Things to do in Changsha, China

Stuart Forster provides an overview of things to do in Changsha, the provincial capital of China’s Hunan province.

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An introduction to Changsha

The coach transfer from Changsha Huanghua International Airport to accommodation in the Meixi Lake district of the city gave our tour guide time to provide background information about the city and surrounding area.

We learnt that Changsha is home to around 10.5 million people and its history can be traced back more than 3,000 years, to the time of the Chu state. Today it is the provincial capital of China’s Hunan Province.

Nicknamed ‘Star City’, an ancient astrological reference, and also the ‘Burning Stove’, because of the summer heat, Changsha is one of the four hottest cities in China. Temperatures can pass 40°C in June and July.

Things to do in Changsha

The regional cuisine is also famously hot, thanks to the liberal use of spices. Stir-fried pork with green peppers is one of the best-known local dishes. ‘Stinky tofu’, a blackened form of tofu, is another dish that we were told to look out for. (Despite the dubious name, it proved so tasty that I ate it on three separate occasions.)

We heard that the city has associations with Mao Zedong, the leader of China between 1949 and 1976. His birthplace was approximately 120 kilometres (75 miles) from Changsha, where he later studied and worked.

UNESCO added Changsha to its Creative Cities Network in 2017 because of its role in promoting media arts. That’s one of the drivers of a local economy which ranked as China’s 15th strongest in 2022. The state-of-the-art Malanshan Video Cultural and Creative Industry Park is nicknamed ‘China’s Video Valley’.

Quirkily, it’s also known as the ‘Foot City’ because of the widespread availability of foot massages. Having received one after a day out that involved lots of walking, I can vouch for their restorative effect and recommend visiting one of the many establishments that refresh the whole body via the feet.

Tai Chia by Meixhu International Culture and Arts Centre in Changsha.
Tai Chia by Meixhu International Culture and Arts Centre in Changsha.

Exploring Meixi Lake district

After dinner in my hotel, I decided to take a stroll in the adjacent shopping mall – the spacious and wonderfully named Changsha Jinmao Meixi Lake Mall of Splendor. It featured brands that I was familiar with, such as Nike, and others that were completely new to me.

A highlight was undoubtedly stepping inside a loud arcade featuring interactive games that required players to react to flashing lights and slap whatever segments of the board lit up. People were also having fun in soundproofed karaoke booths, barely larger than traditional British phone boxes.

The following morning I woke early, largely due to the seven-hour time difference to Britain.  Grabbing my camera, I decided to head out for a walk to photograph the exterior of the Meixihu International Culture and Arts Center. It features a 1,800-seat main theatre, a 500-seat auditorium and an art gallery with nine exhibition halls. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the vast complex looks like a hibiscus flower when viewed from above.

At ground level it made me think of a spaceship waiting to take off. Noticing a group of tai chi enthusiasts on the plaza in front of the main hall, I gestured with my camera seeking permission to take photographs. With smiles, that was granted.

In return, I was invited to join the tai chi session. I duly did so. For the next hour, I underwent a thorough workout that at times felt like slow-motion kung fu. Eventually, I thanked the group and departed for breakfast, aware that I had a busy day ahead as a participant of the 2024 Changsha Inbound Tourism Matchmaking Event.

China’s Hunan Province

At the conference, I met local craftspeople, including embroiders and ceramics makers, and tasted green teas from Hunan province.

Presentations provided an overview of places to visit near Changsha, including Tongguan Kiln National Archaeological Park, under an hour’s drive northwest of the city.

The Tongguan Kilm Museum tells the story of the production of ceramics from the Tang and Five Dynasties periods of China’s history. The world’s oldest copper-red glazed teapot was produced at the Changsha kiln. The area is acknowledged as the place where coloured underglazes for porcelain originated.

The ancient town of Jinggang, close to the archaeological park, is another highly-rated tourist attraction. Another historic city, Fenghuang, is on UNESCO’s tentative list of cultural heritage sites and is a 5.5-hour drive west of Changsha.

The countryside around Zhangjiajie, a two-hour ride by bullet train from Changsha, is famed for its striking geology and inspired the scenery of the film Avatar. After visiting Changsha, I spent four days exploring the Wulingyuan scenic and historic interest area, including Tianmen Mountain.

Video showing highlights of the countryside around Zhangjiajie in China’s Hunan Province.

Reasons to visit Changsha

With direct flights from the United Kingdom, spending a couple of days in Changsha after an international flight presents sightseeing and shopping opportunities, notably in the Wuyi Shopping District, while adapting to the local timezone.

Musicians in traditional Chinese clothing performing at Changsha Museum, visiting ir regarded one of the top things do do in Changsha.
Musicians in traditional Chinese clothing performing at Changsha Museum.

See Lady Dai in the Hunan Museum

Plan a morning or afternoon to explore the vast Hunan Museum. Its highlight is the mummified remains of Xin Zhui, also known as Lady Dai, who was initially laid to rest are more than 2,000 years old.

Discovered in the Mawangdui district of the city during excavations to construct a hospital, her tomb was excavated, along with two others, in 1972. Along with the discovery of the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, it is one of China’s major archaeological finds of the 20th century.

The quality and quantity of well-preserved artefacts provide details into Western Han Dynasty life and death rituals. Along with ornate cast bronzes, items on display include a detailed early map and a garment weighing just 49 grams – poetically described as “thin as a cicada’s wing, light as smoke”. Displays within the museum cleverly convey the depth of Xin Zhui’s tomb.

View Changsha’s skyline from Orange Island

Also known as Orange Isle, this sandbank in the Xiang River measures five kilometres in length and is 140 metres wide. Technically the island is misnamed as mandarin rather than orange trees once flourished here.

The island offers fine views of the city skyline and features a monumental sculpture of Mao Zedong as a young man. He studied in the city, at Hunan First Normal University, and in 1925 wrote the poem Changsha, about looking out from Orange Island.

My guide informed me that Orange Island is the world’s longest inland river isle.

Monumental sculpture depicting Mao Zedong as a young man on Orange Island in Changsha.
Monumental sculpture depicting Mao Zedong as a young man on Orange Island in Changsha.

Cruise on the Xiang River

River cruises on the Xiang River depart from Orange Island. Departures after nightfall offer the opportunity to see Changsha’s waterfront buildings illuminated. Programmed LED displays vary between animations and colour changes that elicited awe-struck gasps of appreciation from the people in my tour group.

Spend time at Yuelu Academy

Founded at the foot of Yuelu Mountain in 976 AD, Yuelu Academy represented an important seat of learning during the time of the Chu state. It is one of the world’s oldest seats of learning – the only ancient Chinese academy of classical learning that evolved into one of today’s higher-learning institutes.

With terracotta roof tiles, courtyards and gardens with running water, it is a relaxing place to spend time. Guides outline details from its long history.

I was informed that Yuelu Mountain is at its most beautiful in the autumn when the leaves of its maple trees turn deep red. Rising to a peak 300 metres high, the area features Aiwan Pavilion, Lushan Temple and Yunlu Palace. It is a significant location for Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

People visiting Yuelu Academy, rated as one of the top things to do in Changsha
People visiting Yuelu Academy, rated as one of the top things to do in Changsha

Visit Changsha Riverside Cultural Park

The area is home to the Changsha Museum, Changsha Concert Hall plus the city library and Changsha Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.

The museum tells the story of the city and I enjoyed listening to traditionally dressed musicians performing.

Other notable attractions in the city include the Xei Zilong Photography Museum, Li Zijian Art Museum, Longping Rice Museum and the Changsha Bamboo and Silk Manuscripts Museum.

Dining in Changsha

The city’s Fire Temple is next to the long-established Huogongdian Restaurant, where traditional dishes from the province are served. The temple itself warrants a visit. Shops on the surrounding streets are worth experiencing and trawling for culinary souvenirs.

Book in advance to get a table at the popular Wenheyou Restaurant. Reminiscent of a film set, the multistorey restaurant recreates a sense of Changsha’s streets in the 1980s. It’s possible to ride a cable car as well as to taste spicy crayfish and other local delicacies.

Chefs preparing local delicacies from Hunan Province in Changsha.
Chefs preparing local delicacies from Hunan Province in Changsha.

Books about China

Planning a trip to Changsha and Hunan Province? You can purchase the following books from Amazon:

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by Fuchsia Dunlop.

Lonely Planet China travel guidebook.

The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilisation and Its People by Michael Wood.

China: A History by John Keay.

The Shortest History of China by Linda Jaivin.

Map of Changsha

The map below shows the location of Changsha, the capital city of China’s Hunan Province. Zoom out to see the context of the city’s location in southeast China. Zoom in to find details of tourist attractions in and around the city:

Google Map showing Changsha, China.

Travel to Changsha

Hainan Airways operates direct flights between London Heathrow and Changsha Huanghua International Airport. Overnight flights to Changsha have a duration of 11 hours and 15 minutes.

China Southern Airlines operates flights between London and Changsha via Guangzhou. Air China offers a route via Beijing Capital International Airport.

The UK Foreign Office website has information regarding entry requirements to China, including passport validity and visa requirements.

Generally speaking, UK passport holders require a visa to travel to China. However, exceptions to some destinations apply when transiting through the country for between 24 and 144 hours. Group visas recently became available for UK passport holders travelling as part of a tour.

Hotels in Changsha

Search for accommodation in Changsha via

I stayed in a comfortable room on the 47th floor of the Meixi Lake Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Changsha. With views over the surrounding area and a shopping mall next door, the 303-room hotel was a comfortable base for exploring Hunan’s provincial capital.

Further information

Search for holidays in Changsha and elsewhere in China on the Wendy Wu Tours website. The company’s six-day escorted Zhangjiajie and Changsha tour is new. Changsha also features on group tours, including the 22-day Dreams of Nature, as well as private tours.

This post was written by the award-winning travel writer Stuart Forster, who interviewed Wendy Wu while travelling in China.

Photography illustrating this post is by Why Eye Photography.

Thank you for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post outlining some of the top things to do in Changsha. Seeking inspiration for travel in Asia? Check out posts on hiking the Pekoe Trail in Sri Lanka and a heritage walk in Delhi, India.

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