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Top 5 Happiest Cities in China

JINNA WANG

Where do you think is the happiest city in China? 

No, it’s not Beijing, nor is it Shanghai! Is that surprising?

Every year, Oriental Outlook Magazine publishes a survey of the happiest cities in China. The latest list was released in late February 2018. This year, the list features solely second and third tier cities that are a bit more off the beaten path.

I know you are curious about where these urban utopias might be. Let’s go on a quick tour of the top five happiest cities in China!
5) Xi'an, Shaanxi



Where is it?

Xi’an (西安 - xī'ān) is located almost smack-dab in the middle of China, in Shaanxi (陕西 - shǎn xī) province in the north central region. 


Xi’an served as the capital of China during some early dynasties, and was the starting point for the Silk Road. This city may well be the most well-known on this list, as is it a popular tourist destination for the famed terracotta warriors. 

What is it known for?

The terracotta warriors are THE major attraction in Xi’an, but other hits include the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda (there is also a Little Wild Goose Pagoda), the city walls, and the Great Mosque.

Why are people so happy here?

The people of Xi’an enjoy a temperate climate year-round (easy to disregard until you’ve lived through the -20 degree winters in Harbin!), which they take advantage of by cycling around the city and even around the ancient city walls dating back to the 14th century. This city feels more spacious, with less people than the coastal cities, and it’s a breeze to get around by the modern metro system.

A Useful Phrase for when you visit:

You simply cannot miss the delicious cumin-spiced lamb cuisine found in the Muslim Quarter. One unique local dish is the 羊肉夹馍 (yáng ròu jiā mó) - lamb “burger,”  made with slow braised, fall-apart tender spicy lamb stuffed into a flat bun that’s similar to a toasted English muffin. To purchase a steaming hot lamb “burger”, ask:

羊肉夹馍多少钱?
yáng ròu jiā mó duō shǎo qián
How much is the lamb burger?


4) Nanjing, Jiangsu



Where is it?

Nanjing (南京 - nán jīng) in Jiangsu (江苏 - jiāng sū) province literally means “southern capital” in Chinese. That’s right, this lovely city about three hours west of Shanghai also served as China’s capital during various dynasties. It’s an easy stopping point when traveling from Shanghai to Beijing, or vice versa.

What is it known for?

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall is the must-see of Nanjing. This grand monument honors Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who is considered the founding father of modern China. For more casual sightseeing, Fuzi Miao is a walking street/shopping area along the Qinhuai river offering street food, quirky souvenirs, and views of traditional architecture. 

You’ll want to go to a sit-down restaurant to try the local specialty 盐水鸭 (yán shuǐ yā)- salt-brined duck, a delicate and savory dish seasoned with fragrant Osmanthus flowers. Fun fact about Nanjing: to most Chinese people, Nanjing is known as China’s “duck capital,” with more ducks sold each year than chicken!

Why are people so happy here?

Nanjing is a laid-back city that enjoys a slower pace of life, yet has a thrumming and vibrate night life. Locals can savor a pint of the famous local craft-beer Master Gao over a plate of salt-brined duck, rave to live-music at a number of western-style nightclubs,  then drive an hour outside of the city to Tangshan to soak the stress away in some of the world’s best hot springs. The simple pleasures of life are all at your fingertips in Nanjing.

A Useful Phrase for when you visit:

If you are taking a road trip to the famous Tangshan hot springs, you might need to ask for directions, here’s how to do so:

唐山温泉怎么走?
táng shān wēn quán zěn me zǒu
How do I get to Tangshan hot springs?

You can very well ask 唐山温泉在哪里 (táng shān wēn quán zài nǎ lǐ) - where is the Tangshan hot springs? However, the “怎么走 (zěn me zǒu)” structure is a good example of how Chinese people actually speak, and you can substitute in the name of any place before “怎么走 (zěn me zǒu)” to ask for directions there.
3) Ningbo, Zhejiang



Where is it?

Ningbo (宁波 - níng bō) is a small coastal city of 3.5 million about 2.5 hours south of Shanghai in Zhejiang (浙江 - zhè jiāng) province. It’s proximity to the East China Sea means that the city was designed with a series of canals running throughout, much like the beautiful European cities of Amsterdam and Bruges.

What is it known for?

Ningbo is one of China’s oldest cities, with a history dating back to the Neolithic era around 4800 BC! Today, Ningbo serves as one of the major industrial ports of China facilitating international trade.

Why are people so happy here?

High levels of foreign investment in the past few decades has led to plentiful job opportunities across industrial, IT, and creative sectors. But don’t that that the people of Ningbo are all work and no fun. No matter what your interests are, Ningbo’s got it. Art galleries, live theater, classical concerts, high-end restaurants, and a lively bar scene. Locals and expats alike hangout at the city’s “Laowaitan,” an area with Irish Pubs, American-style cocktail bars, and a number of dance clubs.

When the weather is nice, people take advantage by taking out canoes in Dongqian Lake, flying kites in Yinzhou Park,  or finding peace in the Tianyi library gardens. 

A Useful Phrase for when you visit:

If you plan on having a cocktail at one of Ningbo’s swanky bars, you’ll need to know how to ask for the drinks menu.

请给我酒单,谢谢
qǐng gěi wǒ jiǔ dān xiè xiè
Please give me the drinks menu, thank you.

If you want the food menu instead, simply substitute 酒单 (jiǔ dān) for 菜单 (cài dān)- menu.
2) Hangzhou, Zhejiang



Where is it?

Hangzhou (杭州 - háng zhōu) is a city of 21 million situated just two hours south west of Shanghai. It is located within the Yangtze River Delta, along with Nanjing and Ningbo. There may be a trend here, perhaps the Yangtze River Delta is the key to happiness?

What is it known for?

Hangzhou has been historically known for its beautiful scenery. A common Chinese saying is “上有天堂, 下有苏杭 (shàng yǒu tiān táng xià yǒu sū háng)” - there is heaven above, but below we have Suzhou and Hangzhou. Hangzhou’s main attraction, West Lake, has been deemed a UNESCO world heritage site since 2011.

Why are people so happy here?

Well, it’s hard to be unhappy when you are surrounded by the best scenery below heaven. More practically, Hangzhou is the headquarters of the Chinese E-commerce giant, Alibaba. People commute to work on the city’s bike sharing program, which was China’s first and has become one of the world’s best. 

If Hangzhou citizens ever need to get away from city life, they can find zen at Jing Mountain just an hour’s car ride away, where they can sip the locally produced and world-renowned Longjing tea. 

A Useful Phrase for when you visit:

Curious locals will always want to know the visitor’s opinion on their city and their local specialties. A good (and funny) catch-all compliment is:

龙井茶很棒!
lóng jǐng chá hěn bàng
Longjing tea is awesome!

很棒 (hěn bàng) is a stronger compliment than 很好 (hěn hǎo), and it’s typically used by the younger generation. You can substitute in other nouns in place of 龙井茶 (lóng jǐng chá), and it will still work.
1) Chengdu, Sichuan


Chengdu (成都 - chéng dū) is the capital of Sichuan (四川 - sì chuān) province, a landlocked region in south central China known for its fiery cuisine. The best to way get to Chengdu is by plane into Chengdu Shuangliu airport.

What is it known for?

Being the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu offers delicious food smothered in red chillies and tongue-numbing peppercorns. Novice spice eaters need to beware! Additionally, Chengdu is the home to Chengdu Panda Base, a center where visitors can observe the giant panda and other rare animals.

Why are people so happy here?

Did you know that spicy food is scientifically proven to make you happy? Turns out, spicy food actually triggers the release of endorphins, the “happy chemical” in the human body. No wonder the people of Chengdu are the happiest in all of China. 

If the spicy food doesn’t make you happy, then the giant pandas surely will. How does anyone stay sad when looking at one of these adorably goofy animals?




A Useful Phrase for when you visit:

You’ll surely want to express how adorable the pandas are once you see them, here’s how to do that:

大熊猫好可爱!
dà xióng māo hǎo kě ài
The panda is so cute!


There you have it, our quick guide to the five happiest cities in China. Which city is the most appealing to you? Will you be visiting these cities anytime soon? 

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JINNA WANG is a freelance writer and translator living in New York. She grew up in the snowy city of Harbin, and now spends many weekends recreating the northeast Chinese cuisine of her childhood. You can usually find her traveling, eating, and writing about both.

Wed, 06 Jun 2018 07:00:00 GMT

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