China is a nation on the march. As it accelerates away from its preindustrial cocoon at a rate unmatched in human history, huge new cities with cutting-edge architecture continue to spring up. But look closer and you’ll see China’s splendidly diverse geographic, ethnic, culinary and social make-up is not lost. Here are some of our favourite things to do in China, to give you a taste of why you should visit this country.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to China, your essential guide for visiting China.
No historical records exist of the Terracotta Army, which was set to guard Qin Shi Huang’s tomb over two thousand years ago. It was only discovered accidentally by peasants sinking a well 28km east of Xi’an in 1974. Three rectangular vaults were found, constructed of earth with brick floors and timber supports.
Today, hangars have been built over the excavated site so that the ranks of soldiers – designed never to be seen, but now one of the most popular tourist attractions in China – can be viewed in situ. The army is probably the highlight of any trip to Xi’an.
Discover the best of China with this fascinating tailor-made trip along the Silk Road. Starting in Beijing, experience the Forbidden City, the Yellow River, the Great Wall of China, Heavenly Lake, the Terracotta Army of Warriors and much more, all with this unique, detailed trip.
Indulging in afternoon tea while admiring one of the world’s most spectacular cityscapes is probably one of the best things to do in China.
Tsim Sha Tsui, dodging container ships and coastal vessels along the way. The sight of Central’s skyscrapers, framed by the hills and looming up as the ferry makes its seven-minute crossing of busy Victoria Harbour, is one of the most thrilling images of Hong Kong, especially when the buildings are lit up after dark.
Hong Kong is a vibrant and appealing city, with its waterside location and towering skyscrapers, it offers the visitor modernity and tradition, the exotic and efficient. This tailor-made trip to Hong Kong Highlights is perfect for a family break, there’s plenty to keep everyone entertained from Central to the New Territories and beyond.
For more accommodation options read our guide to the best areas to stay in Hong Kong
Witness how “China’s Sorrow”, the mighty Yellow River, is being used to re-vegetate desert dunes. Closer to the city than Shapotou the Yellow River viewing area is a fine little escape from central Zhongwei, and a particularly popular sunset watching spot for local youth. A structure resembling a blue flame sits atop a so-so museum, showcasing relics from sites around the river’s course.
By the banks of the Yellow River 16km west of Zhongwei, Shapotou is a tourist resort whose main pleasure is in the contrast between the leafy, shady banks of the river, and the harsh desert that lies just beyond. The resort is a pleasant enough place, with various activities on hand – ferry rides, ziplines over the river, sand-sledding and camel rides.
Find more information about the Yellow River in our guide to ten highlights along China's Yellow River.
One of the best things to do in China for hiking is along a steep-sided canyon, with attractive homestays along the way. Not for the faint at heart, you’ll need a sturdy pair of shoes to take on the Tiger Leaping Gorgehike in southern Yunnan province. It's undoubtedly one of the most beautiful things to see in China.
The powerful Yangtze River surges between two huge mountains, with the 3000-metre-deep river canyon providing a continuous flank of wobbly ‘V’ shapes down the middle. With dramatic scenery, welcoming homestays and roaming wildlife, this makes for one of the best things to do in China.
Culturally rich and ethnically diverse, Yunnan is one of China’s most fascinating regions. On this tailor-made trip to Incredible Yunnan you will explore this scenic southwestern province, great to travel to year round, from the capital Kunming to the well-preserved ancient city of Jianshui, famous for its old walls.
Rickety wooden shrines to China’s three main faiths, suspended on a cliff-face by flimsy-looking scaffolding. From a distance, Datong city’s Hanging Temple looks morphed into the mountainside, with its washed-out reds, jade greens and faded yellows trundling uphill.
Up close, marvel at the intricate details of the structure, which has seen Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism practised here since its construction in the fifth century. Those who are feeling brave should tackle the ten-metre hanging plank bridge which connects the northern and southern sections of the temple.
Stuffed with gorgeous statuary and wreathed in juniper smoke, this is Tibet’s holiest temple. The Jokhang – sometimes called Tshuglakhang (Cathedral), and the holiest temple in the Tibetan Buddhist world. It can be unprepossessing from afar, but get closer and you’ll be swept up by the anticipation of the pilgrims and the almost palpable air of veneration.
Built in the seventh century, it stands 1km east of the Potala Palace, in the centre of the only remaining Tibetan enclave in the city, the Barkhor area, a maze of cobbled alleyways between Beijing Dong Lu and Jinzhu Dong Lu.
Offering unlimited refills, Sichuanese teahouses make relaxed places to drink, socialize, read or gossip. Teahouses hold much the same place in Sichuanese life as a local bar or pub does in the West. Some are formal establishments with illuminated signs; others are just a humble spread of bamboo or plastic chairs in the corner of a park, a temple or indeed any available public space.
Whatever the establishment, just sit down to have a waiter come over and ask you what sort of tea you’d like. Most are served in the three-piece Sichuanese gaiwancha, a squat, handleless cup with lid and saucer. Refills are unlimited – either the waiter will give you a top-up on passing your table, or you’ll be left with a flask of boiling water.
Enjoying awesome scenery and intriguing history on a journey through China’s dramatic Three Gorges. This should be on anyone's list of things to do in China. Chongqing is the departure point for the two-day cruise downriver through the Three Gorges to Yichang. There are two main cruise options for those on a budget, both of which run year-round.
The best option is the four-day/three-night foreign tourist cruises that leave daily from the wharves in Chongqing and have English-speaking staff and guides. The second, slightly cheaper, option is the Chinese tourist cruises, though they are usually a lot rowdier than the former.
Both of these cruises can be easily booked through your accommodation in Chongqing, or if you speak Chinese at one of the many booking offices opposite the wharves on Chong Bin Lu.
China is a vast and varied land, seemingly full to the brim of mega cities, dramatic limestone mountains and endless countryside. This tailor-made trip to Cultural China takes in the best the country has to offer, visiting the historic cities of Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, before cruising down the Yangtze River.
Yunnan has always stood apart from the rest of China, set high on the empire’s barbarous southwestern frontiers. It is shielded from the rest of the nation by the unruly, mountainous neighbours of Sichuan and Guizhou. This remote and diverse province of border markets, mountains, jungles, lakes, temples, modern political intrigue and the remains of vanished kingdoms is also home to over 28 recognized ethnic groups.
Each minority has its own spoken language, cuisine, distinctive form of dress for women, festivals and belief system. With enough time you should be able to flesh out the superficial image of these groups laid on for the tourist industry.
Explore the beauty of the Yunnan region with our guide beyond the Jade Dragon mountain: stunning pictures of Yunnan.
The sight of the world’s highest peak towering overhead rewards the arduous trip to Base Camp. Roads run southwest of Lhasa to Mount Everest and the Nepal border, past some of the region’s most historically significant monasteries. Gyantse - site of a shameful episode in Britain’s colonial past; Shigatse - the spiritual seat of the Panchen Lamas; and spectacular Sakya - home to one of the foremost orders of Tibetan Buddhism.
Then comes Everest itself, though – given the surprising urbanity of the base camp “village” here – the mountain’s rugged splendour is perhaps best appreciated from afar.
From tombs and monasteries to world-famous squares and walls, this tailor-made trip to China and Tibet takes in both for an unforgettable journey. Explore Beijing and all its spectacular attractions and take in the stunning natural surroundings around Chengdu and on into Tibet.
Roam millennia-old grottoes, packed with beautiful Buddhist sculptures, at this former Silk Road pilgrimage site. The Mogao Caves, carved out of a stretch of desert cliffs 25km southeast of Dunhuang, are one of China’s greatest archaeological sites. It is from here that Buddhism and Buddhist art radiated across the Chinese empire.
Work started on the caves in 366 AD, and continued up until the fourteenth century. The earliest artwork shows considerable artistic influence from Central Asia, India and Persia, though you can see how these foreign styles waned over time as the iconography slowly adapted to Chinese aesthetics.
This lavish complex at Confucius’s home town shows the esteem in which China’s great sage was held. Entered on a quiet hutong lined with shops selling incense, images and tapes of religious music, the Confucius Temple is one of Beijing’s most pleasant sights. Find somewhere to sit on a bench in the peaceful courtyard among the ancient, twisted trees, and enjoy the silence – though there’s plenty to look at inside, too.
The complex is split into two main areas: the temple proper to the east, and the easy-to-miss, but equally large, old Imperial College to the west.
Hiking along unrestored sections of this monumental barrier, which once protected China from the outside world is one of the best things to do in China for the great views. Today, the line of the wall can be followed from Shanhaiguan, by the Yellow Sea to Jiayuguan in the northwestern deserts, a distance of around three thousand kilometres – an astonishing feat of engineering.
As a symbol of national pride, the wall’s restored sections are now besieged daily by rampaging hordes of tourists, while its image adorns all manner of products, from wine to cigarettes. Yet even the most over-visited section at Badaling is still easily one of China’s most spectacular attractions.
Mutianyu is somewhat less crowded, distant Simatai much less so, and far more beautiful; you’ll get more out of these sections by walking away from the arrivals area. To see the wall in its crumbly glory, head out to Jinshanling, Jiankou or Huanghua, as yet largely untouched by development.
Remote wilderness whose stunning highlight is the view over Tian Chi, “Heaven’s Lake”, into North Korea. Despite its remote location, Changbaishan Nature Reserveis easily accessible with regular transport links shuttling visitors to and from the area. Tian Chi is the must-see here and is often referred to as ‘heavenly lake’ – for good reason.
During the harsh winters, the five-kilometre-wide lake freezes over, and dense forests cover the cragged mountains, making for truly spectacular scenery. The lake runs along the China-North Korean border – but, of course, straying onto the other side is strictly forbidden.
An attractive ancient town, now a lively tourist fairground of cobbled lanes and rustic wooden houses. Lijiang, the capital of the Naxi Kingdom, nestles 150km north of Dali at the foot of the inspiringly spiky and ice-bound massif of Yulong Xue Shan, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
It should be lovely, surrounded as it is by green fields and pine forests, the town’s winding cobbled lanes forming a centuries-old maze, flanked by clean streams, weeping willows and rustic stone bridges. It is, however, China’s biggest tourist black spot, in many ways little more than a cultural theme park, and the template against which all “old towns” in China are being remodelled.
Once the sole preserves of emperors, the centre of the Chinese imperial universe is now open to all. Lying at the heart of the city, the Forbidden City – or, more accurately, the Imperial Palace – is Beijing’s finest monument. To do it justice, you should plan to spend at least a whole day here. You could wander the complex for a week and keep discovering new aspects.
The central halls, impressive for demonstrating the sheer scale of imperial pomp, may be the most magnificent buildings. For many visitors, it’s the side rooms, with their displays of the more intimate accoutrements, that bring home the realities of court life for its inhabitants.
On this tailor-made trip to Beijing and The Great Wall of China you will stay in Beijing, with its awe-inspiring Forbidden City. Then you will venture through the majestic Great Wall lands of Changping and Simatai, and marvel in the vibrancy of the water town of Gubei, a magnificent collage of Great Wall, mountains, lakes and ancient villages.
Find more accommodation options to stay in Beijing
A wilderness area in northwestern Yunnan, holy to Tibetans, which offers superlative hiking and staggering scenery. Sacred to Tibetan Buddhists as home to the protective warrior god Kawagarpo, as well as attracting tourists drawn by its natural beauty, the Meili Xue Shan range is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims each year.
While the arduous two-week kora circuit of the mountain conducted by the faithful is not for everyone, there are also some less demanding hikes – still with spectacular views. The highest mountain of the range, at 6740m, is Kawagarbo at the head of the valley, whose glacier-streaked slopes and peak you’ll see dramatically emerging from the clouds if you’re lucky.
Ride a boat or a bamboo raft through the heart of this weird, poetical landscape, past a host of contorted limestone pinnacles. Lush, green foliage carpeting the sloping hills, grazing water buffalo and fishermen sharing bamboo rafts with cormorants: the Li River is an attractive introduction to southwest China’s Guizhou province.
A peaceful boat trip is the best way to take in the hazy-green scenery, and part of the route includes the small market town of Xingping, the spot that is featured on the 20 RMB note.
Rub shoulders with pilgrims and red-robed clergy at this enormous complex, one of the pivots of Tibetan Lamaism. Phenomenally beautiful and surrounded by mountains on all sides, Labrang Monastery sits just west of Xiahe’s centre. There’s no wall separating the town from the monastery.
Previously the two communities just merged together with the main road running through them uninterrupted, though these days there are some bollards and a security guard posted to check tickets. With the monastery and town so interlinked, opening hours and ticket requirements are largely notional, though you will definitely need to pay to join one of the twice-daily guided tours.
Watch Chinese holidaymakers queuing up to have their photos taken against Shanghai’s luminous, futuristic skyline. Shanghai’s original signature skyline is the Bund, a strip of grand Neoclassical colonial edifices on the west bank of the Huangpu River. These face the flashy skyscrapers of Pudong on the opposite shore.
Named after an old Anglo-Indian term, “bunding” (the embanking of a muddy foreshore), the Bund’s official name is Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu but it’s better known among locals as Wai Tan (literally “Outside Beach”). By whatever name, this was old Shanghai’s commercial heart. Here you'll find the river on one side, and the offices of the leading banks and trading houses on the other.
Find more accommodation options to stay in Shanghai
Marvel at the world’s largest carved Buddha, hewn into a riverside cliff way back during the Tang dynasty. Built into the riverside’s red sandstone cliffs over 1300 years ago, Leshan’s Giant Buddha is the world’s largest sculpted figure of its kind, sitting at a gargantuan 71 metres tall. Climb to the top of the mountainous scenic area to bring you to level with the ten metre-wide head, and follow his gaze across the Minjiang River.
Then, clamber down the steep, zig-zag path to the Buddha’s feet and lean back until it hurts to stare up at the colossal, figure for an evocative, unforgettable image of China.
A medley of colours can be found in Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve in southwestern Sichuan province: the still, blue lakes mirror the gold and red forests in the autumn, and the vivid blues and greens in the summer.
In winter, the land is doused in brilliant-white snow. It’s also home to the milky-blue Pools of Immortals: bright turquoise bathing pools that seem to come straight out of a fairy tale. Equally impressive are the numerous waterfalls that drop like curtains over the rocky outcrops.
Huang Shan (“Yellow Mountain”) in eastern China’s Anhui province is often described as the mountain that champions all others. Yet despite its popularity, there are still wedges of forest where you can find much-needed stillness, away from the crowds.
The high, crooked mountains feature streaks of forests, and are joined by swirls of mist at the very top. Whether you choose one of the easier walks or a more demanding route, tackling Huang Shan can take anything from two hours to three days, depending on how much you want to explore.
Despite being a proudly modern city, Chengdu is home to some of the best Sichuanese traditions. There are teahouses to play Mahjong in and spicy hotpots to devour; but, best of all, there’s the Sichuan opera, which started in the late seventeenth century.
Performers incorporate humour, storytelling, hand puppetry and more in a seemingly effortless fashion; and the show usually ends with an extraordinary, hair-raising fire-breathing display.
With its vibrant culture, rich heritage and diverse nature, China is one of the exotic destinations for travel. If you are on the lookout for just such travel destinations, read our guide to the most exotic places to travel in the world.
Thousands of martial arts have evolved in China, usually in isolated communities that had to defend themselves, such as temples and clan villages. All, though, can be classed into two basic types: external (“hard”) styles concentrate on building up physical strength to overpower opponents. The trickier internal (“soft”) styles concentrate on developing and focusing the internal energy known as qi.
The style that you’re most likely to see – it’s practised in the open all over the country – is the internal tai ji quan. The body is held in a state of minimal tension to create the art’s characteristic “soft” appearance. Its emphasis on slow movements and increasing qi flow means it is excellent for health, and it’s a popular workout for the elderly.
One of Beijing’s must-see attractions, the Summer Palace is a lavish imperial playground whose grounds are large enough to have an almost rural feel. During the hottest months of the year, the court would decamp to this perfect location, the site surrounded by hills, cooled by the sizeable Kunming Lake and sheltered by judicious use of garden landscaping. Today it functions as a lovely public park.
The palace buildings, many connected by a suitably majestic gallery, are built on and around Wanshou Shan (Longevity Hill), north of the lake and west of the main gate. Many of these edifices are intimately linked with Empress Dowager Cixi – anecdotes about whom are the stock output of the numerous tour guides – but in order to enjoy the site, you need to know very little of its history.
Some 8km northeast of central Chengdu, the excellent Giant Panda Breeding Research Base offers close-up views of both giant and arboreal red pandas. Perhaps uniquely for China, this zoo is a genuinely pleasant place to visit, well laid out with a decent amount of information in English, and even spacious enclosures for the animals, who are fed truckloads of fresh bamboo by concerned staff.
Several hostels and travel agencies offer the chance to be a “volunteer keeper” for the day – basically a worthy-sounding way of paying to hand-feed a few of the inhabitants. Try to get here early, as the pandas slump into a stupor around 10 am after munching their way through piles of bamboo.
Sichuan is home to a rich and vibrant culture, stunning scenery and wildlife, and delicious cuisine. Spend time with Chengdu's giant pandas, trek around Mount Qingcheng, stand in awe of the world’s largest Buddha at Leshan, and much more, all with this exciting tailor-made Sichuan Family Adventure.
With its centre riddled with classic gardens and picturesque canals, Suzhou is justly one of eastern China’s biggest tourist draws and one of the best things to do in China in general. Whereas most Chinese cities are busy building themselves up from the inside out, parts of central Suzhou remain remarkably quaint and calm – no mean feat in a city of around six million.
Gardens, above all, are what Suzhou is all about. Some were founded during the Song dynasty, a thousand years ago, and in their Ming and Qing heyday, it is said that the city had two hundred of them. Some half-dozen major gardens have now been restored, as well as a number of smaller ones, mostly in enclosed areas behind high compound walls.
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