The Ultimate China Bucket List: 50 Must See Places to Visit in China
China is a huge country. There’s no ifs, buts, or coconuts about it. At 9,596,960 square kilometers – it weighs in behind only Russia, Canada, and the United States for sheer size. Couple this with China’s massive population and its jaw-dropping history, and you’ve got a recipe for a borderline overwhelming array of choices when it comes time to plan your trip to China.
Put simply, there are just too many places to visit in China to do it all in one go.
For a country with so many diverse cultures and landscapes, it’s remarkable that so many Chinese itineraries consist of the same tried and tested fare.
Beijing for the historic sites, a brief detour to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors, and one final stop-off in Shanghai for shopping and a brief walk along the Bund.
For those pressed for time, this is perfectly fine, but there’s so much more to China than just these three cities.
There are a wealth of cities with more history in one neighbourhood than the entirety of my own country.
There are unbelievable and almost alien landscapes the likes of which would fit in better with fantasy or science fiction.
You’ll find cultures as unlike the ‘traditional’ Chinese as our own, sample foods that go well beyond beef & broccoli, and be confused, frustrated, and amazed every step of the way.
A Lifetime Commitment
China is not a country to be tackled in a week or a fortnight. It’s a country that begs to be visited and revisited. A country with so much to see that it would take a lifetime to do it justice.
But if you’re planning your dream Chinese trip and came in search of suggestions, look no further! I’ve compiled a list of the fifty places you should see and experiences you should have while in China.
It’s a far from exhaustive list, and I’m bound to have missed some things, but you’ll find a little of everything here. From off the beaten path national parks to ancient monuments to beautiful beaches, there’s a little something for every Chinese bucket list here.
Like any country, China has a few items that should be on any first-time itinerary.
The US has the Statue of Liberty, France has the Eiffel Tower, Australia has Sydney Harbour, and England has London’s many iconic sites.
There’s a reason why Xi’an, Beijing, and Shanghai feature so prominently on Chinese itineraries: the most recognizable landmarks can be found in these three cities.
Throw in Chengdu to see China’s most famous animal and a cruise along China’s most famous river, and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic two-week itinerary.
1. Visit the Imperial Sites in Beijing (The Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and Temple of Heaven)
No Chinese itinerary would be complete without at least a few days in the nation’s capital.
Beijing may have a bad reputation due to its increasingly bad pollution, but pierce the haze and you’ll still find China’s most enduringly charming and fascinating city.
The presence of the legendary Forbidden City, the tranquil Summer Palace, and the distinctive Temple of Heaven give the city a triumvirate of historic sites the envy of every other city on earth.
With the possible exception of the Great Wall of China, no other landmark can really attest to better epitomizing China’s rich Imperial culture.
Looking for more for your Beijing itinerary? Check out Lama Temple, one of China’s most famous Buddhist temples.
Where: All three sites can be reached easily by taxi or public transport from most Beijing hotels.
How Much?: 40-60rmb ($10 USD) – Forbidden City, 20-30 RMB ($5 USD) – Summer Palace, and 15rmb ($2.50 USD) – Temple of Heaven.
2. Hike the Great Wall of China
Arguably the most recognizable symbol of China’s rich history, the 21,196km long fortification stretches from Dandong in the country’s east all the way to Lop Lake in its west.
While it’s true that the Badaling section of the wall is often crowded to the point that you’re barely able to see the wall you’re standing atop, there remains a wealth of places where you can not only experience the Great Wall’s majesty – but even have the wall almost entirely to yourself!
Hiking sections of the wall such as Jinshanling or Gubeikou offer you a better idea of both the wall’s age and its sheer scale. Far from the over-touristed and carefully restored sections such as Badaling and Mutianyu, these sections offer a tougher climb and a modicum more peace.
Whether you take a tour through a company like Great Wall Hiking or make the journey yourself, standing atop the Great Wall should be at the top of any Chinese traveler’s to-do list.
Curious? You can read about my experience hiking the Great Wall of China.
Where: The most famous sections of the Great Wall can be reached from Beijing in 1-3 hours, but the wall itself stretches as far inland as Inner Mongolia.
Cost: 45 – 65rmb ($8 – $10 USD) depending on the section of the Great Wall. Tours and additional activities are extra.
3. Wander the Bund in Shanghai
While Shanghai’s skyline is today defined by the modern skyscrapers of the rapidly developing Pudong region, it was once defined by a collection of European constructed and owned buildings that today comprise The Bund.
Walking along the shores of The Bund is a journey through architectural history, as buildings from such varied styles as Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque vie for attention in the city’s former financial centre.
Whether you take in the atmosphere by day or soak in the twinkling lights of Pudong by night, time spent on The Bund is bound to be one of your more enduring memories of Shanghai.
A fan of Willie Wonka? The bizarre sightseeing tunnel is a dizzying aural and visual experience. Tickets are 55rmb ($9.50 USD) for a round trip.
Where: The Bund can be reached via taxi, ferry, bus, subway, or the famous sightseeing tunnel.
4. See the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an
Standing as silent testament to the will of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the ranks of China’s Terracotta Warriors are one of the nation’s most beloved cultural icons.
With each warrior being a unique sculpture, the Terracotta Warriors were an archaeological gold mine upon their discovery and remain one of China’s most popular tourist attractions.
Want to know more about the Terracotta Warriors? Adventures Around Asia has a fantastic article on their history and how to get there.
Where: The Terracotta Warriors can be reached from Xi’an by private car or public bus.
Cost: 120 – 150rmb ($18 – $22 USD).
5. See the giant pandas in Chengdu
China isn’t all ancient cities and dusty old relics. The country’s endemic giant pandas are one of the world’s most beloved animals.
For those wanting an up-close and personal experience with these gentle giants, the world-famous Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, in Sichuan is the place to be.
Home to more than eighty giant pandas (and a small collection of the no less adorable red panda), is the place to go if you want to see these gorgeous creatures up close and learn more about them.
Where: You can reach the Chengdu Panda Centre by public bus or taxi from Chengdu.
Cost: 58rmb ($10 USD).
6. Shop for souvenirs along Nanjing East Road
While China tries hard to crack down on its reputation as a place for fakes, it remains a popular place to bargain for designer brands that might fetch much higher prices elsewhere.
Stretching for more than three miles and featuring over 600 businesses, the always bustling Nanjing East Road is a dizzying cacophony of sights, smells, and sounds.
Whether you’re hunting for an authentic Chinese souvenir or the latest in fashion or technology, Nanjing East Road is sure to offer up something.
Where: Nanjing East Road stretches from The Bund to Jing’an Temple in Shanghai, and can be reached by public transport or taxi.
7. See Shanghai from The Pearl
While Yuyuan Gardens showcases Shanghai’s Chinese history and The Bund stands as a testament to its international occupation, the towering silhouette of The Pearl stands as a tribute to modern China.
While you’re coming for the view from the Aerial Sightseeing Corridor, The Pearl offers visitors a number of activities to engage both young and old.
The Oriental Pearl Science Fantasy World, Shanghai Municipal History Museum, and a revolving buffet restaurant are all on site as well.
Where: The Pearl is located in Shanghai’s Pudong district, and can be reached by taxi or public transport.
Cost: 160 – 220rmb ($23 – $32 USD). Lunch is 338rmb ($49 USD) for a buffet.
8. Eat Peking duck in Beijing
No trip to China would be complete without devouring this delectable dish.
While it’s available all over China, eating Peking (Beijing) duck in the nation’s capital is something that should be on any culinary bucket list.
There’s no shortage of options in Beijing, and you’ll find a wealth of articles debating which restaurant offers the best value for money and best quality.
For me, I think the best Beijing duck in the city can be found at DaDong. You can read more about my experience here.
Not sure how to eat Beijing duck? Check out this helpful resource: A Foreigner’s Survival Guide to Ordering and Eating Beijing Duck.
Where: All over Beijing. Check out this list for some inspiration.
Cost: 50-200rmb per person ($10 – $40 USD).
9. Visit Tiananmen Square
Infamous for its role in the massacre that China continues to claim didn’t happen, Tiananmen Square is one of the world’s largest public squares and a popular tourist spot located just across the road from the Forbidden City.
The most recognizable building will undoubtedly be the 600-year-old Tiananmen Tower, but the Square is also home to other buildings such as the National Museum of China and the final resting place of controversial figure, Chairman Mao.
Where: Tiananmen Square is located opposite the Forbidden City’s front entrance.
Cost: Free. 15rmb ($3 USD) to climb Tiananmen Tower.
10. Take a cruise along the Yangtze
One of the twin cradles of Chinese civilization (alongside the Yellow River), the mighty Yangtze is the longest river in China and the third longest river in the world.
Major cities along the river include Chongqing, Nanjing, and Shanghai – but it is the scenic gorges, especially Three Gorges, that are the highlights of any Yangtze River cruise.
There are no shortage of options and itineraries when looking to spend some time upon the river, and many itineraries combine the river with nearby attractions such as Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yellow Mountain, the Leshan Giant Buddha, West Lake, and much more.
Where: The Yangtze River stretches from the Tibetan plateau all the way to Shanghai. Cruises start in a number of major cities.
Cost: Dependent on itinerary and provider, cruises range from $500 – $3000 USD per person.
11. Visit Yuyuan Gardens
A classic example of a Chinese garden, Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai is one of the most accessible and impressive examples of the art form.
At 20,000 square metres, the park is relatively small by Chinese standards but packs a lot into the small space including pavilions, rockeries, ponds, bridges, and a bustling bazaar.
Highlights of the gardens include the Bridge of Nine Turns, the Exquisite Jade Rock, and the Yuyuan Bazaar. Be sure to grab Shanghai’s famous xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) while you’re there!
Where: Yuyuan Gardens is a short walk from The Bund, and can also be reached by taxi or public transport.
Cost: 40rmb ($8 USD).
Got more than a week to spend in China? Here’s a collection of the very best the country has to offer.
From breathtaking national parks to underrated historical gems to fascinating cultural experiences, this list of twenty-five Chinese itinerary ideas is sure to inspire.
12. Walk Huashan’s “Plank of Death”
It’s rare you’ll go more than a week without seeing some viral video of this death-defying hike on social media.
Sometimes called “the world’s most dangerous hike”, Huashan’s Plank of Death is just a small part of a Huashan Scenic Area in Shaanxi province. With three routes of varying difficulty, the mountain itself is worth your time, even if you’re a bit too chicken to tackle the precarious ladder and plank portion of the hike.
Curious to learn more? Adventures Around Asia has a great article on the Huashan plank walk.
Where: Huashan can be reached by train, bus, or private car from Xi’an.
Cost: 180rmb ($27 USD) for entry. 30rmb ($5 USD) for harness rental. Cable car extra.
13. Visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial
The atrocities committed by Japan in Asia both before and during World War II are often glossed over in the west, but China very much remembers the nefarious acts of their would-be conquerors.
The Rape of Nanking was a nightmarish period of six weeks in which the Japanese perpetuated mass rape and mass murder against the population of the former Chinese capital. Between 50,000 and 300,000 people lost their lives during the occupation.
Today, the city remembers the darkest period in its history at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. Part museum and part somber memorial, it stands as a haunting reminder of the very worst of mankind.
Where: The Memorial can be reached easily by bus, taxi, or subway. Nanjing is a 90-minute train ride from Shanghai.
14. Visit Yellow Mountain and Hongcun Village
A region of towering stone spires, twisted pines and stunning sunrises, Yellow Mountain is arguably China’s most famous mountain.
Visitors come from all over China and around the world to see Huangshan’s bizarrely shaped rocks and trees jutting from a sea of shifting mists. It’s truly one of China’s most surreal and beautiful locations.
When you’re done soaking in nature’s beauty, nearby Hongcun Village is a step back in time, epitomizing Qing and Ming era architecture as well as presenting visitors with unspoiled rural panoramas. For those wanting an escape from bustling modern China, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Where: Huangshan is located in Anhui province. It can be reached by bus or train from Hangzhou or Shanghai, or can be flown to.
Cost: 150 – 230rmb ($21 – $34 USD) for Huangshan. 105rmb ($15 USD) for Hongcun Village.
15. Explore Tiger Leaping Gorge
One of the most breathtaking landscapes not just in China, but in the world – Tiger Leaping Gorge boasts the snow-capped peaks, dramatic cliffs, and terraced farms that inspired the landscapes of Kung Fu Panda.
Hikes vary in length and difficulty, but you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody returning from the gorge without a sense of wonder.
It’s not easy to get there on the uneven roads, but it’s worth the effort.
Where: The closest city is Lijiang and can be reached by local bus.
Cost: 65rmb ($10 USD) for an open-ended ticket.
16. Gamble in Macau
With annual gambling revenue seven times that of Las Vegas, Macau is the true sin city when it comes to games of chance.
A former Portuguese colony, the city still very much wears its colonial history on its sleeve, Macau offers a charming contrast of historic European buildings and glitzy casinos catering to the world’s largest gambling market.
Like Las Vegas, Macau is more than just gambling – with bungee jumping, shopping, live entertainment, greyhound racing, and a number of historic sites also worth your time.
Where: Macau is a special administrative zone that can be reached via ferry from the mainland (Shenzhen), bus, car, or flight.
Cost: There is no cost to enter Macau.
17. Soak in the Sanya sun
White sand beaches and crystal clear waters aren’t the first things that come to mind when you picture China, but the country’s southernmost province is an island paradise the likes of which you’d expect to find in Southeast Asia.
A popular playground for the Chinese and Russians in particular, Sanya boasts some remarkably picturesque beaches – the most famous of which is Yalong Bay.
In addition to sunbathing, swimming, and snorkeling – the island of Hainan is a playground of resorts, spas, floating restaurants, and amusement parks perfect for a family getaway.
Nanshan Temple is also worth a look, with its towering three-sided statue of Guan Yin Buddha being a highlight.
You can read about my Christmas in Hainan if you’d like to know more.
Where: Sanya is located in southern China, and can be reached by regularly scheduled flights from all over the country and abroad.
Cost: Varies depending on accommodation and activities. The island boasts everything from backpacker’s hostels to five-star resorts.
18. Explore Jiuzhaigou
Bright blue waters so clear you can see every leaf on the lake floor, beautiful waterfalls that cascade down tier after tier after tier, and verdant forest whose leaves paint the surrounding mountains in an explosion of colours make Jiuzhaigou one of the most surreal and beautiful locations in all of China.
Located far from the hustle and bustle of modern China, this stunning valley high in the Sichuan tablelands is an unspoiled paradise in which wild pandas still roam to this day.
While you’re highly unlikely to see the park’s most famous residents during your visit, the landscape and the quiet mountain villages after which the park is named are sure to spellbind.
Where: Jiuzhaigou can be reached via flights to the nearby airport or by taking a bus from Chengdu.
Cost: 220rmb ($32 USD)
19. See the giant Buddha in Leshan
Located just a short bus or train ride from Chengdu, Leshan is home to the world’s tallest stone Buddha in the world and the largest pre-modern statue in the world.
Like something out of ancient fiction, this towering (71 metre) representation of Maitreya sits solemnly on the banks of the Qingyi River. With its proximity to Chengdu’s panda centre, it’s a perfect day trip.
Where: Leshan can be reached by bus or train from Chengdu, or by ferry from Chongqing.
Cost: 90rmb ($13 USD).
20. Take a ride around (and on) West Lake
Immortalized on the 1 RMB note, Hangzhou’s West Lake is a picture of serenity – all swaying willows, tranquil ponds, gracefully arching bridges, and meticulously manicured gardens.
Surrounded on three sides by mountains, the lake is one of China’s most popular tourist attractions, and the perfect place to while away a day in spring, summer, or fall.
Popular activities at West Lake include renting bikes to cycle its bridges and shores, taking a scenic ferry ride out onto its waters, and visiting the famous Leifeng Pagoda.
Hangzhou itself is a wonderfully green and relaxed city, and its proximity to Shanghai makes it an easy addition to even the most crowded itinerary.
Where: West Lake is located in Hangzhou, which is a short train or bus ride from Shanghai. The city is also served by its own international airport.
Cost: Free. Leifeng Pagoda, boat rides, and bike rental attract their own cost.
21. Visit one of China’s famous water cities
Canal cities might be more closely associated with Europe’s Venice, but China has a long history of settlements built on or around the water.
These water cities offer a charming glimpse into simpler times, and while some have become tourist traps, many retain much of their old world charm after hundreds of years.
Hongcun (mentioned earlier) is arguably the most famous of the water cities, but Tai’erzhuang in Shandong and Zhouzhang near Shanghai are also popular options.
If you’re looking for something a little more authentic, Tongli, Xitang, and Nanxun near Shanghai are better options.
Where: There are water towns scattered across China. Check out this list of Chinese water towns for some Shanghai adjacent inspiration.
Cost: Varies dependent on the town and its level of commercialism.
22. See the Longsheng rice terraces
China’s rice terraces are picturesque no matter where you go, but the Longsheng Rice Terraces near Guilin are the unquestioned king. Otherwise known as the Dragon’s Backbone, this classic example of Chinese agricultural ingenuity shouldn’t be missed.
A study in bucolic beauty, the terraces are surrounded by quaint villages where the adventurous tourist can get a taste of the real China. Covering 66 square kilometres, the various terraces have plenty of space – so you’ll rarely feel overcrowded while you soak in the serenity.
Where: The scenic area can be reached by bus from Guilin.
Cost: 80rmb ($12 USD) for a two-day pass.
23. Take a ride along the Li River in Guilin
Dramatic karst rock formations, indifferent water buffalo munching on their meals in the shallows, idyllic rice paddies, and bamboo rafts flitting along the Li River’s surface like water bugs combine to make it one of China’s most beautiful regions.
Another Chinese landmark immortalized on the nation’s currency, the Li River is a step back in time. Fishermen use cormorants to catch fish, disinterested farmers trudge through their paddies, and it’s all as you imagine China might have been hundreds of years ago.
Taking a bamboo raft down the Li River is definitely one for any self-respecting Chinese bucket list. You can also take a more traditional cruise, soar above it all by helicopter, or even hike the Li River’s banks.
Where: The Li River is located close to Guilin.
Cost: Varies based on how you want to tackle the river. River rafts range from 50-200rmb ($7 – $30 USD).
24. See the Avatar mountains
Avatar might not have left much of an impression once the 3D glasses came off, but you’d be a tough judge to not be impressed by the soaring karst pinnacles of Zhangjiajie National Park.
Jutting up into the clouds like spears, the mesas of Zhangjiajie inspired the surreal scenery in James Cameron’s CGI blockbuster, and inspired hundreds of thousands of tourists each and every year.
Nearby Tianmen Mountain is an impressive sight all of its own, and doesn’t draw quite the crowds that the park itself does.
Where: Flights to Zhangjiajie depart from most major Chinese cities, and you can also get there by taking a lengthy train ride of 10+ hours.
Cost: 248rmb ($36 USD) for the park. 248rb ($36 USD) for Tianmen Mountain.
25. Soak in the serenity of Dali
A charming lakeside town which can boast startling ethnic diversity, Yunnan’s Dali is the laid back alternative to more modern Kunming.
Nearby Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake lend the city some real natural beauty, while manmade wonders such as the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple contribute with their own unique beauty.
Dali isn’t so much a city you see as it is one you experience – a modern day Shangri-La that backpackers from around the world have fallen in love with.
Where: Dali is located in northern Yunnan, and can be reached by bus or train from Kunming.
26. Visit Potala Palace in Tibet
Tibet’s inclusion in China may remain a source of hot debate, but there’s no debating the stunning beauty of Potala Palace in Lhasa.
Once the home to the Dalai Lama, the five-hundred-year-old Potala Palace stands some 100 metres above Lhasa and an astonishing 3,750 metres above sea level, making it the highest palace in the world.
While access to Tibet is hard to negotiate and access to the palace even more so, even taking in its majesty Lhasa should be a goal for any lover of architecture and religious history.
Where: Potala Palace is located in Lhasa, Tibet. It can easily be reached by taking a local bus or taxi.
Cost: 100 – 200rmb ($14 – $28 USD).
27. Get lost in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter
While many people visit Xi’an each year to see the Terracotta Warriors, you’d be doing yourself an injustice if you didn’t take the time to explore China’s former capital more thoroughly.
Xi’an once acted as the starting point for the famous Silk Road, and as a hub of Asian trade, it attracted a considerable Middle Eastern influence over the centuries. This influence remains today, and the Muslim Quarter is both a living museum of historic Muslim architecture, but also a culinary journey of delicious foods found nowhere else in well-traveled China.
It’s an interesting insight into a China that isn’t the stereotype of fried rice and mahjong.
Where: Located in Xi’an, the Muslim Quarter can be reached by taxi or local bus.
28. Eat at the world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant
Hong Kong’s first entry on the list is a delicious one, and it’s one that won’t break your bank. It’s not often you get to eat at a Michelin Star restaurant for cheap, but Hong Kong’s Tim Ho Wan Dim Sum is just that.
While the small eatery has gone on to spawn an entire chain, the original is still considered the best, and no visit to Hong Kong would be complete without trying the restaurant’s world class selection of dim sum.
Got your appetite up? Check out Sassy Hong Kong’s post on Tim Ho Wan.
Where: There are four Tim Ho Wan locations in Hong Kong. See the above article for addresses.
Cost: Roughly $150 USD for dinner for two.
29. See Hong Kong from atop Victoria Peak
The best place to take in Hong Kong’s twinkling skyline, Victoria Peak is one of Hong Kong’s most popular tourist destinations day or night.
The more active can choose to hike their way up to the peak, but the popular Peak Tram is a scenic and more comfortable alternative. Tickets are HK$40 ($5.10 USD) return.
Once at the top, there are a number of tourist attractions include Madame Tussauds, Sky Terrace 428 (Hong Kong’s highest viewing platform), and more.
Where: The lower terminus can be reached by MRT.
30. Eat hot pot in Chongqing
While hot pot is available all over China, Chongqing’s take on the popular spicy broth is perhaps its most famous variant.
Featuring Sichuan’s famous mouth-numbing pepper and a number of other unique ingredients, Chongqing hot pot isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s a challenge any adventurous eater should be up for.
Where: Chongqing is overflowing with restaurants serving up this popular local delicacy, although you can find it in Sichuan restaurants all over the country.
31. Visit the Mausoleum of San Yat Sen in Nanjing
While he’s not as (in)famous outside of China as Chairman Mao, Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s role in forming both modern China and modern Taiwan cannot be overstated.
A political revolutionary revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait for his role in introducing democracy (such as it is) to both Chinas, Sun Yat Sen’s life was one of constant struggle and turmoil.
For those wishing to pay their respects for the unique political figure, his mausoleum can be visited at Purple Mountain in Nanjing.
An impressive construction in its own right, the Mausoleum’s proximity to other Purple Mountain attractions such as the original Ming Tomb and the nearby parklands makes it a perfect day trip from the city.
Where: Purple Mountain Scenic Area can be reached from Nanjing by bus, train, or local taxi.
Cost: Entrance to the Mausoleum is free, but Purple Mountain costs 15rmb ($2.20 USD).
32. Visit Qinghai Lake
China’s largest lake, Qinghai Lake is a 4,317 square kilometer saltwater lake famed for its serenity and the lush grasslands that surround its occasionally frosty shores.
The lake itself may not seem especially spectacular, but the utter quiet that surrounds it and the diverse ethnicities that live in the area make it an intriguing cultural journey. Boat rides, bird watching, and cycling are also popular activities.
It’s well off the tourist trail and at high altitude, so it’s not one for the pampered or the faint of heart.
Want something even more off the beaten track? Check out the starkly beautiful Chaka Lake, which is also in the Qinghai province.
Where: Buses can be taken from the city of Xining.
33. Visit the Ming Tombs
One not to be missed while in Beijing, the thirteen tombs of Ming Emperors whose combined reign stretched from 1368 – 1644.
While only certain parts of the massive complex are open at any given time, the chance to wander its famous Sacred Way and visit a few of its large tomb complexes is one worth jumping on.
While the original Ming Tomb can be found in Nanjing, these thirteen are better known and represent a greater portion of the once great dynasty.
Where: You can reach the Ming Tombs by bus, taxi, or subway from Beijing. It is often combined with a visit to the nearby Badaling section of the Great Wall.
Cost: 100 – 130rmb ($15 – $19 USD).
34. Attend the Harbin Ice Festival
The world’s largest ice sculpture festival, the annual Harbin Ice & Snow Festival sees the northern Chinese city transformed into a winter wonderland of impressive structures of snow and ice lit by brightly coloured lights.
Running throughout the cold winter months (December – February), the festival sees millions of people visit the three venues that host the various ice and snow sculptures.
Temperatures range from -10C to -25C during the festival, so pack warm!
Where: Harbin can be reached by flights, long-distance train, or long distance bus from Beijing and other major cities.
Cost: 240rmb for Sun Island ($35 USD), 330rmb for Ice & Snow World ($48 USD), and 150rmb for Zhaolin Park ($22 USD).
35. See Asia’s highest waterfall in Guizhou
Standing at 74 metres in height and 81 metres in width, the impressive Huangguoshou Falls in Guizhou province is the largest waterfall in Asia.
With a thunderous roar, the waters of the falls plunge into the Rhinoceros Pool and awe crowds of tourists from all over the world. Accompanied by a number of other waterfalls, it makes for a thrilling (and slightly moist) day out.
Where: You can take a bus from Anshun or Jinyang.
Cost: 160 – 180rmb ($23 – $26 USD).
36. Get off Beijing’s beaten track in the hutongs
My absolute favourite district of Beijing is the cluster of dusty laneways and cute boutiques that make up its hutong district.
While modern Beijing has precious little time for the grimy local restaurants and crowded courtyard tenements of the city’s past, there remains a lot to love in these window alleyways where people live, play, eat, and do pretty much everything else.
Hutongs such as Wudaoying and Fengjia near Andingmen are a delightful mix of authentic China and modern hipster charm, with microbreweries, cute cafes, art galleries, local dives, fashion boutiques, and everything in between to be found.
Where: Get off at Andingmen Station and explore.
The Off the Beaten Path
Are you a seasoned China veteran looking for something truly unusual to do?
Have you tackled most or all of the above and rolled your eyes?
Here are some of the more obscure, off the beaten track places to visit in China.
37. Drink Tsingtao in Qingdao
If you’ve spent any time at all in China or have a taste for foreign beers, you’ve probably heard of Tsingtao. While it’s not the most popular beer in China (that honour goes to Snow), it’s definitely China’s most famous malty export.
If you’re wanting to take your love affair with Tsingtao to a new level, you can pay a visit to the German-inspired beach town of Qingdao. Home to both the Tsingtao Brewery & Museum and the Qingdao International Beer Festival, it’s a place for a beer lover’s pilgrimage.
Beyond the suds, Qingdao is a picturesque city of beaches, clifftop art installations, German architecture, and good food.
Where: Qingdao is served by an international airport and a high-speed train station. It is roughly halfway between Shanghai and Beijing.
Cost: Free. Entry to the Beer Museum is 60rmb ($10 USD) and includes two beers. Tickets for the Beer Festival are 20-30rmb ($4 – $5 USD).
38. Drive the Karakoram Highway
One of the most scenic drives you’re ever likely to encounter, the Karakoram Highway connects the historic Silk Road city of Kashgar with the Sino-Pakistani border high in the mountains.
A day long drive that takes you through sun-blasted desert, swaying grasslands, high mountain passes, and past churning glacial rivers – this is a drive that’s all about the journey and not the destination.
Notable stops along the way include the fiery Red Mountain, the icy beauty of Karakul Lake, the historic Stone Fort in Tashkurgan, the snow-capped Sand Mountain, the serene Golden Grasslands, and the snowy silence of Kunjerab Pass.
You can read more about my epic journey along the Karakoram Highway.
Where: The Karakoram Highway begins in Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province. Flights to Kashgar typically come via Urumqi.
Cost: Tours vary in length and cost.
39. Take the Qinghai-Tibet Railway
From the road to the rail, we focus on the world’s highest altitude railway. Connecting traditional China with Tibet, this near 2,000 kilometre stretch of rail covers some of the most visually stunning terrains in China.
Stretching from Xining all the way to Lhasa, the high-speed train cuts across a hugely diverse assortment of landscapes before ascending into Tibet – where oxygen masks may be needed due to the high altitude.
You’ll also need to arrange a Tibet tour ahead of your trip, as independent travelers are not permitted in the region.
Where: The train departs from Xining, and has seven stops along the way.
Cost: Tickets range from 224rmb ($32 USD) for a seat to 781rmb ($115) for a sleeper.
40. Go horseback riding in Inner Mongolia
People are often surprised to learn that there is an Inner Mongolia, but the vast grass sea of this northern Chinese province is sure to put you in mind of the vast Mongol hordes who once ravaged China.
A distinctly different culture makes a visit to Inner Mongolia akin to visiting an entirely different country. Here, you’ll find a land of boundless grasslands that sway in the breeze, nomadic herdsmen, primitive yurts, and sun-baked deserts at odds with China’s modern metropolises.
No visit to the region would be complete without slipping into the saddle and seeing the grasslands from horseback. The horse was a vital part of what made Mongolia such a threat to ancient China, and to see Inner Mongolia from horseback is truly a bucket list experience.
Where: Inner Mongolia is served by both international and domestic airports.
Cost: 5rmb (less than $1 USD).
41. See the Caucasian mummies in Urumqi
Creating mummies is not the sole domain of ancient Egypt, although Xinjiang’s controversial ‘Tamin Mummies’ were created by the province’s heat and dry rather than religious ritual.
Why controversial? The near 4,000-year-old Loulan Beauty is distinctly Caucasian in her features, which is at odds with modern China’s assertions that Xinjiang has always been a part of China.
The Xinjiang Museum in which the mummies reside is worth a visit while in the provincial capital, with exhibits on the province’s melting pot of ethnicities as well as its vital role in the ancient Silk Road.
You can read more about the Xinjiang Museum on Far West China.
Where: The Xinjiang Museum is located in Urumqi, and can be reached by taxi or local bus.
42. See the thousand Buddhas of the Mogao Caves
Sometimes known as the Thousand Buddha Grottos, the Mogao Caves in China’s Gansu province are home to a startling collection of Buddhist artworks dating back more than 1,000 years.
Exploring the 750+ caves is like artistic time travel, as you’ll see different styles and mediums used in celebration of the Buddhist religion. These range from towering statues to intricate murals – a truly inspiring display of religious devotion.
Where: The Mogao Caves can be reached by bus or taxi from Dunhuang.
Cost: 220rmb ($32 USD).
43. Visit the coloured pools of Huanglong
Not far from stunning Jiuzhaigou in northern Sichuan is another stunning natural wonder, Huanglong. Like Jiuzhaigou, it is a distinctly beautiful park of waterfalls, coloured pools, and virgin forest, but Huanglong’s famous fairy pools possess a charm all of their own.
A place of almost alien beauty, Huanglong is well and truly off the beaten path, and visitors can expect peace and quiet while they soak in the park’s otherworldly beauty.
Where: Buses can be taken from Chengdu or Jiuzhaigou.
Cost: 200rmb ($30 USD).
44. Visit Dalian
A relatively young city by Chinese standards, Dalian is a beachside city with an impressive collection of Russian architecture due to its former state as a Russian settlement.
The city’s extensive coastline makes for some pretty dramatic views, and Dalian is considered one of China’s premier seafood destinations on par with Guangdong in the nation’s south.
Highlights in Dalian include the Bangchuidao Scenic Area with its hills and forests and the family friendly Tiger Beach Ocean Park.
Where: Dalian is served by an international airport as well as high-speed trains and long distance buses.
45. Be humbled by Heavenly Lake, Changbaishan
As if the breathtaking lake and the chance to stand on a volcano aren’t incentive enough, Changbai National Park is also home to a hugely diverse selection of Chinese animals including bears, lynx, leopards, deer, and the Siberian tiger!
You can keep your pandas, people – I’d die a happy man if I ever got to see a tiger in the wild and lived to tell the tale.
The park’s most famous sight is undoubtedly Tianchi (Heavenly Lake), a stunning crater lake that is worth a look at any time of year, but especially gorgeous during the snowy winter months.
Where: Take a taxi or private car from Erdaobaihe County, which can be reached by train or by flying in to Yanji Airport.
Cost: 125rmb ($18 USD).
46. Go bamboo rafting at Mt. Wuyi
A stunningly diverse region of river canyons and dense forest, the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian province is especially famous for the opportunity to raft Nine Bend River and take in the surrounding scenery.
The more adventurous will find a number of hiking trails to really get them close to nature, but a public bus within the park makes it accessible for all ages.
Where: Take a taxi from Wuyishan or a train from Xiamen or Fuzhou.
Cost: 210rmb ($30 USD).
47. Ride camels across the Gobi Desert to see Crescent Lake
A stunning contrast reminiscent of Tatooine in the Star Wars movies, Crescent Lake and Echoing Sand Mountain are a startling juxtaposition of towering dune and verdant oasis located in Gansu province.
The crescent-shaped lake exists at odds with the shifting sands of the Gobi Desert, and visitors can cool off on its shores before embarking on thrilling desert adventures such as riding camels across the dunes, sandboarding, or ATVing.
Where: Echoing Sand Mountain and Crescent Lake are both located a short bus or taxi ride from Dunhuang.
Cost: 120rmb ($17 USD). Additional cost for activities.
48. See the Kaiping Fortress Towers
Guangdong province in China’s south is often overlooked by tourists, but it’s not without its appeals.
One of the more dramatic landmarks in the province are the Kaiping Fortress Towers. Built in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty, these watchtowers and fortifications now stand solemn vigil over idyllic farmlands – making for a unique photo opportunity.
Want to learn more? Only Original Art has a great piece on their visit to the Kaiping Fortresses.
Where: Kaiping City is located a short bus ride from Guangzhou.
49. Be amazed by Fenghuang
Known as one of the most beautiful towns in China, Fenghuang in Hunan is a classic example of a water city comprised of gracefully curving bridges, stilted houses, and boats skimming through the canals.
Sometimes called Phoenix Ancient Town, Fenghuang lies on the banks of the Tuo Jiang River and its Miao people derive much of their livelihood from its waters.
Despite its popularity with tourists, the town remains as a kind of living museum for simpler times.
Where: Fenghuang can be reached by bus from either Changsha or Zhangjiajie National Park.
Cost: 148rmb ($21 USD).
50. Live like a local in rural China
For those really wanting to experience China away from its bustling city, it pays to get well and truly off the beaten track and visit a place not renowned for tourism.
You’ll need some Mandarin or world-class charades skills most of the time and you might have trouble finding hotels that can take foreign guests, but you’ll see China as it truly is – rather than as its state-owned media wishes it to be portrayed.
There’s no hard and fast guide on how you should do this, but stopping at one of those towns that lie between your starting point and your destination might be a good way to go about it.
You can read about my experience in rural China as a foreigner in Lianyungang.
Where: All over China.
Do you have any favourite spots in China that warrant their place on this list?
How many of the above have you made it to?