Best things to do in China
Find out more about those top places in China
Beijing is China at its most dynamic. Founded in the year 700 BC, it is no surprise that the sprawling Chinese capital is packed with historical riches unrivaled in Asia. The heart of the city can be found at the Forbidden City, a vast complex of palaces and Confucian temples where Chinese emperors were crowned for millennia. Similarly, the city center is crisscrossed by magical hútòng, medieval alleyways scarcely changed in the past five hundred years, while the mesmerizing Temple of Heaven dominates the south of the city. While Beijing’s history abounds, today the city is best known as the world’s premier megalopolis undergoing a constant futuristic face lift with skyscrapers and cranes peppering the sky. The city’s real hidden gem remains its unrivaled food scene with gastronomic delights from as far afield as Central Asia and Vietnam attesting to the city’s historically global reach.
Set in the heart of Beijing and encircled by 4 kilometers of imposing walls, the UNESCO listed Forbidden City is the world’s largest complex of palaces. As imperial China’s center of governance and the secluded home of emperors from both the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Forbidden City is fittingly grand with the highlight being the 15th century Hall of Supreme Harmony, which houses the iconic Dragon Throne. Tours of the otherworldly complex are available throughout the day but make sure to leave plenty of time to explore its wealth of attractions.
One of the world’s most instantly recognizable attractions is China’s Great Wall, which snakes from the shores of the East China Sea all the way to the Central Asian deserts of Xinjiang. While much of the wall passes through remote wilderness, it is fortunate that the best-preserved sections are within striking distance of Beijing’s northern suburbs. The best area to explore is Jiànkòu, which snakes along the tops of idyllic mountain ridges and can be reached easily by tours from the Chinese capital.
You will have seen it countless times on TV news reports and from iconic images of the tank man but nothing can prepare first time visitors for the sheer scale of Tiananmen Square. Unsurprisingly, it is the world’s largest public square, measuring upwards of 440000 square meters, and is flanked by imposing Stalinist buildings built to house the government of the People’s Republic of China. For the best experience make sure to arrive for sunrise to catch the daily flag raising ceremony.
To escape the nonstop bustle of one of the world’s greatest megacities head for the tranquil Hòuhai Lakes, which is Beijing’s favorite outdoor retreat. Comprised of three lakes, the area is a popular spot for group exercise classes (which are ubiquitous in China), fishing or picture-perfect boat tours. In the evening, the area comes alive with neon-lit bars, cafes and restaurants providing some of the Chinese capital’s most enthralling and laid back nightlife.
To experience the apogee of Confucian design explore the vast Temple of Heaven Park, which originally served as a private temple complex where the emperor would pray for good harvests, peace and divine interventions. The undoubted highlight of the park is the unforgettable Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests with its gaudy roof and elevated marble terrace.
Northwest of Beijing city center lies the Summer Palace, a favored countryside retreat for both the Ming and Qing dynasties. The complex, which stretches over a vast area and encompasses an endless array of picture-perfect landscaped gardens and tranquil lakes, is simply breathtaking. What is more, watching over this pastoral scene is the gilded palace itself that was destroyed during the Second Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion but has since been meticulously restored.
Step back in time and explore Beijing’s enthralling hútòngs (narrow medieval alleyways) on a mouth-watering food tour of the city. These alleyways are the city’s heart and soul and remain scarcely changed since the days when emperors and not the Communist Party ruled over the city. What is more, they are packed with authentic Chinese food ranging from Sichuan noodles to donkey meat sandwiches and spicy hotpots.
Beijing’s foremost Buddhist place of worship is the Lama Temple, which is also the most important outside of Tibet. Complete with prayer wheels, magnificent tapestries and glittering frescoes, it is also one of the city’s most spectacular attractions. On your visit pay special attention to the Wànfú Pavilion and the Hall of the Wheel of the Law.
The city of Shanghai needs no introduction; it is one of those cities that is on every traveler’s “list of countries to visit”. Located on the Yangtze River Delta, it is one of the four municipalities of the central government of the People’s Republic of China. Often described as the “showpiece” of the Chinese economy, it is the most populous city in the world with over 26.3 million people.
What make Shanghai so special is its proper blend of ancient and modern architecture. On one side you have the architectural structures of ancient times like the Longhua Temple, then on the other you have various modern skyscrapers like the Shanghai Tower.
The city is a must for anyone interested in visiting China and even Asia as a whole.
Completed on the 6th of September 2014 the Shanghai tower is the tallest building in China and second tallest in the world. Designed by Jun Xia an architect from the design firm Gensler, it is a 128–story building. Tourists are known to visit the building to have a bird’s eye view of the city from its observation deck and to enter the World’s second fastest elevator found inside the Tower.
One of the famous sites of Shanghai is The Bund. Adored by tourists and locals alike, The Bund is a stretch of colonial buildings along the west bank of Huangpu River. Usually the starting point for most tourist visiting Shanghai for the first time, it features some attractions like the valentine (Lover’s) wall and The Astor House Museum. It also has sculptures littered around, most famous of all is the bronze statue of Chen Yi, who was the first Communist mayor of Shanghai.
Located beside the City God Temple, the garden was built in 1559 for Pan En by his son Pan Yunduan, and it is the only surviving Ming dynasty garden. The Garden occupies an area of 5 acres and is partitioned into six areas namely Sansui Hall, Wanhua Chamber, Diachun Hall, Huijing Hall, Yuhua Hall and Inner garden. Each of these areas are filled with their own personal attractions and are separated by a “dragon wall”. The exquisite garden is arguably the best place to relax and gather your thoughts in Shanghai.
China is a country of great history and a visit to the Shanghai Museum will certainly increase your knowledge about the nation. Located at the People’s Square in the Huangpu District, the Museum was established in 1952 and it is a major tourist site recording more than 2 million visitors in 2017. The museum features artifacts from different eras of China separated in eleven galleries. With over 120,000 pieces some items displayed include ancient coins, furniture, sculptures and paintings.
Take a trip on the Shanghai Maglev Train the fastest commercial train in the world with a top speed of 431 km/h. The train is a display of the Chinese's technological advancement and it operates between the Longyang Road and Shanghai Pudong International Airport.
Shanghai has several temples but the Longhua Temple is the largest and oldest in the city. The Buddhist temple was first built in 242 AD and occupies an area of 20,000 square meters. With its five main halls, the temple is one of Shanghai’s most sacred places. Only parts of the Longhua Temple are opened for public viewing.
While Chengdu lacks the blockbuster historical attractions of many of China’s other major cities, this hidden gem more than makes up for this with the country’s most exciting regional cuisine and the chance to see giant pandas up close. Designated as UNESCO’s first ever City of Gastronomy, Chengdu, the capital of mountainous Sichuan, is home to one of the world’s fieriest cuisines. Renowned for its use of tongue-numbing pink peppercorns and generous helpings of ferocious dried chili peppers, Sichuanese regional cooking is an unforgettable experience. Just beyond Chengdu’s city center is the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, which is home to 120 giant and 76 red pandas and specializes in the breeding and conservation of these bamboo-chomping giants.
Chengdu’s standout attraction is its world-famous Giant Panda Breeding Research Base where China’s iconic yet sadly endangered peaceful giants are given a helping hand at breeding. Mating season – known euphemistically as ‘falling in love season’ – lasts between March and May while during the winter months you may even get to see some giant panda cubs.
Designated as UNESCO’s only City of Gastronomy, Chengdu’s eye-wateringly fiery cuisine is enough reason to visit the city alone. For the best experience, guided tours are available that take you to off the beaten trail spots that serve up the city’s finest dishes, most of which are flavored with regional pink peppercorns that are known to numb the tongue.
Besides being the home of some of the world’s spiciest food, Chengdu, and more broadly Szechuan, is where one of the world’s most soothing drinks originates – tea. To experience the area’s rich tea culture make sure to head to the century-old Hé Mìng Tea House where you can sample an astounding array of tea strains and watch tea pouring performances (which are far more exciting than they sound) at various times throughout the day.
The best preserved Buddhist temple is Chengdu is Wénshu, which is dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. The temple has been in use since the 7th century and is replete with historical artefacts dating from as far back as the Tang Dynasty. For those more interested in Chengdu’s culinary traditions, the in-temple vegetarian restaurant is one of the city’s finest.
In Chengdu’s sprawling western suburbs lies one of China’s most important ongoing archaeological excavations. Since 2001, the dig has produced thousands of artifacts and ruins dating to the era of the ancient Shu Kingdom, which existed in the 2nd millennia BC. While artifacts are being continually unearthed, many are also now displayed at the on-site museum.
There are few places in China better to get a grip on the country’s rapid transformation from communism to hyper-capitalism than Chengdu’s New Century Global Mall. By most measures it is the largest building in the world and houses such attractions as a mock-Mediterranean village, an indoor water park, two IMAX cinemas, artificial beaches (which have their own artificial sunrises and sunsets), a university and a jaw-dropping array of shops.
No trip to Sichuan would be complete without a trip to the opera, which is one of China’s most colorful experiences. You will get to witness a dazzling spectacle that includes traditional Chinese drum music, comedic dialogue and jaw-dropping costume and make-up design. Behind the scenes tours also reveal the symbolic role certain colors of clothing play, such as red denoting loyalty.
Also called Canton, the city of Guangzhou is a metropolis in People’s Republic of China located on the Pearl River. It is China’s third biggest city, behind Shanghai and Beijing with a population of over 12 million people.
One of the primary reasons why Guangzhou is so popular is because it is one of the top trading centers in an economic power house nation like China. The vibrant city has a proper mix of tourist attractions that would make every visit an enjoyable one.
The Canton tower is a multi-purpose observation tower located in the Haizhu District of Guangzhou and it is considered a national landmark. Completed in 2010, the building was one of the tallest buildings in the world till March 2011 but it remains the second tallest Tower in the World with a height of 604 meters. Designed by Dutch architects Mark Hemel and Barbara Kuit, the tower is famous for being one of the main centers for the 2010 Asian Games even before it was fully completed. Its main attraction is its rooftop observatory.
This is one of the most famous places in the city, the Huacheng square also known as the Flower City Square is the largest square in Guangzhou with an area of 22 square miles. Opened in 2010 it is surrounded by many other landmarks such as the Guangdong Museum, Guangzhou Library and Guangzhou Opera House. Underneath the square is an underground shopping center named the “Mall of the World”.
The Pearl River also known as the Canton River is the third largest river in China. With a length of about 1,234 miles (1,985.93 km), the River is a “combination” of three other rivers, the Dong River, The Bei River and The Xi River which are considered tributaries of the Pearl River because they share a common delta. The best thing to do on the Pearl River is to go for a boat cruise at night, it offers a scenic view of the city. While on the boat cruise you get to see other attraction as well as the Canton Tower and Haizhu Square.
Formerly known as the Chen Clan academy, this intriguing structure was built by the 72 Chen Clans to serve as a study hall for young members of the Chen clan who seek to prepare for the Imperial examinations. Established in 1994, the building consists of nine halls, six courtyards and nineteen buildings connected by corridors. Presently used as a Guadong Folk Art Museum, some of its attractions are rich art works of pottery, wood carving and stone carving.
As its name suggest, the park has been specially designed for tourists looking to maximize their visit to Guangzhou. It is one of the largest and most popular parks in China, known for having a plethora of activities. Its star attractions include the Chimelong Water Park, Chimelong Safari Park which is a zoological park featuring a diverse range of land animals, Chimelong Birds Park for mostly bird watchers and a theater that regularly features circus performances.
Perched on the roof of the world, Lhasa is the capital of the fiercely autonomous region of Tibet, which today still considers itself under Chinese occupation. Undoubtedly China’s hidden gem, the Tibetan capital, which is also the center of the Buddhist religion, is lorded over by the vast Potala Palace that sits astride Red Hill. While the palace, formerly the residence of the Dalai Lama, is undoubtedly Lhasa’s premier attraction, the alluring Jokhang Temple and Sera Monastery are equally enchanting. Today, the city’s medieval core of winding alleyways and whitewashed buildings remains remarkably intact despite the continual encroachment of the booming Chinese metropolis sprouting up around it. What is more, Lhasa remains the most accessible gateway to the Himalayan Mountains and is within striking distance of iconic Mount Everest and the rugged Nepalese border.
Once the home of the Dalai Lama (who now resides over the Indian side of the Himalaya’s in exile) and seat of the Tibetan government, today the 1000 room Potala Palace is Lhasa’s premier landmark and an important place of Buddhist pilgrimage. Sitting astride Red Hill, the fortress-like complex contains various individual palaces, including those used by the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas, alongside numerous temples. Due to the high numbers of visitors, the palace can only be explored as part of a guided tour.
Constructed over 1300 years ago, the Jokhang Temple is the spiritual heart of Tibetan Buddhism. Exploring the vast gold-clad complex is one of Lhasa’s most memorable experiences as you will rub shoulders with countless awe-struck pilgrims who have traveled from across the globe and be enthralled by the burning incense and ringing prayer bells.
Located in the mountains around 5 kilometers north of Lhasa lies Sera Monastery, which was founded in the 14th century. Today the monastery is home to around 700 red-robed monks although the complex can accommodate an astounding 5000 people. For the best experience, arrive in the afternoon so you can catch the monks debating, which takes place in the evenings, and explore the kora (pilgrim’s walk) around the outside of the monastery.
From Sera Monastery hop in a short taxi to Pabonka, the Lhasa area’s most ancient Buddhist place of worship. Founded in the 7th century, the monastery is today overlooked by most visitors and pilgrims to Tibet and remains a hidden gem. Despite this, it has numerous sites of world-class significance, including the Rigsum Gonpo Temple, the Podrang and the Palden Lhamo Cave.
Lhasa sits on the roof of the world and is within striking distance of the world’s most iconic mountain range, the Himalayas. Regular tours from the city take you to breathtaking natural wonders, including the inland-sea of Lake Namtso and even the base-camp of the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest. Tours of the Himalayas are best done over the course of multiple days, as it can take time to acclimatize to the altitude.
Some 50 kilometers east of Lhasa lies Ganden Monastery, which was founded in 1417 as the first Gelugpa Buddhist place of worship. While the monastery itself is filled with the usual highlights of Buddhist temples, the real draw of Ganden is its jaw-dropping kora walks that offer astounding views of the Kyi-Chu Valley and the nearby Himalayan peaks.
While many of Lhasa’s big name temples throng with pilgrims and tourists, those at Meru Nyinba Monastery offer an insight into how regular Tibetans worship. Founded in the 7th century, the monastery is perfect for people watching and exploring its many temples is a perfect way to immerse yourself in authentic Tibetan culture.
Located deep in China’s interior at the point where the country’s densely-populated provinces give way to the vast steppe of Qinghai and the Himalayan foothills of Sichuan, Xi’an is a melting pot of Islamic and Confucian cultures. As the capital of no fewer than eleven dynasties between 1000 BC and 1000 AD, Xi’an has historical sites to rival Beijing. Most visitors come for the world-famous Terracotta Army but stay for the Ming dynasty city walls, Great Mosque and Big Goose Pagoda. As the medieval terminus for the Silk Road, the city was influenced by traders from as far afield as the Middle East. Today, these influences have resulted in the beguiling and bustling Muslim Quarter where ancient mosques are tucked down alleys and the street food combines the best of Central Asia and China.
The Terracotta Army is not just Xian’s most famous attraction – it may even be China’s. Discovered accidentally by villagers drilling a well in 1974, archaeologists eventually dug up thousands of life-sized sculpted warriors and horses that stood guard over the tomb of China’s first unifier, Qin Shi Huang. The attraction is divided into a museum and the three archaeological dig sites, each of which contain hundreds of soldiers. For the best experience take a guided tour, which will help you get to grips with the ancient Chinese world.
The booming metropolis of Xian is situated at the cultural crossroads of the Confucian and Islamic worlds and there is no better demonstration of this than the city’s Great Mosque. Constructed in stops and starts over the last millennia, it is a truly jaw-dropping site that blends Islamic calligraphy and minarets with the ideals and traditions of Confucianism. Guided tours of the complex are available but note that the turquoise-roofed Prayer Hall is closed to casual visitors.
One of Xian’s most enthralling experiences is the four-hour walk around it's remarkably intact 12th century city walls. Encircling the city’s historic core, the walls offer a breathtaking vantage point from which to consider Xian’s history and pass by many world-class attractions, including the colorful Guangren Temple.
Populated by Hui people (non-Uyghur Chinese Muslims), Xian’s Muslim Quarter has a pedigree that stretches back to the times of the Qing Dynasty. Today, the rabbit warren of narrow alleyways is filled with intoxicating smells and unforgettable sites, including many small mosques that date back nearly a millennia. For a taste of traditional Hui cooking, make sure to peruse the stalls of Beiyuanmen.
Formerly at the heart of the Tang Dynasty-era city of Xian, today the Big Goose Pagoda, which was completed in the year 652, sits well south of the historic core amongst the rush of Chinese modernity. Despite this, it remains one of the city’s most impressive landmarks with its gargantuan brick pagoda towering to the same height as surrounding apartment blocks. For the best experience, organized tours from the city center can take you to this jaw-dropping attraction.
Peppering the plains surrounding Xian are numerous imperial tombs, which can be explored with the help of guided tours from the city itself. The most interesting tomb is undoubtedly that of Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor who ruled between 625 and 705, although many others are well worth visiting.
The lone Buddhist temple is Shaanxi Province, Guangren Temple was largely built during the 20th century and is replete with the sense of tranquility and mystery usually associated with Buddhist places of worship. The temple’s highlights are undoubtedly the golden figure of Sakyamuni that sits atop a pedestal from the Tang Dynasty and the Hall of the 1000 Hand Guanyin.
Hong Kong, officially known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since its transition from British colony to Chinese governance in 1997, is a city of many identities. While the city is one of Asia’s financial centers packed with glittering luxury malls, it is also one of China’s most traditional cities, as it escaped the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. The city’s most iconic attractions are the awe-inspiring harbor, which is best seen by the ferries that shuttle visitors around its jungle-clad shores, and Victoria Peak, which offers glorious views of the city’s towering skyline. What most visitors do not realize is that 70% of Hong Kong is near unspoiled wilderness with the city’s impeccable public transport system linking the mega city to the ancient Song dynasty villages of Kat Hing Wai and Shui Tau Tseun. In this way, Hong Kong, much like China itself, is a beguiling mixture of modernity and unchanging traditions.
Rising to nearly 600 meters, the jungle-clad Victoria Peak is the highest point in Hong Kong. It also offers one of the most spectacular vistas in all of China with panoramic views of the innumerable skyscrapers that huddle around the harbor area. What is more, there is no need to hike to the summit as a Victorian funicular has been running since 1888 that whisks you from downtown to mountaintop in less than 10 minutes.
There is no more quintessential a Hong Kong experience that cruising the vast harbor. For the best experience, either arrange a guided boat tour of the harbor with one of the many operators or simply hop on a Star Ferry, which shuttle locals backwards and forwards throughout the day. For the most evocative experience, take the ride at night when the skyscrapers are illuminated by dazzling neon advertisements.
Temple Street comes alive in the evenings when a gaudy profusion of neon-lit food stalls set up shop forming Hong Kong’s most vibrant market. Tours of this mouth-watering attraction are available that let you sample some of East Asia’s freshest seafood, delicious hotpots and spit roasted meats.
As the most easily accessible area of Hong Kong Global Geopark from the city itself, the monumental High Island Reservoir East Dam makes an ideal getaway from the buzz of the city. Once there you can marvel at the futuristic design of the dam, which repels the crashing waves of the South China Sea, and the geometric rock formations that are the result of cooled lava.
Part of the Po Lin Monastery complex, Hong Kong’s iconic Big Buddha is a dazzling vision in gold. For the best experience take a guided tour of the monastery complex, which is one of the territory’s most popular attractions, that will reveal the secrets as to how such a gargantuan statue was made.
This recent addition to Hong Kong’s impressive selection of museums and galleries is one of the city’s buzziest institutions. Housed in the colonial-era former Central Police Station, Tai Kwun is a multi-purpose arts and exhibition space with something to please everyone: cutting-edge art can be found at JC Contemporary Gallery; the Barrack Block uncovers the site’s dark history as a dungeon-like jail; and Block 12 houses exhibitions on daily life in colonial Hong Kong.
Part Taoist temple and part arbitration court used to settle disputes between the Chinese inhabitants of Hong Kong and colonialists, the Man Mo Temple is one of the city’s most historic locations. Guided tours of this remarkable complex are available throughout the day and offer an insight into Taoism and life in the city following the Opium Wars.
There are few experiences as quintessentially Hong Kong than a trip to the ever-thrilling Happy Valley Races. The races that take place every Wednesday evening are one of the city’s most raucous experiences with the stands packed with thousands of men cheering on their favored horse. For the best experience, take a guided tour that will let you get to grips with the betting system, which can be confusing for the uninitiated.
The city of Macau is an exciting place to visit, it was a former Portuguese colony until control returned to the Chinese in 1999.
Situated on the South coast of China, across the Pearly River Delta from Honk Kong. It has a population of over 600,000 people and an area of 32.9 square kilometers making it one of the most densely populated region in the world.
With a mix of Chinese and Portuguese culture the city is easily one of the most entertaining parts of Asia, known for its famous temples, wonderful cuisines, exciting festivals and a mix of ancient and modern architecture.
Macau tower located in Sé, is one of the tallest buildings in Asia standing at a mind-blowing 338 meters high. The building is said to be the brainchild of Macau's casino billionaire who got inspiration for the building after visiting the Sky Tower in Auckland. Completed in 2001, it is recognized as one of the symbolic buildings in the city. Its star attraction is its observation deck which gives a panoramic view of the city, it also features a 233 meters tethered Bungee Jump for the brave hearted.
The Macau Maritime Museum is dedicated to telling the story between the city of Macau and the surrounding sea. Located in Barra Paroga just beside the A-Ma temple, it was established in 1987. Initially situated in an old mansion the site of the museum was moved in 1990 to a more modern building due to space constraints and proper preservation of its artifacts. The museum is divided into 4 exhibitions rooms featuring artifacts such as costumes, model of vessels, nautical instruments and a modeled dragon boat.
It is a collection of over twenty locations that shows the blend between Chinese and Portuguese cultures. The Macau Historic center is one of the most important parts of the island, showcasing mainly its intricate architectural works. Its attractions include the Guia Lighthouse, Moorish Barracks, Dom Pedro V theater, Lou Kau Mansion among others.
The Fisherman’s Wharf is a theme park which covers over 111,500 square meters, the park is similar to other world seaports such as Amsterdam, Venice and Miami. The Wharf is a well-known location for shopping in Macau featuring over 70 stores and restaurants, the highlight of visiting the Fisherman's Wharf is its Vulcania, a 40 meters high replica Volcano that erupts every evening inside the River of fire.
Macau has several temples but none is as important as the A-Ma temple, it is known as the oldest temple in the city. Built in 1488, the name of the city Macau is said to be derived from the Temple, gotten after confusion due to language barrier between the colonizers and the indigenes of the land. The A-Ma temple has six main parts namely; Gate Pavilion, the Prayer Hall, Hall of Guanyin, Memorial Arch, Hall of Benevolence and Zhengjiao – Chanlin – Buddhist Pavilion. The temple is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.