Gulangyu is a tiny island off the coast of Xiamen in Fujian province. Just a stone’s throw away from Taiwan, Gulangyu is a quaint maze of alleyways, seafood restaurants, shops, and an eclectic mix of museums. The island’s main claims to fame are its unique history and foreign influence as well as the fact that cars and bikes are banned from the island.
If you’re coming from a crowded smoggy Chinese city, then Gulangyu will be a most pleasant surprise and makes for a perfect weekend getaway. For international travelers, Gulangyu probably shouldn’t be high on your list (unless you’ve already explored China extensively), or unless you’re already passing through Xiamen for some other reason.
The sound of waves crashing into the island gives Gulangyu its name, which literally means drum beat island. As you make your way from the Xiamen port to Gulangyu (a 5-15 minute ferry ride depending on which port you go to on the island), you’ll see the water is alive with activity. Being so close to Taiwan (you can see Taiwan from the island) , this part of the South China Sea is a major shipping and fishing hub.
Note that when on the ferry, you can go sit upstairs for 1RMB extra, a small price to pay to avoid standing with the plebs below.
While circling the island you also get probably your best view of the massive statute of Zheng Chenggong, who is famed in Taiwan and the mainland for getting the Dutch out of Taiwan in the 17th century. Although given that Chenggong invaded Taiwan, I’m sure the various Taiwanese aborigines don’t look at him so fondly.
Once on Gulangyu, you’ll immediately feel like you’re in a place that is not-so-China-like. The island is somewhat reminiscent of Taiwan (shared Hokkien culture), Macau (small winding streets), and Qingdao (European influence).
Of course, like most even marginally beautiful places in China, Gulangyu is a tourist trap. If you take the ferry to the east side of the island where the largest port is, you’ll most likely be stuffed in with loads of other tourists (and tour groups). There’s even a McDonald’s and KFC over there. The west side of the island is much quieter, especially if you walk away from the gift shops and restaurants.
If you’re staying overnight on the island, don’t stress out about where to go. If you have Baidu / Google maps on your phone, just use that as a guide to generally walk around the island. Two days is plenty of time to get a feel of the entire island.
The charm of the island is in the side streets, especially in the morning and at night when the crowds thin out. You really do feel like you’re in an old European city (okay well not really, but you’ll get as close to that feeling as possible in China).
After the Opium War ended in 1942, Gulangyu became home to various consulates for Great Britian and France. With that foreign influence came schools, churches, and homes all with European architectural influences.
Additionally, and quite randomly, the island is home to over 200 pianos and organs. Also known as piano island, Gulangyu has China’s only piano museum. The piano and organ museums are, well, they are what they are. If you’re into music and piano and/or organs, you’ll love it. If not, you’ll check it out anyway for FOMO.
Gulangyu isn’t all roses and stone walkways. About 20,000 people actually live on the island, so there’s some element of a working class society present on the island. The people living on the island basically support the tourist industry. In many ways, it’s these people who really give the island a living and breathing charm. There are also a handful of homes that wealthy Chinese use as vacation villas.
It’s sort of nice going to a place knowing there’s no pressure to see everything. Basically, you go to Gulangyu to enjoy fresh air, fresh seafood, and a lazy stroll. It’s a place to indulge feelings of nostalgia. You can forget, at least for a while, that you live in a high-rise apartment under a grey sky. You can appreciate things built to last, with the interwoven roots of a nearby tree to prove it.
Chinese banyan trees offer shade and fresh coconuts are easily found. Don’t get discouraged if you see lots of tourists, just find the next street that appears to have no shops on it and go let lost. The island is so small it’s basically impossible to get lost for more than 30 minutes, because you’ll eventually find yourself in some place you recognize.
Walking around at night is quite pleasant. While most of the island is dark, the walkways are still lit and add a bit of drama to the atmosphere. Across the water you can see the lights of Xiamen, and feel happy to just be away from it all. The old tunnels that cut through the island’s hills are especially creepy / romantic at night.
Last but not least is the food. Walk into basically any restaurant and you’ll get very decent seafood. We had clams (my favorite) on at least four separate occasions. Everything is fresh and not over-seasoned, a welcome escape for us from the heavy flavors of Sichuanese food. It’s no wonder the food in Taiwan is so good, as the Hokkienese definitely know how to cook.
Finding Gulangyu on a Map