Top 15 Destinations in China
Some say it can be seen from space, but unless you’re a top gun at NASA, perhaps you’ll never know. Instead, experience the real deal. One of the Seven Wonders of the World and an enduring symbol of Chinese civilisation and genius, the UNESCO protected Great Wall of China was built as a defensive structure to protect China against marauding invaders from the north. Although the present wall dates mainly from the Ming dynasty, some 20 states and dynasties were involved in its immense construction over a period of 2,000 years and followed different routes and building extensions as required. Snaking some 6700 kms across barren hills, deserts, mountains and plateaus, the now partially ruinous Great Wall stretches east to west in northern China and is believed to be the longest man made structure in the world.
Terracotta Army - Xi'an
In 1976 three farmers near the city of Xi'an were digging a well and in doing so discovered one of China's greatest treasures - Emperor Qin's 7000-strong terracotta army. Believed to have been made 2200 years ago these life-size warriors stand in military formation in excavated pits under the cover of a modern protective hanger. Made of local clay, no two faces are alike – each is said to be an individual portrait. Delicate excavation continues on site, where hundreds of warriors remain smashed to pieces, not due to the passage of time but rather a peasant revolt after the emperor’s death. The emperor’s tumulus (ancient grave mound) is located about a mile away and is said to contain untold treasures.
Renowned for it’s striking, if bizarre scenery - vast areas of karst limestone outcrops that rise up from flat rice paddy fields, and beautiful pagodas, Guilin is often the subject of Chinese painting. On our tours that travel to Guilin, we will visit the enormous and dazzlingly beautiful Reed Flute Caves. The city is filled with a delicious fragrance of Sweet Osmanthus trees and indeed this is the meaning of the name Guilin - "forest of Sweet Osmanthus". As it is located in the subtropical zone in the southern part of the country, Guilin boasts a pleasant climate throughout the year. When there, take in the views from the intriguingly named Elephant trunk hill, and visit the beautiful Banyan Lake, so smooth it looks like a mirror.
Capital of the People’s Republic, Beijing is China’s political, economic and cultural centre. With a chequered history, Beijing was established in 1045 BC and for 800 years served as the capital of several dynasties. At first glance Beijing can appear as nothing more than a modern cosmopolitan city with soaring skyscrapers, sprawls of apartment blocks and a crisscross of freeways. But hidden amid the concrete and glass one can still find remnants of the city’s past and evidence of traditional Chinese culture still practised today. Vast squares, magnificent palaces and beautiful gardens are just some of the treasures still visible from the city’s imperial past, while down narrow alleyways one can find charming teahouses, traditional workshops, and quiet courtyards.
Yangtze River & the Three Gorges
Although the river itself and life along the banks are fascinating in themselves, centre stage on a Yangtze cruise is the awesome journey through the Three Gorges on a cruise from Chongqing to Wuhan. The Three Gorges (Qutangxia, Wuxia and Xiling) were formed around 70 million years ago during movements in the earth’s crust. Towering perpendicular cliffs and sharp gorges give way to the Yangtze below. Despite China’s controversial Yangtze dam project, where the waters are set to gradually rise until 2009, creating the world’s largest dam, it is thought the Gorges will still be as breathtaking, although some villages and landmarks will ultimately disappear.
Located in the Jiangsu Province, Suzhou is one of China’s most charming cities, its fame rests on its waterways and canals that are dotted with traditional bridges, houses and gardens. A cruise on the Grand Canal is the perfect way to discover Suzhou’s beauty and allows you to see the local people going about their day to day business. The city is renowned for its silk as it was the original source of the 'sea' silk road. You can also see bamboo and pine forests, winding streams, sheer hills without even leaving the city in the UNESCO heritage Humble Administor's Garden. There are elegant pavillions and courtyards interwoven with nature, and fragrant lotus filled pools and floral exhibitions - heaven in a garden.
Buzzing with energy and activity from its gleaming sky scrapers all the way to its charming Old Town, the mega city of Shanghai epitomises China’s meteoric rise to global power status. Everywhere you look, there is something to do, see or buy, and you're unlikely to ever find yourself having a dull moment during your stay. Even the train that gets you from the airport to the city, the Shanghai Maglev train, is a symbol of Shanghai’s fast-paced progress as it reaches a speed of 450km/h, making it the fastest train in the world. Aside from its transport, one of the most exciting things about Shanghai is its culinary scene, which unpretentiously embraces cuisine from all over the world whilst still providing top quality regional fare for those looking for a taste of China.
The panda capital of China, Chengdu is an unassuming city with a peaceful way of life that draws people in and tends to keep them there. Naturally, the number one draw of Chengdu is its giant pandas that are believed to have inhabited the region for around 2 million years, making the human history of the city pale in comparison. The best place to observe these beautiful animals is the Chengdu Panda Research Base, a facility dedicated to their breeding and conservation. Other than marvel at the wildlife, travellers to Chengdu should take the time to visit one of the city’s tea houses for an authentic Chinese experience. A trip to a local restaurant for a traditional Sichuan meal is also a great (and delicious) way to make the most of your stay. For those seeking a bit of culture, head to Luodai, an ancient town full of glorious old architecture.
Blessed with clean air, sparkling streams and snowy mountains, Lijiang is one of China’s most popular destinations and it isn’t hard to see why. With its year-round good weather, there is never a bad time to plan a trip to this city where beauty, both natural and man-made, oozes from every street corner. The Old Town, which is the gem in Lijiang’s crown, was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its authentic architecture and rich cultural identity. Hire a bike and cycle through the narrow, cobbled streets while you soak up the striking buildings and shops of this historical part of the city, which sits against the staggering backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas. Once you’ve finished exploring, head over to Bar Street and indulge in a few beverages as you hop from bar to bar, catching a glimpse of live musicians and DJs as you go.
Home to a number of historical relics, Datong is a curious city that blends genuine history with recreated sites of cultural significance – a result of a former mayor’s plan to increase tourism to the area. Regardless of when it was built, there is no denying that the sight of the magnificent walls, lit up by traditional lanterns, is certainly one to behold. While there is plenty to see and do within the city itself, some of its best sites are located just a little outside. One of the main reasons so many people flock to Datong is to see the Yungang Grottoes, a collection of caves filled with over 51,000 statues of Buddha, dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries. A little further out, but well worth the journey, is the Hanging Temple, a place of worship that was built into the side of a sheer cliff over 1,500 years ago.
Known as the ‘Ice City’, Harbin is located in the far north of China and is the capital of the Heilongjiang Province. It was the birthplace of the Jin and Qing Dynasties, before Russia connected the city to Vladivostok through the China Far East Railway. The city displays its Chinese, Russian and Jewish heritage through its architecture, with top sights including the Russian Cathedral, Old Synagogue and the Temple of Bliss. However, the city’s main attraction is the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival which begins in January. The event sees sculptors from all over the world come to compete and, if you visit at night, you’ll see their gigantic ice sculptures lit up in a fabulous display of ice and colour.
Situated in the Henan province of central China, Luoyang is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. The city was the capital of not one, but 13 dynasties beginning in the 21st to 16th centuries BC with the Xia Dynasty and lasting until the Northern Song dynasty in the 10th century AD. The city has a rich history with around 400,000 artefacts kept in its museums, sadly however, little remains of Luoyang’s glorious past. What the city does offer is close proximity to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Longmen Grottoes. The site features well over 2,000 grottoes and niches, as well as 100,000 statues carved into the cliffs along the Yi River. Devoted entirely to the Buddhist religion, these works represent some of the largest and most impressive collections of Chinese art.
One of China’s seven ancient capitals, Hangzhou has a history stretching back over 2,200 years to the Qin Dynasty. Nowadays, being just an hour’s train journey from Shanghai, this city is one of China’s most popular travel destinations. It’s most renowned landmark, and symbol of the city, is the beautiful West Lake. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the lake boasts fabulous panoramas complete with green hills, temples and pagodas – a landscape that has been celebrated by writers and artists for centuries. Alongside the lake, Hangzhou also offers an exciting food scene, numerous walkways and the world’s longest canal. Running from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south, the Grand Canal has a length of more than 2,000 kilometres.
Boasting an enviable location, Dali is surrounded by the Cang mountain range with the crystal-clear Erhai Lake at its centre. The city itself is divided into two areas, the Ancient City and the New District. First built in the Ming Dynasty from 1368 to 1644, the Ancient City was once a major stop on the Southwest Silk Road and is packed with historic sites and traditional culture. Top attractions in Dali include visiting the Butterfly Spring and the famous Three Pagodas, which have stood the test of time despite various wars and earthquakes. Dali is also home to around 25 different ethnic minorities, with the local Bai population very much a part of daily life. Explore the surrounds by bike, on foot or take a scenic cruise of the lake and stop off at its many islands.
Of all of China’s mountains, Mount Huangshan, known as the Yellow Mountain, is widely considered the most beautiful. Located in the east of the country, it’s renowned for its magnificent scenery, with pines, granite peaks and strangely-shaped rocks emerging through the sea of clouds. Reaching a height of over 1,800 metres, Huangshan offers some excellent hiking, or there’s the option of a cable car for those looking to avoid the estimated 60,000 steps to its peak. Visitors, painters and photographers have long been fascinated by the mountain’s beauty, and it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990. The scenic area also offers many ancient Huizhou-style settlements, including the villages of Xidi and Hongcun, alongside some natural hot springs at the foot of the mountain.
For further information to help plan your trip to China, see the following:
Best Time to Visit - climate and seasons in China
Tourist Visas - know what visa you need prior to travel
Top Travel Tips - covering everything from money to health, food to shopping
Traveller Reviews - see what our passengers think of our China tours
Visiting the Great Wall - a handy article on this incredible man-made feat with everything you need to plan the perfect trip
Visiting Pandas - where to see China's iconic pandas
Video Lounge - captivating China caught on camera