One of the world’s most vast and ancient civilizations, China is not just one region, cuisine or culture. It’s a giant and complex patchwork of cultural groups, histories, cuisines and languages. As you might expect, there’s a lot to see.
China’s big-hitting sights are no secret, and Chinese domestic tourists do a fine job of filling them up, particularly during national holidays such as the Spring Festival. But there are still untouched corners. While every traveler may want to tick “walked on the Great Wall” off their bucket list, this is a country where you can literally spend a lifetime and still never see it all.
One of the joys of China is its diversity, and most visitors find a friendly and warm welcome almost anywhere they go. Exploring is made abundantly easier by China’s vast high-speed rail network – the world’s biggest. By all means, put the big hitters on your list – ascending the Great Wall is, indeed, spectacular – but try to explore China’s lesser-visited corners, too.
Rather than a list of famous tourist sites, we’ve rounded up the top things to do in China as themes so you can explore China according to your own travel style and interests. Yilu shunfeng! (Have a great trip!)
Tick off China’s ‘Golden Triangle’
China’s most famous (and therefore most over-touristed) sights are situated in a triangle of three mighty cities: Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. The three are connected by high-speed trains making it easy to whip between the big sights. Most first-time visitors aim for China’s three best-known icons: the Great Wall near Beijing, the Army of Terracotta Warriors near Xi’an and the historical Bund and skyscrapers of Shanghai.
You can get a little off-the-beaten-path by avoiding the most popular sections of the Great Wall, especially Badaling (opt for Mutianyu or an unrestored section like Jiankou), and by visiting during the shoulder- or off-season. Winter is a great time to climb the Great Wall under a dusting of snow and you’ll face fewer crowds as you line up to see the surreal faces of the Terracotta Warriors or snap a photo of Shanghai’s futuristic skyline.
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Feast on China’s fabulous food
In Mandarin, a common greeting is “ni chifan le ma?” – meaning “have you eaten?” – which says a lot about China’s dedication to food. One of the greatest joys of traveling here is discovering the vast world of cuisine that lies beyond what you may have experienced in a Chinese restaurant abroad. There are eight major cuisines in China, and these are further divided up into countless local and regional styles of cooking, so you’ll find something new to taste in every corner of the country.
Typically, rice and stir-fried dishes are more common in southern China, where rice is cultivated, while buns, dumplings and noodles are the staples in the wheat-growing north. Don’t miss xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings – a favorite breakfast food in Shanghai – and crispy Beijing roast duck. For delicate dim sum, go to Guangdong province. Try the halal, Central Asian-influenced cooking in far northwest Gansu, or head to Sichuan or Hunan provinces for super spicy foods.
Learn about China’s many minority cultures
The people of China represent a diverse group of communities, cultures and languages. Though the dominant majority (90%) are Mandarin-speaking Han Chinese, across the country there are 55 recognized minority groups. The Miao and Dai of the southwest, the Hui of northwestern Gansu, Qinghai and Ningxia, and the Tibetans are among the most well-known, but there are dozens more groups, languages and identities that are not officially recognized.
While tourism has undoubtedly helped these groups maintain their cultural identities, it has often commodified them, too. To avoid cultural exploitation, seek out homestays or cultural immersion programs that are run by members of the community. The Linden Center in Xizhou, Yunnan, is an excellent place to start – set in a restored heritage building, it’s part boutique hotel, part cultural center, part spiritual retreat and part classroom, offering the chance for deep immersion into three local communities, with profits directly benefiting those groups.
See the Imperial sights
The splendor of Imperial China is proudly on display in Beijing and a string of other former capital cities. The best place to start is in Beijing’s Forbidden City, China’s imperial palace since the Ming dynasty (between 1406 and 1420). This Unesco World Heritage Site comprises a series of stunning halls and nested courtyards that get smaller as you progress toward the inner sanctum, which only members of the emperor’s inner circle were permitted to enter.
Further afield in Beijing are the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor performed rites and sought divine guidance, and the lakes and breezeways of the Summer Palace, a sprawling complex that provided the court with respite during Beijing’s hottest months.
There are three other major historical capitals of China: Nanjing, Luoyang and Xi’an, all of which have numerous imperial sights and tombs. In Nanjing, the Ming-dynasty Xiaoling Mausoleum is one of the biggest imperial tombs in China, and the Presidential Palace was home to royal princes before it housed China’s first republican president, Sun Yat-sen.
Travel the Silk Road
Long sections of the historical trade routes that make up the Silk Road run through northwestern China, ending at Xi’an, which was considered the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. The townships along the route are rich in cultural heritage, especially of Hui Muslim groups and ethnically Kazakh, Uyghur and Uzbek communities. Although Muslim culture dominates today, part of the delight of traveling China’s section of the Silk Road is discovering traces of the Buddhist culture that traders transport east to China from India.
Some of the most splendid Buddhist sites in China are dotted along the Hexi Corridor in Gansu province, including the celebrated Mogao Grottoes, which are considered one of the most important treasure troves of Buddhist art in the world. Gone are the days of dusty camel rides or even bumpy buses – a high-speed train line now runs the entire length of the Chinese Silk Road, meaning you can travel in speedy, environmentally friendly comfort.
Contemplate life in Suzhou’s gardens
The gardens were designed as private getaways for officials, academics and artists. Every detail within, from the winding stone pathways and round moon gates to ponds and bonsai trees, was painstakingly planned to create a suitable atmosphere for pondering and creative pursuits.
Hit the town in Hong Kong & Macau
Though they are very different on almost every level, Hong Kong and Macau are often paired as travel destinations thanks to their geographical proximity and easy transport links between the two city-states via fast ferries or the world’s longest sea bridge. Hong Kong is in many ways the perfect city: bursting at the seams with swanky banquet restaurants and tiny hole-in-the-wall food joints, great nightlife and sparkling skyline views (best appreciated from the top of Victoria Peak).
You can tour the filming locations for popular movies such as Enter the Dragon and Transformers, or plan your trip in March to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong, the city’s biggest art bash. When things get that little bit too bustling, head to one of the laid-back islands, hike the trail known as the Dragon’s Back or kayak around Hong Kong Global Geopark.
The old-world fishing villages that once made Macau a quiet cousin to Hong Kong are giving way to an encroaching blaze of casinos built on reclaimed land. But Macau still has a wealth of heritage architecture and its own brand of fusion cuisine built on Macanese specialties and dishes influenced by its former colonizers, the Portuguese. If you only do one thing in Macau, make it a visit to Lord Stow’s Bakery for the local custard tarts.
Glimpse an adorable panda
It’s tough to escape the national animal in China. Images of real and cuddly cartoon pandas appear on adverts, school signboards, metro trains and products all over the country. You’ll even find Panda Brew beer in Beijing. In 2021, China’s 67 panda reserves were integrated into one Giant Panda National Park, providing shelter for the 1631 wild pandas living within China’s borders. Conservation efforts are paying off – China recently moved the giant panda off the endangered species list to less severe threatened status.
As pandas are notoriously shy animals (and not prone to getting loved-up, hence the extensive worldwide breeding program), travelers wanting to set eyes on a panda usually head to the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base in Chengdu – home to more than 200 giant pandas and a sizeable population of the smaller, fox-like red pandas. While the animals live in enclosures and the infrastructure is admittedly zoo-like, the Center exists purely for conservation and breeding, so pandas here receive excellent care.
Hike rice terraces & misty peaks
China’s mystical mountain landscapes have been celebrated and commemorated in art for thousands of years. Iconic images of craggily, karst peaks shrouded in mist were the subject of landscape paintings dating back to the 6th century. In fact, there is mountainous terrain all over China, but splendid views of cloud-capped peaks are best found at Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) or one of the sacred Daoist peaks, such as Hua Shan or Tai Shan.
The ethereal, column-like mountains of Zhangjiajie in Hunan province were the inspiration for the film Avatar, and a great destination for easy hikes. And there’s serious hiking at Tiger Leaping Gorge, and in the Himalayan borderlands of Yunnan and Sichuan.
One of the most popular images of China is of the sunset reflecting in the staggered waters of a rice terrace. Longsheng county in Guangxi province is a sprawl of rice terraces, the most well-known being the Longji (Dragon’s Back) terraces near Zhuang village. Hiking paths lead between terraced fields and the villages of several minority communities. From here, it’s easy to reach Guilin for a trip down the Li River, whose bizarrely shaped karst peaks have become one of the country’s most iconic images.
Get wintery in Dongbei
China shows a different side in winter, and the country has developed its cold-weather offerings, particularly infrastructure for skiing and snowboarding in preparation for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The best slopes and facilities can be found at Yabuli in Heilongjiang province and Changbaishan in Jilin province.
For something less active but still full of wintery wonder, the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is held every year in the city of Harbin beside the iced-over Songhua River. It’s the world’s biggest ice sculpture festival, with dozens of ice-formed buildings and giant sculptures made of ice and snow, many shaped like well-known world landmarks.
Experience traditional arts & architecture
China has a rich musical and architectural heritage that spans centuries and hundreds of cultural traditions. Admiring dynastic architecture through the ages is a highlight of any trip to China, whether getting a close-up view of a Tang-dynasty pagoda in Xi’an or standing in the imposing open space of Tian’anmen Square.
Dramatic modern architecture has sprung up across the country, from the oddly-shaped CCTV Headquarters (aka the “pants building”) in Beijing to the incredible Baoxi ‘bamboo town’ in Zhejiang province, where every building is eco-friendly and made from sustainable bamboo.
In arts and music, too, China has flourished through the ages. There are plenty of places around the country to experience traditional Chinese opera – one good spot is Suzhou’s Shantang Kunqu Opera House, which has intimate opera performances each evening accompanied by a traditional tea service.
One of the most charming experiences in China is getting up early in the morning to visit local parks, where people practice sword-play, fan-dancing, taichi, singing, square dancing, water calligraphy and other folk artforms.
See beautiful art in China’s museums
China is brimming with excellent museums cataloging everything from ancient ritual objects to stimulating and surprising modern art. Each province in China has its own provincial museum with locally found objects, but for a broad overview of national arts and artifacts, head to the excellent Shanghai Museum or the National Museum of China in Beijing.