The 10 Best Places to Visit in China
China is vast. In fact, it’s off-the-scale massive, and its diversity is really second to none. Choosing this country as your next travel destination will provide you with an almost limitless scope for exploration. This article offers CLI’s recommended 10 best places to visit in China.
Why visit China?
Especially now, after decades of economic growth, the growing contrast between China’s ancient traditions and its new ultramodern cities is on full display, making this country more fascinating than ever.
There are many great reasons to visit China:
The Natural Wonders. The Middle Kingdom has many of the world’s most jaw-dropping natural landscapes. You can take your pick between the sublime sapphire lakes of Tibet, the grand deserts of Inner Mongolia, the breathtaking rock pillars of Zhangjiajie, the picturesque Yangtze gorges, or the stunning rice terraces of Longsheng.
Thanks to its varied geography, China is brimming with some of the most beautiful natural scenery on earth.
The Delicious Food. The authentic cuisine that you will eat while in China will be unlike anything you have ever had. Chinese people love to eat and their traditional cuisine covers a large variety of ingredients.
In fact, cooking plays a central role both in society and the national psyche. When people meet in the street, a common greeting is “你吃了吗?” (“Nǐ chī le ma?” meaning “Have you eaten yet?”). All you need to access this world of unexpected surprises is a pair of chopsticks and an adventurous palate.
The Fascinating Culture. Chinese culture exerts a profound influence on the philosophy, etiquette, and traditions of all of Asia. China’s languages, architecture, music, literature, martial arts, philosophy and religion, business etiquette and history all have global influence, while China’s traditions and holidays are also celebrated and practiced by people all around the world. However, the best way to experience all of this firsthand is undoubtedly by coming to China.
The 10 Best Places to Visit in China
Is it possible to limit a list of extraordinary places to visit in China to a mere 10? Not really. No matter whether you’re an urban traveler, a hiker, a climber, a backpacker, a foodie, or an avid museum-goer, China offers an almost limitless array of incredible experiences.
Choosing among all the fascinating destinations China has to offer is tough, but limited time and resources often make it necessary. Discover some of China’s most fascinating, adventure-filled, and unique destinations with our list of the 10 best places to visit in China.
1. Zhangjiajie 张家界
Zhangjiajie, which boasts more than 3,000 quartzite sandstone peaks, is home to some of China’s most surreal scenery. This spectacular alien landscape is best known for inspiring James Cameron’s Floating Mountains of Pandora.
In fact, one of the tallest pillars (~3500 ft. high) has been renamed “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” by Wulingyuan District authorities.
Whether you choose to go with an organized tour, raft along a river, hike to your heart’s content or take a hair-raising stroll along a scenic glass walkway, visiting this place will make you feel like you are in a sci-fi movie.
Where? Zhangjiajie is about 200 miles northwest of Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province and the region’s main traffic hub.
2. Jiuzhaigou 九寨沟
You may recognize the colorful alpine lakes of Jiuzhaigou from one of those eye-catching screensaver images on your computer. And no, the photos are not computer-generated.
The sparkling lakes of this national park are filled with water that changes color throughout the day and year. Its spectacular hues come from reflections of the surrounding landscape, as well as algae and calcified rocks at the bottom of the shallow lakes.
Reputed to be the most beautiful waterscape in the world, Jiuzhaigou boasts emerald lakes, layered waterfalls, colorful forests, and snow-capped mountains.
This remote region was inhabited by various Tibetan and Qiang peoples for centuries. In fact, seven of the nine surrounding Tibetan villages are still populated today.
Where? Jiuzhaigou is located 200 miles north of Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, near the border with Gansu.
3. Lhasa 拉萨
The holy city of Lhasa is home to one of Tibet’s most recognizable historic structures, the magnificent Potala Palace. Now a nine-story museum, it was originally constructed as a fortress, a winter residence for the Dalai Lama, and a seat of government. Standing 12,139 feet above sea level, it’s the highest palace on the planet.
Beyond the spectacular prayer halls of the palace, you can also explore the medieval Jokhang Temple and the monastic cities of Drepung and Sera.
Wandering through the whitewashed alleys of Lhasa’s old town, at the heart of the Tibetan quarter, is also well worth your time. There, you will discover many backstreet handicraft workshops, hidden temples and local teahouses.
Where? Lhasa is located in the Tibet Autonomous Region in southwestern China.
4. Chengdu 成都
If you feel like a visit to China would not be complete without seeing at least one panda, Chengdu should be at the top of your list. While the country’s top zoos boast many great specimens of these fascinating and adorable creatures, the best place to see them in close proximity and in their natural habitat is at the excellent Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu.
Chengdu is also UNESCO’s first-ever City of Gastronomy and many travelers find that they come for the pandas but stay for the food. Chengdu’s delicious food is famous for its history, variety and liberal use of spicy chili peppers.
In addition to the food, the city’s relaxing teahouse culture, hip craft beer bar scene and Sichuan opera shows all combine to make this destination one of the best places to visit in China.
Where? Chengdu is the capital city of Sichuan Province.
5. Xi’an 西安
Xi’an, formerly known as Chang’An, is one of the oldest cities in China and one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals, along with Beijing, Nanjing and Luoyang. Since the 1980s, it has emerged as an important industrial, national security, space exploration and research and development hub.
As you probably know, Xi’an also boasts one of China’s – and the world’s – most important archeological finds: the Terracotta Army, a life-sized army of thousands of sculpted warriors, chariots and horses built to stand guard over the tomb of China’s first emperor.
The level of detail depicted in this assembly of thousands of soldiers and horses is mind-blowing. Indeed, each warrior’s expression, hairstyle and armor is unique.
Today, the Terracotta Army has become one of the symbols of China. The site’s level of popularity makes it hard to believe that it was discovered quite recently. In fact, it was only in 1974 that farmers stumbled upon this over 2,000 year-old site by accident while drilling a well.
Don’t leave Xi’an without eating lunch at the Muslim Quarter, a fascinating Muslim enclave inside the ancient city wall that can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE).
Where? Xi’an is the capital city of Shaanxi Province, in northwestern China.
6. Shanghai 上海
Shanghai is an ultra-modern metropolis which is also China’s most populous city. Apart from some of China's most amazing restaurants, it also features an enormous array of cultural and aesthetic gems.
Shanghai’s architecture represents a variety of influences, from Gothic to Renaissance styles, including a number of Art Deco buildings. The city’s architectural highlights range from the Yu Garden pagodas and the golden roofs of the Jing’An Buddhist Temple to the majestic Peace Hotel and old customs office with its iconic bell tower.
For a glimpse of Shanghai’s futuristic cityscape, take a stroll along Shanghai’s splendid riverside promenade, Zhongshan Lu, better known as the Bund (Wàitan). And for the best views of the Bund, visit the 468-meter Oriental Pearl Tower on the opposite bank of the Huangpu River.
Where? Located on the southern estuary of the Yangtze River, Shanghai is easily accessible by train.
7. Beijing 北京
No list of the best places to visit in China would be complete without Beijing, the country’s political and cultural capital. Don’t miss the largest and most important building complex, the Forbidden City (also known as the Imperial Palace), located at the very heart of Beijing.
Other unmissable sites include the famous Tiananmen Square, the Lama Temple, and the Temple of Heaven, one of the country’s most important religious sites, which dates back to the 15th century. Don’t forget to explore the sumptuous parks of the Summer Palace, one of China’s most visited attractions.
One of the best ways to really get under the skin of the capital is to get lost in its enchanting ancient alleyways, known as the hutongs. According to many Beijingers, the hutongs are the heart and soul of the city. Make sure to stop for some jiaozi (dumplings) at one of the many popular hole-in-the-wall dumpling places while you are there.
During your visit, arrange for a day trip to one of the many sections of the Great Wall. Try to pick one of the less crowded ones like Mutianyu, Jinshangling or Gubeikou.
Where? Beijing is located in the north of China, surrounded by Hebei Province and Tianjin in the southeast.
8. Huangshan 黄山
Huangshan, or the Yellow Mountain, is one of China’s most popular scenic destinations. In fact, it’s said that once you’ve ascended the peaks of Huangshan, you’ll never want to climb another mountain.
If the mist-wreathed granite peaks, bamboo forests, and twisted pines look familiar, it’s because the beauty of Huangshan has been immortalized in countless Chinese scroll paintings and movies. Fun fact, parts of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” were filmed here.
Once known as the Black Mountains, a Tang Dynasty emperor renamed them in honor of the Yellow Emperor Huangdi. According to legend, the Yellow Emperor rode off from the peaks to heaven on the back of a dragon.
Where? Huangshan is a mountain range in Eastern China’s Anhui Province.
9. Suzhou 苏州
Suzhou has historically been known as a center of high culture and elegance. This “Venice of the East” has produced generations of writers, artists, scholars, and politicians. It’s famous for its meticulously landscaped gardens and its crisscrossing waterways.
The Classical Gardens of Suzhou, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, should rank highly on your China travel itinerary. Some of the most famous garden complexes include the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Master of Nets Garden, the Lingering Garden and the Blue Wave Pavilion.
Additionally, Suzhou’s Old Town is ideal for exploring on foot, by bike, or on a lazy gondola ride. Here, steep-sided bridges arch over 21 miles of thousand-year-old canals and narrow cobblestone streets meander through rows of ancient houses with whitewashed walls and black roofs.
Suzhou is definitely one of the best places to visit in China, especially if you're a Chinese history buff.
Where? The city of Suzhou is located in southeastern Jiangsu Province, about 62 miles northwest of Shanghai. Suzhou is also only around 50 miles from Wuzhen Water Town, another great place to visit for those interested in traditional Chinese architecture.
10. Guilin 桂林
For hundreds of years, Guilin’s scenic hills and rivers have attracted poets and artists and have been the subject of countless fairy tales and legends. It’s hard to exaggerate the beauty of Guilin, neighboring Yangshuo and the entire Li River area.
This region of limestone karst hills and mountains, formed over 200 million years ago when the area was under the sea, has a dreamy, hypnotic quality.
Here you can explore serene rivers on traditional bamboo rafts, visit water caves that feature an impressive array of stalactites and stalagmites, trek through the breathtaking rice terraces of Longsheng, rock climb on some of the world’s most famous mountains, or simply relax and take in the stellar views.
Guilin has something to offer for everyone, as it boasts some of the world’s most sublime landscapes. The destination is so special that we've even developed a comprehensive Guilin Travel Guide for your browsing pleasure.
Don’t miss visiting Guilin’s “Two Rivers and Four Lakes” area. It’s especially attractive at night, when the lakes are lit up with colorful lights.
While in Guilin, you also definitely don’t want to miss chowing down on a bowl of mifen, a delicious local dish made of rice noodles and spicy and sour toppings.
Where? Guilin is a prefecture-level city in the northeast of China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It is situated on the west bank of the Li River and borders Hunan to the north.
So, what are you waiting for?
China, amazing and diverse, should be on everyone’s travel list. The myriad unique experiences that await travelers to the Middle Kingdom will make this one of the most unforgettable trips of your life. Pack your bags and hit the road today!
Already been to most of the places on this list? Check out some of our other articles on less-visited China destinations like Hainan, Harbin, Hangzhou or Shenyang for more great travel ideas. And just to make sure you don't get confused during your cross-continental journey, be sure to check out our article on Chinese time-zones (note: there aren't any!).
Best Places to Visit in China: Vocabulary
|旅游景点||lǚyóu jǐngdiǎn||attraction; scenic spot|
|黄山||Huángshān||Huangshan; the Yellow Mountain|