The most populous country in the world, the longest river in Asia, the highest plateau in the world, 18 different climate zones, the country with the highest exports, and the largest city in the world in terms of area – Welcome to China! The Middle Kingdom, AKA China, has been gaining increasing popularity in recent years among guests from the far and the near.
To discover the Middle Kingdom is to be amazed by sceneries that seem to come out of a dream; to be ecstatic by an oriental nature, underlined as it should be by age-old traditional infrastructures and populated by inhabitants who are always delighted to meet the tourists passing by.
It’s been more than 700 years since the Western world discovered China through the works of adventurer Marco Polo. Since then, this large Asian country has been perceived as the embodiment of everything mysterious and exotic.
Even now, after decades of intense economic growth, China has not lost any of its charms. On the contrary, the contrast between thousands of years of tradition and the modern technological state only strengthens the attraction of this culture for Westerners.
With an area of 9.6 million square kilometres, China has a large number of tourist attractions. But which sights should you see on a trip to China and what are the best things to do in China? Let’s find out!
This 3,000-year-old ancient capital is now not only the capital of China, but also it is the country’s political centre. The city has the most world heritage sites in the world (7 sites), the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and other touristic attractions that will leave you in awe. Also, it is safe to say that the city is a paradise for history lovers.
In addition to historical sites, rich cultural activities are also among the characteristic of Beijing. Beijing opera, kite craft, etc. ….You will never be bored in Beijing!
If you are a gourmet, the different cuisines of Beijing will surely satisfy your appetite. Don’t miss the Chinese mutton fondue and that delicious Beijing roast duck. Of course, Qingfeng baozi and Daoxiangcun traditional desserts are also excellent choices.
Beijing, with its many historical sites and modern resources, is certainly the perfect first stop on your China discovery trip. While Beijing has so much to offer, here are our top recommendations:
- Visit The Forbidden City
In the heart of the Chinese capital lies one of the most historic China sights, the Forbidden City, which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987. The Forbidden City is located in the centre of Beijing, north of Tiananmen Square. It served as the residence of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1420 to the revolutionary year 1911 when the last Chinese emperor abdicated the throne.
There is no better place to get an idea of how the emperors lived back then. Interestingly, previously this was a secret, as entry to the Forbidden City was forbidden to mere mortals. The Forbidden City has over 980 buildings from different eras. One of its features is that all these buildings are surrounded by a moat, which is 52 meters wide and 6 meters deep.
The Forbidden City covers 720,000 square meters and is protected by a 10-meter high wall. It will take you many hours to explore the entire Forbidden City; the area is filled with several must-see locations like the five bridges over the Golden River, made of white marble; the Hall of Supreme Harmony, a building 35 meters high where the imperial throne was installed; and the exquisite Imperial Banquet Hall (Hall of Conservation Harmony).
Also worth visiting is the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan), a vast complex of temples to the south of the Forbidden City. For more than five hundred years, it was one of the main holy places in the country; the locals prayed to the sky to get a good harvest.
There are other impressive elements at the complex as well, like the greenery – centuries-old Chinese cypress trees, some of which are more than six hundred years old. The Forbidden City is not like any place you have ever seen before.
- Marvel at the Great Wall of China
There is a popular Chinese saying, “He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man.” The phrase reflects the importance of the role this unique ancient monument has played in Chinese history.
The striking Great Wall of China (or Changsheng – “Long Wall”) stretches for more than 6,000 km from the fortresses of Shanhaiguan in the east to the city of Jiayuguan in the west. The wall runs through the cities of Hebei, Tianjin, Beijing (where the best-preserved sections of the wall are located) and the regions of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Gansu.
The Great Wall of China is the largest architectural monument in the world. Its construction began more than two thousand years ago. Impressive, right?! In fact, the Great Wall of China consists of several interconnected walls built by different dynasties until 1644. It can be accessed in several sections at once, one of which is near the Chinese capital.
In addition, there are various loopholes and watchtowers along the entire length of the wall, which date back to the 7th century B.C. The multiple sections of the wall were joined together into a single structure by 210 B.C. Seeing the wall and walking a bit on the restored sections requires only a half-day excursion, though you should allow more time for the more beautiful areas.
The most visited section of the wall is the section at the Badaling Passage, northwest of Beijing. It is easily accessible by public transportation or with an organized tour. Besides Badaling Passage, we also recommend going to Mutianyu. This section of the wall in forested mountainous terrain is served by two cable cars, so visitors can ride one up, then walk along the wall, and after 1.3 kilometres float back down the valley on the other.
- Spend Sometime at the Summer Palace
Fifteen kilometres from Beijing is the magnificent Summer Imperial Palace, which occupies about 280 hectares of beautiful parkland. It is one of the most visited places in China. The palace itself was built as early as 1153, but the large lake attached to it did not appear until the 14th century. It was created to improve the Imperial Gardens.
Among the attractions of the palace are the magnificent Hall of Welfare and Longevity with the throne set up in it. There is also the beautiful Great Theater, which is a three-story building built in 1891 to satisfy the Imperial family’s craving for opera, and the Hall of Happiness and Longevity with its beautiful gardens and courtyards.
In addition, miles of beautiful walking paths await you on the grounds of the palace. The Summer Palace is one of the best places to visit while on a trip to China!
Xi’an, or Xian, is located in the middle of the Wei River Basin; it is one of the most dynastic, longest-lived, and most influential capitals in Chinese history. Along with Rome, Athens, and Cairo, the city is among the four ancient capitals of the world. Xi’an not only has famous monuments, such as the Terracotta Army of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, the Great Mosque of Xi’an, etc.
However, there are also rugged natural landscapes, such as the ancient city of Xi’an, and steep natural landscapes around, such as Hua Mountain, and Taibai Mountain. The mountain and river landscape, human culture, and the new look of the ancient city complement each other here. If you make it to Xi’an, a must-see while there is the Terracotta Army Museum
- The Terracotta Army Museum
One day in 1974, a farmer in Xi’an Province decided to dig himself a well. In the process, he stumbled upon one of China’s most important archaeological finds, the Terracotta Army.
Three large underground rooms housed the clay guard of the imperial tomb, consisting of life-size warriors. Their number is astounding: 8,000 soldier figures, 520 horses, over 100 chariots, and a host of other non-army figures. All of this dates back to 280 BC!
It was historically believed that the tomb has been buried as early as 210 B.C. by Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (who first unified the warring states and established the Qin Dynasty, ending fragmentation). The emperor wanted living warriors to be buried so that they could guard him in the afterlife.
But as a result, the living warriors were replaced by their clay copies. Curiously enough, the statues themselves are unique and differ from each other as the warriors have individual facial features and armours!
Some of the figures have been damaged by the pressures of time, but most of the Terracotta Army is perfectly preserved. These clay figures now serve as a reminder of the importance placed on the figure of the emperor and the afterlife in ancient times.
The archaeological site of the Terracotta Army (which, by the way, is located on the territory of the Qin Shi Huang Emperor Museum Complex) is one of the most popular touristic attractions in China. You will live an unforgettable experience, standing in front of a massive number of clay soldiers and horses, as if in command before an ancient parade.
Shanghai is a metropolis without an equal. It is one of the most important economic centres in China, where you can see a diverse international city and have the opportunity to experience the past, present, and future lifestyles at the same time.
As the country’s most important economic and commercial centre, Shanghai in the Yangtze River Delta is considered the gateway to China. The city owes its cosmopolitan charm, which can be felt today, to its colonial past as over the centuries, the territory was occupied and administered by the British, the French, the Americans, and the Japanese.
In Shanghai, you will find countless skyscrapers, including the 632-meter Shanghai Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, the extravagant Oriental Pearl TV Tower in the Pudong district, and of course, the city’s breathtaking skyline. If you want to go on a shopping spree or try out trendy bars, the area around the Bund Promenade is the place to be.
Also, while in the city, a great place to visit is the small ancient water village Zhujiajiao which is located 48 km from downtown Shanghai. Let a motorized barge take you through the narrow water channels of Zhujiajiao and see historic wooden houses decorated with red lanterns, small souvenir stores, or the famous boat dealers with their wares. Another must while in Shanghai is to enjoy its waterfront!
- Shanghai Waterfront
Shanghai’s waterfront is an excellent example of intelligent urban planning and preservation of natural landmarks. Walking along the wide pedestrian zone along the Huangpu River, you can even forget that you are in the middle of China’s largest city (its population is 25 million people).
The waterfront area has a European flair; this is due to the fact that there was an international settlement, from which 52 buildings of English and French architecture have survived. Most of them are now occupied by restaurants, cafes, stores, and galleries. In their appearance, you can find influences of different styles, from Gothic to Renaissance. A visit to the waterfront is a pleasure to behold!
Only an hour away from Shanghai by high-speed train, you’ll reach what Marco Polo called “The City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world,” Hangzhou. Also located south of the Yangtze River Delta, the provincial capital is one of the seven ancient capitals and has a history dating back 2,500 years. Rich in cultural heritage and enchanting natural scenery, Hangzhou is relatively leisurely.
There is so much you can do in the city; you can take a boat trip or a walk, a detour to the World Heritage Site and the longest artificial waterway, the Grand Canal, and stroll through the historic water town of Wuzhen.
Hangzhou is also known as the cradle of Chinese silk culture and for its award-winning green tea plantations, where guided tours and tastings are also available. However, you can’t make it to Hangzhou without visiting its famous West Lake…You just can’t!
- The West Lake (Xihu Lake)
Few cities in China can boast as many historical sites and ancient temples as Hangzhou. Much of the city’s historical heritage is centred around West Lake. It is 6 square kilometres of water surface located in the heart of the old city. The lake is surrounded by several picturesque hills, pagodas, and temples.
The West Lake is divided into five parts by artificial walkways, the creation of which dates back to the 11th century. This area is great for hiking, as everywhere you will find magnificent examples of ancient Chinese architecture. Springtime walks, when the peach trees are in bloom, are especially pleasant.
One interesting way to spend your time while in the city is to contemplate the water surface from one of the many bridges. The best of these is the Broken Bridge, which connects the Baidi Trail to the shore. Also worth checking out is Little Paradise Island, where there are four other mini lakes. You can get here by the winding Bridge of Five Arches.
Guilin is one of China’s most popular touristic destinations, and it is considered a shining pearl in southern China. This small city of about 27,800 square kilometres is famous for its strangely shaped hills and karst formations. Mountains and clear waters surround the city; no matter where you are, you can always enjoy this picturesque landscape.
While in the city, a boat cruise on the Li River, an exploration of the mysterious caves, or a trip to the rice terraces of Longji, the discovery of nature will surely delight you. Besides its natural scenery, Guilin is also a cultural city with a history of more than 2000 years. The historical monuments are also worth visiting.
The city of Chengdu in Sichuan province has been known as a land of plenty since ancient times, thanks to the fertile land and the rivers that run through it. This fertile land not only allows people to live peacefully here but also produces extremely rich animal and plant resources. These include over 2,600 seed plants and 237 vertebrates and of course, rare giant and small pandas!
The region around Chengdu is also home to the famous Sichuan cuisine, so you can also experience pleasurable impressions or culturally the Leshan Giant Buddha. Of course, as a place that is quoted by many literary men in their literary works, the charm of Chengdu far exceeds that.
The city has many worth-seeing places like the Great Buddha of Leshan, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, and the Wenshu Monastery; all these sites will show you the city’s rich history and culture. Chengdu is a city you don’t want to leave when you visit.
More importantly, Chengdu is famous as Panda City because of its three resident bases. To see adult giant pandas and their offspring up close, we recommend visiting Dujiangyan Panda Base, Bifengxia Panda Base, or Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding…coming up next on our guide!
- Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
A visit to China wouldn’t be complete without seeing at least one live panda. Of course, many of the country’s zoos contain several of these remarkable animals, but the best place to get up close and personal with pandas in their natural habitat remains the remarkable Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. It is located in the province of Sichuan.
At the centre, you can observe about 80 individuals engaged in their daily activities, ranging from searching for food to playing games. In addition to observation, you can also learn a lot of information about these beauties through various ongoing exhibitions aimed at preserving this rare species. English-language tours are available at the centre.
If possible, schedule your visit for the morning hours, as this is when the feeding takes place and the pandas are most active. Seeing the gentle giants live in their green home, without fences, solo or in community, and resting or eating juicy fresh bamboo is one of the best experiences ever!
Anhui is located in the east of China, and the ancient villages and fantastic mountains give Anhui a unique view of the Yangtze River valley. The main attractions of the city are Huangshan and Hongcun, two sites that are listed in the UNESCO world heritage. Huangshan, surrounded by clouds, is like a fairyland. This particular landscape has also made it a holy place for many painters and photographers.
Hongcun, which is known as the “village in the painting,” has preserved more than 140 buildings from Ming and Qing dynasties; these are the typical architectures of the Huizhou style.
Anhui also has the Hui cuisine, one of the eight great cuisines of China. As Hui cuisine focuses on ingredients and cooking time and firepower, you can find many exquisite and rare dishes. Anhui is a village that gives off an incredible atmosphere and food!
For many people, Lhasa is a mysterious and sacred place; with the eagles flying over the majestic Potala Palace, the colourful prayer flags fluttering on the snow-capped mountains, and the prostrate pilgrims on the roadside. When you are in this city, try to observe every movement closely, you will find that mystery and holiness are the city’s natural temperament.
It can take you a week to explore this city of unique customs and strong religious colour. Besides the countless temples of large and small sizes, the vast Nam Co Lake is also very attractive. There are a large number of wild animals and precious herbs here. Lhasa is rightly one of the most dreamy cities in the world, especially with its Potala Palace!
- Potala Palace
Another well-recognized Chinese historical building is the remarkable Potala Palace, located in the city of Lhasa in Tibet. It was built as a fortress and residence of the Dalai Lama. For centuries the palace was the centre of political and religious power. Even today, it houses many religious treasures.
The complex includes two buildings; the first is the Red Palace, which was built in the 17th century. The palace contains the most important shrines, as well as the Hall of Enthronement, the walls of which are covered with frescoes depicting scenes from the lives of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan kings.
Other attractions in the Red Palace include numerous halls devoted to various religious practices, as well as the elaborate tombs of several lamas. No less impressive is the second building, the White Palace. It was completed in 1648, and it housed dormitories, study rooms, and reception rooms. Most of the rooms have remained intact since 1959 when the Dalai Lama left Tibet.
While in Lhasa, be sure to check out the Gardens of Jewels. Part of the Dalai Lama’s summer residence, these 36 hectares of parkland were landscaped in the 1840s. In addition to beautiful plants, there are exciting palaces, pavilions, and pleasant lakes.
Hong Kong is a city that mixes Chinese and Western cultures. Hong Kong is a city for strolling, with traditional stores hiding in the alleys between high-end office buildings. While there, make sure to climb aboard Victoria Peak for a view of Hong Kong. You will find Lunch and souvenirs as you stroll in the city. Under the names of food and shopping paradise, you have more choices than you can imagine.
Another not-to-be-missed attraction in the city is Hong Kong Bay. This extraordinary place is internationally known for its breathtaking panorama: at night, the play of light projected by the skyscrapers is an enchanting spectacle that you shouldn’t miss. In addition, boats offer to people visiting China to enjoy the best observation spots, right in the middle of the bay!
China is as big as an entire continent. Here, you can find a myriad of adventures of all kinds. Whether it’s cruising the Yangtze River on a comfortable boat, visiting bustling cities, or seeking solitude in ancient temples, China has something for everyone. Did we cover all we should have in our article on things to do in China? If not – let us know in the comments where we missed!