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72 Hours in Xiamen

China has been rolling out a new 72-hour transit visa policy in major cities throughout the country, making visiting China even easier. Now travelers from the U.S., Canada, and 49 other countries can include China as an additional destination on an existing trip without needing to get a visa. Under the policy, visitors are able to enter select Chinese cities for up to 72 hours without a visa, as long as they have a booked plane ticket to a third country or region within the 72-hour time period. This applies to the cities of Beijing, ShanghaiGuangzhou, Chengdu, ChongqingShenyang, Dalian, Xi’an, GuilinKunming, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Xiamen, Harbin and Tianjin. China continues to expand this policy to additional locations throughout the destination. In the meantime, these cities are the ideal stopovers or add-on destinations for travelers already in Asia.

Xiamen is located on the southeast coast of China in the Fujian Province coast, and is truly a “city on the sea” (or the Taiwan Strait, to be exact). The city was once known as Amoy, when it was a treaty port during the First Opium War (1839-1842), and, though all modern references use the name Xiamen, the city is sometimes referred to as Amoy by some Chinese citizens. Xiamen encompasses just over 650 square miles, both on China’s mainland, as well as on Xiamen Island and Gulangyu Island. Xiamen Island is the epicenter of the city, and is divided into two main districts: Huli District and Siming District (which includes Gulangyu). The city’s four other districts (Haicang, Jimei, Tong’an and Xiang’an) are located on the mainland. Xiamen is known for its pleasant tropical climate (much like Miami, Florida’s), various scenic spots, historical architecture, and charming, laid-back coastal vibe. Now that visitors transferring through Xiamen’s Gaoqi International Airport can explore the city for up to 72 hours without getting a visa, the only question is what you want to see and do while there. Here are some of the top sites and activities in Xiamen to make the most of your 72-hour trip:

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Gulangyu Island

From the mainland, it’s just a short five-minute ferry ride across the Lujiang River to reach picturesque Gulangyu, or “Drum Wave Islet.” This tiny island is vehicle-free, with foot traffic or electric buggies the best methods for exploring its meandering streets, red-roofed buildings, colonial villas, churches and mosques, lush gardens, green hills, boulders, and relaxing beaches. After the First Opium War, countries from around the world (including Japan, the U.S. and many European countries) established consulates, hospitals and churches on the island; their colonial architecture still stands on Gulangyu today. The islet is only one square mile, but the architecture there is a charming mix of Western and Eastern buildings, many of which have been turned into upscale restaurants, cafes or boutique hotels.

While the natural beauty of Gulangyu is easy to enjoy – whether lounging on a beach or strolling down its balmy streets – there are also many man-made attractions to explore. The Piano Museum houses a collection of more than 70 pianos, many of which belonged to famous Chinese pianists and musicians from Gulangyu (and contributing to the island’s nickname of “Music Island”). The villas of several notable Chinese writers, doctors and cultural figures are also available for public viewing. Gulangyu’s business center, Longtou Road, boasts restaurants, cafes and food stalls selling local delicacies such as fried oysters and fresh seafood, dried pork slices, or milk tea.

The island’s two tunnels, Bishan and Longshan Tunnels, take you to Sunlight Rock (sometimes also known as Dragon Head Hill), a must-see on Gulangyu. It is the highest point on Gulangyu, providing an excellent spot for a bird’s-eye view of the island, as well as to take in magnificent sunsets. Admission to the rock is 60 yuan before sunset or 30 yuan after. Shuzhuang Garden, with its various stylized gardens and also the location of the Piano Museum, and Haoyue (Bright Moon) Park, a sculpture park built to commemorate the national hero Zheng Chenggong, are also popular tourist attractions on Gulangyu.

Nanputuo (South Putuo) Temple

Back on Xiamen, South Putuo Temple (or Nanputuo Temple) is a Buddhist temple complex located on the southeastern side of the city. It is one of the most famous temples in the region, and brings followers from all over Southeast Asia. The temple as it stands today was built in the early 20th century, but it was originally constructed during the late Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and subsequently destroyed and rebuilt many times since then. For 3 yuan, visitors can explore the sprawling current-day complex, with its grand architecture, palaces, pavilions, lotus ponds, libraries, statues (including a gold 1,000-armed statue of Guanyin), as well as chanting monks and visiting worshippers. Needless to say, South Putuo Temple is a fascinating and bustling place to visit. The temple’s vegetarian restaurant provides a shaded courtyard for respite and repast before heading off to hike the rocky steps of Putuo Mountain behind the temple that lead to Wulao Peak.

Xiamen University

Just next to Nanputuo Temple is Xiamen University, with its lovely architecture and tranquil Furong (Hibiscus) Lake. The University was founded in 1921 and is considered one of the most beautiful campuses in China. Its humanities museum has interesting excavations on view for the public. The third-floor of the campus’s canteen is also open to the public and offers snacks and popular dishes from the region. The Furong Tunnel is a playground for students’ creativity, where they graffiti love notes, prayers and more on its walls. Xiamen University is especially idyllic in the early summer, when the flowers across the campus are in full bloom and the weather is idyllic, making it an excellent place to stroll and be inspired.

Bicycling on Ring Road & Hulishan Fortress

Ring Road on Xiamen Island is a 4- to 6-lane road that winds southeast down the island, past palm-lined beaches and verdant hills. The 20-mile road offers tourists a safe place to bicycle and take in the gorgeous scenery. Bike rental stalls are located along the road, and rent bicycles from about 8am to 9pm each day for less than $3 USD per hour, or even less if you rent the bike for longer (though it’s a bit more to try your hand on a tandem bicycle!). Ring Road starts near Xiamen University and ends at Wuyuanwan Bridge on the island’s northeastern area, but the six-mile stretch between Baicheng Beach (near the university) and the Xiamen International Conference and Exhibition Center is often the most popular section, including great views of Taiwan’s Kinmen Island across the way. You can stop and visit the Hulishan Fortress along this route, where the oldest and largest piece of coastal artillery from the 19th century – the Krupp cannon – resides. The fortress was built in 1891, and the German cannon, which was built in 1894, was used to fire upon invading Japanese naval vessels in 1937. The Fortress has more than 50 other iron cannons from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, as well as barracks, tunnels, towers, trenches, and other architecture prime for touring. The entrance fee is 25 yuan. Getting back on Ring Road, bikers and walkers can pass Calligraphy Square and Music Square along the way, as well as the Yefengzhai Amusement Park and other beaches, restaurants and snack stands.

Xiamen Botanical Garden

Set against Wanshi Mountain on the southeastern part of Xiamen Island, the Xiamen Botanical Garden is sometimes known as the Wanshi Botanical Garden. It covers almost two square miles amongst rolling hills and craggy rock formations, and is today home to well-designed gardens, cultivated plants, scenic spots, memorial terraces, and even granite boulders carved with calligraphy. The extensive gardens contain more than 6,000 tropical and subtropical plants.

Zhongshan Road

If biking isn’t your thing, but walking or shopping are, Zhongshan Road is the place to be. The start of this pedestrian street is just across from the ferry terminal that takes visitors to Gulangyu Island, so it’s an easy stop-off before or after visiting Gulangyu. It’s lined with “qi lou” – traditional Chinese two- to four-story buildings that house shops and/or residences – as well as Victorian-era Western-style buildings. There are more than 200 shops along Zhongshan, with both local and international offerings, as well as food carts, open-air cafes, and more. Zhongshan Road comes alive at night, with colorful lights, street vendors, entertainers, and visitors strolling and sightseeing. It’s an excellent place to find souvenirs at a good price, to taste local delicacies, or to simply people-watch.

Zengcuo’an Fishing Village

Take a short taxi or bus ride from the central ferry terminal town to reach Zengcuo’an, a small fishing village with fascinating historic architecture and decoration and that is today home to both boutique hotels and authentic offerings. The area’s temples, churches and buildings are a mix of Western and Asian architecture, and some buildings even combine the various styles. Ironwork, ceramic tiles, flying dragons and more can be seen among the architecture here. Zehgncuo’an is also supposedly the birthplace of the spring roll: when a busy Qing Dynasty admiral didn’t have time to sit down for dinner, his inventive wife rolled his vegetables within a light crepe, henceforth introducing the iconic one-handed and tasty treat. Visitors to Zengcuo’an can explore this charming hidden gem of a village, where artists reside and perform; stop for tea, mango ice, or fresh seafood in the many cafes, guesthouses and bars; shop in the various stands and souvenir shops; or stroll along the beach boardwalk.

Riyuegu Hot Spring Resort

One of the resorts in Xiamen, Riyuegu Hotsprings Resort, maximizes the beautiful natural springs that run from the Tianzhu Mountains of Xiamen. The resort is set among the grounds where Ming Dynasty royals used to enjoy the same springs more than 400 years ago. The minerals of these hot springs are said to rejuvenate and heal, and the resort is a serene environment, with tropical gardens, multiple pools, hot springs both inside and outside, and high-end facilities.

There are many hotels in Xiamen, from high-end offerings like Le Meridien Xiamen and Pullman Xiamen Powerlong, to seaside retreats and business-oriented hotels catering to Xiamen’s growing MICE market.