiced a mix of Taoism and local shamanism. And despite being nearly 3,000 years old, we know quite a bit about the Chu. This is thanks to the survival of poems by Chu-era poet and politician Qu Yuan that are also on display at the museum. And ancient Chu bronzeware shows us what highly refined artwork this culture was able to develop so long ago.
Some of the major Chu items on display include a four-faced vessel that was unearthed in Ningxang. Its art style is one of a kind for China, and nobody’s quite sure what it’s supposed to represent. But one can’t help but think of the four-faced Hindu god Brahma when looking at it.
You’ll also find other intricately designed bronze pieces like a pig-shaped wine vessel that was used in the Chu royal court. Additionally, there are items like ancient musical instruments and tomb guardians shaped like animals and mythological creatures.
Other items on display include ancient dress and also various items uncovered from tombs throughout the region. Many of these come from the Han dynasty era, while a number of Tang dynasty ceramics are also on display.
One large room even replicates a clan-based ancestral worship hall from the Song dynasty. Ancestral worship has always been an important part of Chinese culture. And halls for particular clans were not only places of worship, but also gathering spots for local community meetings. (Interestingly, these ancestral halls are even still a big deal in Chinese diaspora communities like those of Vietnam.)
But the real highlight for many, and what the Hunan Provincial Museum has become internationally renowned for, is the exhibition containing the findings of the Mawangdui tombs.
The Mawangdui tombs, which date back to the 2nd century BC, were discovered in the 1970’s on the outskirts of Changsha. Coffins belonging to a family of three, together with over 3,000 artifacts, were uncovered there.
The man, in fact, was none other than the chancellor of the Kingdom of Changsha, which was under the domain of the Han dynasty. His name was Li Cang and he died in 168 BC. The other two bodies were his son and wife, the latter of which is the mummy on display. But more on her later.
But before getting to the mummy, visitors pass through multiple rooms containing the wide variety of artifacts uncovered with the bodies. Some of the items include lacquerware (over 700 items in total), figurines, hundreds of textile garments, hair accessories, fans, weapons, precious gemstones, ancient coins, and even an assortment of grains.
The Mawangdui tombs have also had a major impact on our knowledge of early Chinese history thanks to the large assortment of well-preserved texts buried with the bodies. Uncovered in the excavation were texts on physiology, medicine and acupuncture points.
Paintings depicting ancient Tai Chi and Qi Gong techniques were uncovered as well. And so was as an early copy of the Tao Te Ching, the most important text of Taoism. Another text on astronomy reveals surprisingly accurate knowledge of the orbits of various planets.
One thing the discovery of the Mawangdui tombs tells us is the strong and lasting influence that Chu culture had on the subsequent Han dynasty era. For example, the tombs were layered with white clay, a Chu custom (but also with charcoal, a Han custom). And just like in Chu times, the coffins were decorated with dragons and other mythological beings.
And after walking through the rooms containing a seemingly endless number of artifacts, visitors finally arrive at the mummy. The body belongs to Xin Zhui (also referred to as Lady Dai), the wife of chancellor Li Cang. She was likely the last to die of the three family members, and her body is by far the best preserved.
In fact, people in the Han dynasty used special burial techniques to preserve dead bodies deliberately. This is due to an ancient belief that a well-preserved corpse helped out the soul in the afterlife. Xin Zhui’s body was in such pristine condition that it even remained soft and moist after thousands of years underground.
This is in stark contrast to the dried up bodies we usually picture when we think of mummies. In fact, researchers were even able to perform an autopsy on her!
So how did Lady Dai die? Well, it turns out that even in ancient times, the powerful elite were no strangers to gluttony. She died of a heart attack due to a diet rich in sugar and meat.
If you still have an appetite after viewing the mummy, end your day by trying some of the spicy local cuisine in the center of town. But learn from Lady Dai and go easy on the dessert.
Changsha’s Huanghua International Airport is Hunan Province’s main airport. There are connecting flights with most major cities in China. It’s directly connected to international destinations like Seoul, Osaka, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Using budget carriers like AirAsia, it can be surprisingly cheap to fly to Changsha in comparison to China’s larger cities.
The airport is about 30 – 45 minutes outside the city center, and the best way to get there is by taxi. Just be sure to line up for the official airport taxis. You’ll likely have all sorts of people coming up to you offering their services, but just ignore them.
If you don’t have too much luggage, there are also buses which can take you to the CAAC Aviation Hotel for ¥16.5 RMB, and local trains to South Railway Station form ¥20 RMB.
For those coming from within China, Changsha is connected to the rest of the country by rail, most arriving at the South Railway Station. You can also get to the city by long-distance bus, and there are various large bus stations situated all over Changsha. Note that to get around Hunan Province, bus is often the only option.
Changsha has a simple subway system which can take you to just about all of the city’s major attractions. At the time of writing, it only consists of two metro lines which form a cross. They’re working on expanding it, but even before expansion I didn’t have trouble getting around relying on rail and foot alone.
You can also take taxis, though I generally try to avoid taxis in China, as more often than not I’ve had drivers refuse to give back correct change (though I’ve met a few honest drivers as well).
China has its own ridesharing app called DiDi. I tried to use it on multiple occasions and was never successful due to some kind of technical. You also need a Chinese SIM card/phone number to even attempt to use it, which can be a pretty big hassle in its own right.
I stayed right by Wuyi Square Station, which is the only station in the city that gives you access to both metro lines. It’s also right by plenty of restaurants and small markets, and you can also easily walk over to the popular Taiping Street.
I stayed at a place called Huaxin Apartment Hotel (长沙华鑫酒店公寓) which was a great value. It’s situated within an apartment complex, and you’re basically staying in your apartment there. But unlike an Airbnb, there’s an office on the same floor where you officially check in and out.
I’m a budget traveler but I also don’t like dorm rooms, so I always look for cheap rooms that are also convenient and private. Huaxin Apartment Hotel was perfect for me, but one of the rooms I stayed in was a little bit dirty. And you’ll likely only have a squat toilet! On the other hand, the rooms were very spacious and access to the main subway station is right outside your door.
If you do decide to stay here, note that finding it from the outside can be tricky. My taxi driver from the airport dropped me off outside the building, but from there I had little idea of where to go, as there were no signs for the hotel in either English or Chinese. I approached one of the building security guards and showed him the name in Chinese, and he confirmed I had the right building. I then took the elevator and wandered around the 17th floor, and while it took a few minutes, I eventually found the room that acted as the ‘front desk.’
As you may or may not be aware, a bunch of major web sites are completely blocked in China. This includes Google, YouTube and social media sites like Facebook. Not only can this be a huge annoyance, but not being able to access your Gmail account or use Google Maps could even cause major problems during your trip.
That is, unless, you have a VPN.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Using one allows you to access the internet via servers in a variety of international locations. Therefore, when traveling in China, you can access the internet through a server in Taiwan or Hong Kong (or anywhere, really) and suddenly start using Google and social media apps like normal again.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies over the course of multiple trips, and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
The actual use of VPN’s in China isn’t illegal in itself. However, the Chinese government will often make things difficult for certain VPN companies, and some services may stop working for you out of the blue. That’s why it’s important to go for the most reliable VPN, and ExpressVPN is widely regarded as the best to use in China.