China is a huge country bound together by a network of megacities, each more populous and bustling than the last. But in between these major cities, there are plenty of incredible things to do, making for many interesting day trips. Here are just a few of our favorites.
Shanghai → Water Towns
Not far from Shanghai, eight ancient water towns offer a perfect getaway from the big city. These centuries-old villages, built on canals and featuring traditional architecture, offer a glimpse into the China of yesteryear. When deciding which water town you’d like to visit, be aware that each one has its own set of pros and cons. For example, Qibao is conveniently located on metro line 9, but it’s also typically full of tourists.
At just 50 minutes outside of Shanghai, Zhujiajiao is also crowded, but it’s larger than Qibao, which means that visitors can spread out a little more. The site is well preserved, and 36 bridges span its canal, making it a photogenic day trip from the city.
The most traditional of the water towns are Xitang, located about an hour and a half outside of Shanghai, and Nanxun, located about two hours away from the city. Xitang was a filming location for “Mission Impossible: III,” but its real appeal is tied to its bridges and long, covered corridor — it’s the only water town with a corridor of this kind. For its part, Nanxun is quiet and peaceful with plenty of sightseeing options, including Jia Ye Tang Library and the Little Lotus Garden. Wherever you go, you can always capture great images by strolling along the water town’s canals.
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to visit the water towns — especially the heavily commercialized ones closest to Shanghai — during the week, when crowds are thinner. Note that some water towns charge admission fees, so make sure you research your chosen destination before setting out!
Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen → Zhuhai
Clustered on the southern coast of China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Shenzhen are three popular destinations separated by just a short distance. And because of Zhuhai’s proximity to these areas, the coastal city makes for an excellent day trip option.
Zhuhai is a relaxing getaway, known for its islands, situated on Macau’s border. There, you can visit the Imperial Hot Spring Resort for open-air, natural hot springs and poolside accommodations, or explore the world’s largest aquarium at the Chimelong International Ocean Resort.
For a history lesson, check out the New Summer Palace (a replica of the original Summer Palace in Beijing) or the Meixi Royal Stone Archways. The Statue of Fishing Girl in Xianglu Bay is considered the symbol of the city, though, and it makes a great subject for your camera.
Beijing → Great Wall of China
The Great Wall is the quintessential stop of any visit to China, as it spans much of the country and is easily accessible from many cities. That said, Beijing is one of the best bases for anyone whose itinerary wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Great Wall.
Guided Great Wall tours depart Beijing every day, bound for the most popular stretches like Badaling and Mutianyu, as well as some of the more wild and remote sections, such as Jinshanling.
If you’re looking for a stretch that lives up to its former glory, and if crowds don’t bother you, then Badaling is the place to go. Dating back to the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644 A.D., Badaling is the best-preserved stretch of the entire Great Wall. Its 2.3 miles (7.4 kilometers) and 19 watchtowers are easy to access, and a convenient cable car can even take travelers from the parking lot up to the towers.
Although Mutianyu has survived the centuries, it’s not quite as well preserved as Badaling. But Mutianyu does have something that Badaling doesn’t — lighter crowds. Like Badaling, this section of wall features a few dozen watchtowers (and a cable car that connects to the No. 14 Watchtower), and its surroundings are forested and remote. You can also slide down the mountain from the No. 6 Watchtower via toboggan, which is a one-of-a-kind way to experience the Wall.
Whether you choose Badaling, Mutianyu, or another stretch altogether, spring and fall are the ideal times to visit the Great Wall from Beijing, as temperatures are mild and the foliage is beautiful.
Chengdu → Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
Although this world-famous research base is located only six miles (10 kilometers) from downtown Chengdu, you’ll want to devote at least half a day to this visit.
Located in the heart of the Sichuan Province, the Chengdu Research Base is a haven for giant pandas — and a perfect escape for animal lovers. Before it opened in 1993, the base planted thousands of bushes and bamboo plants to imitate the pandas’ natural habitat, so when you’re there, you’ll quickly forget that you’re within close proximity of a megacity.
The base provides a home for several other endangered species as well, including cranes, storks, peacocks, and butterflies. But with its emphasis on conservation, it’s not a zoo by any means. Besides, the giant pandas — nicknamed “China’s national treasure” — steal the show.
The best time to visit is from about 8:30 to 10 a.m., when the pandas are being fed. If you visit in August or September, you might even have the chance to welcome newborn pandas into the world!
In such a large country, it makes sense that there are so many exciting day trips. We’ll see you somewhere in China!
Header image by Whitney Brown