Why Visit Shenyang
Things to know before your travel to Shenyang, what to do when you visit Shenyang, and how to make the best of your trip to Shenyang!
First and foremost, Shenyang (Mandarin: 沈阳) is not a typical stop on the tourist route in China.
Usually, when you think of tourism in China, cities like Beijing and Shanghai are the first that come to mind.
But Shenyang is a second-tier (or New Tier 1) city, located a bit out of the way of that typical route. It’s easy enough to get to but, for many, it’s hard to find enough convincing information online to actually make the trip.
My hope is that the following paragraphs can begin to change that mindset and prove that Shenyang is definitely worth the visit.
Shenyang is the capital of Liaoning (Mandarin: 辽宁) province, with a metropolitan population of over 8 million.
It is the largest city, and the industrial and economic heart of China’s Dongbei (Mandarin: 东北, trans.: northeast) region, consisting of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces. Being where it is geographically, visitors can expect quite warm and humid weather during summer visits, and very cold and dry weather during its winter months, with highs and lows ranging from about 40°C to −35°C.
Shenyang is also the best starting point for the rest of your exploration of the Dongbei region.
With an international airport, highspeed trains that move in every direction, and a wide range of other transportation options, travellers will be able to book a trip to their next destination with ease.
Other Dongbei cities such as Dandong, Changchun, Dalian, Yanji and Harbin can all be reached via numerous methods of transportation, many of which will cater to a flexible schedule for those last-minute excursions.
The city can also be reached from other major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai with ease.
On top of that, Shenyang is one of the few cities that offers direct flights to Pyongyang, in addition to housing a North Korean consulate.
Shenyang has a long and extremely rich history and this narrative is present among numerous sites in the city, deriving from various time periods.
The region has had such an active history that it would take days to read through it in any amount of detail.
Proof of human life has been discovered in the region that is estimated to be over 8000 years old.
There is also extensive proof of life and culture in the region from around 6800-7200 years ago exhibited in the famous XinLe Museum.
Beyond these periods and into recorded history, the city has changed hands (and names) countless times between various dynasties, nomadic warriors and even different countries. Just to name a few brief examples, the city was occupied by the Korean Koguryo Kingdom for some time beginning in the year 404. Much later in 1634, it was captured by the Manchu people.
After that, it briefly played a role as the capital of the Qing Dynasty.
In more modern times, the city has unwillingly become a stronghold for both Russian and Japanese imperial forces fighting for influence over the resource-rich Manchurian region.
During the struggle between these foreign powers, Shenyang and its surrounding region arguably became the grounds for the invention of many methods of modern warfare preceding WWI, when the ferocious fighting of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) saw Japan rise to the stage of world powers by being the first Asian country to defeat a European country in a war that saw the first uses of the industrialized world’s new modernized technologies being utilized on a mass scale in battle.
The conclusion of this battle resulted in a major shift of previously perceived power dynamics in East Asia and the world. It is also widely considered to be a major factor in the lead-up to WWI.
With Japan’s victory, the region then became occupied by Japanese imperial forces, which abruptly ended after their defeat and surrender at the end of WWII, when Shenyang and the rest of Manchuria were returned to Chinese control. However, during the time of occupation, the region was known to be a hotspot of Chinese, Korean and Russian guerilla fighters opposing Japanese imperialism.
After that time, Shenyang became a main battleground in the Chinese Civil War, first acting as a base for the nationalist Kuomintang and later being captured by the Communists.
This rise and triumph of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party is memorialized in the city’s main square, Zhongshan Square (Mandarin: 中山广场 zhong’shan’guang’chang), which displays what is reportedly the largest revolutionary statue of Mao Zedong in all of China in the centre of an expansive roundabout.
Today, the city is sprawling with tall modern buildings, broad avenues and shopping centres in every direction. It is a hub of heavy industry and although admittedly it is not the most aesthetically pleasing city across the board, few would refute the idea that it has an incredibly unique and distinctive character about it.
There is a local dialect spoken in Shenyang and its surrounding region that is known as Dongbeihua (Mandarin: 东北话, trans.: northeastern dialect).
Some words, phrases and ways of speaking here might cause confusion if used in other regions of China.
Imagine being a Briton in America referring to ‘the underground’ or ‘a lorry’ rather than ‘the subway’ or ‘a transport.’
It’s likely that you’ll still be understood, but there might be some delay or confusion before your thoughts are clearly articulated.
The dialect is often described as much more informal and derogatory than dialects in other parts of the country, giving an aura of grit to Shenyang’s population that matches the aesthetics of the city itself.
The brusqueness of people from Dongbei will likely become apparent through their use of this dialect.
Dongbeihua is known for terms and phrases that would be considered much more informal and sometimes even derogatory in other parts of China but have become something of a normal part of speech here.
This dialect has also become a standard in Chinese comedy due, in part, to the fact that other parts of China find it to be somewhat more humorous than their own dialects.
After reading a brief history of Shenyang, it’s easy to understand that numerous cultural influences exist in the region and have played a major role in its cultural development. However, even with such turmoil and external influence in its past, the region has developed a thriving culture of its own that is not found in any other part of China.
On top of being made up of 38 of 56 Chinese ethnic groups (some of which are native to the region), Shenyang is also home to a large population of Koreans (from the North, South and elsewhere) and Mongolians.
Xita (Mandarin: 西塔 xi’ta, trans.: west pagoda) is a neighbourhood in Shenyang that is well-renowned for being the world’s second-largest Koreatown.
Its name derives from one of four Tibetan-style Buddhist stupas representing each cardinal direction in the city. Quite the interesting place, Xita is known for its international fashion imports, delicious foods and its former reputation as a Red-Light District.
It’s proximity to Korea and historical significance has made it a base for Koreans of all backgrounds.
Here you can find North Korean restaurants dotted between South Korean-style fried chicken spots and fashion boutiques, Chinese-Korean BBQ, flashy KTVs (karaoke bars), and so much more.
It is also a hub for what could be called the city’s counterculture, where young clubgoers, usually adorned in all black and often with colourful hairstyles, yakuza-style tattoos and unconventional fashion senses, congregate to enjoy the nearby nightlife.
Mongolian influence is slightly less apparent in the city in comparison but exists, nonetheless.
In fact, it was the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1206–1368) that first provided the city with the name Shenyang.
Visitors will undeniably find Korean restaurants with much more ease, but traditional Mongolian cuisine can still be found throughout the city with a little extra effort.
Despite a heavy anti-Japanese sentiment, influences from the Japanese occupation are still common throughout the city, as well.
Although it is not uncommon to find numerous Japanese restaurants in any major Chinese city, Shenyang offers much more than this.
There are museums dedicated to the Japanese occupation (i.e. the 9.18 Historical Museum), a POW site where the Japanese held Allied prisoners during WWII, and even entire neighbourhoods that were quite evidently built during the Japanese occupation based on their architectural characteristics.
In recent years, it has become popular to open trendy cafés, breakfast houses and bars along these streets, providing visitors with a much different atmosphere than the usual hotspots in the city, which are often located in typical large, modern complexes.
Shenyang is also home to a range of religious sites including Buddhist temples, mosques and churches.
Notable among these sites are the NanGuan gothic cathedral, the abandoned Christ the Savior Russian Military Church, the Shenyang South Mosque and the Beita Buddhist Temple.
Near the site of the mosque mentioned above, visitors will also likely come across and find themselves inevitably exploring Muslim Street.
This is the centre for the Muslim population of Shenyang. Explore the street to see customs that differ from anywhere else in the city. Read more about this area in the next section.
Seeking advice on visiting Shenyang will always come back to food, and there’s a good explanation for that.
Shenyang not only boasts its own local and regional cuisines but also provides a range of diverse options for those looking to try a wide variety of new things and/or find some of the comforts of home.
The local cuisine is referred to as Liaocai (Mandarin: 辽菜, trans.: Liaoning provincial cuisine) and the larger regional cuisine is referred to as Dongbeicai (Mandarin: 东北菜, trans.: northeastern cuisine).
Although there is a lot of crossover between the two, there are some distinctions that make Shenyang unique compared to other cities and areas in the northeastern region.
Dongbeicai is known for its hearty dishes and hints of Manchu-inspired flavour.
Some of these include dumplings (Mandarin: 饺子 jiao’zi), sour cabbage (Mandarin: 酸菜 suan’cai, often compared to sauerkraut) and meat pies (Mandarin: 馅饼 xian’bing or 肉饼 rou’bing), among many others.
Laobian Dumpling (Mandarin: 老边餃子館 lao’bian’jiao’zi’guan) may very well be the epitome of local cuisine in the city of Shenyang.
With a history dating back to 1829, it is one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in the city, undoubtedly known to all locals.
It is located on Shenyang’s famous Zhongjie (Mandarin: 中街) shopping street, surrounded by malls, an extensive underground market, multiple sources of entertainment and a pedestrian-only street catering to consumer needs of all kinds.
Therefore, there will be plenty to do and see both before and after your meal.
Shenyang is also home to a slew of night markets. These are the best places to have a taste of the multiple local delicacies, all in one place. It’s also one of the best places to interact with the local population. The most notable market is the massive Xingshun International Tourist Night Market (Mandarin: 兴顺国际旅游夜市 xing’shun’guo’ji’lu’you’ye’shi).
While you’re in Shenyang, and whether you’re looking for it or not, you will undoubtedly come across a brand of local beer called Snow (Mandarin: 雪花啤酒 xue’hua’pi’jiu, commonly referred to as 干啤 gan’pi [trans.: dry beer]).
It’s presence in every shop, restaurant and bar will make it easy to overlook, but this beer is actually quite spectacular for one reason: it is the most consumed beer in the whole world!
Although it is doubtful that anyone would recommend the beverage for its taste, it is worth having a try for bragging rights.
It’s likely that, if you are not from China, your friends and family back home will have never heard of it since the beer is sold almost exclusively in China.
And now you can say that you have tried it in the city where it was born!
Along with the cultural diversity of the city mentioned in the previous section comes a plethora of diverse and delicious food options outside of the local cuisine, some of which have already been mentioned.
Last but certainly not least, the local population of Shenyang makes the visit worth it.
Most of the population are not as accustomed to seeing foreign visitors as the populations of those cities on the regular tourist routes.
So, as a foreign visitor, be prepared for some prolonged glances, often followed by a smile!
This also means that finding locals that speak a comfortable level of English will be a more difficult task than in other locations in China, but this is all part of the experience, so practice up on your Mandarin or have a translation app ready to go!
You’ll get the feeling that you have left the comforts of such a global city like Beijing to be immersed in what some would argue is a more authentic account of China.
(That’s not to say that you can’t find foreign foods and goods – don’t be surprised when you walk past a McDonald’s or H&M!).
The best places to see and interact with locals in Shenyang would likely be in the bustling underground markets (the largest of which is located at Zhongjie [Mandarin: 中街]) or the night markets serving local street food.
With food and drink being such a large part of social life and relationship-building in China, the night markets are especially valuable in this sense for those that are looking to socialize and walk away from the experience with some new local friends.
People from Dongbei are said to be taller, have larger builds and be slightly gruffer than those in other regions of China.
They’re also known for being more direct (often coming across as rude to outsiders) in their way of communicating.
That being said, people from Dongbei have a warmness to them that aptly matches the heartiness of their local cuisine.
Descriptions of their size, dialect and frankness may come across as daunting, but they are generally very welcoming and accommodating people that want to see guests walk away with a favourable impression of their home.
Different people have different goals, intentions and desires when they’re travelling. Some locations are fit for some people, but not for others. Shenyang, on the other hand, is a well-rounded location that provides more than enough for every style of traveller.
Whether you’re looking to visit a city off the beaten paths of tourism in China, whether you’re a history buff hoping to experience the many rich historical narratives, whether you want to experience a range of culture and diversity far from home, whether you’re a foodie interested in some delicious new treats, whether you just want to relax and spend some time with locals in a new place… you’re guaranteed to find it in Shenyang.
Even at this length, the article presented here cannot even remotely begin to explain all of the wonders to be found in the city of Shenyang, although I hope it has worked to spark your interest in visiting the city. The only advice I can provide now is to go and experience Shenyang for yourself.
You’ll be happy that you did!