Explore Xiamen, China’s new capital of cool

Xiamen, Fujian Province CNN  — 

Chinese travelers have long been attracted to Xiamen, a beautiful port city in southeast China’s Fujian province.

Its allure? The perfect mix of urban energy and laid-back vibes.

With a new metro system due to open at the end of this year, the world’s longest elevated cycling path and blooming creative industries, Xiamen’s become a heartland for fashionable young Chinese.

World’s longest elevated cycling path

It’s not an official hipster city if it doesn’t have a proper cycling path. Xiamen now boasts the world’s longest elevated cycling route.

Completed in early 2017, the Xiamen Cycling Skyway stretches 7.6 kilometers and runs five meters above ground.

The new Xiamen Cycling Skyway stretches 7.6 kilometers.

The cycling path, designed by Danish firm Dissing+Weitling Architecture, is arguably the coolest – and greenest – way to see the city.

Another popular cycling route is the 43-kilometer-long, sea-facing Amoy Circular Road. It’s also where the annual Xiamen International Marathon, one of China’s major races, takes place.

Flourishing art scene

Xiamen has never lacked in culture, with the city home to dozens of historic attractions.

But in recent years city planners have recognized the importance of having a lively contemporary arts scene.

As a result, Xiamen is now on the fast track to becoming a leading creativity hub in China.

One project helping achieve that goal is Shapowei Art Zone (No.60 Daxue Road, Xiamen), a historical shelter wharf and the “birthplace” of Xiamen’s local culture.

Now an area filled with artist studios, a skater park and boutiques, it’s at the heart of the local youth culture.

Xiamen's Shapowei Art Zone.

“We chose Shapowei to create a sense of the clash of old and new,” says artist Yu Jun, part of the Shapowei Art Zone development project.

The area’s otherwise deserted shipbuilding warehouses have been turned into art studios.

Typical afternoon at Shapowei? Sitting outside with a pour-over coffee or a craft beer while enjoying the harbor view and watching the skaters performing tricks, or wandering along the wharf and popping into a few art studios and handcraft stores.

Apart from Shapowei, a number of galleries and museums have sprung up in the past few years, including the Zhangting Art Museum, the Qianji Gallery, 798 Times Space Xiamen, Xinhe Gallery and Three Shadows Xiamen Photography Art Centre.

And then there’s atBetween, an influential homegrown Xiamen skateboard shop and youth clothing brand. The designs of atBetween are inspired by Xiamen, including patterns featuring Gulangyu island, Amoy bridge and the city flower bougainvillea.

Ding’aozai Cat Street

Part of Xiamen’s charm lies in its narrow alleyways and small, hidden shops.

Among these lanes you’ll find Ding’aozai Cat Street, a winding stone-paved lane near the beautiful Xiamen University Campus. It’s a cat lover’s fantasy and a local hotspot thanks to its omnipresent cat art.

Xiamen's Ding'aozai Cat Street.

The short street is lined with around 20 different life-sized cat statues. Colorful cat graffiti and murals can be found on almost every building facade and even on telephone poles.

“The cat is a theme that I use to bring back the local fishing village culture,” says Guo Mingming, a local artist who took the initiative to transform the neighborhood.

He says cats used to be part of the local fishermen’s lifestyles and traditions. But when the bland, cookie-cutter architecture started to push its way in, the area lost its uniqueness.

That’s why his murals feature cats wearing old-fashioned qipao, greeting guests in front of central door couplets, making appearances on Han-style lanterns and hanging charms.

Guo started painting cat murals on his own. Later he was joined by local college students. He said that the cat theme is so popular that its influence is spreading beyond the street.

“The whole neighborhood will eventually be turned into a cat community,” he says.

Cat museum

The centerpiece of the street is the Cat Museum (No. 400, South Siming Road, Door 5, Xiamen). Inside, an entire wall is dedicated to the art of cat memes.

In this parallel world of cats, your favorite classic movies and paintings all feature felines in the starring roles.

There are also cat-related gifts and home decor, cat-shaped pastries and a “cat trolley” in which you can interact with dozens of breeds of kitties.

Beautiful bookstores

Bookworms will be at home in Xiamen.

Often dubbed one of the most beautiful bookstores in China, Once Bookstore (13 Huaxin Road, Xiamen) is an independent bookshop sitting inside an elegant, leafy three-story mansion. In addition to books, the retro mansion also has a cafe, craft store and a terrace.

Meanwhile, featuring a wall lined with two-story high bookshelves and generous reading space, The Age of Paper (F2 Aluohai City Plaza, Hubin North Second Road, Xiamen) looks more like a library than a bookstore.

It’s open 24 hours on the weekend for late-night readers.

Edible souvenirs

Historically an open trade port, business prowess runs in the blood of Xiamen locals.

While preserving traditional flavors, vendors are taking the local delights – pineapple pastries, nougat sweets and dried pork slices – to the next level. Inspired by Japanese omiyage, fresh-out-of-oven pastries and sweets are packaged individually inside enticing ready-to-go boxes.

Greeting every passerby with a bite of food, snack vendors in Xiamen are extremely generous with free samples – always a sign of confidence in the taste.

Another popular edible delight is bean paste pastries. Finely ground and kneaded with lard, Xiamen-style bean pastries are known for their soft and smooth texture. By contrast, the exterior golden crust is crispy and flaky. The most authentic should have at least six layers of puff pastry.

The most common variety is mung bean, a popular ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine due to its reputed ability to reduce internal heat. But new flavors are being added to the list. These include red bean, pomelo, pineapple, coconut flakes and vegetarian options.

Perfectly bite-sized, Xiamen pastries can be paired with local Fujian or Ceylon black tea.

Where to try them: Miss Zhao’s Shop (20 Zhongshan Rd Pedestrian St, Xiamen), which also offers lard-free vegetarian options.

Cities offering direct flights to Xiamen: Singapore, Amsterdam, Seattle, Sydney, Melbourne, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

CNN’s Maggie Hiufu Wong contributed to this report.