8 of the Best Places to See in China
China is an enormous country with a similarly-large offering of fantastic and varied destinations. There are so many highlights and below I have put together a list of essential places you should add to your China travel itinerary:
1. Hong Kong
Hong Kong is another city where words fail to do it justice. It is different from other cities in that there are few distinct tourist destinations to pinpoint: the whole city is the attraction! However, the Peak on Hong Kong Island is one exception. It can be reached by the funicular railway climbing up the mountainside - challenging with a hangover – and, providing the weather is clear, visitors will be greeted with an astounding, panoramic view of the city.
Elsewhere, Hong Kong offers diversity and a cityscape alike no other: it truly is a magical place. Of course, it is also world-renowned for its cuisine, and there is sure to be gastronomic delights to suit all tastes. You could spend a year in Hong Kong and not take it all in, but a minimum of a week should be allocated to get just a snippet of this magnificent city.
When visiting China, its colossal northern capital simply cannot be overlooked. Beijing has so much to offer that a small article couldn’t dream of doing it justice, but there are a few places key places to mention. Tian’anmen Square is a great place to start; its vast expanse the epicentre of so much history. Fittingly, the National Museum stands just to the eastern side of the Square, and, with free admission, is well worth a visit. On a more morbid note, those interested can hop across to the Mao Mausoleum, which displays the preserved body (and wax replacement) of the Chairman.
Conveniently situated opposite the Square is the Forbidden City; with its impressive imperial complex requiring a minimum of a few hours to explore. Equally synonymous with the city is the Great Wall of China, which can be reached with organised tours of China stopping off at the Ming tombs. The Mutianyu section adds more than a little fun to the occasion with chair-lifts up and toboggans down from the Wall. Other highlights include Wanfujing, the Altar of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the Olympic Green. There is, of course, much more to see: besides the world-renowned attractions, Beijing is a sprawling metropolis that in itself makes it a truly incredible super-city. Allow a minimum of a week when visiting.
The capital of Sichuan province really is an impressive, modern city. Tianfu Square lies at its centre, home to an imposing statue of Chairman Mao stood in front of the science and technology museum; good fun on a rainy day. The surrounding area is a shopper’s paradise with designer stores lining the streets, giving the sense that you could be stood in the middle of any major, cosmopolitan city in the world. Perhaps the largest attraction of Chengdu is the nearby panda breeding centre. It can be reached by organised tour of China or independently, but, however you travel, just make sure you get there! The early bird will be rewarded with (relatively) active pandas, and all for the incredibly-reasonable price of around £6. Also if the idea of volunteering in China appeals to you there are special opportunities where you can work with pandas.
Despite its modernity, Chengdu also offers an insight into cultural China, with quaint tea-houses and even professional ear-cleaners found in public parks. A local saying states that you have not really visited Chengdu if you haven’t sampled Sichuan hot-pot, often referred to as ‘mouth numbing’. You’ll find that the term is entirely justified, and it’ll challenge even the biggest of spice-lovers. Around an hour-or-so out of Chengdu is Leshan, home of the Grand Buddha: an enormous statue carved into the rock face. It is an immense sight and a must-do if you are in the area. Again, visits can be arranged by tour or simply enough independently, but a full-day should be allocated. Approximately 3-5 days should suffice for Chengdu and Leshan.
The lesser-known town of Fenghuang is situated in Hunan province and is hugely popular among Chinese tourists. A picturesque river-town, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Chinese Venice’ and is renowned for its couples and romance. Beyond the soppiness, its remarkably well-preserved, ancient town is set against a stunning, mountainous landscape. There are various attractions in the surrounding area, though the appeal of Fenghuang is the town itself.
The narrow streets are lined with food vendors and souvenir shops, and it is a great place to pick up a few gifts (though always haggle!). At night, the river cruises and coffee shops give way to a lively - albeit surprising - party atmosphere. There are plenty of bars, restaurants and even nightclubs to take your fancy, and Fenghuang does look bizarrely beautiful with the flashing neon lights reflecting off the meandering river. Three days should be sufficient to visit.
Gulin is a tourist hot-spot situated amongst some of the most spectacular landscape in the whole of China. The town itself has a plethora of bars, restaurants, hotels and hostels to suit most budgets, and a number of attractions, too. One of the most famous is Elephant Trunk Hill which, as the name suggests, resembles an elephant dipping its trunk into the River Li below.
The view from the roadside is obscured by some strategically-placed trees, leaving visitors forced to pay the entry fee of around £8. This offers decent value, though, allowing you to explore the Hill and surrounding park at leisure. A short walk or bus ride from the town centre is Seven Star Park, named after its seven peaks. The park is home to another famous, animal-like rock formation - Camel Hill - and also an impressive cave-system for a little extra money.
The main reason for visiting Guilin, however, is the cruise along the Li Jiang River. Tours are advertised everywhere, and really are an essential aspect of any visit. You can opt for the more expensive, large cruise boats, or the smaller, less expensive (plastic) bamboo rafts. The journey takes you along the snaking river lined by iconic karst peaks, and typically ends at a dock with a view of the landscape depicted on 20 Yuan notes.
From there, trips often lead into the tourist town of Yangshou, and visitors are given the option to visit a nearby village where you can witness a cormorant fishing show and take another, this time authentic, bamboo river cruise. It is best to book an all-inclusive package to make the most of the trip. Allow approximately 3 days for a visit.
One of the most famous cities in the world, Shanghai truly is a global super-power. Sprouting from the ocean, the city has risen to capture imaginations around the world. Symbolic of Shanghai is the Bund, the waterfront concession on the west bank of the Hangpu River, home to colonial buildings encompassing various architectural styles.
Whilst the western bank harbours much heritage, the Bund also offers spectacular views to the futuristic Pudong area upon the eastern bank, and perhaps the most iconic cityscape in the world. Tour operators will take you along the Bund and across the magnificent Pudong Bridge into the infamous financial district. There is the option to include a visit to the observation platform of the sky-piercing Jin Mao Tower for an additional extra, although it is also possible to visit one of the various sky bars in surrounding towers. Whatever the decision, it is recommended to get up into the clouds for a panoramic view of the city.
Further tours are operated along the Hangpu River, which offer incredible views by night. Elsewhere, the Jade Buddha Temple is another popular destination, and is one of few temples in the city. Aside from the attractions, Shanghai is a metropolis bursting with culture, cuisine and entertainment; there certainly are no dull moments in Shanghai. Again you could spend any amount of time in Shanghai and not get bored, though 5-7 days would be enough to cover most bases.
Xi’an is an ancient city perhaps now most famous for the recent discovery of the Terracotta Warriors; one of the primary attractions in the whole of China. The site lies about an hours drive from the city centre, but is easily accessible by local bus or tour. If you have a decent understanding of the Warriors, however, you could get away with skipping the tour and saving a lot of money. The magnitude of the site – both discovered and buried – is breath-taking, and it certainly requires a full day.
There is also plenty to see in the city, such as the city walls, which can be walked or even cycled upon; though at 7 miles long a hired bicycle is recommended for a full circuit. The Great Mosque, regarded as China’s prettiest, is most definitely worth a visit, not least for the Moslem quarter surrounding it. This area is lined with narrow streets filled with food vendors and souvenir shops, where you can pick up a bargain and some truly-delicious street food.
On the subject of food, Xi’an is famed for its variety of flavours and colours of dumplings, which can be found in many nearby restaurants. Other sites of note include the Bell Tower, the history museum and the Small- and Big- Wild Goose Pagodas. 3-5 days should suffice when visiting Xi’an.
Wulingyuan is home to some of the most spectacular scenery on earth and is comprised of the three main nature reserves of Zhangjiajie, Suoxiyu and Tianzi Shan. Its iconic quartz-sandstone peaks canvas the landscape and feature in the movie ‘Avatar’. There are many sights to see along a variety of trails and in separate areas, meaning that a tour guide or at least local guidance is recommended. Some highlights include Baofeng Lake, the First Bridge under the Sky and the Bailong Elevator.
The area is also famous for its nature and wildlife, with wild monkeys common in certain places. Be careful when handling food, though, as the monkeys are known to stream down from the trees and even enter bags at the glimpse of a tasty treat. Entry and additional costs such as cable cars can add up, but whatever your budget, the landscape of Zhangjiajie is awe-inspiring and unrivalled in its beauty. When visiting, allow for approximately 3 days.
By Adam Day