The city has long been an intoxicating mix of relentless modernity and laid-back tea-house culture, its skyscraper developments mushrooming around ancient temples and gingko-lined parks where residents take time out for a cup of jasmine brew and a game of mahjong. Chengdu is also home to some of China's best-known residents: around 80 giant pandas live at the renowned research base on the outskirts of town. Chengdu's urban sprawl continues for miles but, pandas aside, the main sights are largely confined to the city centre, which is looped by the Fu and Jin rivers.
Tianfu Square is the city's heart; buses pass through here to most destinations, tickets cost ¥2 (20p). It's also the hub for the metro system – the two lines (north-to-south and east-to-west) converge here, with tickets also costing ¥2 (20p). In the absence of a useful tourist office, hotels – especially budget options – can provide.
Take a ride
You'll need an early start to catch Chengdu's famous residents at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base which lies six miles north-east of Chengdu (panda.org.cn). The 902 bus departs from Xinnanmen bus station, near the Shangri-La (every 15 minutes; ¥2/20p). Admission is ¥58 (£6).
At this time, most of the pandas are awake for their 9am feed, chomping through piles of bamboo before slipping into a post-prandial siesta at noon. To beat the crowds, start at the top, where mothers and toddlers play in the Moonlight Nursery, and work your way down, finishing with the cat-like red pandas and adult giants in the Swan Lake area.
Lunch on the run
From Xinnanmen, hop on the 901 bus to Jin Li, a pedestrianised market decorated in Qing Dynasty style. Touristy, yes, but its alley of snack stalls is the best place to get a feel for Sichuan cuisine. Fill up on spiced chicken kebabs, fish-flavoured tofu and hot bread with molten molasses. English translations and prices are clearly marked (from ¥5-20, or 50p-£2).
South of Jin Li is Chengdu's Tibetan Quarter. Wuhouci Hengjie leads to the main thoroughfare, Ximianqiao Hengjie, which is lined with shops selling Buddhist statues, prayer wheels, hand-crafted jewellery and woollen rugs. East of Jin Li however XuFu Tea Industry at No 123-10, sells reasonably priced Sichuanese gaiwan chas.
The Sichuanese are renowned for their tea consumption and traditional teahouses are everywhere. A particularly atmospheric one is the Xiang Yi Pavillion at the Wu Hou temple at 231 Wuhouci Dajie – a shrine to China's 3rd-century Three Kingdoms period, with a complex of 17th-century pavilions, halls and temples surrounded by formal gardens (wuhouci.net.cn). Closes 6pm.
Go to temple
A working monastery near the Fu river, Wenshu's sprawling complex of Qing dynasty temples, pagodas and gardens (konglin.org) is a peaceful oasis (8am-6pm daily, though you can often sneak in for a stroll after dark).
Dining with the locals
One of Chengdu's "private kitchens" – restaurants run from people's own homes – is Xiaojing Sifancai, or Little Chengdu. It operates a strict reservation-only policy and little wonder; Laura Liu has room for only two tables in her flat in an apartment block at 8 Gaoshengqiao Nan Jie (Room 902, Unit 2, Building 11, 2 Qi, Luofu Shijia Residential Compound). There's no menu; just name your price – between ¥100-300 (£10-£32) – and spiciness level, and she'll improvise a multi-course tasting menu, including dishes such as rice-stuffed lotus root and steamed seabass with Sichuan peppers. Hot-pot restaurants, serving Sichuan's signature dish, are everywhere. Wu Ming is a solid bet at 242 Wuhouci Dajie (cnwum ing.com). Otherwise, the area around Yulin Nan Lu, south-east of Wuhou Ci, is famed for its hot-pot restaurants – try Spicy Space, in the plaza at No 15.
Out to brunch
On the east side of the Wenshu grounds is a hugely popular vegetarian restaurant where monks and visitors alike try Sichuan specialities made with faux duck, rabbit and even shark (11.30am-1pm daily; dishes from ¥5-25/50p-£2.50).
Take a hike
Chengdu weaves modern developments around its past. Start at Daci temple at 23 Dacisi Lu – which has an authentic feel, despite a redevelopment.
Next, follow Dacisi west to pedestrianised Chunxi Lu, Chengdu's foremost, neon-lit shopping street. A little further is Tianfu Square, Chengdu's main plaza, with its huge statue of Chairman Mao backed by floodlit fountains that waltz to music.Near the south-west corner, at 2 Xiaohe Jie, is Huangcheng, a mosque dating back to the 16th century, though it was rebuilt after destruction in 1917. Finish at Ping'an Qiao, a Catholic church at 25 Xihumanen Jie, north-west of Tianfu. Built in 1913, its scarlet façade makes it looks more like an opera house.
A walk in the park
Mahjong, tai chi and tea-drinking feature amid the tranquil, Zen-style gardens of People's Park. There's a retro funfair and a large boating lake – but most people converge at the central obelisk for martial arts and bizarre Chinese line dancing, or at the 100-year-old lakeside Heming teahouse, where itinerant "doctors" inspect customers over a cup of bamboo tea.
Little is known of the Shu Kingdom, which ruled Sichuan in the first millennium BC, other than the astonishing remains around Chengdu. At Jinsha– a 10-minute taxi ride from People's Park– one building houses an open "dig" of sacrificial pits, the other displays some 10,000 finds, from jade tools and delicate masks to the gold foil "sunbird disc" that's now the city's emblem (jinshasite museum.com; ¥80/£8; 8am-6pm daily).
Icing on the cake
See Sichuan Opera's "face-changing" act – where performers switch masks with every swipe of their hands. The large Jinjiang Theatre at 54 Huaxing Zheng is a popular choice; ¥120 (£13).