Inconceivably vast and varied, China is a nation in flux. Go now, before the old ways of life are lost to the march of progress.
The very definition of culture clash, travel to China is always full of varied and all-encompassing experiences. From towering megacities bristling with modernity right through to somnolent backwaters where subsistence farmers eke out a living from the earth, China's sheer variety is tough to comprehend. The unifying thread running through it all is the venerable Chinese culture, one of the world’s oldest and most recognisable, which gives the country a solid framework on which to hang its multiple personalities. The pace of change in China is currently a phenomenon in its own right, so whether you go to see for yourself a nation in flux or to tour the ancient wonders and cultural landmarks, you will never run out of inspiration in this vast and captivating land.
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Top things to do in China
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this vast and varied nation. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts at the foot of this page, but in the meantime here are our top things to do in China.
Visit the Great Wall
China's most iconic destination, the Great Wall winds across hills, through forests and even out into the desert. First built in the 7th Century BC to protect against raids and invasions by nomadic groups, it has been rebuilt and lengthened over the centuries - the most well-known bits of the wall these days were built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644). Easily accessible from Beijing, it is a must-see on your holiday. Our trusted local experts can also take you to some of the less-touristed areas. All you need do is ask.
Admire the terracotta warriors
The astonishing discovery near Xian of the underground vaults containing the Terracotta Army was not made until 1974 when local farmers unearthed them and revealed them to the world. Dating from the 3rd Century BC, the army is made up of more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 670 horses, and was buried to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. Among the thousands of sculptures it is said that no two faces are the same.
Wander the Forbidden City
Completed in 1420 during the early Ming dynasty, this is China's most immaculately preserved imperial palace and also one of the largest palace complexes in the world. Set aside a few hours of your time in Beijing to explore (perhaps not all) the 8,700 rooms and 980 buildings, each being breathtaking examples of traditional Chinese architecture.
Cruise through China’s heartland
The Yangtze River runs nearly 4,000 miles through the heart of China - from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea. Drawing a line between North and South, the fertile lands of the Yangtze River basin has been supporting the development of Chinese civilisation for millennia. With so many towns and cities hugging its banks, cruising the Yangtze River is a great way to explore, with options to stop off for visits to The Great Wall, Chengdu and many more destinations. Witnessing the majesty of the Three Gorges, and the immensity of the famous Three Gorges Dam, adds to the adventure.
Feast your way through the regions
China’s cuisine is as vast and as varied as the country itself, with regional styles of cooking celebrated and upheld. The spicy Sichuan cuisine is some of the most popular, with names like Hot Pot and Bang Bang Chicken hinting at their flavour. Down south, fluffy steamed Dim Sum are the order of the day, traditionally enjoyed at breakfast with tea. In coastal Fujian, fish and seafood feature highly, along with rich unami flavours and steaming bowls of broth. Wherever you travel in China, your taste buds will be tantalised (and your humour most likely tickled by the colourful English menu translations).
Live the high life
China’s megacities of Beijing and Shanghai are forces unto themselves, and experiencing their intensity and energy is a must. Always on the move, but rooted in China’s imperial past, Beijing is a powerhouse of arts, culture and vertiginous modern architecture – neck craning comes as standard here. Shanghai keeps pace with the second tallest building in the world and a shopping scene to rival Paris and New York combined. Both cities are veritably obsessed with eating, and dining out is a way of life. With street food stalls, Michelin-starred restaurants and everything in between, you won’t go hungry.
Meet some furry friends in Chengdu
Chengdu is an engaging city with a fun mix of students and expats creating a buzzing bar scene - it is also one of China’s most celebrated centres of gastronomy and has a venerable tea house culture to boot. Besides eating and drinking though, visiting Chengdu’s nearby panda reserve is a must. The centre focuses on encouraging these shy bears to mate, so if you visit in autumn or winter there may be some little fur balls to coo over. These slow-paced creatures are at their most active in the morning, so it’s best to visit early.
Lesser-known things to do in China
While there are many well-known things to do in China, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Chinese adventure.
Gaze over a magical landscape
Hunan province in southern China is home to one of the most beautiful and strange landscapes you are likely to set eyes on in a lifetime. Head to Zhangjiajie National Park to see hundreds of quartzite sandstone pillars, peaks and spires rising from its sub-tropical forests and reaching off into the distance. Around them flow countless streams supporting an ecosystem of precious plants and wildlife. Early morning mists transport the park into an otherworldly realm.
Hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge
Hiking enthusiasts won’t want to miss the evocatively named Tiger Leaping Gorge in southwest China’s Yunnan Province. This spectacular, steep-sided canyon is 16km long with the Jinsha River rushing through it, and the mighty snow-capped Haba Shan Mountains rearing up nearly 4,000m in the distance. It’s not an easy stroll, but the drama of the views make it well worth the effort.
Step back in time
Catch a glimpse of old China in Pingyao, one of the most well-preserved ancient walled towns in China and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This fine example of Ming and Qing Dynasty town planning and architecture was also home to one of China’s first banks. Beautiful architectural lines abound, intriguing alleyways are strung with glowing lanterns, and locals go about their daily business amongst its handsome streets.
When is the best time to visit China?
The sheer size of China means that climatically it is hard to pin down, and that ideal times to visit will differ depending on which areas you intend to see. It is generally best to visit China in spring or autumn and wise to avoid the extremes of temperature brought by summer and winter, as large areas of the country suffer both harsh winters and stiflingly hot summers. However, the scale of the country means that there is generally always somewhere to visit regardless of the season. The best time to visit western China is April to October when the flowers are in bloom and the towns bustling with life. If you're wanting to explore the mountains then visit from June to August when the hiking conditions are best and alpine flowers adorn the steppe. It's always a good idea to check the dates of Chinese New Year – an exciting and festive time to visit, but also very busy.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' China. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday.
Shanghai’s famous river walk is best visited early in the morning, when the locals come to practice Tai Chi, or just before sunset. Watching the magnificent Shanghai skyline light up as the sky darkens is a must.
Mastering the art…
If you haven’t already got the hang of them, practice with a pair of chopsticks at home, so you’re not caught out when you’re hungry. Also, remember not to tap your chopsticks on the table or point them at people – both are considered impolite.
When visiting Buddhist monasteries your camera and phone should stay packed away – photography in these holy places is frowned upon.
Bird’s eye view…
For a fabulous view of the Forbidden City from on high, head to Beijing’s Jingshan Hill.
Interesting facts about China
China is a vast and fascinating country. But did you know any of our top three facts about it?
- China has just one time zone, despite being similar in size to the US (which has four). This means that for those in the far west of the country, sunrise can be as late as 10am.
- Facebook has been banned in China since 2009, there are other social media channels, such as Baidu and WeChat, but you won’t be able to update your status with that Great Wall selfie until you return home.
- The Chinese New Year celebrations last for 15 days and kick off in late January or February. On one of the days dogs are given special treats.
What to read before you go to China
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to China, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'China in Ten Words' by Yu Hua
Written by one of China’s greatest contemporary authors, this set of essays sets out to describe a nation in flux using just ten words. Banned in China, the book is Hua’s personal take on the rapid transformation of his homeland in recent decades.
'China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know' by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
This manageable book offers a concise look at some of the big questions surrounding contemporary China, from youth culture to building booms to communism. There have been several revised editions, so do make sure you get the most up to date.
'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress' by Dai Sijie
This beautifully written novel is set during China’s Cultural Revolution. Two wealthy young city boys are sent to a rural mountain village for ‘reeducation’. Instead they discover a secret stash of Western books and disappear into a new world of possibilities.
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