This post is our guide to exploring and photographing the Island of GulangYu in Xiamen, China. We’ll go over the routes you can take to get there, how to get around, and a whole bunch of attractions you might want to check out while you are there. In order to support our blog and bring you content like this, our posts contain affiliate links. If you click on one and make a purchase, we will earn a small commission at no extra expense to you. To read more about our efforts at monetizing our travel blog, check out our monthly column, Operation Digital Nomad. For a list of places we have traveled to and written about in the last year-and-a-half of full time travel, check out our destinations page.
Before You Travel…
By the way, many of the location links in this post use Google Maps. China blocks all Google pages and apps – even Gmail.. To make use of Google Maps in China – or Google for that matter – you will need a VPN installed on your device. We recommend ExpressVPN, which we have been using for over a year now, in China and elsewhere in the world. We have written a review of ExpressVPN that explains what a virtual private network is, and how we chose one.
What and Where is GulangYu?
GulangYu is a tiny island off the coast of the main island in the city of Xiamen, China in Fujian Province. It’s about 1 mile across, and it is pedestrian only. Xiamen’s climate is considered warm for China, and many people use it as a winter getaway from the colder northern regions. We visited during January, and found it to be chilly, but bearable. We were told that the weather during our stay was colder than average, even for the Winter season.
Xiamen is close to Taiwan, which makes it a good location for western travelers to who want to see more of the region, or who simply need to make a trip to clear their Chinese visas. The city is spread over a large island, and along the coast of the mainland, which are connected to one another via a series of bridges and ferries.
Xiamen is itself a popular destination for Chinese travelers, who like to visit for warm weather, beaches and shopping on the city’s main island. GulangYu has all of those things, but it stands out from the rest of the city because of the influence its history has had on its architecture and culture. in 1842, after the first Opium War, GulangYu became an outpost of the West. Many European countries established consulates there and settled the island where they had privileges as part of their treaty with China. The British had an especially strong influence, and the Victorian architecture is one of the main attractions for tourists.
The Island later went through a Japanese occupation, and after WWII eventually returned to the control of China. Though foreign powers no longer hold sway over the island, much of what they built has been preserved, and GulangYu is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, celebrated for its unique history and natural beauty.
We visited GulangYu twice during our month-long visit to Xiamen in January. On our first visit we just sort of wandered around aimlessly, enjoying the scenery and letting Lisa get some exercise on the car-free roads. During our second visit, we stayed overnight and spent more time focusing on our photography and delving deeper into the museums and attractions. On the morning of our second visit, we also hired a local photographer to take some family portraits for us. This turned out to be a pretty good shortcut for finding the good scenery without taking a long boring tour.
GulangYu can be very difficult for foreigners to visit because there is little there in English, and most maps of the island are nearly useless, even if you speak Chinese. And yet there is much to see and do there if you are willing to step outside your comfort zone.
How to Get to GulangYu From Xiamen
GulangYu is an island off the coast of another island. There are no bridges and there is no airport, so the only way to get there is by ferry. There are a number of ferries that go to GulangYu, but as a visitor, you are only allowed to use two of them – the least convenient ones. Before you start getting all indignant as a foreigner who just wants to bring in your precious tourism dollars, remember that this restriction is actually a response to domestic tourism. Domestic tourism only started really booming recently in China, and all of a sudden the island of GulanYu started getting 10,000,000 visitors a year.
Despite it’s popularity, GulanYu is actually mostly residential, and the locals were having a hard time getting to and from their homes and jobs. In this light, funneling out-of-towners to larger ports outside the city center and jacking up the price, is a little easier to swallow. The only other option might have been to build a bridge, and that would have destroyed one of the main attractions (the car-free streets) in the process.
As an outsider, there are two places where you can catch a ferry to GulanYu.
International Cruise Center
If you are staying on the main Island, the closest ferry is the International Cruise Center (Google Maps). We were not on the main island of Xiamen, so we didn’t use this ferry. Supposedly, it’s possible to buy tickets on arrival here, but they are frequently sold out, even on weekdays. It’s best to buy your tickets in advance. Here is the name of the ferry in Chinese characters if you need to show it to a taxi driver: 厦门国际邮轮中心. From here you can take the ferry to either the Sanquetian Wharf (Google Maps) on the Eastern side of the Island or the Neicuoao Wharf (Google Maps) on the Western Side.
To the West, on the Haicang side of the harbor is the LauTau Wharf (Google Maps) in Songyu. Just tell your taxi driver to take you to 嵩屿码头. This is the ferry we always used because it was closer to our apartment. I’m sure this one gets crowded as well during the busy season, but in January, we were able to buy our tickets when we got there. The ferry leaves twice an hour so we never had to wait long. This ferry only connects to the Neicuoao Wharf (Google Maps) on the Western side of GulangYu.
No matter which ferry you take, expect to spend more time waiting in lines than actually riding on the boat. The trip only takes about 15 minutes or less. The price of the ticket is very reasonable, 35 to 50 RMB, depending on which starting and departure point you choose. Though this is still several times more than what the locals pay. The tickets are round trip, so you don’t have to buy one on the way back. And luckily, even though you will have to choose a specific departure time for your journey to GulangYu, you can return at any time you like, even the next day.
How to Get Around on GulangYu
One of the best parts about visiting GulangYu is that it is one of the few places in China without cars, motorcycles, scooters or bicycles. The only vehicles allowed on the island are electric buggies and carts, all of which are operated by tours or by government employees. If you have been touring China, it will be a welcome break from the constant, noisy traffic and congestion in most cities (although that problem has been improving recently, in our experience). Even deliveries of food, goods, and building materials are hauled in hand pulled carts on GulangYu.
The most obvious way to get around is on foot. The Island is only one mile across, so it is definitely walkable. There are plenty of roads and paths for people who want to walk around the perimeter or cut through the island’s center to go from one attraction to another. There are several upsides of walking:
- It’s free.
- It’s good exercise.
- You can stop whenever you want to explore, take photos or grab a bite to eat.
- GulanYu is mostly stroller friendly.
The downside is that it is slower and more tiring. Some parts of the island have plenty of shade, either from trees or buildings depending on the time of day, but the perimeter of GulangYu is largely exposed to the sun and even in January we started getting overheated as we walked along the shoreline.
By Electric Buggy
When we got off the ferry, there were buggies waiting and salespeople hawking tickets for rides around the island. On our first visit we opted to try it out, just to get an idea of the layout of the island. The tour had three stops where you could get on or off, but you were only allowed to get on once at each stop, so it wasn’t exactly like the hop on hop off bus tours that are popular in big cities. We got off once at the first stop near the GulangYu Shell Museum Ticket Office (Google Maps), which is adjacent to a sandy beach and a boardwalk over the water that goes around a big rocky cliff.
From there, we actually wound up walking around on foot anyway, and eventually found ourselves at the main pier later in the day where we caught the buggy again to take us back to the western pier to return to Xiamen.
We didn’t honestly think that the buggy ride was worth it, not because it was expensive (I think it was about 50 RMB per person), but because it just didn’t do that much to get you to anywhere you might want to visit. It was basically a way to get from one pier to another. Still, if you are disinclined to walk, it might be a viable option to stay off your feet and still see some of the scenery as you ride around.
How Long Does it Take to See GulangYu
So is GulangYu a destination or a day trip? Honestly, it could be either, depending on how involved you want your visit to be.
GulangYu in One Day
Even if you are on foot, it is possible to walk past most of the sites on GulangYu in one day. About 10 million Chinese tourists visit the island every year, and many (possibly most) of them take walking tours that last a day or less. A one day trip is ideal if you are short on time, but want to get a general feel for what makes GulangYu a unique attraction in China. You can see the architecture, walk on the sandy beaches, and buy lunch on the busy food street, snapping pictures as you go. You might even have time to stroll through one of the museums.
Getting Into It
One day definitely isn’t enough to do everything, though, and it certainly isn’t adequate if you take your photography seriously. Photography is pretty much always our main objective, and that means getting out there when the lighting is good and the crowds are thin. It’s all about the golden hour before and after sunset and sunrise, which are both out of the question if you are there on a day trip. For that reason, we decided to book a hotel for one night and get at least two good photo shoots in while we were there.
An added bonus to this approach is that during the day, when the shadows are ugly and views are blocked by tourists with selfie sticks, you can enjoy a relaxing lunch and take your time in a museum or two.
Attractions on GulangYu
GulangYu is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China, despite being largely unknown to westerners, and there are plenty of attractions there catering to visitors interested in leisure, dining, history and culture.
Those Victorians really liked their piano music, and while GulangYu was under European control they imported many, many pianos. As a result, the island is home to more pianos per capita than any other place in China. The Piano Museum wall to wall pianos of varying sizes and styles on display for music and history aficionados. Unlike much of the island, the Piano Museum has English translations, so it can be enjoyed by American and European travelers as well as local tourists.
This is kind of like the Piano Museum, but for Organs. The Organ Museum (Google Maps) building itself is really beautiful and can be seen as a domed structure that is visible from many parts of GulangYu. Actually, apart from the huge organ in the middle of the museum, the building might be the main attraction here.
It’s a safe site for families with children, though little ones might not appreciate it in the ways that it was intended. Our two year old daughter really wanted to play the organs, but unfortunately it’s a strictly hands-off attraction. It’s also not stroller friendly as the path to the building is uphill with very bumpy cobblestones and the interior has stairs with no elevators.
Statue of Koxinga
One of the most iconic sites on the island is the enormous statue (Google Maps) of Koxinga (alternately spelled Coxinga), the pirate’s son who went on to resist the Qing Dynasty, defeat the Dutch at Formosa and rule his own Dynasty for over 20 years… until he died of malaria at 37. The statue is on an outcropping of rock on the Eastern side of GulangYu, facing the main island of Xiamen. If you want to stand right under the statue, you can enter a park by paying a fee to pass through the gate, but we wouldn’t recommend it.
Standing next to the statue costs money and it’s not even the best place to see it. North of the statue you can get a much better view (see below), and it’s also visible from Xiamen.
There are three main beaches on the island of GulangYu. The GulangYu Sand Beach (Google Maps) and the Gangzaihou Public Beach (Google Maps), are the nicest beaches in the traditional sense (soft sand, lots of sun). But our favorite one – from a photographer’s standpoint – was completely unnamed. Here it is on Google Maps.
All throughout the Island, you can see giant Victorian mansions that were once inhabited by westerners. There are old homes, consulates and government buildings that have been converted into hotels, museums, attractions, or even left abandoned. A number of them are even being used as residences behind little knickknack shops and restaurants. The buildings that are now museums and attractions are pretty well maintained, but many others are very dilapidated.
We visited Hi Heaven (Google Maps), a villa consisting of five beautiful buildings, because we really liked the architecture as we walked by. But it turned out that our entry fee also included a couple of shows. On the second floor we watched a performance of some traditional local music (we had to leave early because Lisa couldn’t stay quiet), and then later went downstairs for a really well done Tang Dynasty puppet show. Lisa loved the puppets, and she really wanted to climb up onto the stage to dance with them. We wouldn’t let her, but luckily, after the performance was over, the performers payed a little attention to her and she had a blast.
Longtou Road (Google Maps) is like the Main Street of GulangYu. It is right near the main wharf, and it has a lot of stores and restaurants that can afford to pay for prime realestate (think McDonalds and KFC). This probably isn’t what western tourists came to see, but you will probably wind up there at some point, especially if you are looking for a sit-toilet.
Our Favorite Photography Sites on GulangYu
The puppet show and concert weren’t all that great for photography, but the buildings and courtyard outside are really amazing. Dannie and Lisa had fun looking at the flowers in the trees together while I walked around with my camera. Across the street there is another amazing building, which was unfortunately closed to visitors during our visit. The admission ticket to Hi Heaven (Google Maps) is worth the price, even if you just take photos.
Beach With a View of Koxinga
A lot of the time, the best way to get a photo of a landmark is to step way back. North of the Koxinga statue, there is a small beach strewn with giant rocks. We thought this was the best place on the entire island for photography. The rocks were so cool looking that I thought they might be fake at first (the Chinese have a thing for big fake rocks) but they were the real deal. The rugged beach (Google Maps) is beautiful all on its own, but what we really enjoyed was using the boulders as a foreground for the statue of Koxinga, or as a natural contrast for the city of Xiamen in the background.
The Catholic Church (Google Maps) stands out like a sore thumb in the middle of GulangYu, but it’s as pretty as any little cathedral in Europe. It even has flying buttresses, which isn’t something you get a lot of in Asian architecture. At first we thought that the grounds were off limits, but we discovered that anyone could get in by walking around the lefthand side of the building.
Outside there were Chinese brides having their photos taken with the steeple in the background. The photographer who had taken our photos the previous morning told us that in the Summer there would be long lines of brides there, waiting their turn and scowling at any non-brides who were clogging up the works with their wasted photos. Anyway, it was very pretty.
Inside the courtyard, there is a very east-meets-west sight: a statue of the Virgin Mary sitting on one of those Chinese mountain sculptures. Why not! We spent about a half hour just hanging out there in the courtyard, letting Lisa goof off without stepping in front of other pedestrians.
We stayed at the Miryam Boutique Hotel, which we picked largely because we wanted to take photos there. The building is a converted mansion that the current owners restored from a state of disrepair. The rooms all had beautiful balconies with columns and arches, and there was a veranda that overlooked a small green valley. There are many other beautiful hotels on GulangYu, but we really thought this one stood out.
Note: I’ve noticed that since our stay, this hotel has stopped accepting foreign travelers (like many hotels in China). You can check that link to see if it has changed though. The nice thing about using sites like Booking.com in China is that they tell you in the first sentence if the hotel accepts foreigners or not.
I love Airbnb (use this link to sign up and save $40 on your first booking – and earn us a commission), but it is almost impossible to tell which Chinese rentals are legally permitted to rent to you, even when they are listed in English. I need to update our Airbnb Tip post to include this conundrum for travelers to China.
We don’t know if or when we’ll be returning to GulangYu, but when we do, there are many more gardens, museums and attractions for us to explore. We regretted that we didn’t have time to take Lisa to the Xiamen Underwater World (though she loved the octopus sculpture outside), and though finding vegetarian food on GulangYu is like finding a needle in a haystack, we know there are a lot of good restaurants left to try. If anyone else has been there and has other tips for American and European travelers, please share them in our comments section below.
For guides, photos and travel stories from other places we’ve been, check out our destinations page. And if you’d like to support us and improve your photography at the same time, have a look at our e-book, Easy Manual Mode Photography. Thanks for reading!