China is a traveller’s treasure box: colossal palaces, sacred mountains, cliff-top temples, roaring metropolises, spectacular scenery and much, much more.
Antique yet up-to-the-minute, outwardly urban but quintessentially rural, conservative yet path-breaking, space-age but old-fashioned, China is a land of mesmerising contradictions. Tumbledown chunks of the Great Wall, creaky historical residences, mist-wreathed and temple-strewn mountains, quaint villages and delightful water towns make travel in China both unique and astonishing.
China is famed for the marathon meanderings of its Great Wall, the towering high-altitude palaces of Tibet, and the great cave-temple complexes that dot the ancient silk-trade routes. Within this vast country are lush sub-tropical landscapes, high snowy wildernesses, and neat rice terraces, farmed for thousands of years. The people are as different as the lands they inhabit, and their temples and domestic architecture just as varied. Few other countries can offer as much in a single visit, and China is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most populous destinations.
China is also vast and you must get outside to explore it: trace the Great Wall as it meanders across mountain peaks, size up awesome sand dunes in Gānsù, sail through awesome river gorges or cycle through otherworldly landscapes of karst peaks in Yángshuò. Ponder the desiccated enormity of the northwestern deserts and the preternatural mists of China’s sacred mountains. Hike into a landscape richly flecked with seasonal shades, from the crimson leaves of autumn maples to the colourful roofs of mountaintop Buddhist temples.
China is such a vast and varied land that you can pick and choose from the diverse range of attractions to suit your interests, timescale, and budget. Broadly speaking though, nature lovers should head west where they will be greeted by some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, culture vultures should focus on the “cradles of civilization” and traditional imperial sights, while die-hard urbanites will find more than they can handle in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Top Reasons to Visit China
WORLD HERITAGE SITES
China is home to one of the world’s oldest and most remarkable civilisations. You’ll need a well-made pair of travelling shoes and a strong stomach for long-distance wayfaring.
If ancient wonders are your cup of chá, you can’t go far wrong in China. China’s culture is deeply rooted in masterpieces of cultural history and its natural diversity and majestic scenic areas. There are 28 Chinese sites on the prestigious World Heritage list: all are outstanding examples of human genius and master works of humanity. The most famous of these sites are the Great Wall of China, the Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties and the Mausoleum of the first Qin Emperor and Terracotta Warriors.
The other World Heritage listings are:
The Mogao Caves
Peking Man Site
Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Area
Huanglong Scenic and Historic Area
Wulingyan Scenic and Historic Area
The Mountain Resort of Chengde and Outlying Temples
Temple and Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion
The Potala Palace
Ancient Building Complex in the Wudan Mountains
Mount Emei and Leshan Giant Buddha
Lushan National Park
The Old City of Lijiange
Old City of Pingyao
Classical Gardens in Suzhou
The Summer Palace
The Temple of Heaven
Dazu Stone Carvings
Mount Qingcheng-Dujiangyan Irrigation Network
Imperial Mausoleums and Memorial Buildings of the Ming and Qing Dynasties
Ancient Villages in Southern Anhui Province
From temple-strewn mountains to awesome river gorges, China’s natural landscape is both unique and mesmerising. Your camera will be glued to your hand.
You haven’t really experienced China until you’ve had your socks blown off by one of its scenic marvels. China’s man-made splendours have lent cities such as Shànghăi head-turning cachet, but Mother Nature steals the show. Expect to trek or cycle between fairy-tale karst pinnacles, or merely stand and ponder the desiccated enormity of the northwest deserts or the preternatural mists of China’s sacred mountains. Swoon before the rice terraces of the south, size up some awesome sand dunes in Gānsù, travel the Great Wall as it meanders across mountain peaks, get lost in forests of bamboo, sail through dramatic river gorges or, when your energy fails you, flake out for a tan on a distant beach.
Not-to-be-missed natural attractions:
Jiŭzhàigōu National Park
Yuányáng Rice Terraces
The Three Gorges
Culinary exploration is possibly the most enticing aspect of Middle Kingdom travel: you’ll return with stimulated taste buds and much-cherished gastronomic memories.
With its novel flavours, and unexpected aromas and tastes, China is a culinary travel adventure. You’ll certainly find dim sum, noodles and dumplings aplenty, but there’s also the liquid fire of a Chóngqìng hotpot or the adventurous flavours of Kashgar’s night market. Wolf down Peking duck, size up a sizzling lamb kebab in Kāifēng or gobble down a bowl of Lánzhōu noodles on the Silk Road. Spicy Húnán or Sichuān dishes really raise the temperature but don’t forget the border regions where the culinary recipes of neighbouring lands permeate into China.
The best places to sample Chinese cuisine:
Get a glimpse of ancient Chinese culture by visiting an ethnic minority village steeped in tradition and customs.
While Han Chinese populate the majority of China you only have to cover a bit more mileage and turn a few extra corners to come face-to-face with a colourful patchwork of ethnic minorities where distinct cultures, languages, architectural styles and livelihoods are well preserved. From Yúnnán, Guìhōu and the south-west to Tibet, Xīnjiāng, Inner Mongolia and the hardy northeast, China is a vibrantly rich nation of contrasting peoples and traditions. Many ethnic communities have beautiful styles of dress, and these costumes along with their ancient cultures have become a major attraction to visitors, who bring trade to these communities.
The best places to experience ethnic culture:
Head to China’s roaring metropolises for the best in shopping, dining and entertainment. Shanghai leads the way.
China’s most dynamic and stylish environments belong to cities like Shànghăi, where glittering skyscrapers overlook Maglev trains, and hard-working, hard-playing middle-class consumers shop in chic malls, drink at elegant cocktail bars and dine at fashionable restaurants. China’s unfathomable reservoirs of energy and manpower are sucked up by its leading cities for transmutation into iconic skylines.
Travel to China is possible year-round, as long as you’re prepared for what the season can throw at you. Spring (March to May) and autumn (September to early November) can be the best time to be on the road, as you avoid the blistering heat of summer (June to August) and stinging chill of winter (November to February/March). Summer is the busiest tourist season, and getting around and finding accommodation during the peak summer crush can be draining.
North China is hot and largely dry in summer, especially in the baking northwest (but Beijing is also uncomfortable). The Yangzi River (Cháng Jiāng) region is very hot and humid, and southern China, with a coastline harassed by typhoons, also swelters. Rainfall rarely falls in quantities that can disrupt travel plans, except on the southern coastline during the typhoon season.
Winter is the low season (except for Hăinán) and can be the quietest time of year. North China is a frozen expanse, especially in the northeast, northwest and Inner Mongolia. Wintering in clement central and southern Yúnnán province is enjoyable, but the higher altitude north of the province is frigid. Winter is inadvisable for travel to high-altitude areas in China, although summer visits to high-lying areas such as Qīnghăi and parts of Tibet can be recommended.
Where is China located?
China is located in Eastern Asia, bordered by the Pacific Ocean on its east coast and by 14 countries, including Russia, Mongolia and India. Stretching over 50 degrees of latitude and covering 3.7 million sq miles (9.6 million sq km) of land, China is one of the largest countries in the world with over 20 percent of the planet’s population.