In a country so big, there’s bound to be an incredible amount of sights to see, places to explore, and cities to ogle. China is no exception. Need help planning your trip? We’ve listed some of the country’s most exciting, fascinating, and beautiful areas below.
It goes without saying that China’s capital city of over 700 years is worth a visit. Graced with ancient structures and modern architecture that curiously coexist, Beijing is home to the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the Olympic “Bird’s Nest,” and the Temple of Heaven.
A first stop for many first-time visitors to China, Beijing allows travelers from 51 countries to enter the city for 72 hours, visa free — but for extended travel in China, you’ll need further documentation. While there, take a trip to the Great Wall, explore the local food scene, wander former-Olympic buildings, and take in a performance at the Beijing opera.
The capital city of China’s Sichuan Province is also home to some of the country’s most famous creatures — giant pandas! Though Chengdu’s cityscape isn’t as vibrant as those of other Chinese cities, the metropolis is truly inviting. Spend a weekend hopping from teahouse to teahouse, visiting the Chengdu panda research center, or observing local activities in Wangjiang Pavilion Park. And remember that Chengdu is the seat of China’s Sichuan Province, so be sure to sample all of your favorite Chinese delicacies right at the source.
Great Wall of China
Undoubtedly China’s most well-known attraction, the Great Wall is a must if you’re near Beijing. The wall is a staggering 13,000 miles (21,000 kilometers) long, so planning which section to visit ahead of time is imperative. The Badaling and Mutianyu sections of the wall are some of the best preserved, and are located only an hour or two from downtown Beijing. Hiring a driver can be costly, but visitors can opt for a tour package at a more reasonable price.
Located on China’s southern coastline, Guangzhou is both a lively destination and a popular hopping-off point for tourists looking to travel further to Hong Kong and Macau. As the third largest city in China, Guangzhou boasts a cityscape studded with towering skyscrapers and lush, green public gardens. A multicultural metropolis, this bustling city offers plenty of sights, including the Pearl River, the Canton Tower, Shamian Island, Yuexiu Park, and Guangzhou Museum. The city boasts a fantastic Cantonese cuisine scene, so don’t forget to pack your appetite!
Known for stunning and somewhat ghostly landscapes that are due, in part, to its towering limestone karsts, Guilin is one of the most beautiful cities in China. As soon as you spy the karsts outlined against the morning mist, you’ll be taken by this region. Visit the Li River, the Longi terrace fields, the Two Rivers, and the Four Lakes. Guilin is the perfect antidote to the bustling concrete jungles of China’s more populous cities. Take a cruise on the Li River, sample delicious noodles in the city center, then explore the beauty of the wild countryside.
Just south of Shanghai is Hangzhou, which Marco Polo described as “the most beautiful and elegant city in the world.” Granted, that was during the 13th century, but Hangzhou’s beauty has, indeed, endured. The city is characterized by rolling hills, scenic pathways, and beautiful architecture. Visit West Lake, the National Tea Museum, Wuzhen Water Town, and the Lingyin Temple. Take a high-speed train from Shanghai to Hangzhou, and maximize your six days of visa-free travel.
If you were to describe the landscapes of the Hunan Province (and more specifically, Zhangjiajie National Park) as “otherworldly,” you’d be spot on. The towering pillars of sandstone and quartz that cut through the area’s sprawling mist were the inspiration for the 2009 film, “Avatar.” But fair warning: if you do visit, don’t leave your camera behind! While in Hunan, make a stop at the famed Peach Blossom Land (during the bloom season), Changsha, Juzi Island, and the Mawangdui archeological site.
Shanghai is elegant, international, and cosmopolitan. It’s a beautiful, walkable city that toes the line between old-world glamor (there are 26 different building styles gracing its skyline) and effortless modernism (take the city’s Oriental Pearl Tower, for example). As a result, exploring the city is a delight, and you’ll find that there are fewer tourist crowds than in Beijing or Hong Kong because of the lack of famous landmarks. Traveling to Shanghai is also effortless — the city has a six-day visa-free transit period, and is a great hopping-off point to Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. But before you go, be sure to take advantage of all the city has to offer.
Located on the Pearl River Delta, Shenzhen has experienced explosive growth since the late 70s, when the newly formed city evolved from a fishing village to a major economic hub. Known for its striking architecture and its commitment to sustainable public spaces, Shenzhen has also been named the “most liveable city in China.”
While the city may not be awash in traditional historical attractions, it does offer a variety of theme parks that serve to entertain and inform visitors about Chinese history. The city’s proximity to water also makes it an ideal destination for beach goers, who should be sure to explore Dameisha Beach, Xiaomeisha Beach, and Xili Lake Holiday Resort.
Though Beijing is China’s most recent capital, Xi’an originally held the title for nearly 1,500 years. Because of its storied past — it marked the beginning of the ancient Silk Road route — Xi’an is home to a number of China’s cultural and historical sites, like the Ancient City Wall, the Terracotta Army, and the Great Mosque. When visiting Xi’an (which, like Beijing, also has a 72-hour visa-free transit period), consider staying for at least a day and a half — you’ll want time to see the incredible Terracotta Army with your own eyes and explore the surrounding sights.
Header photo by Yiqi Zhang