I recently had the chance to travel to Xiamen. I’d been to China recently, but Xiamen was not remotely on my radar. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that major publications have dubbed Xiamen the next “hot” place to visit in the region. Since our tickets were on Xiamen Airlines, we had the option of staying one night in the city. We chose to take advantage of our opportunity, and spent 36 hours in captivating Xiamen. Surprisingly relaxed, artsy, edgy, coastal (it’s just across the strait from Taiwan)…Xiamen defies simple categorization.

We stayed at the Shangri-La, in the newer business district. I was underwhelmed. While the amenities were great, the rooms were quite basic by luxury hotel standards. We also had a really difficult time with the staff, since most of them did not speak English. My two words of Mandarin were not exactly happy.

Hotel aside, there are so many things in Xiamen that would warrant a return visit. My favorite was Shapowei Art Zone. It’s a huge market and art space, with artists and artisans showing off and selling their wares. I scored some sunglasses and a skirt made by local designers, and enjoyed delicious tea and ice cream made on site by local vendors. Shapowei was a great place to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon. When it started drizzling, we made our way to a nearby brewery to continue the fun.

My other must is taking the ferry to nearby Gulangyu Island. The ferries are definitely crowded and no-frills, but what awaits on the other side is more than worth the twelve minute ride. While there are tourists, Gulangyu is chock full of local flavor. Car free, it is quaint yet vibrant, with lots of delicious food and interesting shops. We sampled some of the street food before having an incredible seafood meal. Fun fact: we enjoyed Gulangyu so much that we missed our ferry back and barely made the next one…when we had a flight to catch on the other side of the water.

Zhongshan Road gets honorable mention. This pedestrian street, filled with buildings from Xiamen’s colonial period, is teeming with shops–and tourists. It’s worth visiting for the night market, and it is genuinely pretty when lit up at night. Xiamen takes lights very seriously, by the way. In the business district, many buildings have synchronized light patterns.

I wouldn’t run to Xiamen before visiting, say, Shanghai. However, if you happen to end up in southeast China, it’s a don’t miss.