After recently spending 10 days there over two trips, I can say that it’s a fantastically exciting, progressive city, with plenty of museums and urban temples to explore, great shopping, as well as a famously spicy cuisine that will torch the careless.
Animal attractions can be dicey, particularly in China (I once had a very depressing visit to the Beijing Zoo), but the research base is very well done — the animals seemed happy and active — and seemed to serve a larger purpose: conservation and research of a threatened species that’s notoriously slow to reproduce. The price was right, too: only 58 yuan (a little over $9) for admission. My advice is to get there in the morning — not only will you beat the crowds, but it’s the pandas’ breakfast time so they’re more active than usual. Don’t miss the nursery, either, which may have some very cuddly snoozing babies (there were three when I visited).
How to get there? I recommend Chengdu's clean, efficient subway system, and suggest you get used to taking it. The metro, which went into service in 2010, has been built with blinding, almost frightening, speed. There are now six subway lines in operation, meaning that a new one is added every 16 months or so in a city of more than 14 million people. Single-ride tickets vary based on distance, but expect to pay between 2 and 5 yuan when you ride. You'll also notice no one bolting down the stairs to make a train in Chengdu; there's almost always another one about three minutes behind.
My lodging at the Chengdu Panda Apartment (Chengdu is proud of its pandas and you will see them in advertising and the names of businesses everywhere) was tricky to locate — it's hidden in a residential apartment block — but the room was comfortable and the price reasonable (276 yuan per night). The décor was, as you might guess, extremely panda-heavy: blankets, towels, bedspreads — everything. Fortunately, I thought it was pretty cute.
If you're looking for something a little more traditional, I also stayed at the Sheraton Chengdu Lido Hotel, just one stop north of Tianfu Square, on the metro’s primary north-south line, for just 488 yuan per night. Getting into the city from the airport, incidentally, is fairly hassle-free. While there are shuttles into downtown, I would download and set up Didi Chuxing before your trip (check out other general China travel tips in my last article). My ride into the city cost just 45 yuan. One nice perk of the app is that if you message your driver in English (to tell him or her where you are, for example), it is automatically translated into Chinese.
Taxis are also easy to hail in Chengdu, as are guys on motorbikes who will, for a fee, let you hop on the back and shuttle you to your destination. But I found that walking is the best way to get around Chengdu — the city isn't as hectic as Beijing or Shanghai, and it's a pleasant place to take a stroll.