Vast and diverse, China is a giant of a travel destination. With more megacities than any other country in the world, as well as the country with the largest population, any visit to this Asian giant is a beguiling and engaging mix of charming traditional culture and modernity. With 53 diverse ethnic groups and more than 292 spoken languages, each destination in China is different from the last.
Visitors making their first trip to China usually stick to the larger cities. More experienced visitors to the Middle Kingdom will strike out in other directions, where traveling may be a bit more frustrating because of the language barrier, but most definitely doable for independent travelers. With so much on offer, the only problem is how to fit all the best places to visit in China into just one trip?
Kunming is the economic, transportation, industrial and cultural center of southwest China. It is linked by rail from all of China’s major cities as well as with Vietnam. The mild climate makes it a good place to visit any time of the year. Largely because of the fine climate, flower-growing is a major industry and tourists can visit flower exhibits and auctions and a huge botanical garden. In addition to its own charms, Kunming serves as a base from which to explore the rainbow of ethnic minority in the area.
Jiuzhaigou Valley has been described as a fairyland because of its many waterfalls; snow-covered karst mountains, and its 108 blue, turquoise and green colored lakes that are so crystal clear one can see the bottoms. It is also the habitat of giant pandas, though the chances of seeing them are slim due to the park’s size and the number of tourists.
Famed for its natural scenery, Hangzhou and its West Lake have been immortalized by countless poets and artists. In the 13th century Marco Polo described the city as the most beautiful and magnificent in the world. Hangzhou’s most famous sight, West Lake, is a large lake separated by causeways and lined with ancient buildings and gardens designed for relaxation and spirituality. Visitors will find pagodas, temples, walking paths and tea farms along its shores.
Yangshuo in south China was once a magnet for backpackers because of its cheap prices and laid-back atmosphere, but today it draws all sorts of travelers to enjoy its beautiful scenery and karst mountains. Yangshuo also makes a good base to take a day trip to Guilin for a leisurely trip on the Li River. Many travelers choose to rent bicycles for the trip back, since the route is relatively flat and gives them the opportunity to view farmers toiling in their fields.
Lhasa is one of the most important cities in Tibet and one of the highest elevated in the world at 3,500 meters (11,500 feet). Lhasa, in spite of its absorption into greater China, has retained much of its culture. It is home to the Potala Palace, which was the former home of the Dalai Lama. The palace was constructed on the Red Hill more than 360 years ago. It is composed of two parts, the White Palace, where the Dalai Lama lived, and the Red Palace, where religious study took place. Another palace is Lhasa is Norbulingka, built in 1755. It was the Dalai Lama’s summer palace before his exile.
Xi’an was once the start of the indispensable Silk Road that made commerce between many countries in Eurasia possible. It was also the imperial seat for no fewer than eleven dynasties, before the unification of China between 1000 BC and 1000 AD making it one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. Its most famous attractions is the rather recently discovered Terracotta Army, the protectors of the tomb of the first emperor of China. Xi’an also boast 14th century city walls that are more than 12 km (8 miles) long. They are not only a part of the city history, but traveling in Xi’an sometimes requires going under, on or around them.
Located on the East China Sea and the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai is the largest city and most developed city in China. Its skyline is filling with skyscrapers while shiny shopping malls, luxurious hotels and prestigious arts centers are rising alongside. The city nights in Shanghai are representative of the Western view of China cities with bright neon signs, bustling streets and numerous businesses. The most popular place to go for a stroll is the Bund, Shanghai’s colonial riverfront along Huangpu River. While levies have significantly changed the Bund’s appearance, a number of architecturally significant buildings are adjacent to the strip and are still visible.
Read more: Top Shanghai Attractions
The Great Wall of China is an assemblage of smaller walls built by various dynasties over many years. Builders erected these walls for protection from invasions by those from the north. The Great Wall itself, with a history lasting over 2000 years, measures approximately 8,800 km (5,500 miles) in length, although some of the sections lie in ruin or have disappeared altogether. It is the longest man-made structure in the world. There are several sections of the Great Wall of China that visitors find interesting. Badaling is the most popular section of the wall. It is close to Beijing and easy to access and climb.
Located off China’s southeastern coast, Hong Kong is a glittering, world-class commercial center where Chinese culture, British colonial influences and modern day high-technology blend together. While it contains the world’s highest concentration of skyscrapers and one of the highest population densities, Hong Kong also offers plenty of green spaces, mountain views and beaches. Some of the must-see attractions include the famous Victoria Harbour, which is a spectacular sight at night with all the dazzling skyscrapers and The Peak, Hong Kong’s highest point which offers awe-inspiring views of the city.
Read more: Top Hong Kong Attractions
Beijing is the current capital city and remains one of the most popular places to visit in China. Its history dates back more than 3,000 years and much of that history is still alive within its borders. Beijing literally means Northern Capital, a role it has played many times in China’s long history. The city is home to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the National Museum of China, as well as the Old and New Summer Palaces. These and other attractions are perfect for observing Chinese gardens, ancient architecture and Chinese culture from a range of periods in the country’s long history.
Read more: Top Beijing Attractions