Its sheer size — an area of more than 3.7 million square miles, and a population of more than 1.3 billion — makes China an overwhelming destination for travelers. Where to start? The dizzying cities of Beijing or Shanghai, the mighty Yangtze River, the famous Great Wall?
While no single slideshow can fully capture everything China has to offer, we’ve come up with a dozen memorable experiences that will get you away from the crowds and give you a taste of the country’s unique landscapes and cultures. Learn how to pick tea leaves, discover Shanghai’s hidden Jewish heritage, stay in the home of a Tibetan family or even cuddle a panda — these activities are just the beginning. Click through our slideshow to see all the experiences, and then check out our comprehensive guides to where to stay and how to get around.
Explore the Dragon’s Backbone
Cascading down the green mountains of Longsheng County are the Longji rice terraces, which form one of China’s most spectacular landscapes. The name Longji means “dragon’s backbone,” an apt descriptor for the way the terraces follow the curves of the hillside. The rice fields have been shaped over many centuries, dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368). Lush and green in the summer, the fields turn golden in late September just before harvest. Many visitors choose to come in the spring, when the fields are flooded with water and glisten under the sun.
The terraces are about a two-hour bus ride from Guilin, and it’s possible to make a long day trip of it either via public bus or a tour. (Viator, for example, offers a nine-hour private Longsheng Culture and Longji Rice Terraces excursion from Guilin.) But if you’d like more time for hiking along the terraces and exploring the small mountain villages — or if you want to see the terraces under the dreamy light of sunrise or sunset — it’s worth staying overnight in the area. The villages of Ping’an and Dazhai are good starting points for hikes (there’s also a cable car in Dazhai if you’re not up for a moderate uphill climb); here you can also meet the local Zhuang and Yao people.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
From Guilin to Yangshuo, the Li River Cruise – China by Lara G
“The 83-km-long waterway from Guilin to Yangshuo is like an artist’s masterpiece. The landscape is decorated with rolling hills, steep cliffs, fantastic caves. The Li River scenery is like nowhere else but the best scenery is located about halfway between Guilin and Yangshuo. In fact, the back side of the Chinese 20 yuan note has a picture of the Li River hills at around this halfway point of the cruise — check it out.” Read more!
Marvel at Buddhist Cave Art
China is home to several treasure troves of Buddhist cave art: statues, frescoes and carvings dating back some 1,500 years. You’ll find more than 250 caves and 51,000 stone sculptures at Yungang Grottoes, about 10 miles outside the city of Datong in the Shanxi province. Most striking are the massive Buddha statues in the center of some of the caves, but take time to appreciate the ornate details of the smaller carvings as well. Though tours are available, it’s easy enough to access the caves via bus or taxi from Datong.
Also magnificent — and even better preserved — are the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, along the ancient Silk Road trade route. Photography isn’t allowed inside the caves, so you’ll just have to rely on your own memory to capture the colorful murals and sculptures here, which date back as far as the fourth century. Though guides carry flashlights, many visitors recommend bringing your own as well to help you illuminate the details you’re most interested in. The caves are accessible by minibus and taxi.
See Beijing in a Sidecar
If you’ve already done the ubiquitous walking or bus tour, why not explore China’s capital the fun way: from the sidecar of a motorcycle! These nimble vehicles will give you an up-close and intimate ride through the city’s hutongs — narrow, winding alleys lined with historical courtyard homes, where you can catch a glimpse of locals chatting with their neighbors or browsing traditional shops.
Beijing Sideways offers a full-day “Beijing in a Glance” sidecar tour that includes time in the hutongs as well as visits to the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and Houhai Lake. On weekends, you’ll also stop in a local street market. Other shorter tours are available (two or four hours), including a fun Beijing by Night excursion showcasing the city after hours, from the red lanterns of Guije to the glittering Centre for the Performing Arts.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Beijing – Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace by Lara G
“The magnificent Summer Palace was the summer retreat and playground for the imperial family and royal court during the late Qing Dynasty. Considered one of the finest Chinese architectural gardens, the Summer Palace spans over 700 acres with breathtaking views, pavilions, towers, palaces and halls. We enjoyed a dragon boat ride across the garden’s beautiful lake.” Read more!
Follow the Silk Road
Sprawling for thousands of miles across China and into Europe and the Middle East, the ancient trading route now known as the Silk Road was once a vital link between East and West. In addition to silk, innumerable goods were passed between civilizations — porcelain and paper from China, sandalwood and ivory from India, tapestries and camels from Central Asia, skins and cattle from Eastern Europe — in a sea of caravans over the centuries.
Modern-day travelers can retrace the steps of these ancient caravans by exploring all or part of the Silk Road. The Chinese portion of the route extends between Kashgar in the west and Xian in the east (though many tours include Beijing as well). Along the way you’ll shop in colorful bazaars, explore desert villages and go through spectacular mountain passes. Tour operators such as Silk Road Treasure Journeys, Kashgar Guide and G Adventures offer packages ranging from nine to 20 nights.
Have Tea for Two in Hangzhou
When in China, do as the Chinese do and drink tea. The history of tea in China is vast; according to legend, it was first discovered as far back as 2737 B.C., though written records indicate tea was first used as a beverage a couple of thousand years later. Regardless of which is correct, tea use in China has been around a long time.
Green tea in particular is associated with China, and Hangzhou is famous for its Xihu Longjing green tea. Visitors to the region can walk the public paths through the tea fields, attend a tea ceremony at the China National Tea Museum or take a tea-themed tour that includes visits to the museum and tea fields, as well as tastings and even tea leaf picking.
Shanghai & Beyond offers half- and full-day tours that include a visit to a tea plantation and tea leaf picking. Hangzhou Tea Tours also runs various half- and full-day tours including an all-access visit to an exclusive private tea house and a three-hour tea and wine tour. Hangzhou Private Tour leads a full-day Dragon Well Tea Culture outing that visits the museum and the Meijiawu Tea Plantation, where you will learn how to pick and cook the leaves.
Go for a Ride at the Great Wall
There are few sites more iconic on our planet than the Great Wall of China. But celebrity brings with it busloads of tourists, so if you want to see the Great Wall without the crowds, head to the Mutianyu section. Located some 37 miles from Beijing, this 1.5-mile stretch of the Great Wall features 22 watch towers for visitors to explore. It also offers two unique ways to arrive at and depart from the Wall: cable car and toboggan.
There are two cable cars to choose from, with one (an enclosed gondola) going a bit higher up the wall than the other (an open-air ski lift affair). There is a hiking path between the two levels, so if you take the higher one you can walk along the Wall to get to the lower station between towers five and six, which is where the toboggan run begins. Descending some 328 feet, the toboggan track zigzags as it goes, with you deciding how fast you want to go. You can choose a single-car, bobsled-like toboggan or a double car for parents with kids.
The easiest way to get to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is with a tour operator. Check out BeijingLandscapes’ seven-hour Mutianyu Great Wall Tour or WildGreatWall Adventure Tours’ one-day Mutianyu and Summer Palace tour.
Bike Xian’s Ancient City Walls
Dating back to the Ming Dynasty, Xian’s well-preserved city walls stretch for about eight and a half miles around the historical core of the city. While you can walk the length of the walls in about half a day, it’s more fun to hop on a bike and enjoy the views on two wheels. The walls are nearly 40 feet high, so they offer a perfect vantage point to see the parks, temples and residential buildings of Xian.
Rental bikes, including tandems, are available at the wall’s main entrance gates; the South Gate offers the longest opening hours. A ride all the way around the walls will take an hour and a half to two hours with photo stops. Arrive first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds. If you’re not up for a ride, battery-operated carts can also be hired at the main gates.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
China. Travel. Barf. Dog. Love. by Wendy Goodman
“Pulling ourselves together for the best part of the trip, we flew to Guilin for a brief yet idyllic day cruise down the Li River through the limestone karsts that grace so many Chinese silk paintings and then to Xian for the Terra Cotta Warriors. Visiting one of the world’s most breathtaking archaeology finds is everything it is billed to be and more. What surprised us was the energy, drive and commercialism of the modern smoggy city of Xian.” Read more!
Have a Culinary Adventure
In China’s southwestern corner lies the Yunnan province, a fascinating melting pot of ethnic minority cultures. There you’ll find the Linden Centre, a hotel and visitor attraction in a restored courtyard estate that’s dedicated to cultural immersion. There are a wide variety of activities to try here, from calligraphy classes and Dongjing music lessons to bike tours and temple hikes, but our favorites give you a taste of Yunnan’s unique local cuisine.
Want to get your hands dirty? Spend an hour or two learning to cook Chinese dumplings or bake the flatbread traditional to the nearby village of Xizhou. If you’d rather let the experts do the cooking, the Linden Centre can arrange a home-cooked dinner with a local Muslim family. The Xizhou Village and Morning Market Walking Tour includes detours to a cheese maker and a noodle factory.
“Dali is a wonderful city in southwest China in the province of Yunnan where the ‘ethnic minorities’ live. The ancient city of Dali is known as a backpacker stop so there are all kinds of restaurants that make ‘apple pie and hamburgers.’ My kids were excited to eat something different even if it wasn’t exactly American food. We took a boat ride on Erhai Lake, rode a lift to the top of a mountain overlooking this beautiful place and visited the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple. Our guide was a Bai woman in traditional garb. She took us to the local market and explained the many different ethnic groups of the area.” Read more!
See the World’s Longest Graffiti Street
With vibrantly colored murals, tags and stencils splashed across nearly a mile-long stretch of buildings, Huangjueping Street (sometimes called the “Doodle Art Street”) is believed to be the world’s longest graffiti street. Located in the bustling city of Chongqing in southwestern China, the street showcases the work of hundreds of artists, including numerous students at the nearby Sichuan Fine Art Institute. The months-long project was completed in 2007.
The local area has become something of a haven for art; in addition to the Fine Art Institute, there are a number of galleries and workshops where up-and-coming artists ply their trade. The area is accessible by public bus.
Stay in a Tibetan Family’s Home
Tumbling waterfalls, brilliant turquoise lakes and lush forests have made Jiuzhaigou one of China’s premier natural attractions — and it’s got the crowded resorts and chain hotels to prove it. If you’re looking to stay somewhere a little more authentic between hiking excursions in the Sichuan province, don’t miss Zhuo Ma’s Jiuzhaigou Home-Stay, located in a mountain village about a 15-minute drive from the park.
Zhuo Ma and her family welcome visitors into their traditional Tibetan home, where they offer three simple guestrooms with shared bath. Three communal meals a day are included, featuring local cuisine like stir-fried cabbage, freshly baked bread with honey from the property’s beehives, rich yak butter tea and home-brewed barley wine. (If you enjoy the food, ask the chef for a cooking lesson!)
The family will arrange free transfers to Jiuzhaigou, or you can simply explore the local village and mountains.
Explore Shanghai’s Jewish History
Though Shanghai‘s Jewish history is most commonly associated with the 20,000-plus refugees who fled Europe in the years leading up to and during World War II, Jews first came to Shanghai from Baghdad and Bombay in the mid-19th century. The rich history of Jews in Shanghai dwindled to a close after the end of World War II in 1945 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, as most Jews emigrated to Israel, Australia, the United States and Canada. But they left behind relics of their days in the city, many of which serve as landmark buildings, such as the Sassoon House, the Peace Hotel, the Embankment Building and Hamilton House.
Many of these sites can be visited on your own, including the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which houses the Jewish Refugees Museum, but for a more contextual understanding of Jewish life in Shanghai a tour is recommended. Tours of Jewish Shanghai offers a half-day tour that visits the city’s most important Jewish heritage sites, including the Peace Hotel and Ohel Moishe Synagogue. Another interesting option is Viator’s two-hour Small Group Walking Tour of Shanghai’s Jewish Ghetto.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Impressive Shanghai by Aida M Garcia-Toledo
“Shanghai is like Manhattan and London combined and on steroids. It is the definition of a mega city. In Shanghai the buildings seem even taller, the crowds seem larger and there are hordes of people everywhere. … Shanghai is where all the cool kids in China choose to live and where they have perfected the art of balancing Western and Eastern traditions with brilliant results.” Read more!
–written by Sarah Schlichter and Dori Saltzman