Places to Visit in China
From colossal palaces and sacred mountains to cliff-top temples and roaring metropolises, the places to visit in China will impress even the hardiest of travellers.
Drawn by an air of mystery, the number of visitors heading to China has been rising rapidly. The World Tourism Organization predicts that by 2020 China will become the world’s most popular tourist destination. Not one visitor will fail to be impressed by the splendour of China’s greatest sights.
The Great Wall has been completely rebuilt in parts in modern times, but its dizzying loops across the horizon still leave most visitors lost for words. The Forbidden City, at the heart of Bĕijīng, draws crowds that make its original majesty hard to imagine, but the labyrinth of side passages still leaves the more inquisitive visitor spellbound. And, although images of Xī’ān’s Terracotta Warriors are familiar from coffee table books, nothing can prepare the visitor for coming face to face with an army of thousands.
China may not be quite the rapidly modernizing economic success of investment fable, but nor is it the medieval backwater of travellers’ tales – the truth lies somewhere in between. Not far from the excitement and wealth of the shiny, high-rise cities, water buffalo pull the plough, and donkey carts are still a popular form of transport. For the visitor, making a foray into the countryside will rarely fail to yield a lively village market or a distressed pagoda on a hill.
China is such a vast and varied land and most of its great sights are scattered far and wide. Our list of top twenty places to visit in China will allow you to pick and choose from a diverse range of attractions to suit your interests, timescale, and budget.
Top 20 Places to Visit in China
The carved stone statue of the Great Buddha at Lèshān is one of Sìchuān’s top tourist destinations. The thrill of Lèshān is in your first sighting of the Great Buddha carved painstakingly into the cliff face above you more than 1200 years ago. Whether that’s from the top looking down, from a boat looking straight up, of from the path of nine switchbacks looking somewhere in between, the moment it dawns on you that the large, gracefully carved, stone wall that you’re looking at is actually the lobe of a colossal ear, and that the ear is only a small slice of a well-proportioned giant – that moment is thrilling.
Location: Sìchuān Province
The Naxi town of Lìjiāng, in Yunnan province, is one of China’s most rewarding destinations for the ancient textures of ethnic minority life n its old town and the breathtaking beauty of Yùlóng Xuĕshān (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) rising over the town. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lìjiāng is a city of two halves: the old town and the very different modern new town. The old town is where you’ll be spending most of your time and it’s a jumble of lanes that twist and turn. While the old town itself can be crowded, an early rise is rewarded with quieter back alleys. Outside town almost limitless exploration beckons.
Location: Yúnnán Province
Kāipíng is home to one of the most arresting man-made attractions in Guăngdōng – the UNESCO-crowned diaolou. Around 1800 outlandishly designed multistorey watchtowers and fortified residences scatter higgledy-piggledy in the farmland around Kāipíng, a town near Guăngzhōu. These sturdy bastions built in the early 20th century may not be what you’d typically expect in the Middle Kingdom, but they inspire awe with their eccentric fusion of foreign and domestic architectural styles: Greek, Roman, Gothic, Byzantine and Baroque. A riot of arches and balustrades, Egyptian columns, domes, cupolas, corner turrets, Chinese gables and Grecian urns are some of the architectural designs you can expect to see here.
Location: Guăngdōng Province
Houses perched precariously on stilts, ancestral halls, crumbling temples and gate towers set amid a warren of back alleys full of shops selling mysterious foods and medicines – it’s enough on its own to make the ancient town of Fènghuáng an essential stop. Add in the seductive setting on either side of the Tuó River and the chance to stay at an inn right by the water, and you have one of the most evocative towns in China. However, tourist development is taking precedence over careful preservation efforts, so see it before it crumbles away.
Location: Húnán Province
Time-warped Píngyáo, China’s best preserved ancient, walled town with an unbroken sense of continuity to its Qing-dynasty heyday, is a true gem. This is the China of your dreams: red-lantern-hung lanes set against night-time silhouettes of imposing town walls, ancient shopfronts, elegant courtyard architecture, historic towers poking into the north China sky, and an entire brood of creeking temples and old buildings. You can travel the length and breadth of China and not find another town like it. In fact, when you discover Píngyáo you may never want to leave.
Location: Shānxī Province
Scattered all over the pretty, rolling countryside in southwestern Fújiàn, the stupendous tulou roundhouses are vast, fortified earthen edifices that have been home to both the Hakka and the Minnan people since the year dot. The tulou housed entire villages; however, these days the occupant numbers are way down. The imposing and well-defended bastions of wood and earth – not all circular it must be added – were once mistaken by the CIA for missile silos. Do the right thing and spend the night in one: this is a vanishing way of life, the pastoral setting is quite superb and the architecture is unique.
Location: Fújiàn Province
14. Dūnhuáng & Mògāo Caves
Where China starts transforming into a lunar desertscape in the far west, the handsome oasis town of Dūnhuáng is a natural staging post for dusty Silk Road explorers. Mountainous sand dunes swell outside town while Great Wall fragments lie scoured by abrasive desert winds, but it is the magnificent caves at Mògāo that truly dazzle. Mògāo is one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world and the cream of China’s crop of Buddhist caves – its statues are ineffably sublime and among the nation’s most priceless cultural treasures.
Location: Gānsù Province
Your chances of seeing a giant panda in the wilds of China are practically zilch, even if you’re a motivated expert with acres of time. You can catch a couple of specimens at China’s penitentiary-like zoos, but that’s hardly the same. The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chéngdū isn’t the wilds but neither is a zoo, and with a population of almost 50 giant and red pandas, it’s an excellent opportunity to see the giant panda in a setting approximating its natural habitat. March to May is the ‘falling in love period”; if you visit in autumn or winter, you may see tiny newborns in the nursery. Try to visit the base in the morning, when the pandas are most active.
Location: Sìchuān Province
12. Tài Shān
A visit to China just isn’t complete without scaling a sacred mountain or two, and antediluvian Tài Shān is Shāndōng province is the granddaddy of them all. Its fellow UNESCO World Heritage sites Éméi Shān may be higher and Huángshān more photogenic, but Tài Shān has been worshipped since at least the 11th century BC. Climb the Taoist mountain and you’ll live to 100, they say, even if you feel you are going to drop dead with exhaustion on the gruelling Path of 18 Bends (lightweights can hitch a ride on the cable car instead). The views are standout and with Tài Shān’s mountainous aspect in the east, summit sunrises are the order of the day.
Location: Shāndōng Province
One of China’s most illustrious tourist drawcards, Hángzhōu’s dreamy West Lake panoramas and fabulously green and hilly environs can easily lull you into long sojourns. In a charming vignette of traditional China pagodas rise on hills above the lake, willow branches hang limply over the water and boats float unhurriedly across a liquid expanse. This may be one of China’s most-visited panoramas, but the lake is so large you always find space to admire the scenery and drift into a reverie. Try to spend an evening in Hángzhōu if you can, as the lake saves its best side for nightfall.
Location: Zhèjiāng Province
10. Yangzi River
Snow melting from the world’s ‘third pole’ – the high-altitude Tibet-Qinghai plateau – is the source of China’s mighty, life-giving Yangzi. The country’s longest and most scenically impressive river, the Yangzi surges west-east across the nation. It reaches a crescendo with the Three Gorges, carved out over millennia by the inexorable persistence of the powerful waters. The gorges are a magnificent spectacle and a Yangzi River cruise is a rare chance to put your travel schedule on ice, hang up your travelling hat, take a seat and admire an astonishing panorama sliding past.
Location: Chóngqìng Province
9. Lí River & Yángshuò
It’s hard to exaggerate the beauty of Yángshuò and the Lí River that runs through it. The area is renowned for classic, legendary images of China: mossy-green jagged limestone peaks provide a backdrop for weeping willows leaning over bubbling streams, wallowing water buffaloes and farming sowing rice paddies. Ride a bamboo raft along the river and you’ll understand why this stunning rural landscape has inspired painters and poets for centuries. Another popular way to appreciate the scenery is a bike tour through the dreamy valleys along the Yulong River.
Location: Guăngxī Province
8. Tiger Leaping Gorge
Picture snowcapped mountains rising on either side of a gorge so deep that you can be 2km above the river rushing across the rocks far below. Then imagine winding up and down trails that pass through tiny farming villages, where you can rest while enjoying beautiful countryside views so glorious they defy superlatives. Sitting between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain of Lìjiāng and the Haba Snow Mountain of Zhōngdiàn to the north, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the most spectacular sights in the region and a simply unmissable experience. Hikers returning from the gorge invariably give it glowing reviews.
Location: Yúnnán Province
Capital of the Shănxī province, where it all started for China, Xī’ān was the beginning and end of the Silk Road and a buzzing, cosmopolitan capital long before anyone had heard of Bĕijīng. Today, the archaeological sites scattered around Xī’ān makes it an essential destination for visitors to China. Around Xī’ān there’s an excavated Neolithic village and numerous royal graves; chief among them the tomb of Qin Shi Huang and the world-famous Terracotta Warriors, one of the most extraordinary archaeological discoveries ever made. Xī’ān is also an emergent travellers hub, with good nightlife, museums, ancient pagodas and a fascinating Muslim Quarter.
Location: Shănxī Province
While Bĕijīng may be the capital of China, Shànghăi is China’s economical, financial, and commercial centre, its largest city, and the key to China’s future. No other super city in China, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, is more vibrant or fascinating. Don’t come here for dusty tombs or creaking old palaces; Shànghăi doesn’t do those. Come instead for crisp modernity, youthful vigour, funky art deco architecture, gorgeous French Concession streetscapes, rocketing skyscrapers and charming 19th-century shikumen (stone gate) buildings. You could also simply come for its restaurants and bars – and rarely feel short-changed.
Location: Shànghăi Province
5. Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces
After a bumpy bus ride to northern Guangxi, you’ll be dazzled by one of China’s most archetypal and photographed landscapes: the splendidly named Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. The region is a patchwork of minority villages, with layers of waterlogged terraces climbing the hillsides. The rice fields rise up to 1000m high and are an amazing feat of farm engineering on hills. You’ll be enticed into a game of village-hopping. The invigorating walk between Píng’ān and Dàzhài villages offers the most spine-tingling views. Visit after the summer rains when the fields are glistening with reflections.
Location: Guăngxī Province
4. Huángshān & Hui Villages
Shrouded in mist and light rain more than 200 days a year, and maddeningly crowded most of the time, Huángshān is reputed to be the most beautiful mountain range in the country and therefore attracts millions of visitors every year. Perhaps it’s the barren landscape, or an otherwordly vibe on the mountain. Mist rolls in and out at will; spindly bent pines stick out like lone pins across sheer craggy granite faces. Not far from the base are the perfectly preserved Hui villages including Xīdì and Hóngcūn. Consider spending the night at the top for spectacular, but not solitary, sunsets and sunrises.
Location: Ānhuī Province
3. The Silk Road
There are other Silk Road cities in countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but it’s in China where you get the feeling of stepping on the actual ‘Silk Road’, with its pervasive Muslim heritage and fragments from ancient Buddhist civilisations. Travel by bus and experience the route as ancient traders once did. This fabled route’s legacies are visible everywhere, from historic sights to the Islamic religion. Kashgar is the ultimate Silk Road town and remains a unique melting pot of peoples, but the Uighur trading centre of Hotan is equally special: a rough-and-tumble town still clinging to bygone days.
Location: Xinjiāng Province
2. Great Wall
A symbol of China’s historic detachment and sense of vulnerability, the Great Wall snakes over deserts, hills and plains for several thousand miles. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Wall is China’s standout ruin and a ‘must-visit’ destination for any visitor to Bĕijīng. While the most renowned examples undulate majestically over the peaks of Bĕijīng municipality, the Great Wall can also be realistically visited in many north China provinces. Select the Great Wall according to taste: perfectly chiselled, dilapidated, stripped of its bricks, overrun with saplings, coiling splendidly into the hills or returning to dust. The fortification is a fitting symbol of those perennial Chinese traits: diligence, mass manpower, ambitious vision and engineering skill (coupled with a distrust of the neighbours).
Location: Bĕijīng Province
The political and cultural capital of the world’s most populous country, Bĕijīng offers China’s most staggering array of attractions – the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Tiān’ānmén Square, and the Great Wall. Through its magnificent architecture visitors can trace every historical mood swing from Mongol times to the present day. Reminders of epic imperial grandeur and of imposing socialist realism stand strong amidst an emerging global powerhouse preparing to dominate the 21st century. In Bĕijīng you’ll encounter modernity and a switched-on, confident populace, but it’s the backdrop of enchanting alleyways, imperial palaces and incense-wreathed temples that makes this historic city so unique.
Location: Bĕijīng Province