Top 10 Things to Do in China
Featured destinations: China, Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Yangtze River
Published 29 March 2017
Big, bold and brash, China is the world’s most populous nation, not to mention the third largest after Russia and Canada. Yet the wild, craggy landscapes and red and gold-hued temples lurking beyond the relative familiarity of Beijing and Shanghai remain an enigma to many a first-time traveller. Venture outside these ultra-modern cities and you’ll discover fascinating archaeological sites, ancient rivers, unique wildlife and of course the Great Wall of China. Here’s our guide to the top 10 must-see sights.
Great Wall of China
The world’s most famous wall snakes for over 5,500 miles across China, from Jiayuguan in the west to Old Dragon’s Head in the east, where it plunges dramatically into the ocean. Despite the rumours, it’s not visible from space, but a small portion of bricks are submerged in the Panjiakou Reservoir, making for an out-of-the-ordinary scuba diving spot. Most visitors choose to stay dry though, and visit the fortifications just outside Beijing where several well-preserved sections zig-zag across the mountain tops. Try Badaling or Juyongguan, which can get rather crowded with day-trippers, or venture further to Jingshanling to have the place almost to yourself. Best of all, walk the 6.5-mile route from Jinshanling to Simatai, ending with a heart-stopping zip-line back down to the valley floor.
Forbidden City, Beijing
In the heart of Beijing, surrounded by a 52m-wide moat, stands the Forbidden City, the most visited attraction in China. Once considered the centre of the universe, it was forbidden to enter the city (hence the name) without permission of the emperor, and any foolhardy souls who disobeyed were promptly executed. Times have changed though, and these days a ¥60 (about £6.20) entry ticket will let you in, no questions asked. With so much to see, we recommend you hire a guide or at least the audio tour to help make sense of the palace’s 8,704 rooms and their historical significance.
The Bund, Shanghai
Shanghai’s atmospheric waterfront promenade, otherwise known as The Bund, runs alongside the swirling waters of the Huangpu River. Bustling with street performers and handicraft-sellers, this mile-long boardwalk is number one on everyone’s list of Shanghai must-sees, and is also a great spot to get your bearings in what can be a rather overwhelming city. On one side of the walkway stands a row of grand colonial buildings dotted with luxury hotels, upmarket restaurants and swanky bars, while across the river is the electric Pudong skyline, best appreciated at night when the neons sparkle.
China’s most famous resident, the giant panda’s endearing charms and bamboo-munching ways have elevated it to national treasure status. Unfortunately with just a few thousand left roaming the forests, there’s virtually no chance of seeing one in the wild, so self-proclaimed ‘Panda Capital’ Chengdu is the next best thing. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding houses 83 of the beloved black and white bears, including a nursery of adorably fluffy babies and some cute-as-a-button toddlers, who love nothing more than to play boisterously in their pens.
Terracotta Army, Xi’an
A fearsome army of over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 520 horses, the Terracotta Warriors date from the 3rd century BC, but weren’t discovered until 1974, when farmers accidentally stumbled across the underground site. Doubtless an impressive (and might I say slightly unnerving) sight, the stern-faced warriors stand guard at the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC. As with the Forbidden City, a good guide is indispensable here, as there’s very little information available in English.
Yangtze River cruise
The longest river in Asia, the Yangtze meanders gracefully for 4,000 miles from the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea near Shanghai. This lifeblood waterway has been essential for China’s agriculture and transport for millennia, not to mention supporting countless settlements along its banks. Its dramatic scenery is best appreciated on a cruise; most excursions take in the undeniably beautiful Three Gorges and allow you to disembark for a closer look. Don’t miss a peek at the controversial Three Gorges Dam, whose construction caused the river levels to rise by 91 metres in 2012, flooding many villages and ancient archaeological sites.
Teahouses, Sichuan Province
The Chinese love affair with tea is even more torrid than that of the British, and you’ll often see locals walking around town with a flask of the stuff attached to their hip in case of any tea-related emergencies. Teahouses are not only a great place to try a cup or two, but they also allow you to learn more about the traditions surrounding the art (and it is indeed an art) of tea making. Make a beeline for Sichuan, the home of the Chinese tea industry, and watch the delicate motions of a tea ceremony or challenge the tea-guzzling punters to a game of mahjong.
Potala Palace, Tibet
Strikingly set atop Red Mountain in Lhasa, Potala Palace is the largest monastery on the planet. From its construction in 1694 until the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, Potala was the home of the Dalai Lama. Today it is a museum, World Heritage site and top Lhasa must-do. At an altitude of 3,750m above sea level, its towering walls are an arresting sight, and it contains over a thousand rooms across three storeys, including various intriguing chapels and galleries of fine artworks.
Perfectly lined by a collection of jagged karst peaks, the tranquil Li River flows gently from Guilin to Yangshuo, its dramatic cliffs towering high above the water, dwarfing the drifting boats below. There’s no better way to appreciate the landscape than on a cruise, which can involve anything from a flimsy bamboo raft to a luxury cruise ship. Highlights along the route include the stalactite-filled Reed Flute Cave and the famous cormorant fishermen, who glide up and down the river on wooden rafts using birds to catch fish for them.
Longji Rice Terraces, Guangxi
In the hills of Longji, endless terraced rice paddies stretch far into the distance, their concentric circles filling the valley with every shade of green. Longji translates as ‘dragon’s back’, so-called because the hills resemble a dragon’s scales when filled with rainwater. Spring is the most beautiful time to visit, as the landscape comes to life, while snow is not unheard of in winter, adding a pureness to the scene.
For more ideas of what to see and do on your China holiday, take a look at Round the World Experts' China Holidays page.