Top 10 Places to Visit in China

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Longji Rice Terraces also known as Dragon’s Back – They didn’t look like this when I went, but they were still amazing – public use photo

China is a huge country with so much to offer a visitor that most people are unaware of the majority of incredible cities and sights. In fact, as I wrote this I realized just how much I missed out on when I lived there. It seems my research on the Top 10 Places to Visit in China came a bit too late, so I guess I’ll just have to go back. Some people have concerns about the language barrier or the government. The truth is that China is a fascinating, inexpensive, and safe country to travel in, and the capitalist economy is working for them.

I lived in Shanghai and worked as an English teacher at a private, international school for two years. While I lived there, I took every opportunity to travel, both in China and Southeast Asia. In that two years, I didn’t even scratch the surface of what China has to offer in the way of tourist sights, exciting cities, and ancient history.

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Xi’an Bell Tower is in the center of a huge roundabout

I consulted with several people who still live in China before I compiled this list. They have traveled within China for the last ten years and know much more about the country and its amazing places than I ever will. Here’s a list of my favorites and theirs, in no particular order.

Disclaimer: I have not been to all of these places, so some of the photos are photos I found online that are for public, noncommercial use. I’m sure you’ll be able to tell the difference between them and mine, but just in case you have doubts, I have noted the ones that are for public use.

This is a rather long post because I wanted to provide useful information and links to useful information to help you get started planning your trip. I hope this post of the Top 10 Places to Visit in China inspires you and actually helps you to get there. I do not make any commission on these links. I recommend them because of high ratings and reliability, and they are within China, so you’re likely to get a better price than if you book with an agency out of the US or the UK. They also allow you to be a bit more independent as a traveler within China, while still affording you a great experience.

#1 Changbaishan in Jilin Province

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Tianchi or Heaven Lake – public use photo

Jilin Province sits at the border of China and North Korea, and so does Mount Changbaishan. This mountain has a snow cap year round and is the setting for Heaven Lake (Tainchi) that sits at 2189 meters (.75 miles) atop this dormant volcano. This lake is the source of water for three different rivers. But there is much more to see than the lake, although it is the main attraction. This dormant volcano is host to wildlife, amazing hot springs, and stunning scenery. A trek up the mountain will reward you with amazing views, and quite possibly, throngs of Chinese tourists.

Just 1200 meters (about a mile) from Heaven Lake, if you follow the Chengcha River, you’ll see the 68-meter-tall (223ft) Changbai waterfall. It’s the highest volcanic waterfall in the world and you won’t want to miss the roar of the falls and the churning water beneath. Just 2km from the waterfall are the Changbai hot springs.  The rocks around the hot spring are brightly colored because of the chemical makeup of the water. Some of the springs are over 60 degrees Celsius (140F) and the hottest is 82 degrees Celsius (180F).

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Changbai Waterfall – public use photo

Peak season for visiting is June through September when you can see wildflowers in bloom and temperatures are a bit warmer, but still chilly, so dress appropriately. July and August are very rainy and not recommended for trekking up to Heaven Lake. September is an excellent time to trek up the mountain. You can ski here from November to March.

Admission fees are 125 RMB for the entrance fee and 85 RMB for the sight-seeing bus. It is recommended you visit for one or two full days to see all the mountain has to offer.

Accommodation in the area ranges from backpacker hostels to luxury hotels. Even Airbnb.com has accommodation here. Check it out at Airbnb.com/changbiashan

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Heaven Lake – public use photo

How to get to Changbaishan

For tourist convenience, Changbaishan has an airport, and I highly recommend flying here rather than taking a bus or train, which will be a very long ride from anywhere in China. From here, you can take a 4-hour bus ride to Changbaishan Mountain Scenic Area. This airport was built especially for tourists who want to visit the area.

You can take a train to Baihe or Antu. I recommend Antu, which is 160km away. Upon arrival, there are numerous coaches that will take you to the mountain. The ride is about 3 hours.

If you take a bus, it is recommended that you arrive in Er Dao Baihe Town, and then you’ll have to switch to a bus to go to the mountain, or rent a car.

To find out more about how to get there via plane or train, go to English.ctrip.com.  I used this site almost exclusively for domestic travel when I lived in China, and it has improved a lot since then.

#2 Hakka Tulou in Fujian Province

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Hakka Tulou Roundhouses – public use photo

Fujian Province is in southeast China and this is where the majority of Hakka live. They have a very unique style of earthen home and their villages draw tourists from all over the country, and all over the world. Most of these earthen homes are round and made of clay and sandy soil. The foundation walls of these homes are about three meters thick, able to withstand earthquakes, and the outside walls are one meter thick.

The best way to see these spectacular homes for the first time is from a distance. The round ones look like tires and they have a large, center area for gathering. These homes can have up to 400 rooms and are built for communal living, as are the hutongs in Beijing, but these homes also provide a good deal of protection from unwelcome visitors. Each structure is meant to hold the extended family of one Hakka clan. Everyone shares common spaces and has their own sleeping space. It’s really a genius idea.

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Hakka Tulou Roundhouses – public use photo

Most have three to four floors. The common areas, like the kitchen and dining areas, are on the ground floor, the second floor is for storage, and the top floors are bedrooms. Inside this huge ringed structure are two more rings! The middle ring is for bathrooms and the inside ring is a sitting room. They are warm in winter and cool in summer. They are truly amazing structures.

There are three Tulou areas about 2.5 to 3.5 hours away from Xiamen by bus. You can visit the Yongding, Nanjing, and Hua’an villages. Nanjing is closest at only 2.5 hours by bus from Xiamen. Yongding is 3.5 hours by bus, but it is the largest. Hua’an is less popular and less commercial.

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Inside a Hakku Tulou Roundhouse courtyard – public use photo

I’m not one to take tours of a country, but sometimes a day tour of an area is a great way to get around and having an English-speaking guide can be a big perk. It’s recommended to take a 3-day or 5-day tour here, but if you’re a photographer, there is a 9-day tour that may interest you. Tours are offered by various companies and have different rates that usually include accommodation. They may range from 400 to 600 USD for a three-day tour, but many sights are included around Xiamen, as well as lodging, transport, breakfast and lunch.

Here’s a couple of great resources out of China that I found about this region and available tours, but there are many tours available, so do your research.

Topchinatravel.com/xiamen

Chinahighlights.com/xiamen

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Zhongshan Road in Xiamen – public use photo

How to get to Hakka Tulou Roundhouses

My recommendation is to fly to Xiamen or take a train. You can spend the night here and begin the tour the next day. To research your options from within China, I recommend using

English.ctrip.com

#3 Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan Province

Much like the United States, in my opinion, one of the best reasons to visit China is to see its national parks and incredible landscapes. Jiuzhaigou has some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring landscapes anywhere in the world, and there are 17 towns dotted throughout this county that are culturally diverse and fascinating to wander through. It’s located in western Sichuan in Nanping County. It borders Sichuan Province and Gansu Province.

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Huanglong calcified ponds in Huanglong National Park – public use photo

I highly recommend visiting Huanglong National Park, a World Heritage Site, where you’ll see colorful turquoise ponds flowing gently over calcium deposits. No swimming is allowed in the ponds due to their delicate formations, but they are a beautiful sight to behold, surrounded by the green of the forest. You can walk around them on a wooden platform.

Another stunning sight just 36km west of Songpan is Muni Valley. In Muni Valley, there are over 100 lakes and natural hot springs, not to mention the waterfalls. Zhaga Waterfall is most renowned, along with Erdao Lake. You can reach it by road, or if you’re not in a hurry, by horse from Songpan. You can find accommodation in Songpan.

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Songpan Old Town – public use photo

Songpan is an ancient town and the closest town to Huanglong National Park. Jiu Huang Airport is nearby. Four ethnic groups reside here making Songpan culturally diverse. The groups are Tibetian, Han (Mandarin), Qiang, and Hui (Muslim). You will find many opportunities to take photos of the architecture, do some shopping, and eat some great local food. Just a few of the many sights to see in the town include the Ancient City Wall, Chuanzhu Temple, The West Gate, and you can get some great panoramic photos from Guanyin Pavilion.

For accommodation in Songpan check out Top China Travel Jiuzhaigou Accommodationor, if you’re traveling without any kind of tour, you might be interested in accommodation through Airbnb.com/Songpan

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Huanglong National Park calcified pools – public use photo

How to get to Jiuzhaigou

Well, I’m sure you know by now I’m going to recommend flying so you can spend more time in the area. Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport is 53km from Huanglong National Park and 88km from Jiuzhaigou Valley, so I’m going to give information on how to reach these areas from the airport.

Bus is an option from Chengdu to Songpan, but not from anywhere else in China, unless you want to take 24+ hours to reach the area.

From the airport, there are a few options for reaching Jiuzhaigou Valley. You can take a taxi for 200 RMB one-way and it takes about two hours. This is especially economical if there are 2-4 people sharing. You can also rent a car, and the car comes with a driver! It is suggested that you rent in advance from a travel agency and then the driver will wait for you at the airport. I am not well-informed about this option, but I think the links I provided above may have information on this.

Another option is the airport shuttle bus, but there isn’t a set schedule of departure times and it is not available all the time. A one-way trip is only about 45 RMB and only takes 1.5 hours, so if it is available as an option when you arrive, it’s worth taking. They will drop you at the gate of Jiuzhaigou Valley.

For flight info check out English.ctrip.com

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Huanglong Lake Waterfall in Mt Lushan

#4 Zhangjiajie World Heritage Site

Located in the northwest of China’s Hunan Province, this area has always been popular with local tourists, but in recent years it has gained notoriety all over the world as the inspiration for the unusual landscape in the movie Avatar. Wulingyuan Scenic Area contains countless quartzite sandstone columns making this one of the most unusual landscapes in the world.

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Wulingyuan National Park near Zhangjiajie – public use photo

But what can you do here besides stand at a viewpoint and look at the unique landscape? There are many different folk tribes here who are willing to share their customs and crafts with tourists. Along with the majority, which are Han, there are 29 minority groups living here.

Another of the favorite things to do here is float down Maoyan River. It’s about a 25km (16 miles) stretch and you can admire the unusual land formations as you go for a rather exhilarating ride on the river. There are four popular stops along the river – Bangtou Spring, Jianxie Spring, Yan (Salt) Spring, and Pen Wu Cave.

Tourists can visit Wulingyuan National Park, where the unusual columns are located, and this is about a 40-minute drive from Zhangjiajie. Tianmen Mountain is also popular for its viewpoints and it can be reached via cable car located at the south side of the city. You only need a moderate level of fitness to navigate this area as walking paths are paved and have proper stairs built in. The infamous glass bridge is also located in this region about one hour from the city center.

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Wulingyuan National Park near Zhangjiajie – public use photo

Zhangjiajie is open all year, but the optimal time to visit is between April and October. April to June is considered the rainy season, which makes this area foggy and mysterious. The leaves turn colors in September and October, making for great photos.

For accommodation, you’ll want to stay in Zhangjiajie, which also has an airport. There is some accommodation in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park as well, which is about 40 minutes away from the city center.

For help with accommodation in the area, check out Airbnb.com/Zhangjiajie

or if you are thinking of booking a tour while you’re in the area, here’s another option Topchinatravel.com/zhangjiajie

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Tianmen Shan Temple – public use photo

How to get to Zhanghjiajie World Heritage Site

Zhangjiajie is connected by air to all major cities in China if you wish to fly. There are over 10 daily flights to choose from and others that run a few times a week, so be careful when booking to choose the appropriate dates.

By train you can reach the city in 13 hours from Guangzhou, 18 hours from Shenzen, 21 hours from Shanghai, and 5 hours from Yichang. For me, it’s worth it to fly and spend more time in the area.

From Changsha, a bus will take 4 – 5 hours. From other cities, a bus is really not practical as it will likely take more than a day.

For more information about how to get to Zhangjiajie, check out  English.ctrip.com

 

#5 Dunhuang on the Silk Road in Gansu Province

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Mogao Grottos – public use photo

Dunhuang is located in Gansu Province in northwestern China. It is a small oasis in the middle of the big Gobi Desert, 2000 miles west of Beijing. The Dang River runs through it and is the source of life here. Dunhuang was a rest stop on the Silk Road and it is considered the gateway which allowed Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam to enter China.

The top attraction here is the Mogao Grottoes located at the eastern foot of Mingsha Hill, notable because of the beautiful, ancient frescoes and statues found inside. Mogao Grottoes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 492 grottoes in total (how much time you got?) with more than 2800 sculptures and, wait for it, 45000 square meters of murals covering pretty much every inch of the walls inside. It is the largest and most well-preserved Buddhist grotto in the world today.

Another big attraction is Mingsha (whistling sands) Hill and Cresent Spring which are 7km away from Dunhuang city. People can slide down the huge sand dune and it makes a sound, thus the name. The sands are five colors – red, green, yellow, white, and black. The singing sound only occurs when someone walks or slides in the sand. There is a crescent-shaped spring here that is about five feet deep and mysteriously never fills with sand. The water is crystal clear. May to October is the best time to visit.

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Cresent Spring in Dunghuang – public use photo

About 75km southwest of Dunhuang lies Yangguan Pass. It was built by Emperor Wu of the Hang Dynasty. Sections of the pass have been buried by shifting sands, but it’s still amazing to see the foundation of the walls. These sections were once part of the Great Wall of China, and many of the beacons are still standing.

Dunhuang is a fantastic home base to explore the surrounding area. There are many more sites than I have mentioned here. If you’re interested in (day) tours, check out Topchinatravel.com/dunhuang

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Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert – public use photo

How to get to Dunhuang

Fly! Dunhuang Airport is 13 km to the east of the city. You can fly from Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Lanzhou, and Urumqi. Urumqi is another fascinating city to visit on the Silk Road, and it’s unique because of its Islamic culture and history.

There are now two rail stations here – Dunhuang City and Liuyuan, which used to be the only one and it is 128 km north of the city. Dunhuang City Railway Station is only 15km away and you can get here via train from Xi’an, Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, or Yinchuan.

There are taxis and minibuses in front of the train station and the 20 minute ride to the city center costs a whopping 3 RMB, or less than 50 cents. Buses to Mogao Caves also run in front of the station every half hour and you can take them directly to the caves.

Bus is also an option. The Dunhuang Bus Station is across from Feitian Hotel in the city. There are 8 buses daily that take you Dunhuang City Railway Station. Ask at your hotel for buses to the airport if you don’t want to take the minibus.

For air and train options, check out English.ctrip.com

 

#6 Yunnan Province – Shangri La, Lijiang, Xishuangbanna

top 10 places to visit in china
Xishuangbanna Scenery

At the end of my two years in Shanghai, there was a particular region of China that I wanted to visit on my way to Tibet, and that was Yunnan Province in the far southwestern corner of China. This province is loaded with places to visit. Lijiang’s Old Town, Dali, Shangri La, and Xishuangbanna were all on my list, as well as a certain pagoda in the middle of nowhere and a botanical garden so large you can’t cover it in a day, even if you take the electric shuttles on the grounds.

To start my journey, I flew to Kunming from Shanghai. Surprise! I chose to fly! From Kunming, I must have flown to Xishuangbanna in the far south of the province near Myanmar. I don’t remember taking an 18 hour bus ride, and that doesn’t sound like me at all. In addition to seeing the town of Xishuangbanna (Banna), I wanted to see an octagonal pavilion that was in the middle of nowhere and built in 1707. I will write more about my personal experience in Yunnan in a separate post. There’s too much to write about in this post.

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View of a village in Xishuangbanna

Banna is a backpacker haven and a great base for exploring Tiger Leaping Gorge, Lake Erhai, and the Lunan Stone Forest. Day tours might be the easiest way to explore these sights and most hotels in Banna can help with booking. There are also many minority people and visiting their villages is a great experience. Once again, this region is further proof that natural wonders are the biggest reason to visit China.

To get to the Octagonal Pavilion and the huge botanical garden, I took my trusted Lonely Planet China to the bus station, pointed to the name of the place I wanted to go (in Chinese) and got a bus ticket I couldn’t read. They pointed me to the right bus, and the driver made sure I got off at the right place. Amazing. You don’t need a tour guide for everything.

After Banna, I headed to Lijiang, probably by flying. I don’t remember as it was several years ago. Lijiang is famous for its Ancient Town and the incredible architecture that has been restored throughout. Most of the Ancient City is street after street of shops, but locals live on the second floor and you’ll see daily life as usual going on. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The women of Lijiang going about life as usual

North of Lijiang is Shangri La where I spent the night before flying to Lhasa in Tibet. Shangri La is another old town with amazing architecture, art and surrounding areas to explore. I also remember seeing the largest termite mounds I’ve ever seen, even compared to ones in Africa. I don’t know why that sticks in my mind.

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Shangri La Valley

Accommodation in any of these towns is plentiful and ranges from backpacker hostels to luxury hotels. There are any number of websites you can use for accommodation like booking.com or hotels.com, and of course, Airbnb.com. If you want to book an all-inclusive tour or even just day tours, you can find information here Topchinatravel.com/yunnan 

Most hotels anywhere in the region can also help you with day tours. I didn’t take any day tours while in Yunnan, but I actually think I would have gotten more out of my visit if I had.

How to get to and around Yunnan Province

All of the major cities in Yunnan Province have airports. I only had a week or so to explore and I didn’t want to spend it on a bus. I flew to Kunming from Shanghai, then on to Banna, then I’m pretty sure I flew to Lijiang where I also explored Dali on a day trip, and then I took a bus to Shangri La for the last part of my trip.

The roads in Yunnan are curvy and hilly and it is a huge province. Buses are available and many Chinese use them because that’s what they can afford. But they are time consuming, so keep that in mind when looking at your timeline and budget.

In each town within Yunnan, there is a bus system that is surprisingly easy to navigate on your own if you do not wish to book a tour. The key is to have a guidebook with the names of the places you want to visit written in Chinese. This and a few RMB will get you where you want to go.

For flight and train (train travel is quite slow…)  information, go to English.ctrip.com

For bus information, I advise asking at your hotel. I did not find a reliable source for information online, or the source was too general to be of any real help.

#7 Guilin and the Longji Rice Terraces in Guangxi Province

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Longji Rice Terraces also known as Dragon’s Back – public use photo

The scenery in Guilin and the surrounding area has earned it the name “glittering pearl” and I think that is quite accurate. The unusual karst land formations and surrounding mountains make this area unique and mysterious. Guilin and the Longji rice terraces are located in Guangxi Province in northeast China.

So, what is there do in and around Guilin? You can cruise down the Li River, visit the Reed Flute Cave, and the most popular attraction is Dragon’s Back rice terraces in Longji. Nearby Yangshuo is also a great town to visit and spend a night or two so you can explore that area.

top 10 places to visit in china
All in a day’s work on the Li River

Longji is about a 2 hour drive from Guilin. You can hike up to Ping An village for extraordinary views of Dragon’s Back. From here you can take a leisurely hike along the rice terraces to Longji Zhuang Village, which will afford you with more amazing views. It takes about 2.5 hours on a paved path and is totally worth it.

You can also cruise down the Li River and admire the limestone karsts that jut up on either side of the river. The cruise ends in Yangshuo, a town more than 1400 years old. It mixes the east and west beautifully and you can find great coffee, or a good cocktail, after an afternoon of shopping and taking photos. I actually took a Chinese cruise on the river because it was cheaper, and I met some lovely people who wanted to practice their English. It was a great experience. West Street is the most popular street in Yangshuo for eating, drinking and shopping, but this town has something interesting around every corner.

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Li River scenery on a misty day

There are numerous tours available, but the truth is, you can explore Guilin, Longji, and Yangshuo on your own using Guilin as a home base to explore the surrounding area. Guilin and Yangshuo have a full range of accommodation, from hostels to luxury hotels. Many outfitters in Yangshuo offer a range of outdoor activities for all you adventurous types.

Booking.com/guilin

Booking.com/Yangshuo

You can reach Longji rice terraces by bus from Guilin. There is a non-stop shuttle bus from the Guilin Qintan Bus Station (31 Cuizhu Road). The journey takes about 2.5 hours. When you arrive at Longshen Bus Station, find the local bus that goes to Longji Rice Terraces Scenic Area. Make sure the bus steward knows where you are going. Some go to Ping’an Village and some to Dazhai, which is where you want to go to visit the terraces. If you have a good guidebook with names of places in Chinese, you should be fine. Just point. It worked for me.

If you arrive in Guilin by train, there are many shuttle buses at the train station as well. Go to the parking area and look for the buses going to Dazai Jinkeng Red Yao Terraced Fields.

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Zhongshan Road in Xiamen is a happening place – public use photo

How to get to Guilin

I’m a fan of flying, not long train rides, as you know, so my recommendation is to fly to Guilin. Once you arrive in Guilin, whether at the airport or the train station, a taxi is the easiest way to reach your hotel, and they are cheap. If you want an even cheaper option, you can take a city bus to your hotel. Your hotel should be able to tell you which bus can drop you nearby, so contact them beforehand if that information isn’t available on their website. Here’s a site that can help you make this journey, without a tour as I did. Longji Rice Terraces

However, if you prefer the convenience of a tour, there are some good ones mentioned on this website.

Topchinatravel.com/guilin

For flight and train info, go to  english.ctrip.com

#8 Xi’an and Terra Cotta Warriors in Shaanxi Province

top 10 places to visit in china
Terra Cotta Army Pit 1

Of all the amazing sites I have visited in China, and in the world, the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an are the most memorable, the most impressive, and incredibly unique. I don’t think anyone can visit Xi’an and say they were underwhelmed. Xi’an was the eastern terminus of The Silk Road, and that is certainly reflected in the rich and varied cultures within the city. It’s located just east of the center of China in Shaanxi Province and is easily reached by plane, train, or bus.

There are many historical sights and museums in Xi’an, and there is great shopping and eating in the Muslim Quarter. Of course, the most visited monument in Xi’an is the Terra Cotta Warriors and you will want to hire a guide for this visit. This monument is considered the eighth wonder of the world and when you see it, you’ll understand why. These statues were created during the Qin Dynasty and they have guarded the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang for more than 2000 years. In 1987, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

This mausoleum of Emperor Qin took 39 years to complete and Emperor Qin began building the tomb when he was just 13. You can visit the site of the actual tomb where he is buried, but it has not been excavated, and at the time of my visit in 2008, there were no plans to excavate due to the large amounts of mercury believed to be in the tomb. The site of the tomb is included in the tours. The warriors are the real attraction anyway. There are three “pits” you can view.

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Terra Cotta Warriors Pit 2 – the chariot – This was my favorite part of the exhibit

Pit 1 is the largest and most photographed with an area of 14260 meters. There are over 6000 warriors in formation with their horses in Pit 1. Pit 2 is 6000 sq meters and the 1300 warriors and horses are more intact than in Pit 1. Pit 3 was not discovered until 1976 and is 300 square meters and contains a clay chariot that is most impressive. The museum exhibit, in addition to the actual pits, is also very impressive. The exhibit is indoors, so you can visit any time of year. No flash pictures, please.

Other sites that are must-sees in Xi’an include the City Wall. Nobody does a wall like China. This one surrounds the old city and you can walk or cycle on the top of it. You can enter the Old City via the South or North Gate. The Muslim Quarter is also a great place to spend some time wandering, eating, and shopping. The main food street is Huimin Street which is actually several streets that make up the Muslim Quarter. It’s a fairly small area, but it is lively and maybe not what you’d expect from Chinese culture. Also, visit the Shaanxi History Museum for a wonderful exhibit of relics from various periods in Chinese history, and stop by Big Goose Pagoda when you finish. There are Chinese drum performances here at night.

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Big Goose Pagoda drummers at night – very cool

For more info on all of these sites, check out Chinahighlights.com/xian or  Topchinatravel.com/xian

Accommodation for all budgets is widely available in Xi’an. I recommend staying in the Old City for culture and convenience.  There are numerous agencies that can book a tour to visit the Warriors because it is outside Xi’an. A tour is an easy way to obtain transport and a guide all in one, and I think it’s worth it.

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Xi’an Bell Tower, where they have incredible drum performances, is even more beautiful at night

How to get to Xi’an

Xi’an is a 2-hour flight from Beijing or 2.5 hours from Shanghai, but you can fly here from just about anywhere within China on their extensive network of domestic airlines. Xianyang Airport is 45km from the city, but there are plenty of airport taxis and buses to get you to your hotel. Taxis are cheap, but buses are even cheaper. For 25 RMB, you can take a shuttle bus from the airport to Big Goose Pagoda in the middle of the Old City. Bus transport in China is organized and easy. Don’t worry about a language barrier. Bus destinations will be in English.

If you prefer to get here by train, there are two train stations, Xi’an Railway Station and Xi’an North Railway Station if you take the fast trains. Xi’an North is 10km from the North Gate of the city. There is a bullet train from Beijing to Xi’an in 5 hours. It is cheaper than flying, and it is an experience I would recommend.

More on Xi’an transport here  Chinahighlights.com/xian and for flight and train schedules check out English.ctrip.com

#9 Beijing and The Great Wall

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Do I really need to explain what this is? Shot from Mutianyu

How can I not mention Beijing and The Great Wall in a Top 10 list of China? I must. There is a reason Beijing sees hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, both local and foreign. The sights, the ambiance, the food, the smells, everything is quintessential Chinese, even if it seems touristy. I visited Beijing three times at different times of year. Each time I was rewarded with clear blue skies and no shortage of things to see and do.

Most people make Beijing their first stop when visiting China. They fly into the city and start their tour there. That is a fine idea if you’re planning to visit several locations in China. From Beijing, you can easily visit the two nearest locations of The Great Wall – Badaling and Mutianyu. I visited both and recommend Mutianyu. It is a bit further away and doesn’t get as many visitors, and it is better preserved. I took a Chinese tourist bus from the end of Wangfujing Street. Basically, when the bus is full, it leaves. I didn’t realize this meant a Chinese guide would talk for the ENTIRE ride! It is, however, a very cheap option and when you arrive at the wall, you’re on your own to explore. It also included a stop at the Ming Tombs.

Speaking of Wangfujing Street, this is a lively, wide pedestrian thoroughfare in the heart of Beijing where you can find just about any food on a stick you can imagine, including insects and starfish. Several restaurants serve Peking duck and even though the architecture looks traditional, it is all new and full of shiny shops. At the end, there’s a metro stop and bus meeting point where I got the Chinese tourist bus.

top 10 places to visit in china
Starfish on Wangfujing Street

The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square are the top attractions in Beijing and should not be missed. You could spend an entire day at the Forbidden City and not see it all. Figure out how much time you have to stay in Beijing, decide what you want to see, and plan your days out if you’re not booking a tour because there is so much to see and experience here.

I also recommend visiting the local hutongs (traditional one-story dwellings with communal toilets). Many of these neighborhoods have been restored and you can tour some of the houses on the tour, some of which are modern and stylish, a far cry from what they once were. I just flagged a tuk tuk and paid him a bit of money to drive me through one of the hutongs, so I didn’t get to go inside any of the homes. That’s why I’d recommend a tour, whether private or with a group. I think I would have gotten so much more out of the experience if I had booked a tour.

top 10 places to visit in china
Temple of Heaven in Beijing

Hotels can help with booking any day tours, but certain times of year it is better to book in advance, especially during Chinese New Year. Here’s a website that can help you get started with your research on tours if you want to book anything in advance.

Topchinatravel.com/beijing/ 

Honestly, within the city, a tour is not necessary. If you want a guide for certain monuments, they will be waiting by the entrance. Just look interested and they will approach you.

How to get to and around Beijing

To get to Beijing, fly. Are you surprised? However, if you are in Shanghai, there is an overnight bullet train that is spectacular and will get you to your destination in eight hours. You’ll have your own flat screen. When I took the bullet train, it cost slightly more than a flight.

Once you’re in Beijing, and extensive subway network will take you anywhere you want to go for 2RMB per trip. Beijing has the cheapest subway system I have ever used, and it is super-efficient, clean, and so easy to use. You can even take it to Olympic Park and you’ll exit directly into the park.

Beijing taxis are also cheap, but I found that they sometimes wanted to take the “long route” to get me to my destination in order to bump up their fare. The extensive bus network in the city may be intimidating, but with a little practice and information, it is easily doable.

In Beijing, you can buy a transport card that you can load up and use for the subway, bus, and taxis. Shanghai had the same option, as does Xi’an. I’d highly recommend this option even if you are only in Beijing for a few days. Here’s detailed info on the card. Ebeijing.gov.cn/MetroCard

For flight and train info, check out English.ctrip.com

top 10 places to visit in china
Wangfujing Street in Beijing

#10 Huangshan – The Yellow Mountains

Huangshan in southeastern China draws a lot of tourists every year who want to come marvel at the oddly shaped rocks called The Yellow Mountains. The villages of Xidi and Hongcun also draw big tourist crowds because of their ancient, traditional architecture. These mountains are some of the most photographed in the world. The natural beauty of the area is the primary reason to visit. Many peaks and ravines are mostly accessible by steps built into them, as is the case for most hiking in China. Due to large numbers of tourists, both local and foreign, the path is often paved to prevent erosion.

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Huangshan National Park – The Yellow Mountains – public use photo

The three major peaks here are Bright Summit, Lotus Peak, and Heavenly Capital Peak. All three are 1800 meters (5900 feet) above sea level. After a visit to the Yellow Mountains, you’ll likely be hungry and in the mood for relaxing or shopping. You’re in luck. The streets of Huangshan will not disappoint. Check out Tunxi Ancient Street if you’re looking for food, gifts or picturesque architecture.

You also won’t want to miss Hong Village. It was the setting for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This ancient village has been the subject of numerous paintings. It sits right at the foot of the Yellow Mountains. Tachuan Village has an entry fee of 30 RMB. That’s a small price to pay to see this village in the fall when the leaves change. Porcelain is made in Jingdezhen. It is 2.5 hours by bus from Huangshan, but you can spend the day here wandering the streets and learning about porcelain, which is more interesting than it sounds. There is an entry fee of 20 RMB. Why an entry fee for some villages? They actually use it to restore parts of the town and maintain it for visitors, so the fee is for a good cause.

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Hong Village where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed – public use photo

You can visit Huangshan  any time of year, although May and June may be rainy. October and November are optimal for seeing the fall foliage. Accommodation is plentiful in Huangshan. If you’re not on a tour, you can find your own easily through various websites. You can also stay in Hong Village or Xidi Village, and while there are a variety of options, some may be quite rustic.

If you’re serious about hiking and seeing the sunset, you can stay on the mountain. Suggested hotels on the mountain are Xihai Hotel (West Sea Hotel) and Beihai Hotel (North Sea Hotel). For more information about accommodation or tours, check out Chinahighlights.com/huangshan

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Huangshan National Park – The Yellow Mountains – public use photo

How to get to Huangshan

Well, imagine! You can fly to Huangshan! The small airport is 10 minutes from Huangshan City. There are daily flights to and from Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Guangzhou, and Chongqing.

You can take an overnight train from Shanghai in 12 hours, but a bus from Shanghai only takes 6 hours. Hangzhou (West Lake) is another fantastic Chinese city to visit. Although I didn’t put it in this list, I did go there many times when I lived in Shanghai. From Hangzhou, you can take a bus in 2.5 hours and even go directly to the mountains in 3.5 hours.

For transport options, visit English.ctrip.com

If you’re interested in tours in and around Huangshan, check out Chinahighlights.com/huangshan/tours orTopchinatravel.com/huangshan

If you found this post helpful, or not, I’d love to know your thoughts. I welcome comments below.

 

 

 

Mary Lyons
I have had incredible travel opportunities since moving overseas eleven years ago. I created this blog to share my experiences, what I've learned, and my mistakes and frustrations, in hopes of entertaining readers and helping people to create and plan their own travel opportunities.

I would love to know your thoughts!

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