Having chalked up almost two years in China, I often get asked advice on where to go and what to see, so I thought it was high time I put together a ‘go to’ post, if the Middle Kingdom’s on your bucket list.
Given the vastness of China, we’ve seen a mere blip of the world’s most populous nation that’s home to 661 cities. Nonetheless, we’ve managed to tick off quite a few, on the journey thus far!
If you’ve got the urge to come and see what all the fuss is about and want the adventure of a lifetime, here are my top recommendations, for first timers, at least.
Given that most airlines fly direct to Shanghai from most cities across the globe, China’s biggest and brightest city is probably a good place to start exploring this unique part of the world.
This city of 24 million people is buzzing with all the excitement of modern day China. With a skyline that’s literally ‘out of this world’, Shanghai is renowned as the ‘Paris of the East!’
Bustling with a charismatic fusion of the East and West, the city has a unique blend of the sassy and sophisticated with the culturally quaint essence that is ‘old China’ running through her veins.
Dip your toes in Shanghai and gradually get a feel for life in China, without throwing yourself in the deep end.
For a list of what to do and see… click on my post: Shanghai Shenanigans: A Weekend in the Paris of the East
Note: There are two international airports – Pudong International Airport and Hongqiao International Airport, the latter is closest to the city centre.
Two to three days should be enough time to indulge in the city high life…
If you’ve got extra time in your schedule, take a side trip down to the place they call ‘China’s Paradise on Earth!’ Hangzhou is just a 45 minute train ride from the metropolis of Shanghai so it makes an easy day trip. The top must-see…the country’s famous West Lake (just steer clear of national holidays)! If you’re up for staying overnight, the area is also famous for its Longjin Tea Plantation.
For more on what to do in Hangzhou or if you’re unsure whether or not to add it to your itinerary, check out my post: China’s Paradise on Earth: Hangzhou is it Worth the Visit?
If you’re up for another day trip from Shanghai and a taste of mini Venice in the East – head to one of the area’s classic ancient water towns. I’ll be honest with you, we missed these on our first trip but visiting one is still on the bucket list!
If you’ve made the decision to visit China, it’s hard to go past the nation’s capital! The great political hub where the past and future collide in a hot pot of cultural ideologies. Home to seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, you can immerse yourself in China’s rich history and get a sense of the how the headquarters of the world’s second fastest growing economy ticks.
Of course, access to one of China’s greatest treasures, the Great Wall of China is just a stone’s throw from the city (well, a two hour drive). A once in a life time moment — you can soak up tradition and the mere scale of the great wall itself, which stretches across China. (Just be prepared for heart palpitating chair lifts up and a toboggan ride down that will have you hanging on by the skin of your teeth!) Beijing has a cold winter and very hot summer so choose your times wisely. March to May and September to November are ideal.
For more on what to do in China’s capital: check out my post: Visit Beijing: The World’s Super City in the Making
Time permitting and depending on the time of the year you’re visiting (early January to mid February), take a trip up to Harbin to see the famous ice sculpture festival.
Not for the faint-hearted, Harbin has without doubt one of the most bitterly cold winters in China, but if you’re game — I have it on good authority that the “Ice City” is pretty dam spectacular! At night these gigantic snow and ice sculptures are bathed in a kaleidoscope of brilliant colour. (Just think — all of those Frozen fans visiting their own real life Arendelle!)
A two hour flight from Beijing, Harbin bears the influences of Eastern Russia, so harbours its own distinct flavour.
(Tip: I’m told you don’t want to go too late in winter or the sculptures start to melt and get a little dirty.)
Of course, there’s no visiting China without taking a trip to the so-called cultural cradle of civilisation! Pop in to say hi to those world-famous Terracotta Warriors (oh and me)! There’s no shortage of things to see in this historical city, from a bike ride around the ancient city wall to the mesmerising and utterly mad Muslim Quarter, the 1300 year old temple we like to call our neighbour, Big Wild Goose Pagoda…. and an opportunity to soak up what I like to call the “real China!” For more – this post has got you covered: 48 Hours in Xi’an: Top 5 Things to Do! Note: Xi’an has two seasons, a cold winter and a hot summer, so if you don’t want to get caught in the icy winter pollution or summer furnace, the best times to visit are between March and May and September and November.
Xi’an is just under two hours flight from Beijing.
If you have time for a side trip from Xi’an, I would highly recommend catching the high speed train to Luoyang. It’s a one and a half hour trip through the countryside to the city of six million and from here you can visit the mystical Shaolin Temple high up in the Song Shan Mountains — this is the birthplace of Buddhism and is still an active monastery today, as well as being home to the world’s largest Kungfu academy.
The world famous Longmen Grottos are a 45 minute drive from Luoyang and here you can get up close and personal with incredible gigantic sculptures carved into the side of cliffs that are still clearly visible centuries later.
For more information on visiting these hot spots, check out my post Kungfu But No Panda: Welcome to 3rd Tier China.
Sustaining spectacular landscape, spiritual traditions and a mythical-like culture, the Buddhist region of Tibet is a once in a life time wonder….which also boasts the world’s highest peak, Mt Everest.
But this is a magical place in which you need time up your sleeve to visit.
At around 3000 metres above sea level, Tibet is the highest region on earth so it takes time to acclimatise, which means ideally at least four to five days in the region and even better, stretching the journey there over several days to avoid altitude sickness on arrival. (Note: Altitude sickness doesn’t discriminate, so regardless of age, gender or fitness there’s generally no rhyme or reason as to who gets hit and who doesn’t…. If you suffer from any illnesses, you should definitely check with your doctor first if you do plan to go to Tibet.)
Experts say, taking the train to Tibet makes acclimatising easier……but you can easily fly from many cities in China, including Xi’an, Chengdu, Beijing and Shanghai.
It is difficult for non-Chinese citizens to travel independently in Tibet with various restrictions on foreign tourists. All foreign travelers are required to join an organized tour operated by authorized travel agencies and Chinese authorities often close Tibet to foreign tourists altogether in March.
If you have the desire for adventure, take time to schedule a trip to the place they call the ‘roof of the world’ into your itinerary.
If you love cute and furry teddy bears, aka Giant Pandas – Chengdu is the place to see them in China. Just a short one hour flight from Xi’an, Sichuan Province is where you’ll find the majority of these furry critters lounging about, just chewin’ on bamboo. It’s predicted just over a thousand live in the wild and the China Conservation and Research Centre in Chengdu is home to around 80 of the provinces most famous residents. Head to Chengdu for an overnight trip. For more check out my post Pandas in Chengdu: Don’t Mind if I Do!
Yangtze River known as Cháng Jiāng – or longest river is the largest in China and the third largest in the world after the Nile in Africa and the Amazon in South America. It spans over 6000 kilometres and traversing eleven provinces and cities from west to east! Tourists can enjoy the stunning scenery of the Three Gorges while exploring the ancient cultural sites along the river. There are a myriad of different packages, boats and routes to take so you’ll need to pick your package carefully… whether you take one that winds from Beijing to Shanghai over 10 days or just a few days between Chongqing and Wuhan, there are many options.
One of the most beautiful and quaint places I’ve seen in China, Guilin has definitely earned it’s nickname ‘Shan shui jia tian xia’ meaning Guilin’s ‘mountain and water scenery is the best under heaven’.
Guilin city is the stepping stone to places like Ping An Village where you can see the China of old in all her glory. From Guilin Airport, Ping An is a 2.5 hour drive up into the hills…. spend a night here and soak up the unique and rich culture of this 600 year old village that oozes unrivalled charm amongst a setting of stunning rice terraces. A world away and a breath of fresh air from China’s manic side!
Catch a ferry up the river to Yangshuo and marvel at the limestone karsts that jut from the sea in their mesmerising shapes and sizes. No wonder they call it a ‘jade ribbon winding among thousands of Karst Hills.’ Yangshuo Village is the perfect place for a fun adventure. Ride bikes along the river path or catch a bamboo raft and glide your way down the river. This post will give you the lowdown! China’s Pearl of the Orient: Why Guilin is Compulsory Viewing!
It’s not part of the mainland, but my advice is after all of that adventure, you need to end your trip on a high note….perhaps amongst Hong Kong’s glittering sky scrapers? The ‘city that never sleeps’ is home to 8000 plus restaurants, not to mention some beautiful beaches and hiking trails. Oh and let’s not forget the fabulous shopping! Finish off your amazing trip to the East with a relaxing couple of days in the fragrant harbour. Hong Kong gets very humid, so avoid the blazing summer months from June to August.
Oh and if you’re still not convinced…check out my post Four Good Reasons You Need to Travel China
If you are convinced…. don’t forget to read this! Travelling to China: Top Ten Things to Pack!
This is China.
Pssst… feel free to message me with any further questions and I’ll try to help. Nicole@mintmochamusings.com
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