Highlights in Beijing
This famous site is the largest public square in the world and a major piece of both ancient and modern-day history. It’s an important place to visit, and can be done relatively quickly on your way to the Forbidden City.
Home to 24 Chinese emperors over almost 500 years, the Forbidden City is steeped with history and beautiful surroundings. The Forbidden City was so named because it was off limits to the outside world for 50 decades, when no one could enter or exit the palace without the emperor’s permission. Today, it’s open to the public and well worth the visit.
Start your next day in Beijing bright and early with a trip to the Great Wall. Perhaps China’s most iconic attraction, the Great Wall is a must-do while in Beijing. You can visit the wall with a tour group, private guide, or on your own, and there are various sections you can visit, each with their own vibe. The Great Wall at Badaling and Mutianyu is fully restored and prime for tourists. If you’re seeking a much less frequented portion of the wall, the Jiankou section is a bit more “wild,” and less restored, but provides many breathtaking views and the chance to hike with very few people around.
If you haven’t taken a full-day hike on the Great Wall, most groups will head to the Ming Tombs afterward. The burial place of Emperor Wanli from the 16th century, there are 13 tombs total, as well as Sacred Way, a path leading to the tombs that is flanked by stone creatures.
Temple of Heaven
Built in 1420 as an imperial prayer site, Temple of Heaven Park is today the largest building for religious worship in China. Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties frequented these grounds to worship the heavens and pray for a good harvest and bountiful year. All the buildings within the Temple of Heaven have dark blue roof tiles to signify heaven, as well as round temples (representing heaven) with square bases (representing earth).
First built in 1750 as a luxurious getaway for the royal families to rest and entertain during the hot summer months, the Summer Palace gardens and grounds have been destroyed and restored throughout their ancient history, but now serve as a not-to-be-missed attraction in Beijing. The Summer Palace is a masterpiece of Chinese landscape design, with Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill (Wanshou Shan) melding effortlessly with the pavilions, bridges, temple, and gardens that have been created there. You can spend a whole day exploring the 290-acre park, its tea houses, shops, marble boats, and pristinely restored temples.
Highlights in Chengdu
Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base
One of the most iconic sites in Chengdu has to do with some of its most cuddly residents: China’s Giant Pandas. With a population of less than 1,000 in the wild (and only found in the Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces of China), these pandas are protected by China’s laws to help maintain and grow the panda population. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was established in 1987 to further rescue, protect, and assist in the breeding of these cherished creatures.
Kuanzhai Ancient Street and Sichuan Opera
A must-see while in Chengdu is the historic Kuanzhai Street, where tea houses, restaurants, shops, and artists can be found among restored architecture. Sichuan opera originated during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and features theatrical makeup, colorful costumes, and a variety of performances, including the famous “face-changing” or flame spitting. While the Sichuan opera performances at Damaio give visitors a small taste, Sichuan opera can be seen throughout Chengdu at places from the Sichuan Opera Arts Center to People’s Park.
Initially built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Wenshu Monastery was once called Xinxiang Temple. Today, Wenshu Monastery is the best-preserved Buddhist temple in Chengdu. Hundreds of cultural relics are housed there, including paintings, calligraphy, and other precious works of art by renowned Chinese artists from throughout the centuries.
Highlights in Chongqing
Three Gorges Museum
This massive museum is situated opposite the Chongqing People’s Hall. With its free admission and close proximity to other sights, it is convenient even while in Chongqing for only 72 hours. The Three Gorges Museum opened in 2005 with its striking architecture and large glass domes. The museum houses exhibits about the people of the region, sculptures from the Han Dynasty, cultural relics from the surrounding area of southwest China, and a 180° panorama depicting Chongqing’s temporary appointment as the capital of China during World War II. The 360° cinema provides incredible footage of the natural scenery from the Three Gorges before the construction of the dam.
Highlights in Guangzhzou
Guangzhou City Museum
The Guangzhou Museum is located within Yuexiu Park, atop Yuexiu Hill. The museum is housed in a red five-story building, which is also known as Zhenhai Tower or the Five-Story Pagoda. The tower was built by Zhu Liangzu, a ruler during the Ming Dynasty, in 1380. It has been destroyed and rebuilt five times, but now sits safely in the park and houses relics from Guangzhou’s 2,000-year history. The tower is a landmark within the city and the museum makes for a fascinating visit.
Pearl River (Zhujiang)
One cannot visit Guangzhou without somehow seeing the Pearl River. Also known as the Guangdong or Canton River, the Pearl River plays a central role in Guangzhou’s landscape. Made up of four separate river systems that join up in Guangzhou and then flow into the South Sea, the Pearl is the third largest river in China. It is named for the large stone island in the river bed that is huge, rounded, and smoothed, much like a large shining pearl.
The Li River is truly the lifeblood of the Guilin area. It serves as a tranquil backdrop for dazzling natural surrounds, as a means of transport, and as an excellent way to tour the region. The Li River flows from north to south, passing through Guilin city, Yangshuo County, and on through several other counties until it meets the West River in Wuzhou. The river cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo is a highlight of any trip to this area, where visitors can soak in views of Karst-formation hills, cliffs, and caves, as well as quaint villages and terraced paddies flanking the peaceful waters of the Lijiang.
Elephant Trunk Hill
One of the most famous scenic spots in Guilin is Elephant Trunk Hill, a massive limestone formation located on the western bank of the Li River at its junction with the Peach Blossom River. This spot gets its name from the shape of the rock formation, which looks like a giant elephant dipping its trunk into the river. There are many interesting sites and lookouts at Elephant Trunk Hill: One such site is Water Moon Cave (Shui Yue Dong), which is located between the “trunk” of the elephant and its legs. It is named Water Moon Cave because on moonlit nights, the cave’s reflection looks like a full moon floating on the surface of the water; along with the moon in the sky, and the reflection of the moon on the water, it is a marvel for visitors to see. Visitors can also ride a boat through the cave to the river, and see more than 70 ancient inscriptions from the Tang and Song dynasties carved on the walls within the cave.
Reed Flute Cave
Located just three miles from downtown Guilin, Reed Flute Cave is another must-see while in Guilin. The cave’s name comes from the reeds growing outside the cave, which locals use to make flutes. Once you enter the cave, however, it’s as if you’re in another world, with spectacular stalactites, stalagmites, stone pillars and various rock formations created from centuries of water erosion and carbonate deposition giving the cave its nickname of “a natural palace of art.”
Longji Terraced Fields
The Longji Terraced Fields span across several villages in Longsheng County, about a two-hour drive northwest of Guilin. The terraced fields here are some of the most fantastic scenery in Guilin: the sun reflects on the water of the paddy fields, with their tiered band-like arrangements wrapping around the hillsides and making for striking imagery. Longji means “dragon’s backbone,” named for the terraces’ resemblance to a dragon’s scales. Visitors standing on top of the mountain and looking down at the terraces can see the dragon’s backbone twisting throughout the hillside below.
Yangshuo County Highlights
The Yulong River is a major tributary of the Lijiang and flows for more than 22 miles by Karst limestone formations typical to Guilin, past rice paddies, and through the riverside villages of Yangshuo. Local people use bamboo rafts as their main form of transportation along the Yulong, and visitors today can tour the area while relaxing in a chair atop one of these rafts.
Yueliang Shan – which literally translates to “Moon Mountain” – is located just outside Yangshuo. It is named for the large circular hole that carves through the massive hill, the remains of what was once a limestone cave millennia ago. The views from the top are well worth the effort to climb the steps. Some visitors choose to continue on to the top of Moon Hill, though the extended path is steeper and less well-paved than the path to the arch. Moon Hill also offers 14 rock climbing routes on its northwest face, which vary in difficulty from amateur to professional level.
Highlights in Shanghai
Oriental Pearl Tower
Shanghai’s skyline of brightly lit futuristic buildings is constantly growing and changing, but the Oriental Pearl Tower may be the most iconic building among the lot. Located in the Pudong District aside the Huangpu River, its 15 observatory levels – including a revolving restaurant and upper observation platform with glass floor – and its position opposite the Bund also make it the best view in town.
A mile-long waterfront area in Central Shanghai, the Bund is home to fascinating architecture from Shanghai’s colonial history at the turn of the 20th century. Along the Bund’s Zhongshan Road, 52 buildings with various Western classical and modern influences – including Art Deco, Gothic, Baroque, Neo-Classical, and other historic styles of architecture – sit regally and make for an ideal place to stroll. The Bund faces the Pudong District across the Huangpo River, so the panoramic views of the water and the thriving modern metropolis across the way are excellent from here as well. The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, a pedestrian-only tunnel of lights and colors, will get you across the river and provide a fun lightshow along the way.
From its beginnings as a British concession, Nanjing Road (Nanjing Lu) has since become not only the busiest shopping street in Shanghai, but also the longest shopping district in the world. Nanjing Road spans 3.4 miles from its start at the Bund to its end at the junction of Jing’an Temple and Yan’an West Street. Some 1.7 million people – from locals to business people to tourists – fill Nanjing Road each day to visit its 600 shops, restaurants and businesses. It is divided into two lengths, east and west, with the eastern section being an all-weather pedestrian-only stretch and the place to buy Shanghai’s specialties such as silk and jade.
Jade Buddha Temple
For a peaceful refuge from the bustle of modern Shanghai, the Jade Buddha Temple is a beautiful respite filled with historic artistic works. Originally built in 1882, the temple houses two jade Buddha statues from Burma. These important cultural relics were carved from whole white jade; one depicts a sitting Buddha, while the other is a recumbent Buddha poised in “lucky pose.” The Shanghai Buddhism Institute, one of the largest collections of rare Buddhist scriptures, a gift shop, and a vegetarian restaurant are also in residence at the Jade Buddha Temple.
The Shanghai Museum features ancient Chinese art, historic artifacts and rotating special exhibits. Situated on People’s Square in Central Shanghai’s Huangpu District, this world-class museum houses 11 galleries and three exhibition halls.
Yu (or Yuyuan) Garden is a famous and extensive classical garden located beside the City of God Temple in the old city portion of Shanghai. Built between 1559 and 1577 by a local government official, Pan Yunduan, as a private estate for his parents to spend their golden years, the site’s name means “Garden of Peace and Comfort.” Yu Garden covers approximately five acres and features beautifully preserved Ming Dynasty pavilions, elaborate rockeries, arched bridges, goldfish ponds, and peaceful cloisters, all encircled by garden walls topped with an undulating dragon to ward off evil spirits. Today Yu Garden even has a teahouse, restaurant and a bazaar where you can buy souvenirs, haggle over prices, or sample local snacks.
Formerly a residential neighborhood with a mix of old-world and Western-style architecture, Xintiandi has been reborn as a high-end shopping, dining and entertainment district. A traditional mid-19th century stone gate called a “shikumen” leads into picturesque streets lined with boutiques, as well as cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating. Xintiandi is often less crowded than Nanjing Road and the Bund, making it an ideal place to stroll, stop into shops, have lunch or dinner, or simply sip coffee or tea at one of the many restaurant’s outside seating areas and take in the sights around you.
Highlights in Kunming
No trip to Kunming is complete without a visit to Shilin Geopark (“shilin” literally translates to “stone forest”). Sitting less 60 miles outside the city, the Stone Forest is a result of millions of years of limestone erosion, creating natural karst stone formations, some rugged, some smooth, all incredible to behold. The many tall rocks resemble giant petrified trees, giving the illusion of a forest of stone. These other-worldly stone formations appear to change color depending on the weather, and visitors can explore various natural occurrences through the 240-square-mile area and its seven main “divisions,” including caves, lakes and waterfalls. Beyond the stunning natural beauty, visitors to the Stone Forest can also experience local folk customs.
Highlights of Xian
This incredible archaeological find was not discovered until 1974, when workers who were digging a well outside Xi’an happened to strike upon a life-size clay soldier. They alerted Chinese authorities, and government archaeologists then unearthed thousands more clay soldiers, horses, and chariots. The famous Terracotta Warriors, as they’re now called, turned out to be an army of thousands of handmade statues created to guard Qin Shi Huang Di, China’s first emperor, in the afterlife. Perhaps what is so incredible is not only the sheer number of handmade statues, but also the great detail: the clay soldiers each have unique facial expressions, are positioned according to rank, and surround Qin’s tomb in a formation designed to mirror the urban plan of Xi’an. Though most of the statues are largely faded after centuries underground, patches of paint on some of the statues reveal that they were previously painted with detailed, brightly coloured clothes and hold a variety of accurate weapons. The Terracotta Museum covers more than 175,000 square feet. More than 7,000 soldiers, horses, chariots and weapons have been unearthed from the three pits housed at the museum, and excavation is ongoing.
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, or Dayanta, as it is called locally, is a striking architectural site that houses many Buddhist relics brought to China from India along the Silk Road. The pagoda was built in 652 and today stands over 200 feet high, with the higher of its seven stories providing a bird’s-eye view of the city. The pagoda sits within a plaza featuring lovely gardens, musical fountains and excellent people watching.
Shaanxi History Museum
After the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, head just northwest to the Shaanxi History Museum, which is considered one of the top museums in China. The large-scale modern national museum houses more than 370,000 cultural relics housed within a grand complex of buildings. Its exhibits showcase a variety of ancient artefacts spanning more than a million years of history, including wall paintings from Tang Dynasty tombs, Shang bronze, coins, jade pieces, and other relics from Chinese history.
Xi’an City Wall
This ancient fortification surrounds the inner city. It was first built during the early Ming Dynasty, and then added on; the wall now stands almost 40 feet high and stretches 8.5 miles around the city, surrounded by a deep moat and circular park. It is one of the most complete city walls surviving in China, and one of the largest ancient military defense systems in the world. The City Wall is an excellent place to rent a bicycle and ride the wall’s cobblestone path, which can take up to 2 hours if you complete the full circuit and provides excellent city views of both old and new architecture below. For a more leisurely method, you can hop on a cart for hire, or stroll the wall on foot, taking in the city views by day or the lights and lanterns at night.