When I tell people I live in Shenzhen, most people raise their eyebrows slightly and give an awkward nod. “Oh, isn’t that a bit of a dangerous city…?” Usually that remark is uttered by my Hong Kong friends who associate Shenzhen with cheap shopping and massages right across the border in Luohu.
I’ve been to that area twice and I can see why they’re so skeptical, but if you actually dive a little deeper into the city you’ll see that it has its hidden gems and quirks just like every other city. Sometimes you really do just have to tread in a little further to discover what a city really has to offer. And believe me, Shenzhen is not just cheap handbags and factories. It’s one of the greenest (if not THE greenest) cities in China and there are people from everywhere! Seeing as Shenzhen is the baby city of China, there aren’t many people who are actually from the city. Most people are here because it’s positively flourishing with opportunities and I think that’s one of my favourite things about the city- you meet all sorts of people here and we are the people who get to nurture and mould the city into the kind of place that we feel proud to call our home. Also, creatively, the city is thriving. There is a huge architecture and design scene and the city is really taking shape thanks to all these young, inspiring minds. And of course there are still plenty of old neighbourhoods that continue to preserve the beauty and charm of urban villages.
This is my second stint in Shenzhen, my first being from 2011-2012, and the city is seriously developing and expanding at a crazy rate. I don’t want people to feel scared by Shenzhen, or only come here for their monthly massage fix. There is way more to explore than that and I’d like to share a few of my favourite places with you below:
1. OCT Loft Creative Culture Park
I LOVE this place. The first time I came to Shenzhen for my job interview in 2011, I happened upon this neighbourhood and I knew immediately that even if the rest of the city sucked, at least I’d have OCT Loft. I even managed to find the perfect apartment right across the road from this little slice of artistic heaven. It’s like a smaller version of Beijing’s 798 Art District, tucked away behind a tree-lined road of sweet jasmine. It’s composed of a bunch of old street-art covered warehouses that have been converted into cute cafes, restaurants and bars, as well as office spaces for design and architectural firms. There is always something going on here, whether it be the monthly market, live music (there is live music here everynight!!), a spontaneous ukulele jam sesh or a new gallery opening. It’s the perfect place to wander on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, or to curl up in one of its many quirky cafes with a book and a cup of freshly-brewed coffee. This is also the location of my favourite cafe in the whole wide world.
*To get here, take the metro to Qiao Cheng Dong 侨城东 and walk out of exit A. Walk straight and then turn right after the petrol (gas) station and follow the road along the tree-lined street. When you see a Starbucks on your left you have reached the entrance to OCT Loft. Explore to your heart’s desire…
2. Fairy Lake Botanical Garden
As if I only went here for the first time during my current second stint in Shenzhen. This place is BEAUTIFUL. It’s all the way in the eastern part of the city but it’s worth the trek, believe me. If city life is starting to get to you, this place is the perfect escape. I could wander through those gardens for days. There are stunning temples, a pagoda that gives you an amazing view of the surrounding forests and lake. You can ride a swan boat across the lake, or sit at one of the teahouses perched on the lakeside and sip some tea. It’s lush and green and the air is some of the freshest you will breathe in the city. And the plant life!
*To get here, I recommend taking the metro to Huang Bei Ling 黄贝岭. Walk out of exit C and transfer to bus no.382 which will take you right to the entrance of the Bot Gardens. It’s the last stop so you can’t miss it. It’ll cost you 20RMB per person to enter the park and you can purchase your ticket at the entrance gate.
3. Bionic Brew
Bionic Brew is my new favourite hangout in Shenzhen. It’s an independent craft brewery that recently opened in the bustling, back alleys of Baishizhou, right next to Window of the World. They are currently only open on weekends but guaranteed you’ll find it packed with all kinds of people who are so excited to finally have a more unique drinking spot in Shenzhen. It’s worlds away from the dark dancefloors of Coco Park, or The Terrace in Seaworld. It’s quite hard to find but when you do you will be so stoked. From the outside you’d never know there is a rainbow-graffiti-splattered bar tucked inside. I’m not a beer drinker myself but their Demon Cider is one of the most delicious I’ve ever tried. Inside there’s a very chilled atmosphere and they always play great music, and occasionally they have a DJ spinning some beats in the corner. It’s not pretentious in any way. It’s not trying to be all hipster. It’s laid-back and from the moment you enter you’ll want to make it your local bar. In fact, without even discussing it, my friends and I have gone there every Friday since it opened. It’s the perfect place to relax after a long week in the city and the owner and bar staff are always really friendly.
*To get here, take the metro to Window of the World and then when you walk out of exit C, turn right and walk up the hill on your left. Keep walking up the street filled with vendors selling fruit etc. You’ll pass some BBQ joints on your left and then you’ll see Rose Cafe on your left. Opposite Rose Cafe is a set of stone steps. Turn down the alleyway with the steps and you’ll see Bionic Brew on the right. There will most definitely be a crowd of foreigners and Chinese drinking beer outside. Head on in and grab yourself a cold beer and be prepared to come back every single week.
UPDATE: This place is currently closed, but it will be back soon!
4. Nanshan Mountain 大南山
Located in Shekou, this mountain is perfect for an early morning hike. I’ve only ever done it on weekends and I recommend making an early start to avoid sharing the stairs with the other groups of people. Once you’ve climbed a hundred gazillion steps, you get the most incredible view of Shenzhen and on a clear day you can see all the way across to the mountains of Hong Kong. It’s really peaceful at the top and if you start at the Shekou Walmart you can walk all along the top and climb down near Seaworld. It takes around 2-3 hours and you can take a picnic and chill on the top too.
*You can either start this hike near the Walmart or behind Seaworld. I usually start at Walmart as it’s next to my house and end up in Seaworld just in time for lunch, but the reverse also works.
5. F518 Idea Land
This place is the OCT Loft of Bao An District and if it weren’t so far from my apartment, I’d probably go there every weekend. Once you enter, you’ll walk along some very narrow alleys splattered with beautiful artwork and above your head there will be ladders crisscrossing between the buildings. It feels like somewhere you’d find in a hidden district in New York, it’s really cool! The doors of the studios are normally open so you can take a peek at what the artists are getting up to, and you can also stock up on art supplies in one of their little art shops. You will see a lot of red figurines climbing the walls and they really add a dynamic twist to the district. There are some nice cafes and a big live music venue which often has both local and internationals acts performing there. It’s not as well known as OCT Loft so you’e guaranteed a more chilled atmosphere.
* To get here take the metro to Pingzhou 坪洲 on the Luobao line and go out of exit C. Walk along Haicheng Road for about 700 metres and then turn right to Baoyuan road and you should reach F518 Idea Land.
6. Dafen Oil Painting Village
OK, so now it’ll seem like all my favourite places in Shenzhen are art-related, and that might be slightly true. It’s not so much that art is my main passion, rather that these small art districts are a great way to gain a deeper insight into how local creative people live their lives. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of the replicas that Dafen is famous for, but at the same time ast least it means artists are earning money, even if they don’t get to utilise their creativity as much as they probably wish they could. Clearly though, there is a huge demand for replicas of the famous works and thus, Dafen’s artists are helping to fulfil this. The artists will also do commissioned pieces for a very low price. I really like wandering around and watching the artists paint, and stopping to have a freshly-squeezed juice at one of the cafes. It’s definitely worth visiting, especially if you’re looking to brighten up your home with some beautiful art.
* To get here take the metro to Dafen Village 大芬村 on the Longgang line. Take A1 exit when you arrive at the metro station and walk straight for 5 minutes until you see the Walmart. From here turn left and you will see lots of people wandering around and voila, you will have found the entrance to Dafen Village.
7. Nanhai E-Cool
Haha, yet another art area in the city, but seriously I couldn’t not mention this place as it is lovely. It’s in Shekou, right near Seaworld and it’s comprised of more than 50 small design stores, cafes, restaurants and bars. It’s the perfect place for a quiet morning strolling around and stopping at one of the many cafes for a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I personally love Bean Here Cafe as they have big bean bags for lounging around on, as well as a great selection of both Chinese and English books to browse, and extremely cool wall art with bicycles hanging around the cafe. Like OCT Loft, there are a lot of design companies dotted around Nanhai E-Cool. It’s an exciting place to be!
* To get here take the Shekou line metro to Seaworld 海上世界 and then when you exit, Seaworld should be in front of you. Turn left and walk towards Starbucks and you should see the big warehouse buildings with plants growing up the walls. You have reached Nanhai E-Cool.
8. Dapeng Ancient Fort
This isn’t right in the city of Shenzhen, more like a 1 and a half hour ride on the bus from Zhu Zi Lin bus station in Futian, but it is oh so worth it! If you’re craving old China, then I recommend going here. Dapeng Fort is a very well preserved Ming Dynasty Fort and it feels like you’ve gone back in time when you walk into the fort and explore the alleys. People still actually live here so be careful you don’t accidentally wander into someone’s garden or home. You can go up the stairs at the entrance to the top of the fort and get a really great view of all the traditional homes with the sloping, tiled roofs. Sometimes it’s nice to just get away from the skyscrapers of the city and walk around a more traditional place. There are lots of delicious snacks on the main alleyway running through the village so be sure to bring some cash to treat yourself.
*To get here it’s a bit of a mission, haha, but you can take bus M362 from Zhu Zi Lin 竹子林 bus station and get off at the very last stop. From here you can either take a 10 min taxi to Dapeng Fort 大鹏所城 or take another bus- 928 from Dapeng bus station which is a very small bus station. To get back to Shenzhen take bus E11 from Dapeng bus station and hop off at one of the bus stops throughout the city that is most convenient for you.
I hope you enjoy these 8 locations in Shenzhen as much as I do! If you have any questions about Shenzhen or anything to add to what I’ve written, please feel free to leave any comments below or email me. Thank you for reading!