When most people go to China, they only want to see the Great Wall and Forbidden City in Beijing, walk along the Bund at Shanghai or take in the Terracotta Warriors at Xi’an. Maybe they’ll throw in a visit to Guangzhou or take a Yangtze River cruise. But there’s much more to China than just these famous sites.
There are plenty of amazing tourist attractions in China, from ancient cities to forests to temples to rice fields that look like they’ve been designed by artists to sacred mountains and stunning waterfalls. This desire to explore off the beaten path where Chinese tourists outnumber foreign tourists isn’t just confined to 20-something backpackers. Any traveler armed with a good phrase book, a pot of patience and a marvelous sense of humor should do just fine.
In this post, we'll cover:
30. Xian City Wall
Hundreds of years ago, the Chinese built massive stone walls around their cities to defend them from invaders. Xi’an was no exception.
Constructed over 8 years in the 1370s, the Xian City Wall was a symbol of the city’s self-sustainability. That, in addition to Zhu Yuanzhang’s propensity for reclusiveness. Something he continued to display when he became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
The Great Wall aside, the Xian City Wall is the best example in China. At almost 14km long, 12m high and 12m thick, the wall was a literal mountain and provided Xian City with envious protection.
Today, you can explore the top of the wall, which envelopes the Old Town, on foot or bike. This will take you to the wall’s renowned gates, some of which out-date the wall itself.
29. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
There is something otherworldly and utterly spiritual about Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. The quartz-sandstone has been weathered down by wind and rain over thousands of years. Where once a mountain range stood, today you’ll see only towering pillars draped in lush forests.
In the morning, the mist rises from the deep valley hundreds of meters below. The mix of sandstone and greenery creates a scenery that’s hard to reconcile with. It doesn’t seem earthly. No wonder it was a part of the inspiration for Avatar.
The park is best explored on tour, with lifts taking you to incredible viewpoints. But nothing tops the Grand Canyon Glass Bridge, the tallest in the world.
28. Three Pagodas, Dali
In southern China, the Three Pagodas are some of the region’s oldest surviving structures. They are a symbol of Dali, with the oldest of the trio constructed in the 800s.
Rising out of the land like old-growth forests, the Three Pagodas hold a noticeable presence wherever you go in Dali. The tallest, Qianxun Pagoda, stands at 70 meters and features 16 tiers. The other two are ten tiers rising to 42 meters.
Although you can’t go inside them, it’s a blessing to be able to explore so close to such ancient monuments. Behind them is the beautiful Chongsheng Temple, open to visitors.
27. Shilin Stone Forest
Its name may seem like an oxymoron, but the Shilin Stone Forest is exactly that. Exploring the 270 million year-old stone forest is an unforgettable experience. It’s almost supernatural and such a vast spread of karst formations that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s manmade.
It was, however, created by a sequence of seismic events and ageless erosion of the limestone. Today, there are hundreds of enormous stalagmite pillars that form an endless maze to explore.
But it’s not just rock. You’ll discover waterfalls, lakes and even underground rivers that provide a gorgeous contrast to the epic, yet odd landscape.
26. Lijiang Old Town
In northwest China, Lijiang boasts 800 years of history. Once the capital of the Naxi Kingdom, the old town of Lijiang takes you right back to its heyday, with the bonus of an epic mountain backdrop.
Like any good “old town”, Lijiang is flooded with romanticism, charm and rich culture. The layout of the historic streets remains as it did hundreds of years ago, while its unique heritage places it in contrast with other historic towns around China.
Under the rule of the Mu family, the town reflects the indigenous Naxi culture and architecture. You can see the best of these along narrow, cobbled streets, in addition to the beautiful stone bridges that cross Lijiang’s collection of elegant canals.
25. Wudang Mountain
Travelers who’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon already know how scenic the Wudang Mountains, located in northwestern Hubei Province, are. Besides being scenic, the Wudang Mountains iare the birthplace of Tai Chi. Thus, they’re the most important Taoist mountains in China. Religion, timeless culture and eye-catching temples can be found there. That’s in addition to the amazing surrounding peaks.
Known as the “original cradle of Tai Chi”, Wudang Mountain is the natural representation of wisdom and the values behind Chinese “shadowboxing”. Human history here can be traced back to the 5th century BC. Today there are nine palaces, eight temples and a dozen pavilions.
They lie in a mixed state of preservation. For some, they stand eternal. For others, they mark an example of Wudang Mountain’s incredible timeline.
Tell Venice there’s a new sheriff in town. Zhouzhuang is a historic river town along the southern section of the Yangtze River. The water flows by and under old-time townhouses and businesses as it has for over 1,000 years.
The gorgeous mix of colored and whitewashed buildings makes Zhouzhuang a photographer’s dream. In the early morning light tradition vessels float up and down the river and when the water settles, the mirror-like river reflects the splendor.
Located less than 32 km (20 miles) from Suzhou in east China, Zhouzhuang is famous for its twin bridges, Shide and Yongan that are symbols of the town. A boat ride is a good way to see the city.
23. Mount Tai
Mount Tai, in Shandong Province, is one of China’s Five Sacred Mountains. Climbing Taishan (“shan” is mountain in Mandarin) was one of the first things a new emperor did; it’s said that 72 emperors made the climb.
They left behind great temples, inscribed tablets and other cultural relics. Travelers with imperial leanings will want to climb the 6,000-step east route as that’s what the emperors did.
Before the modern era, the tallest peak, Jade Emperor, was the center of Fengshan rituals for almost 2,000 years. Relics and ancient masterpieces can now be found around the 1,500m mountain. Significantly, you’ll discover not just the influence of Chinese Fengshan sacrifices, but that of numerous countries and cultures, from the Khmer to the Turkish.
Aside from the culture, you can explore the mountain and several temples. Get up there early as the East Pavilion is a memorable spot to watch the sunrise.
22. Tiger Leaping Gorge
Straddling the border of Lijiang and Shangri-La, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest in the world. At its highest to lowest point, the gorge measures almost 3,800 meters.
On either side of the gorge are two intoxicating mountains: Jade Dragon Snow and Haba Snow. Along with the gorge, carved by the monstrous white waters of the Jinsha River, you’ll be able to experience a wide breadth of landscapes.
The best way to explore is on foot, so be prepared to break a sweat. The Upper, Middle and Lower Gorge provide a range of intermediate to advanced treks, some over multiple days.
The hikes are not to be taken lightly though. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a workout and can certainly wreck the knees. Accommodation along the way is in guesthouses, so hikers won’t need a tent. All bringing you to insane viewpoints and even down to the very bottom.
21. Suzhou Gardens & Canals
Suzhou is a picturesque city located on the Grand Canal about 65 km (40 miles) from Shanghai. It is famous for its silks, the canals that run through the city, and for its classical gardens with their fish ponds and rockeries.
Suzhou encapsulates the difference this Chinese city evokes compared to giants such as Shanghai and Beijing. Whereas these cities are becoming vast, futuristic metropolises, Suzhou is sticking close to its heritage and culture.
The traditional gardens are at first eye-catching. But upon further inspection, they’re equally historic. Some even date back a thousand years to the Song Dynasty.
Suzhou has about 80 classical gardens; the Humble Administrator’s Garden is among the most famous. A canal boat ride is a good way to experience the exquisiteness of Suzhou.
20. Mogao Caves
A former pilgrimage site along the famous Silk Road, the Mogao Caves have been a part of regional culture for well over a thousand years. In the heart of the 4th century, the caves became a place of art and culture.
Something that would remain the case until the 1300s. You can still explore the incredible caves today and despite the time that has passed, the artworks and scripture remain intact.
Just outside of Dunhuang, the Mogao Caves are one of China’s most revered archaeological sites. Within, they showcase the breadth of travelers and cultural backgrounds that found their way here along the Silk Road.
It’s not just nearby art forms. You’ll see styles that can be traced through Central Asia, India and as far as Persia.
19. Longji Terraces
Constructed by hand over 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty, the Longji Terraces are a sight to behold. From any elevated viewpoint, you’ll need a moment to first gasp and take a breath before truly being able to take it all in.
In Longsheng, these rice terraces span like lush green footsteps up the mountainside. Each winding step curves around the ridgeline, forming an array of spectacular contour lines.
From December to March, during the growing season, the terraces are flooded with irrigated water. It’s a remarkable sight and one that is best appreciated on foot as you walk slowly around and up to even better views.
18. Summer Palace
Located in northwest Beijing, the opulent Summer Palace is one of the most captivating, man-made landmarks in the country. The ancient imperial playground is surrounded by thriving forests, creating a more rural feel than its location would suggest.
Back in the day, the high court would descend upon the aptly named Summer Palace to escape Beijing’s summer heat during the hottest months of the year. The encompassing nature along with the cooling and Kunming Lake made it the perfect place to get business done.
Fast forward to today, and it’s a beautiful public park. Some buildings have been transformed into museums and galleries, while the embellished grounds provide excellent views.
17. Yangtze River Cruise
Spanning 6,387 kilometers, the Yangtze River is the third longest on earth. It’s known as one of China’s mother rivers as it nurtures humans and nature alike throughout this enormous country.
Across such a lengthy body of water, there are bound to be some memorable landscapes. The best way to see more than just the odds and ends is to embark on a Yangtze River Cruise.
A cruise can help you discover the beauty of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River. This is the most renowned section and marks an immense canyon that you’ll never want to leave.
To see the best of the river, cruise between Chongqing and Yichang, in either direction.
16. Hanging Monastery of Hengshan
In Shanxi Province, the Hanging Monastery of Hengshan is dedicated to a trio of religions. This makes it one of a kind here in China. You’ll find the monastery celebrates all of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.
The Hanging Temple has a lengthy history, having been constructed towards the end of the 5th century. It remains well-preserved over the last 1500 years, in no small part due to its enshrining of three of China’s most popular religions.
But it’s the architecture of the monastery, which clings on tight to the cliff face that will have you in awe. Thanks to cantilevers, it protrudes from the wall, with its two sections connected by a bridge.
15. Reed Flute Cave
As you cruise along the Li River, one of China’s best attractions is the impressive Reed Flute Cave. So much so, that even if you forego the cruise, you should add a trip here to your itinerary.
The sprawling limestone cave is marked by the reef that is strewn across the entrance. Such was its majestic beauty that some believed it could be made into flutes.
But that is just the beginning. The interior of the cave is a subterranean wonderland. Stalactites dangle from the ceiling in wondrous numbers, while stalagmites curve their way up from the cave floor.
Lightning now illuminates the cave and showcases scripture that dates to the 8th century.
14. Yungang Grottoes
There are some incredible Buddhist excavations throughout China, but none are as old as the Yungang Grottoes. Along the enormous wall, you’ll be able to witness 50,000 stone statues that can be traced back to the 5th and 6th centuries.
Near Datong City in Shanxi Province, the creations are spread throughout 252 caves. Each feature is more intricately detailed than the last, while the will of the old Northern Wei Dynasty is reflected in the selected Buddhist scripture.
It would take some time to see all the caves in proper detail. So to help you out, focus on the remarkable Five Caves. This was created by Tan Yao. The unity of design and layout makes it a masterpiece of early Chinese art.
13. West Lake, Hangzhou
Gardens, temples, and charming bridges are found around the gleaming waters of West Lake in Hangzhou. It’s not a modern creation either, with West Lake inspiring residents and travelers since the 800s.
It was then, as an ancient capital of China, Hangzhou cemented itself in the nation’s timeline. Thousands of years of trade with neighboring communities and countries are shown in the artistry and romanticism that flows out of every inch of West Lake.
In the early hours, locals practise Tai Chi and the mist rises from the valley up to the Wulin Mountains. Trails take you around the lake where weeping willows create vast reflections on the water below.
Aside from walking, you can take a cruise to Little Paradise Island. Or head to the top of Leifeng Pagoda for all-encompassing views.
In Sichuan, Jiuzhaigou is a veritable gem of a national park. One of the best public parks in China, Jiuzhaigou, is a stunning collection of snow-capped peaks, waterfalls and emerald-hued lakes.
As you approach the mountains of southern China, there’s little warning of the fairyland that exists in Jiuzhaigou. Especially for the park’s 100+ lakes, each as crystal-clear and turquoise as the last. They’re fed by pristine snowmelt with their connecting streams, creating spectacular waterfalls.
The mountains, lakes and rivers combine for an idyllic network of valleys whose scenery is immensely vivid. Come in the summer for the best hiking and blooming flowers. Or wait for the snow and experience a winter wonderland.
11. Longmen Grottoes
South of Luoyang in Henan Province, the Longmen Grottoes is an ancient engineering masterpiece. Forget the four heads of Mount Rushmore, the Longmen Grottoes are home to an estimated 100,000 statues of Buddha and his followers.
These are all carved into the cliffs and caves of Longmenshan and Xiangshan peaks and set along the rolling Yihe River. Each creation varies significantly. Some are a cute 25 centimeter creation, others reach the lofty heights of 17 meters! They all vary in age. However, the bulk can be traced to periods between the 4th and 10th centuries.
Now a UNESCO site, you can explore the grottoes to learn about their creation and the various battles that have taken place here.
10. Pudong Skyline, Shanghai
You’ll have your work cut out seeing all that there is to do in Shanghai. But there’s one particular experience you’ll want to do twice, or even daily.
Modern Shanghai is almost futuristic. Its collection of skyscrapers is some of the biggest on earth and each is distinct from the last. It’s a wild thought that most of this has been constructed in only the last twenty years.
The best collection of towers is known as the Pudong Skyline. This district of skyscrapers is best seen from the Bund, where the skyline is on display like an architectural buffet. Highlights include the Jinmao Tower, the Shanghai Tower and the striking Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
At night, the district combines to showcase an elaborate, electric rainbow of lights.
9. Hani Terraces
On the southern slopes of Ailao Mountain, the Hani Terraces are both head-turning and head-scratching. From above, the mix of colors and the lines that mark the banks look straight out of an abstract painting. Yet, the rice terraces are remarkably real.
These terraces have been used to grow rice crops for a millennium. Once just a rising mountain, over 2,500 meters above sea level, it’s been carved painstakingly by hand. This has created hundreds of distinct terraces, all in varying stages of production.
It’s a fascinating mix of nature and humanity, one that leads to a kaleidoscopic landscape that is mesmerizing to witness. The best time to visit is from December to March, when irrigation floods the terraces.
8. Leshan Giant Buddha
Rising 71 meters, Leshan Giant Buddha is the largest in the world. The jaw-dropping creation is carved into the side of a mountain. This was a feat that took 90 years to complete!
The carving of the rock was led by Hai Tong in the 8th century. He wanted to ensure the safety and happiness of his community. While the results are open to interpretation, what isn’t is the way you feel when you first take in the size and opulence of it.
Today, you can stand right at its feet, or cruise by on the Min River. This was a body of water that slowed down significantly with all the excess rock deposited into the banks.
7. Mount Huang
A part of the Huangshan mountain range, Mount Huang is found in the Anhui province in eastern China. The range translates to the yellow mountains and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its pristine beauty.
Your time here begins in Tangkouzhen, where you’ll take a shuttle to either the Western or Eastern steps. From there, you can embark on a range of hikes with changing difficulties. From the Eastern Steps, there is a cable car to the summit.
Whether you hike or ride the cable car, find a way to see the stunning Xihai Grand Canyon. This is a vast canyon mixed in with ethereal forests, hanging from the cliff’s edge. For amazing views, add a trip to either Lotus Peak or Shixin Peak. Stick around for sunset to discover why Huangshan is known as the Yellow Mountains.
6. Li River Cruise
Connecting Guilin to Yangshuo, the Li River snakes its way softly through majestic landscapes. Ancient limestone karsts soar up to the sky’s ceiling. Each of them is unique and as craggy and beautiful as the last.
With its breathtaking scenery and taste of a life far removed from the concrete metropolis, a cruise along the Li River is one of the best things to do in China. You can make your way to Guilin, jump on a 4 to 5 hour cruise and disembark at Yangshuo, where road transport is ready to take you back.
Along the way, you’ll see 80 kilometers worth of geography that has inspired authors and romantics alike. You’ll feel the same once you gaze upon Elephant Trunk Hill and Mount of Unique Beauty.
Cruises are available year-round. However, autumn marks the best time to explore.
5. Terracotta Army
There are no records of the creation of the Terracotta Army. It’s as if the 8,000 terracotta soldiers guarding the tomb of Qin Shi Huang were meant to go undiscovered.
But alas, they were found some 2,000 years later in 1974. It was then, locals sinking a well around 30 kilometers from Xi’an made an incredible discovery.
Fifty years later, the army has become one of the most famous tourist attractions in China. An overhand shades the army, ensuring the preservation of a remarkable feat of art and engineering. Among the soldiers are over 500 horses and 100 chariots, each featuring the same painstaking detail as the last.
The Terracotta Army lies within the emperor’s Masoleu Site Park, where you can embark on an insightful guided tour.
4. Victoria Harbour
The world’s third largest seaport, Victoria Harbour, is beyond a hub of activity. It encapsulates the organized chaos of Hong Kong, where much is occurring, but nothing misses a beat.
The natural harbor sprawls out into the distance. Tanker ships come and go with the speed of little fishing boats jetting out from tiny villages. As much as you want to sit still, you never can. That’s because there’s always a better view to be had.
Come nightfall, you’ll become captivated and inspired by the smorgasbord of lights taking up the skyline. Hong Kong never sleeps and its array of skyscrapers become as vibrant as the galaxies above.
For the best views, stay on the Kowloon side and look across the harbor. You’ll then be able to experience the Avenue of Stars.
3. Forbidden City
Surrounded by 3.5 kilometers of old fortress walls, China’s Forbidden City marks the country’s best collection of historic architecture. You can find the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing. It’s a place so rich in dynastic history, rituals and, importantly, size that it’s visited by over 16 million people every year.
For over six centuries, the Forbidden City was at the forefront of the national conscience. It grew to be 900 buildings large, filled with some of China’s most historic figures, plus an eccentric cast of advisors.
This all changed in 1911, upon the fall of the Qing dynasty. It has transformed into an enormous piece of living history. Come and discover impressive feats of architecture, while learning about the dynasties that ruled China with an iron fist.
2. Potala Palace
For centuries, the winter coming to Lhasa meant one important thing; it would once again be the abode of the Dalai Lama. This was a tradition that took place at the eye-catching Potala Palace until 1959.
That year, during a Chinese invasion, the Dalai Lama at the time fled to safe ground in India. It brought the end of an enduring tradition. However, it’s one you can get to know today with a visit to the palace.
Featuring 14 stories, the Potala Palace is renowned for its deep red central that shines like the sun surrounded by a whitewashed facade. Within lies hand-written Buddhist scripture and ancient gifts from emperors. Golden tombs, home to Dalai Lamas who passed away, are also located here.
1. Great Wall of China
Encompassing over 6,000 kilometers and almost four million bricks, the Great Wall of China is a true wonder. In fact, an ancient Chinese proverb goes that one cannot be a hero, unless he’s stepped onto the Great Wall.
The Great Wall of China runs from east to west, passing through a genuinely inspiring and complex array of landscapes. For if one walked the length of it, they would know the country like few others.
However, there aren’t many of us with the time to do such a thing. Some of the best places to see the wall are in Ningxia and Gansu. Both places showcase some of its best preserved sections. Travelers wanting to stay close to Beijing can visit the popular Badaling Pass section.