Most people don’t know where to start when it comes to exploring a country as vast as China. Few places are as diverse, with such a wide contrast of landscapes, sights and cultures. From cosmopolitan Shanghai and the karst-ridden Guangxi province to the roof of the world, Tibet, and deserts of the Far West, we have hand-picked the top 10 places to visit in China, which should definitely be on your bucket list.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
The Zhangjiajie National Park is home to one of the largest and most intriguing quartz-sandstone formations around the world. With more than 3,000 karsts jutting out of verdant forests, this UNESCO-protected park also has an ethereal setting, which when covered in mist at dawn, creates a landscape you might recognise - the Hallelujah Mountains from the film Avatar, which were inspired by these very mountains.
Of all the historic places to visit in China, Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi province, is arguably the most fascinating. It is where the first emperor Qin Shi Huang lies buried underneath a 76-metre-tall tomb. The most amazing thing about it? Not the tomb itself but the thousands of terracotta soldiers standing sentinel before it to protect the emperor in the afterlife. This life-sized clay army, with their horses and chariots is a sight to behold.
There is nowhere better to meet China’s most notable resident than in Chengdu. That is where the Chengdu Panda Base is found – a breeding facility for pandas and other rare animals like red pandas, golden monkeys and South China tigers. Walk around the 165-acre compound which has two bamboo-fringed enclosures and a panda nursery, where new pandas are born and kept until they are ready to be released into the wild.
With a history of more than 600 years, Peking duck is Beijing’s most popular gourmet food. This is one experience you can’t forgo when you’re in China’s capital. Characterised by its shiny and crispy red exterior and tender meat, this succulent dish used to be a staple in emperor’s feasts and is served with generous lashings of hoisin sauce. While you’re in Beijing, be sure to stop by the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall for a dash of history.
If you want world-class acrobatic performances, look no further than Shanghai. Putting on the biggest Chinese circus shows, it is the place to go to see human pyramids, acrobats in leotards diving through hoops and the nail-biting balls of death, where a handful of riders on motorbikes fly around simultaneously in a sphere. For the best performances, check out the Shanghai Circus World, the Shanghai Theatre and the Huxi Grand Theatre.
Guangxi (Guilin & Yangshuo)
The iconic Guangxi landscape is recognisable by its otherworldly limestone karsts. While the Zhangjiajie pillars are narrow and brown, those in the Guangxi province, found on the border of Vietnam, are smooth and luscious green. The best places to see the unparalleled beauty of these karsts are in Yangshuo – where the fabled peaks dotted around the River Li are the very image you’ll find on a 20-yuan bank note – and Guilin.
As well as being a peaceful spiritual realm with chanting monks clad in orange robes and enchanting monasteries, Tibet is best known as the ‘roof of the world’. This mountainous region is the highest plateau on Earth and boasts incredible views of snow-capped mountains and scenic valleys, with a technicolour of colourful rural houses dotted around. Perhaps its most magnificent attraction is the 17th-century Potala Palace in Lhasa – the highest ancient palace in the world and the former home of the Dalai Lama which is now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yunnan (Lijiang and Dali)
If there were another attraction to rival Yunnan’s picturesque rice terraces, it is arguably the region’s ancient cities. A trip to the Old Town of Lijiang and Dali is truly like stepping back in ancient China with no time machine required. Many of the wooden, rickety-looking buildings still intact at the Lijiang UNESCO World Heritage Site which was once a trading town on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. The Dali Ancient Town is smaller but equally as fascinating, sandwiched between the famous South Gate – a famous landmark and the oldest structure of the town – and the Ming-dynasty North Gate.
Immortalised by Chinese poets, the romanticised West Lake in Hangzhou remains a chart-topper. With temple-studded hills around its parameters, beautiful gardens and perfectly-positioned walkways, it is utterly photogenic. The West Lake is divided into five sections by three causeways, with quintessentially-Chinese crescent-shaped bridges and an ancient pavilion. Suzhou also boasts a spectacular watery scene and it is known as the ‘Venice of the Orient’ for its dazzling boat-strewn canals and scenic water gardens, the most popular of which are the Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Lingering Garden.
Silk Road, Far West
Arid deserts, tall dunes and camels…The landscapes of the Far West are quite unlike anything you’ll find in China. You may be forgiven for thinking you are in Africa or the Middle East but this region is home to some iconic destinations along the Silk Road. Kashgar is one of the oldest Silk Road outposts in the far West, with a history of over 2,000 years. It has a thriving Sunday Bazaar where you can buy pashminas, spices and fur caps among other goods, and is home to the Old Town which has maze-like, mud-brick alleyways.
Get off the beaten track and visit the otherworldly Death Valley in Turpan, the lowest point in China, where extreme temperatures can reach above 40°C. Differing vastly with its high-rise-dominated skyline, Urumqi’s alpine beauty, amazing street food and unique mix of Chinese and Arabic cultures are not to be missed.
Feeling inspired? Check out our China itineraries here.