Gulangyu has a population around 15,000. Cars and motorcycles are banned from the island. There are a lot of ex-colonial buildings and many shops geared towards tourists.
This island is extremely popular with Chinese tourists, who arrive in droves, usually in large tour groups. Although the island is quite scenic, the noisy crowds can at times diminish its attractiveness. Nonetheless, the island makes for a pleasant short stay and offers an experience quite unique in China.
Take the five-minute ferry ride across the harbour. Return tickets are 35 yuan (you get a token so hang on to it). There is also a 8-yuan ticket, but from 10/20/14, only locals can buy it. Tourist tickets leave from the new tourist wharf (20 min North, take bus 51 from the other side of the road from the local ferry terminal, 35 yuan for ferry ticket) and the number is limited each day. From 6pm-6am tourist tickets can be purchased from the local ferry still, but only locals can board the ferry here, tourists still pay 35 yuan and still have to leave from the new looking North terminal, which has literally thousands of people lining up during the day.
Like many things in China this new set of rules is due to having too many people wanting to visit a place, but it does grate paying 35 yuan as a tourist and having to wait 2 hours plus (lining up to buy tickets then waiting for your ferry) for a 5 minute boat ride across a swimmable span of water. Don't attempt the swim though - it is also a very busy span of water and likely boats will not be looking for swimmers.
The main ferry from Xiamen to Gulangyu stops at mid-night but there is a second ferry (from the same terminal in Xiamen) which runs on the hour throughout the night and which stops at a smaller terminal on Gulangyu.
The route taken by the regular ferry is also covered by speedboats that take passengers across at break-neck speeds.
The island is small enough to walk around, but there are golfcart-type battery-powered taxis.
You can get a ticket for the five most visited sights for 100 yuan (June 2012): Sunlight Rock, Shuzhuang Garden (Piano Museum), Haoyue Park, Organ Museum & Calligraphic Carving Art Gallery. Either buy it with your ferry ticket or at any gate. You can also get single tickets for any of the sights.
Oriental Fishbone Gallery: No 27 Guxin Road. 20 yuan. Many pieces of art using only fishbones. Includes personalized explanations of every art-piece and autograph of the artist himself.
University of Design set almost in the middle of the island has some of the most beautiful and granite sculptures. Well worth seeing is a very old Buddhist temple not far away.
Zheng Chenggong, or Koxinga as he is generally known in the West, is a Chinese hero revered both in Taiwan and on the mainland, because he drove the Dutch out of Taiwan in the 1660s. He was the son of a Japanese mother and a merchant and pirate from the Quanzhou area. There's an enormous statue of him on horseback on a hilltop in Quanzhou. As the Manchu conquerers of the Qing dynasty moved South, the father surrendered and became a Qing official, but the son fought on. At one point, his armies got as far as menacing Nanjing. His headquarters were at the South end of Gulang Yu; a watchtower and some other fortifications remain. Eventually, he found himself defeated on the mainland, so he went off and took over Taiwan. This was the first major Chinese incursion into Taiwan and was followed by a surge of immigration, mainly from the Xiamen and Quanzhou areas. Modern Taiwanese is essentially the Minnan dialect of those cities.
The South end of the island also has some lovely gardens with a lot of various types of eucalyptus.
Visit the Red Dragon shop which sells wonderful pure clear crystal and about 2000 other types of crystal. To be found five minutes walk on the left hand side of the main road leading from the ferry terminal. Delightful owner employs four or five chatty, helpful and witty assistants. Worth half a days leisurely browse!
The food on the island is not especially good, since it caters to tourists who rarely come back a second time. However, if you enjoy seafood, you may be pleasantly surprised, as Gulang Yu's local cuisine tends to emphasize seafood. The streets are lined with restaurants and food stalls that sell a variety of such dishes. Prices are more expensive than in Xiamen.
There are numerous places to stay on Gulangyu. Near the ferry wharf there are several places within a stone's throw of each other. When you get off the ferry, walk straight. Immediately on your left, you will see a stone stairway leading to the top of a small hill. Around the corner you will find an international youth hostel, Naya Home Hotel , and Bayview Inn.