The world’s most populous country holds within its borders some of Asia’s best destinations. On your first trip here, these are the top destinations in China you just can’t miss.
Visiting China for the first time can be daunting. Not only is this massive Asian country home to over one billion people and 5000 years of continuous history, China is also vast – covering nearly 10 million square kilometers! Getting a handle of what’s worth seeing during your time here is less a matter of looking at a map, and more a matter of making sense of it.
But among China’s seemingly endless travel options are some of the world’s most incredible cities and landscapes – and with a bit of planning and know-how, you could easily explore many of them in a single journey. Before packing your bags and charting your path across the Asia’s biggest nation, put these must-see destinations in China on your list.
It’s only natural that China’s political, economic, and cultural capital would be the very first on the list of must-see spots in the country. As one of the most populous cities in the entire world, Beijing is a city that maintains a precarious balance of ancient tradition and modernity. As one of the six ancient cities of China, Beijing has its fair share of ancient relics and monuments that put it on the world travel map, including the magnificent Great Wall of China, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
But Beijing’s impressive sights and sounds don’t end at ancient history – the city is also home to a fascinating collection of narrow residential alleyway blocks, called Hutongs, that puts travellers up-close and personal with Beijing locals as they live today. Plus, these hutongs are the perfect example of China’s enormous cultural shift over the past century – and how it changed the way urban Chinese locals live.
If Beijing could be called a hub for ancient Chinese culture, Shanghai is most certainly a testament to its future. The jagged Shanghai skyline as witnessed from the banks of the Bund is in itself a sight worth travelling for. The city, after all, is riddled with soaring skyscrapers that seem entirely distinct from the ancient architecture that China is best known for. This arresting urban sprawl is a perfect backdrop for the discovery of a thriving and modern China.
That said, Shanghai is certainly not devoid of ancient charm – Yuyuan Garden, Zhujiajiao Water Town and Suzhou are beautiful relics of Shanghai’s past life. Travelling from glittering downtown to the ancient heart of its traditional districts is the perfect way to explore the ever-developing identity of China.
While other destinations in China might feel like they have ancient charm hidden in every nook and cranny, few places come close to the historically breathtaking city of Xi’an. Once called Chang’An, meaning “Eternal Peace”, Xi’an is considered one of the literal birthplaces of Chinese civilization, since it’s located in the heart of the Yellow River Basin, which historians would call ground zero for ancient Chinese culture. Xi’an is also the eastern terminal of the ancient Silk Road and home to the incredible Terracotta Warriors (which date back to 210 BCE) so it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Xi’an is one of the world’s most fascinating destinations for history buffs.
Apart from the Terracotta Warriors, the majority of landmarks in Xi’an could go into the same category: architecture. Xi’an is home to a collection of beautifully preserved ancient structures including the Xi’an City Wall, the Bell Tower and Big Wild Goose Pagoda. But beyond just built structures, make some time to see the Xi’an Wind and Percussion Ensemble while in the city, too – this UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage is just as fascinating as its tourist spots.
Thanks to its agricultural wealth and fertile plains, Chengdu is often called the “Land of Milk and Honey”, and is located on the edge of the Red Basin in Sichuan Province. The city here is uncommonly laid back and relaxed, and is considered one of the most livable mega-cities in China – probably because of its fantastic use of green space. Within the city, the People’s Park and Tianfu Square top the list of places to see.
But while Chengdu is a lovely urban centre to explore, the real reason most head to Chengdu is to meet the country’s cutest locals: giant pandas. At the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center, these gentle giants are cared for within an environment not so different from the wild – but are protected from poaching that could otherwise risk the survival of their species. Visitors here have an opportunity to get up-close and personal with the animals here, and even get to learn about how pandas are cared for in China.
Equal parts idyllic countryside town and wilderness escape, Yanghsuo looks like it came right off of a postcard. Within the town itself, visitors are usually relieved to find that noise and air pollution is very low here, and that the clean streets make for a pleasant daytime stroll. But while a wander around the town centre is a nice way to spend a day or two, the main reason visitors head to Yangshuo is to embark on journeys further into its scenic outskirts.
A perfect place to explore by bike, boat and foot, the Yangshuo countryside promises a perfect backdrop of massive karsts, caves, rivers and mountain temples. Some of the best places to take in the sites are the Yangdi-Xingping scenic area or the Li River, best explored by traditional river boat. Make sure to have your camera ready along the way – this is a great place to see fishermen and rice farmers at work among the natural wonder.
Not far upstream on the Li River is Guilin, another of China’s most scenic cities. Just like Yangshuo, Guilin is a hub of beautiful mountain scenery and a whole host of outdoor travel activities. Though less idyllic than Yangshuo within the city centre, Guilin is in close proximity to some of China’s most beautiful natural wonders.
Most famous in Guilin are the Reed Flute Cave and Elephant Trunk Hill, two of the most beautiful scenic icons in the area. Boat trips are the best way to explore these areas, and are easily paired with journeys through neighboring Yangshuo and Longsheng.
With a name that translates to “Dragon’s Backbone, one of China’s most scenic gems is Longsheng, most famous for the Longji rice terraces. Distinct from the caves and mountains in nearby Guilin, the Lingji terraces are a man-made part of the scenery. Split into two areas, the Lingji rice terraces are divided among the Ping’An terrace fields and the JinKeng terrace fields, each with their own villages and communities. Here you’ll not only find beautiful terraces, but you’ll also have the chance to meet some of China’s ethnic minority groups – including the Zhuang and Yao.
Mount Emei (also called E’meishan, since “shan” means mountain in Chinese) is an important center for refuge and spirituality in China. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, this incredible mountain is both a natural wonder and the home to more than one hundred temples and monasteries. Some of the best include Wan-nian Monastery and Baoguo Temple, which is home to a massive bell that can be heard 10 miles away when rung!
Not so far from Chengdu, E’meishan is most famous for its incredible hiking trails through the national park, and of course a journey to the Golden Summit, home to a multi-face statue of Samantabhadra and incredible peak views. Make sure you’re prepared for a serious case of vertigo here, since the sea of clouds that often dominates the views here are sure to make your heart beat a bit faster.
Three Gorges & Yangtze River
Though China has its fair share of beautiful destinations, one of the most incredible places to witness natural China is on the Yangtze River. This mighty river is one of the two most significant in China (alongside the Yellow River in the north), and is famous not just for its natural beauty, but also for its important role in the history and culture of China. The Yangtze River also flows through the Three Gorges and the Three Gorges Dam, which in itself had a profound affect on the region’s ecology and people.
As the longest river in Asia, the Yangtze River is a perfect way to see China’s countryside at a leisurely pace. Plus, since it’s a great alternative to land or air travel, it’s also a fantastic way to travel through the country while still enjoying the sights.
Known locally as the “City of Eternal Spring”, Kunming is one of the only cities in all of China that enjoys beautiful weather and blooming flowers year-round. Kunming is also home to some of southwest China’s most pleasant walking streets and public squares, as well as 26 of Yunnan Province’s ethnic minority groups. Kunming city is the focal point of these ethnic cultures, and its not uncommon to see men and women in traditional dress roaming the city streets alongside domestic and international tourists.
Though central Kunming is a great place to see stunning architecture like the Golden Temple and the Western Hills residential area, Kunming is also home to the incredible Stone Forest. This astounding natural wonder is one of Asia’s best examples of karst topography, with jagged stones jutting up from the grass in a grandiose collection of stone sculptures across 400 square kilometers.