Sichuan’s 2,331-year-old capital has never had more experiences worth flying for, and now that United offers direct flights from San Francisco, they’ve never been simpler to reach.

Legend has it that a turtle mapped Chengdu’s borders. Unlikely, sure, but it reflects the city’s pace. People’s Park is filled with tai chi practitioners and badminton players. And at 1,000-year-old Qingyang Temple, friends laze for hours in the open-air teahouse.

To see the truly old part of town, visit the Jinsha archaeological site. There, scientists are unearthing gold and jade artifacts that date as far back as the 7th century, many of which are displayed at the site’s museum. Conversely, the Wide and Narrow Alleys, two “ancient” streets lined with restored Qing-era buildings, are more tourist spots than historic sites—and they’re perfect for people-watching. Grab numbingly spicy dan-dan noodles from a stand among a mix of twentysomething couples on dates, housewives juggling lattes, and photographers staging guerrilla fashion shoots.

After, do what locals do: Flee the city. In recent years, residents have pioneered an ecotrend called nong jia le. It translates as “farmhouse music” but in fact means a day trip to the country. Small farms host the outings, which can be arranged through outfitters like Guilin Holiday. Embrace rural luxury at the new Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain, a mountainside resort with private pools and Thai massage. Get even more intimate with nature at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, one of the few places where you can not only view pandas—you can hold one in your arms.