The Middle Kingdom has been one of the world’s leading sources of fascination and inspiration for centuries. Both an economic and cultural powerhouse, this land of contrasts is overflowing with an endless supply of sights and experiences to delight visitors of all stripes.
Why visit China? Let us count the ways! This guide is an invitation to dip your toes into the pool of possibilities waiting to be explored:
- Top historic and modern attractions, from magnificent metropolises to charming water towns and stunning natural landscapes.
- Practical tips on how to get around, especially if you don’t speak Chinese.
- Traditional tastes, from tranquil teas to red-hot fiery flavours.
- …and more.
If you’re searching for reasons to visit China, get your scrolling finger ready. You’ve come to the right place!
Famous Cities in China
As the country with the world’s largest population, there are a number of buzzing urban hotspots with skyscrapers, nightlife and culture to rival New York or London.
10 Biggest Chinese Cities
Each bustling metropolis offers myriad opportunities to see the sights, taste the local specialties and experience city life in a unique part of the world.
Here are some fun facts to help you decide which of these famous Chinese cities you want to visit:
- Shanghai, affectionately known as ‘The Pearl of Asia’, is one of the world’s largest cities. A hub for business and finance as well as art, design, cinema and fashion, its continuously expanding skyline includes some of the tallest buildings on the planet.
- Among many other things, Beijing, the country’s capital, is famous for the Peking opera, Peking duck and the amazing 789 Art District.
- In Chongqing you can enjoy the spicy Sichuan flavours of a typical hotpot and visit the ancient town of Ciqikou, renowned for its porcelain during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Huangjueping Graffiti Street offers more than a kilometre of street art.
- Tianjing’s Ancient Culture Street is one of the city’s major points of interest, with replicas of folk architecture from the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) and hundreds of shops selling traditional handicrafts.
- Guangzhou is the birthplace of Cantonese cooking, which is the type of Chinese food Westerners are usually familiar with. Dim sum abounds!
- Shenzhen has a growing live music scene and is famous for its ‘eat streets’. It’s also got more skyscrapers than NYC.
- Visit Chengdu to see giant pandas in their natural habitat. Tea lovers take notice: it is also the city with the most teahouses.
- Nanjing, ‘City of Emperors’, is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. The ancient city also has a modern side, exemplified by Nanjing Niushoushan Cultural Park, built in 2015.
- See Wuhan in springtime to witness the beautiful cherry, peach and plum blossoms.
- Xian, the birthplace of Chinese civilization, was the eastern starting point of the Silk Road. The Terracotta Army buried with the country’s first emperor in 2010-209 BCE is one of the must-see places in China.
If big cities aren’t your thing, there are a huge number of wild, wide-open spaces in China for a different, more relaxed type of sightseeing.
- Zhangye National Geopark and the Rainbow Mountains of China.
- The vibrantly colourful geological phenomenon known as Danxia is on full display in these other-worldly rockscapes.
- Hulunbuir Grasslands.
- This vast and beautiful wilderness in Inner Mongolia is home to rolling hills and hundreds of rivers. If you’ve ever wanted to sleep in a yurt, this is the place to do it.
- Jiuzhaigou National Park.
- This protected natural space is renowned for its emerald, sapphire and turquoise lakes, spectacular waterfalls, beautiful forests and snowy peaks.
- Li River.
- This iconic river and the surrounding mountains have been inspiring Chinese landscape artists for generations.
Other incredible natural attractions to check out on your trip to China are:
- Tiger Leaping Gorge.
- Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
- Wulong Karst.
- Yellow Mountains, Huangshan.
- Three Gorges region along the Yangtze River.
- Honghe Hani rice terraces.
Ancient Chinese Water Towns
For something in between densely packed cities and natural landscapes, there are plenty of small towns in China. And to make it more interesting, why not visit one (or more!) that’s located on the water. Traditional architecture, arched bridges and hanging red lanterns are reflected in the rivers and canals running through these charming and highly photogenic water villages.
Here are a handful of China’s water towns to add to your itinerary:
Some are more touristy, such as Zhouzhang water town, while others are further off the beaten track, like Dangkou. Whichever you choose to visit, these beautiful and historic villages are yet another tempting reason to travel to China.
Historical Landmarks in China
Few students make it through their academic career without complaining about all the important dates they have to memorise for history exams.
You think you had it bad? Try growing up in China.
The first recorded Chinese dynasty, the Xia, began in the 21st century BC. You can bet that Chinese schoolchildren have to hit the books pretty hard to learn about all the heroes, heroines and happenings on the vast timeline stretching between then and now.
The good news is that when you travel here, you get first-hand access to all the astonishing, larger-than-life landmarks.
You know, the must-see places in mainland China that are famous the world over, such as
- The Forbidden City.
- Tiananmen Square.
- The Terracotta Warriors.
- The Great Wall.
Speaking of the Great Wall, did you know that there is a long and winding metal slide you can ride down from the top? This can be a good bargaining chip to incentivise those members of your travelling party who may be less historically inclined.
It’s called the Mutianyu Toboggan. You sit on a little sled-type vehicle, and there’s a control stick you can use to brake or accelerate as you make your way down the green rolling hills.
If you are not a first-time visitor to the country, you’ve probably already ticked off these must-see spots and are ready to dig a little deeper.
Top historical sites in China that might not already be on your list:
- The Mogao Caves, also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, along the Silk Road.
- The Old Town of Lijiang and its waterwheel powered (and goldfish-filled!) canals.
- The traditional circular communal dwellings of Fujian Tulou.
- The sobering and impactful Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.
Modes of Transportation in China
So much to see, but how to get there? China is an enormous country — it’s the third-largest in the world, after Russia and Canada!
Luckily, the government has been investing heavily in the transportation infrastructure for several decades now, making it easier than ever to get from point A to point B.
Here are the best transport options for your trip to China:
- Domestic flights – the quickest option when travelling long distances.
- Bullet trains – also very fast, as the name suggests! China has the most extensive high-speed rail network in the world, connecting dozens of cities.
- Subway, metro and light rail: more than 30 cities have subway systems. Most were built after 2008, so they tend to be quite modern. There is signage in English, and English-speaking staff is available to help tourists.
- Taxis: flagging down a taxi is a cheap and easy way to travel. Most drivers don’t speak English, so be ready to show them the name of your destination written in characters.
Most locations also have local buses, but the stops are written and called out in Chinese only, so they are much more difficult to navigate for the average tourist.
Train travel connoisseurs will want to ride the Shanghai maglev line, which is the first commercial high-speed rail system that uses magnetic levitation (yes, levitation!) and can reach speeds of over 400 km/h. This is sure to earn you bragging rights in your circle of train lovers!
Traditional Chinese Foods
You may know your way around a Chinese takeout menu, but you’re in for a real treat when you begin to discover the variety and intensity of China’s authentic flavours.
The local cuisine differs widely from place to place, so the foods you eat will depend largely on where you visit.
There are 8 main culinary traditions in China.
- Found in the Anhui province, including the Yellow Mountains and the Huangshan region.
- Flavours: hearty food that often incorporates wild plants.
- Typical dishes: Li Hongzhang chop suey, hairy tofu, Wenzheng Mountain bamboo shoots, steamed stone frog.
- Found in the Guangdong Province, including Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau. This is the type of Chinese food most often found abroad.
- Flavours: on the sweet side. Wide variety of foods with mild flavours.
- Typical dishes: chow mein, lo mein, dim sum, steamed pork buns. Sauces: hoisin, plum, sweet and sour.
- Found in the Fujian Province, including Xiamen and Quanzhou.
- Flavours: mild and light sweet and sour flavours, emphasis on umami (a savoury taste often described as meaty or brothy).
- Typical dishes: fish ball soup, spring rolls, various seafood soups.
- Found in the Xiang River region, western Hunan Province, Dongting Lake.
- Flavours: hot and spicy! Even hotter than the famous Sichuan food (see below), but does not numb the mouth in the same way.
- Typical dishes: Mao’s red braised pork (the Chairman’s favourite dish), Hunan rice noodles, Changsha stinky tofu, pearl meatballs.
- Found in the Jiangsu Province, including Nanjing and Suzhou.
- Flavours: salty and sweet foods, soft textures.
- Dishes: sweet and sour mandarin fish, Nanjing salted duck, lion’s head meatballs. Known for soups, seafood and visual presentation.
- Found in Shandong Province, including Qingdao, Jinan, Qufu, Mount Tai.
- Flavours: crispy textures, with an emphasis on seafood.
- Dishes: four-joy meatballs, braised sea cucumber with scallion, braised intestines in brown sauce. Celiacs should be aware that wheat is a popular ingredient, including wheat noodles. Peanuts are also common.
- Found in Sichuan Province.
- Flavours: Spicy and bold. The famous Sichuan pepper has a mouth-numbing effect. (You have been warned!)
- Dishes: kung pao chicken, dan dan noodles, mapo tofu, Sichuan hotpot.
- Found in the Zhejiang Province, including Hangzhou, Ningbo, Shaoxing.
- Flavours: fresh and light. Focus on seafood and fish.
- Dishes: Dongpo pork, fried eel slices, shrimp cooked in Longjing tea, West Lake vinegar fish, sweet Ningbo rice balls.
So there are another 8 delicious reasons to visit China! Plus, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Each of the 8 traditions also has several sub-regional styles to try. You won’t regret it!
Tasty Tea Traditions
Tea is an important part of Chinese culture. Die-hard tea enthusiasts may enjoy visiting some of the country’s tea-growing areas, but most visitors can satisfy their curiosity without making any special arrangements. Many different teas are easily found all over the country in shops, restaurants and tea houses.
The main types of Chinese tea are green, black, white, yellow, dark and Oolong. Try them all!
The biggest tea centre in Beijing, popularly known as Tea Street, is Maliandao Tea Market, with hundreds of vendors.
Live Like Royalty or Travel on a Shoestring
One of the important appeals of going to China is that travelling here is only as expensive as you make it.
If you want to spend your time lounging in glamorous hotels, dining in extravagant rooftop restaurants and shopping for designer goods, you can live in the lap of luxury in Shanghai or Beijing.
To get by on a slimmer budget, it’s easy to eat at small hole-in-the-wall places (just make sure they are clean!), stay at hostels or hotels further from the city centre, and visit free sites like parks and gardens.
The choice is up to you!
The biggest reason to go to China is also the hardest to put into words. It is a place on the planet unlike any other, and just being here is an adventure.
Thanks to the language barrier and cultural differences, travelling to China is a wonderful opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and into a truly unforgettable experience. And that’s just going to the supermarket!
Ready to pack your bags? Don’t forget your visa! Learn more about your visa requirements here, and about flying to China’s airports here.