Get up close and personal with Giant Pandas
It’s hard to believe that you can get up close and personal with these magnificent endangered creatures, but in Chengdu, a city located in Sichuan province, you can do just that. Native to just three provinces within China, the creatures are kept in a space as close to their natural habitat as possible and are encouraged to breed. Make sure you get to the Research Base early to catch their morning feeding and to have the best chance of seeing them awake—these are very sleepy creatures! The centre is easily accessed by bus or subway from Chengdu.
Get a taste of North Korea in Shanghai
Until the day comes when North Korea opens its borders, the closest you can get to exploring the secretive nation is on a highly monitored and expensive tour — or eating at the North Korean owned chain of restaurants, Pyongyang Goreo, in Shanghai (now open elsewhere in China). You don’t just get to try North Korean cuisine, you’ll also be entertained with traditional North Korean song and dance while you eat. It’s a fascinating experience and certainly one you couldn’t experience anywhere else except North Korea itself.
Slide Down the Great Wall of China
This is one of the most iconic sights in the world and top of the list for most people’s visit to China. Is it as good as everyone says it is? Absolutely! Nothing compares to standing atop of 2,300 years of history, the longest wall in the world, and surveying the land around you. Equally epic in winter and summer, the barren emptiness during cold weather makes you feel like you have the entire wall to yourself, but the greenery present in the warmer months is visually stunning. There are many different parts of the wall, and if you’re keen on using the giant toboggan slide to reach the bottom (and why wouldn’t you be?) make sure you leave via the Mutianyu section. You can also find a cable car there. The easiest way to visit the wall is with a private tour and many incorporate the slide as part of the trip.
Go Hiking in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Just one section of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area (your ticket into Zhangjiajie also allows you to enter Tianzi Mountain Reserve, Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve, and Yangjiajie Scenic Area) this mind-blowing landscape here has to be seen to be believed. Nestled in the beautiful Hunan Province, you’ll find the inspiration for the Hallelujah Mountains in James Cameron’s Avatar: the Yuanjiajie mountain range. Following this, you can cross the epic Natural Bridge and head to the other major spots like Huangshi (Yellow Stone Village) where you can see the Five Fingers Peak and dodge eager monkeys. If you’re looking for an unforgettable nature experience in China, this is it.
Photograph China’s Red Beach
Not quite the usual beach, this unique space in Panjin China is a wetland aflame with the bright red seaweed called Sueda that has been likened to stepping on Mars. There are 18 kilometres of beach and various scenic spots to catch, although you’ll have to visit in the fall (ideally mid-September to mid-October) to catch the red shades as they’re green in the Summer. Home to the world’s most completed ecosystem, with 400 species of wild animals and 260 types of birds including the endangered Crown Cranes and Black Beaked Gulls, there’s a lot to see in this incredible, natural space. Situated in Liaoning Province, an hourly bus goes from the city. Get there in the morning for the best pictures.
Marvel at the Terraced Hot Springs of Huanglong Valley
There are so many reasons to visit this dramatic UNESCO site in Sichuan Province. The famous terraced hot springs lie within a dense forest inhabited by rare creatures, like the giant panda and golden snub-nosed monkeys; it’s not hard to see why this has been named ‘Fairy Land on Earth.’ Not unlike Pamukkale (or cotton castle) in Turkey, these naturally created limestone hot spring pools cascade spectacularly down the Minshan Mountains. Other worldly in their appearance, Huanglong Valley has to be seen to be believed.
Be Terrified on the Cracking East Taihang Glasswalk
If you’ve seen some of the viral videos of the bridge, then you’ll know what visitors are letting themselves in for. The 3800-foot-high bridge allows you to climb Mount Taihang in Shanxi and Henan province with spectacular views of the 400 km of Jurassic Period Yuntai Mountain Range around you. This isn’t the only reason why this bridge is attracting so many visitors; the designer wanted to play a prank on visitors and installed an illusion within the bridge that makes it seem like the glass is occasionally cracking while you walk over it. It’s incredibly convincing (watch some of the videos for the hilarious reactions) while also being totally safe. Was it necessary? Probably not. But it’s definitely good fun.
Challenge Yourself with a Sichuan Hot Pot in Chongqing
You’ll be able to find the fiery delicacy all over China, but if you want it at its purest then heading to Chongqing, the birthplace of the most famous variation of the dish, is your best bet. Originally a Mongolian dish that originated 900 years ago, it spread through China and became the spicy beast it is today. Sichuan peppers are added to the boiling broth for the fiery yet numbing flavour of the red broth and deliciously add flavour to your many sides of meat and vegetables that you cook in there. This is a dish best enjoyed by two or more people and always leaves you with fantastic memories. One recommendation often offered by locals is Qi Qi Huo Guo. They also offer a milder broth for those who want the experience but not the spice.
Bike the Ancient City Walls of Xi’an
There are so many reasons to visit Xi’an: it’s the oldest city in the country and China’s original capital. They also have a fantastic cuisine and you can really get lost in their outstanding history, including the Fortifications of Xi’an, otherwise known as Xi’an City Wall. This is one of the most well-preserved original walls in China and the most fun way (and most practical if you want to cover a lot of ground) is to see it is on a bike. There are countless bicycle rental places around the wall (which cost around 200 yuan) and cycling between the watchtowers and getting great views of the city below is an impressive way to spend your time in Xi’an.
Visit the Mogao Grottoes
The Mogao Grottoes are a 1700-year-old hub of Chinese art, history, and culture in Northwestern China. While here, you can make your way through the 492 cells and caves while admiring the largest collection of Buddhist art in the world. With art spanning 1000 years, it feels like going on an archaeological expedition while you witness sculptures, portraits, paintings depicting stories of the Silk Road, medieval China, and the meeting of ancient cultures. The Caves were abandoned once the Silk Roads fell into disuse in the 1400s and once it was discovered, so were many inspiring treasures, like the world’s earliest printed book and 50,000 ancient documents. For anyone interested in Chinese history or Buddhist art, the grottoes are a must. .
Get Chilly at the Harbin Ice Festival
Harbin, in Northeastern Heilongjiang province, annually hosts the world’s biggest ice festival. Bordering Siberia, the city is colloquially known as ‘The City of Ice’ and for anyone traveling through China in winter, the Harbin festival is the perfect destination to catch some winter sports with the locals. You could easily spend days in the four separate theme parks admiring the towering ice sculptures, which feature everything from illuminated fairy-tale castles that you can explore, to gigantic ice slides, and recreations of famous statues around the world. The festival initially started in 1963, normally starts in January, and lasts a month. The festival opens with a dazzling fireworks display and offers daily entertainment, competitions, and wonderful local food. Make sure you dress warm for this teeth-chattering festival!
Shop within the Infinite Tunnel of Books in Yangzhou
Situated in the ancient city of Yangzhou, the Zhongshuge (which translates to Bell Book Loft) is a concept piece that will have book lovers and modern design enthusiasts in raptures. It’s actually a bookstore, one with books shelved from floor to ceiling, which would be enough for the average bibliophile. However, the genius comes with the mirrored surfaces used to create the illusion that the bookstore stretches out like a cylindrical tunnel for infinity. There’s more to do inside including equally stunning reading rooms and architectural gems.
Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge
Considered one of China’s best hikes, and far easier than the name suggests (no tiger-like agility required here), Tiger Leaping Gorge lies between Lijiang and Shangri-La in Yunnan Province. The gorge itself measures 16km and once at the top, offers a stunning view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Jinsha river canyon that flows into Shangri-la. Despite being a famous hike, it’s generally unpopular with locals, so chances are you’ll have this stunning trail all to yourself. You can catch a bus from Lijiang and there are Tibetan style guesthouses and cafes on the mountain to break up the hike and stay overnight. In total, the trek takes about six hours (or 8 hours depending on fast you are) and the distance is 17km. The views are majestic, making it well worth your energy to conquer this beast.
Take a Cruise Down Li River
Known as the ‘best landscape under heaven,’ taking a Li River cruise allows you to sail past rice paddies, the fishermen on rafts, explore local villages, and admire the peaks of the Mao’er and Cat Mountains. Sailing through the natural beauty of Guilin and Yangshuo is a once in a lifetime experience and the views have been described in ancient Chinese poetry as ‘green silk ribbon, where the hills are like jade hairpins.’ This is truly like stepping into Chinese art from days gone by. The cruise is the best way to see the river while looking up at the mountains and normally starts from Guilin downtown area. By no means a quick journey, the trip is 83 kilometres and usually takes 4-5 hours. As you sail by, far removed from the busy life in China, you’ll be delighted with folklore and fairy tales about the mountains.
Explore The French Quarter of Shanghai
In the heart of Puxi (old Shanghai), it’s hard to believe you can step away from the traditional Chinese buildings and side streets and find yourself in a setting so European you’ll wonder what happened. Shanghai’s interesting history with French and British colonialism has left some stunning architecture in its wake. The French Concession has become one of the most sophisticated areas to hang out in the city with tree-lined streets, art galleries, boutique shops, and cafés to explore. Starting at South Huangpi Road Metro Station and just wandering from there is the ideal way to see the area.
See Green at the Abandoned Houtouwan Village
Lovers of dystopian spots around the world will be thrilled to find this on the list. Looking like it came straight from a post-apocalyptic film crossed with a fairytale, Houtouwan is a village swallowed by green. Once a successful fishing village that was left abandoned by urbanisation as everyone left to find work in the bigger cities, it became overgrown with climbing plants. It’s open to explore and you can hike the hills and take in the incredible views of the ocean and green village. The best time to see the village is in the summer to see the luscious green at its most impressive. The best way to get there is via a daily ferry from Shanghai that takes around three hours. The total journey takes around 5-6 hours.
Check out the Futuristic Tianjin Binhai Library
This incredible 36,000 square foot library went viral in 2017 for its spaceship-like design and floor to ceiling shelves. Not just a library, it’s a cultural district for the city with a social event space. However, the main draw for tourists is its sheer potential for amazing photographs and videos. While the design is mind blowing, many of the books in the main hall themselves are fake. The books that are useable are in the rooms behind the hall, which have a more traditional library setup. This is a space that’s more for the futuristic aesthetics than actually reading.
Explore the Shanghai Propaganda Museum
One of the coolest museums to visit in the city, this underground space has collected propaganda posters from decades of Chinese history, taking you right though Maoist China. They also sell replicas of posters in the gift shop and rare finds, like original ration books from The Cultural Revolution and Mao’s Red Book. You never know what you’ll find here.
Take the Qinghai-Tibet Railway
Since you’ve already managed to get your Chinese visa, why not take a trip to Tibet? This is the highest elevated train journey in the world, one of the busiest in Asia, and sits 4000 metres above sea level. Known as one of the most exciting train journeys in the world, the ‘sky road’ trip boasts some of the most varied landscapes ever seen from a train window,including turquoise lakes, misty mountains, and vast grasslands. The journey officially starts in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, although you can connect from Beijing and Shanghai. The route ends in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
See ‘The Eye of Heaven’ the Largest Radio Telescope in the World
This big space dish, which cost 180 million dollars to create, looks like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. Visitors can see the giant telescope for free, although it does cost 50 yuan to take the bus to the site. There’s also a fun astronomical museum nearby. It’s worth reaching this giant attraction early as they only allow 2,000 people per day to avoid interfering with the research going on there. Whether you’re interested in science, the sheer size, or want to take some out-of-this-world pictures, then a trip to Tianyan (the eye of heaven) is like looking into the future.
Pay a Visit to Shanghai’s Marriage Market
Traveling often leads us to cultural experiences you couldn’t see elsewhere. The Marriage Market in Shanghai is absolutely one of those experiences. Anxious parents (or often grandparents) gather in People’s Park, one of the biggest parks in the city, and hold up pictures of their usually twenty-something sons and daughters ready to be matched up with another. Like an old-school version of Tinder that your parents have the login to, it’s baffling and isn’t something the younger generation is onboard with, but is incredibly interesting to see.
See the 130 Landmarks at Window of the World
While parks that recreate famous landmarks have been popping up all over the world in recent years, the Window of the World in Shenzhen is one of the most convincing and overstated collections around. Fancy navigating the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon or seeing an imitation of Niagara Falls that is almost as impressive as the real thing? Maybe exploring rainforests or skiing in Switzerland is more your thing. The Window of the World park really is the easiest and most family-friendly way to travel the world aside from actually travelling the world.
Visit the Supersized Shanghai Disneyland
The Shanghai Disneyland is great fun, uniquely Chinese, and is currently the newest Disneyland to be built, even offering the most detailed and elaborate castle thus far. Apart from some unique rides like Ride Tron, a blend of light and storytelling, you can also see the full Broadway show of The Lion King (separate admission) in Mandarin or the acrobatic based Tarzan show. The shopping street and restaurants all have a Chinese spin, including a gorgeous teahouse. If you’re looking to splash out, the Disney hotel is the most opulent and upmarket to date with an art nouveau style. Very different from the Western Disney offerings and more sprawling and extravagant than the Hong Kong and Tokyo Disneyland parks, this is well worth a visit.
See the Terracotta Warriors
This phenomenal collection of statues was originally buried with the emperor Qin Shi Huang in 209 BCE. They were accidentally discovered by a farmer in 1974 and the slow excavation of them continues to this day. You can visit the excavation pit where they all remain standing in formation as though poised for a great battle, and when you do, you’ll see how each face is carved unique and different from the rest. It’s a moving and unforgettable sight.
Marvel at the Shilin Stone Forest
This literal stone forest is a huge expanse of stalagmites that somewhat resembles a petrified forest. Entering the forest creates the same feeling as wandering into a towering labyrinth, making you feel like the Greek hero Theseus, and you may wonder if you’ll ever find your way out (you will). It’s one of the many incredible natural wonders of China.
Visit Fenghuang Ancient Town
So much of China has been modernised, with tower blocks and skyscrapers dominating its city skylines. But here at Fenghuang Ancient Town, you are immediately transported back to pre-modern China of the Qing Dynasty. And it’s all legit! This is not a museum or a place built to look old; it’s a genuine untouched 300-year-old town lost to time. If you’re a lover of Chinese culture, history, and architecture, this is a place where you could die happy. Regarded by travel writers as the most beautiful town in all of China, it’s an unmissable visit.
Explore UK’s Landmarks at Thames Town
This very strange town will have you asking yourself ‘why?’ Why does this place exist? It’s a small town made up only of copies of English architecture, including churches, pubs, and houses. Named for the River Thames, Thames Town is mostly used by locals as a place for wedding photographs and the odd filming of local movies. Exploring it can leave you feeling a little shaken as so much has been directly copied from specific streets and buildings in London, Bristol, Chester, and so on. It’s well worth a trip and is easily accessible on the train from Shanghai, situated as it is just 20 miles west of the city.
Drink at China’s Famous Brewery
Tsingtao is China’s most famous and widely-enjoyed beer. It’s found in every supermarket and ordered at every restaurant. It’s named after the Eastern city of Qingdao (spelled differently but pronounced the same because the spelling of Chinese words has been historically complicated). The town was a German colony for a while at the end of the 19th Century, and their influence extended to the production of this lovely beer. Much of the town still looks more like Germany than China, and the brewery is no exception, designed in an old German folk style. Inside, you’ll learn all about the history and the brewing process of China’s best beer.
See the World’s Tallest Buddha at Leshan
One of the most absolutely stunning sights in all the world, never mind just China. This incredible structure has been carved into a hollow of the mountain Emai in Leshan. It was originally constructed in the 8th century, making it well over a thousand years old. As one of the finest feats of ancient construction and craftwork you’re likely to see in China, it’ll have you gasping in disbelief when you see it.
Wander the Longsheng Rice Terraces
In an area known as the Dragon’s Backbone, the rice terraces you’ll find here are some of the finest on Earth. Rice terraces can be found across Asia and all of them are stunning works of art, but these are certainly the most breathtaking you’ll see in China. Seeing them is seeing what has made up the groundwork of Chinese history, culture, and cuisine for thousands of years, and they’re still being cultivated and maintained day after day. Here you’ll step back in time to ancient Chinese villages full of people who still live by the ancient ways.
See Asia’s Highest Waterfall in Guizhou
In Guizhou sits a waterfall that looks like it was lifted straight out of Iceland, nestled amongst scenery that looks like it belongs in the heart of Africa. It’s an incredible natural spectacle at the centre of a beautiful national park. It even houses a secret cave behind the waterfall itself, known as the Water Curtain Cave. The waterfall is famous for being one of the largest in not only China, but all of East Asia.
Take a Rowboat out on to West Lake
Hangzhou is a beautiful city that combines modern Chinese shopping, bars, and nightlife with the ancient world of lakes and temples. West Lake (or Xihu) is a stunning example of the China that once was, perfectly maintained at the heart of the city and surrounded by temples, statues, and pagodas. You can take a boat out onto the lake with a local rower and see the lake’s surroundings from the inside out. It’s a lovely way to gain a new perspective on one of the country’s prettiest cities and lakes.
Visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial
Although this is never going to win any awards for a cheerful day out, this important museum and the memorial ground is built on a mass grave and highlights a key point in Chinese history. In 1937, the Japanese invaded and massacred the people of Nanjing over a period of six weeks. Still very much a sore point in terms of modern politics, the haunting sculptures in the park on the way into the museum let you know what to expect going forward. Inside, you can find accounts of the brutalities that happened and some incredibly poignant installations that will stay with you forever.
Walk the ‘Plank of Death’ on Huashan
Considered one of the most dangerous hikes in the world, and certainly not for the faint of heart, the plank of death is exactly what it sounds like. The Huashan Plank Walk is a hike around the edges of sheer cliff faces with a death drop below. The planks are loose wooden boards fastened to the smooth stone of the mountain, only wide enough to shimmy across. You can do the hike as part of a guided tour, complete with harnesses and helmets, but it’s still a terrifying experience. The views of the surrounding mountains are like nothing you’ll ever see, so there is a plus side!
Travel The Silk Road from Kashgar to Beijing
The Silk Roads were ancient roads that spanned much of Eurasia, where traders and diplomats would visit countries across the roads for thousands of miles, trading and making international bonds. Many of these roads can still be walked or driven today, and one of them takes you all the way across China, from Kashgar in Xinjiang Province in the northwest, all the way across China to Beijing in the northeast. It’s an incredible journey that can be done by train, car, bus, or even on foot, and many daring travellers have taken it in. If you want to see just how varied Chinese landscape and culture is, this is the journey for you.
Visit Miniature Paris in Hangzhou
Similar to Thames Town outside of Shanghai is a miniature Paris in Shanghai’s neighbouring city of Hangzhou. Miniature isn’t entirely accurate, however, since this is in fact an entire town built to resemble central Paris at an almost 1:1 scale. Seeing photos of it, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was in fact Paris, complete with fountains, plazas, and its own Eiffel Tower. The only difference being the dystopian Chinese tower blocks in the background.
Take the train to Hong Kong
If you’re visiting Shenzhen and want a great day out, then why not head over to Hong Kong by train? If you take the high-speed train then you can be in Hong Kong in around twenty minutes and experience a very different way of life than on mainland China. Some great activities to do on a day trip include visiting the adorable Hong Kong Disneyland, eating lots of dim sum, and heading to the top of Victoria Peak.
Watch a Peking Opera in Beijing
Peking (or Beijing) Opera is one of the most unique, beloved, and traditional forms of art and expression in all of China dating back to the 17th Century. It’s an incredibly unique form of theatre that uses grandiose costume and heavy makeup. It also makes use of a speciality style of singing that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s one of the most spectacular experiences you can have in Beijing and not something to pass up. The best place to catch an opera in Beijing is the Temple Theatre (or Zhengyici) Opera House, built in 1667.
Ride Horses in Inner Mongolia
Mongolia is famous for its once great leader Genghis Khan, a 13th Century ruler who conquered about a quarter of the entire planet. Today, Mongolia is split into two halves, and one of those halves belongs to China: the province Inner Mongolia. Here you can explore the wide steppes and plains of Mongolia for yourself, retracing the steps of the great Khan himself, and do much of it on horseback. Horses are still an integral part of the culture in Inner Mongolia, and there are ranches all over the province where you can stay and learn to ride, or explore the wilderness on horseback.
Try Xiaolongbao in Shanghai
There are many forms of bao, which can be thought of as the sandwiches of China. Xiao long bao, in particular, is a speciality of Shanghai. They’re large dumplings filled with hot soup and various meat options. The best way to eat them is to pierce the dough of the bao, let it cool for a moment, then suck out the soup. It’s a delicious, wholesome, and beautifully-crafted food that’s cheap and easy to find in the city. You could easily be tempted to live off them and nobody would blame you. One of the most famous spots in the city for trying these delicious dumplings is Jia Jia Tang Bao, a hole in the wall type establishment that serves dumplings until they’re sold out, usually early evening.
Hike the Five Sacred Mountains
Chinese people love to hike, and it’s not surprising given the landscape just waiting to be ascended all around the country. The sacred mountains, however, are the five most famous in the country and are thought to spoil all other hikes since you’ll have seen the most impressive and beautiful mountains possible. Each of these majestic mountains offers their own unique trials and rewards and ticking them off on your trip is easily achievable with a bit of planning. The most easily accessible and popular for visitors is Mount Hua (or Huashan) situated between Shanghai and Xi’an (at Huashan Station) which is so breathtaking it often leaves famous views (like the landscape from The Great Wall) paling in comparison.