As a seaside getaway, China’s fourth largest port can strike you as being a little underwhelming – Sydney it ain’t. But with an (albeit decrepit) German Quarter and wind-swept coast, it provides a bracing getaway.
Skip the unimaginatively named Beaches Number 1, 2, 3 (the list goes on) – home to tourists, touts and all-pervading fish snacks – and head straight to the former German concession in Shinan district. Although little has been done to preserve the old town, you can while away the afternoon among the tumble-down villas and cobbled alleyways.
Start at Qingdao Ying Binguan, the German governor’s dramatic former residence (26 Longshan Lu; 15RMB), a stark reminder of Kaiser Wilhelm’s ambitions in China: in 1898, the country conceded Qingdao, then a tiny fishing village, to Germany for 99 years. German rule, in fact, lasted until 1914 before the Japanese invaded.
The residence later housed Communist VIPs including Mao Zedong (once, in 1957), Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai. It’s now a museum, but don’t expect a history lesson; it’s more a grand house that has been frozen in time.
A short walk away is the Lutheran Protestant Church (15 Jiangsu Lu), which dates back over a century. Climb its turquoise clock tower for bay views and a closer look at the clock’s mechanical innards.
The twin spires of St Michael’s Catholic Church (15 Zhejiang Lu), completed in 1934, are equally impressive. Its crosses were torn down during the Cultural Revolution, but quick-thinking Christian locals buried them in the hills. Today, things are more tranquil. In the giant plaza, you’ll spot brides having wedding photos taken and art students diligently sketching the scenery.
One lesser-visited site is the German Prison Site Museum (25 Changzhou Lu; 5RMB, Nov- Mar; 25RMB, Apr-Oct), originally built in 1900 to jail non-Chinese, then taken over by both the Japanese and Kuomintang to lock up notable Communists. The basement torture rooms make for chilling, although fascinating, viewing.
No one can visit Qingdao and not stop at the kitschy Tsingtao Beer Street (Dengzhou Lu) to sample two of the city’s most famous exports: seafood and lager.
The half-mile street is beside the old Tsingtao brewery (now the Tsingtao Beer Museum at No 56), founded in 1903 by the Anglo- Germany Brewery Co Ltd. Settle down at one of the dozens of restaurants and watch the world go by with a plate of fresh clams, washed down with copious pints of Tsingtao.
A short distance from Beer Street you’ll find the classier Italian eatery Cassani (90-2 Minjiang Lu; www. cassaniconceptcafe.com
): topquality ingredients are imported (or selected) by the Italian chef. Dig into traditionally topped pizza (from 38RMB), home-made gnocchi ragu (40RMB) or perhaps the delectable orata al cartoccio (oven-baked black sea bream, 90RMB). Also worth investigating is Picai Yuan food market, located just off Jiangning Lu. Let your nose guide you, and be sure to try the battered quail egg chuan’r and barbecue and steamed fish.
Tsingtao is served in every eatery yet good bars are few and far between; most foreigners head to the expat joints on Jiangxi Lu. However, there are some good cafés. For a serene spot, drop by Coffee Land on the tiny, picturesque Green Islet Park (15RMB, Apr-Oct; 10RMB Nov-Mar), where you’ll find the iconic Xiao Qing Dao lighthouse. Sip freshly roasted coffee and dig into some cheesecake while enjoying the terrace sea view.
For more drinks in the heart of the German concession, head to the tree-lined Daxue Lu. Here you’ll find a handful of boutique cafés run by local coffee fanatics. Pay a visit to U & I Café (No 22), housed in the courtyard of a ramshackle 1920sera villa, nearby the Qingdao Art Museum.
Free Wi-Fi and cheerful service from owner Ruo Bing includes an evening al fresco G&T and a selection of German food, such as proper bratwurst courtesy of Ruo’s German boyfriend.
One relic from German colonial history is The Castle (from 380RMB per night for a double room with breakfast; www.thecastle-hotel.com
), on the same grounds as the governor’s old castle. And indeed, the hotel, built between the 1930s and early ‘90s, mimics that Bavarian residence in style.
German restaurant Ratskeller, serves hearty crowd-pleasers, such as sausage, schnitzel and pork knuckle, and boasts an outdoor terrace, while the spacious rooms are decked with modern art. Its hilltop location – overlooking pines and the old German Quarter – is certainly hard to beat.
Offering a similar setting for the more cash-strapped is the Old Observatory (dorms from 30RMB per bed, private en suite doubles from 84RMB per night; www. hostelqingdao.com
), another German-built conversion, now part of the YHA network. This hostel offers Western and Chinese food, a tour desk and plenty of period charm. Private rooms are pleasant and clean, though some are better than others – so turn on the charm when booking to get the best sea view.
Train is by far the most efficient way to travel to Qingdao from Beijing; unlike the airport (situated 30km north), the station is just minutes away from all the old sites. High-speed trains take four to six hours and leave from Beijing South (250-330RMB each way).