Homecoming: A Tour of Nanjing’s Best Bars

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When Last We Talked…

…I’d finished a whistle-stop tour of Beijing that had included a walking tour of Beijing’s hutongs, falling in love with Jingshan Park, hiking the wild wall, and searching for the best Beijing duck in Beijing.

After a 5am wake-up and a 7 am train ride, I found myself in considerably more familiar surrounds: my old stomping grounds in Nanjing.

It was a surreal thing to be riding through streets I’d come to know so well that they had become background noise to me. Was that tower always there? Or had it sprung up in the nine or ten months since I’d left?

Was the greenery I was seeing a new thing? Or had my eyes simply become accustomed to it?

By the time I pulled up outside the Novotel Nanjing East, I was caught in a surreal middle ground between nostalgia and a feeling of everything being new again.

It’s not the first time I’ve felt this way. My return to Busan and Gwangju in 2013 had felt similarly strange. A mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar that was at once confronting and enchanting.

Still, I had no time for introspective navel-gazing. I had a full three and a half days of boozy catching up to get to!

So, after a long shower and some scrumptious room service Korean, it was time to get to ‘work’!

And by 'work', I mean getting drunk with cool people.
And by ‘work’, I mean getting drunk with cool people.

The Base(s) of Operation

I was lucky enough to partner with Novotel for my return to Nanjing, with a night in their idyllic Nanjing East Location before moving into the beating heart of Nanjing for three nights at their Novotel Nanjing Central hotel.

In both cases, I was treated to a spacious room, a deliciously comfortable bed, a heavenly rainwater shower, and access to room service, a concierge desk for booking onward travel, and a few on-site restaurants. There were also gyms at both locations and even a pool at the Novotel East.

My heavenly bed at Nanjing Novotel Central.
My heavenly bed at Nanjing Novotel Central.

Of course, being in town for boozing and catch ups, I did not avail myself of either…

Both hotels are business hotels, which puts them somewhat outside my usual flashpacker budget, but not so much so that they aren’t a viable option for a night or two of comfort. Given Nanjing’s lack of good backpacker hostels and low price accommodation that isn’t filthy, I was more than happy to pay for a few nights of comfort.

In a straight up battle of quality: Novotel Nanjing East had a nicer, more peaceful location, better on-site restaurants, and a fantastic room service menu that featured authentic Korean food. Central’s room service menu, limited to a few $10 sandwiches and burgers, left a little to be desired.

The aforementioned Korean feast for a reasonable $15
The aforementioned Korean feast for a reasonable $15

That being said, unless you have business out in Nanjing’s Xianlin area, Novotel Nanjing Central is a better bet. It’s a tad noisy being in the heart of the trendy Xinjekou area, but you can’t beat its location for convenience.

Night One: Jimmy’s

For a budget traveler, Jimmy’s prices might seem a bit steep. You’re looking at around $7 for a beer outside of happy hour, but as an expat it was always a favourite. With multiple TVs showing sports from around the world, a huge selection of beers on tap, and some great food deals including wings, pizza, burgers, ribs, Mexican, and steaks – it’s the quintessential western sports bar hangout.

Just a sample of the sizable selection of beers available at Jimmy's.
Just a sample of the sizable selection of beers available at Jimmy’s.

I was met at the bar by a few of my favourite Nanjing peeps: Aussie Dutchy, South African Ally, English Welsh Hoggy, New Yorker Hani, and an old crush who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent.

What followed was a suitably boozy return to Nanjing as I ran up a $100 bill (no mean feat in China), did more shots than I can poke a stick at, met another guy who had chosen to come to Nanjing after reading my blog (and collected a few free drinks as thank you), and finished the night with terrible pool in an empty backpackers that has yet to open.

There might also have been romance, but a gentleman never tells. Except with not-so-obscure hints.

Jimmy’s Sports Bar: The most well-known of Nanjing’s bars. Jimmy’s is an old-school American style sports bar with multiple screens, a huge variety of beers on tap, good spirits, and a great menu of American bar favourites. It’s pricier than the average bar, but just about the only place in town for watching sport. Jimmy (the owner) and Pete (the manager) are top blokes too.

Night Two: Talking #2

Nursing a hangover that not even delicious hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese food could cure, I stumbled to my old haunt: Talking #2. Located just across the road from my former place of employment, Talking is a popular boozing spot for students studying at the nearby universities. As a member of the Nanjing Nongmin cricket club, I still enjoyed my discount on beers and sank quite a few $2 Tsingtao before it was time for dinner.

I’ll forever associate Talking with my time in China. In the winter it’s a cozy nook to escape the cold and rain, and in the spring & summer its outdoor tables are a great place for people watching, new girl ogling, and ice cold beers.

My good mate enjoying a beer while reclining on his motorbike.
My good mate enjoying a beer while reclining on his motorbike.

I honestly can’t count how many nights of my life in China were spent at T2.

Talking #2: A locally owned chain of bars, Talking has a whole bunch of locations (I believe they’re up to #8 or #9 now), but Talking #2 will always be my favourite. Located on Shanghai Road across from the Mandarin Garden hotel, it has cheap drinks and cheap eats. Its proximity to the universities makes it especially popular with students.

Night Three: Words

I’d planned a quiet night in prepartion for the Nanking Nation Party Bus in honour of my last night in town, but smooth-talking Hani wasn’t having that. All New York swagger with a dab of Barney Stinson, he had me navigating a maze of hutongs to find a hole in the wall cocktail bar he loved.

Myself, Hani, and two of the coolest girls in the universe.
Myself, Hani, and two of the coolest girls in the universe.

I’m glad he did too, as Words was a hell of a lot of fun.

Handing over a fistful of notes and asking for the ‘Hani Special’, we then sat back as Elliot whipped us up exquisite cocktail after exquisite cocktail, tailoring each of them so that they complemented the previous. For three blurry hours we sipped on delicious cocktails, threw back potent shots, and even sampled a little authentic absinthe straight out of Europe.

Joined by an ex-girlfriend, her new squeeze, and some friends who had made the trek over from Shanghai for the occasion, what had been planned as a quiet night ended with 4am McDonalds.

Good times.

Words: One of Nanjing’s better kept secrets (shh!), Words is a tiny bar hidden away in the hutongs behind the popular 1912 district. The owner, a Frenchman named Elliot, is a really cool guy who knows how to make amazing cocktails. Also worth checking out is the bar’s in-house collection of infused vodkas. I believe there are sixteen varieties! Definitely a place I’ll be hanging out at more often if I ever return to Nanjing.

Night Four: Brewsell’s, Florentina, Bubba’s, Jimmy’s, and Psycho Cats Paradise with NKN

My last night in town and country was always going to be a big one.

After arriving early at Brewell’s for a bite to eat and some good quality Belgian beers, it was time to board the party bus.

We made our first stop at Jimmy’s for their first ever beach party, where we found a mountain of sand, a few wading bools, Grand Marnier slushies, and a bunch of drinks specials. Between ensuring everybody got their free shot of cinammon infused vodka, catching up with old acquaintances, and participating in (and losing, to my great shame) a boat race in the car park, it was all a bit of a blur.

Preparing to captain my team in a boat race.
Preparing to captain my team in a boat race.

From there it was on to Bubba’s, a new Texan themed bar in the trendy Chic Hills development. My old pal Merim manages the place, but it was so busy with all of us there that I had to make do with a hug, a few boat races, and some amazing pulled pork sandwiches.

Next was Florentina, one of the many great hole in the wall bars in Nanjing. With a massive selection of craft beers from all over the world, it a cramped but thoroughly enjoyable visit.

A small sample of Florentina's beer selection.
A small sample of Florentina’s beer selection.

And finally we stopped off at Psycho Cat’s Paradise, a new night club boasting both house and hip-hop rooms in the bowels of Nanjing’s Wutaishan (Youth) Olympic Stadium. Clubs aren’t my scene, so I made do with sharing a cigarette (don’t tell Mum) and flirting with another old crush out in the car park.

4am McDonalds. Alarm set for 10am. My night ended.

Brewsell’sFantastic Belgian bar on the corner of Shanghai Lu and Guangzhou Lu. With a good selection of import (mostly European) beers and some great Belgian beer, it’s got a really fun chill vibe and runs occasional events such as trivia competitions and a Foosball league.

Bubba’sA new addition to the Nanjing scene, this Texas style steakhouse and bar has a huge space in the new Chic Hills complex. A great menu of American and Tex-Mex cuisine and staff in cowboy get ups make it feel like something very different to the average Nanjing bar. One I’ll need to get back to and do justice to.

FlorentinaLocated roughly halfway between Brewsell’s and Hankou Xi Lu, Florentina lies up an uphill side street on the right side of Shanghai Lu. It’s a tiny little bar dominated by a piano and a shelf with dozens of different craft beers. A great place to take a date who appreciates a good craft beer.

Psycho Cat’s ParadiseA new club from the guy behind such Nanjing institutions as Bassment and Don Quixote, Psycho Cat’s Paradise has two distinct areas: a hip-hop club and a trance-house club. I’m not a huge fan of clubs, but locals and expats alike seem to love it. Regularly gets in guest DJs from both China and abroad.

 Another Goodbye

After a hungover brunch at Element Fresh with Hani and Ting Ting, it was time to pack my bags and head off to Shanghai for my lengthy trek across to Namibia.

Ominous skies over Shanghai.
Ominous skies over Shanghai.

Revisiting Nanjing was a lot of fun. It was a chance to rekindle old friendships and romances, build on friendships that were interrupted by my departure last year, and to renew my love affair with expat life in China.

Will I be back in the future? I dare say I will. I have unfinished business with China.

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