From colossal palaces and sacred mountains to cliff-top temples and roaring metropolises, the places to visit in China will impress even the hardiest of travellers.
China may not be quite the rapidly modernizing economic success of investment fable, but nor is it the medieval backwater of travellers’ tales – the truth lies somewhere in between. Not far from the excitement and wealth of the shiny, high-rise cities, water buffalo pull the plough, and donkey carts are still a popular form of transport. For the visitor, making a foray into the countryside will rarely fail to yield a lively village market or a distressed pagoda on a hill.
China is such a vast and varied land and most of its great sights are scattered far and wide. Our list of top twenty places to visit in China will allow you to pick and choose from a diverse range of attractions to suit your interests, timescale, and budget.
The political and cultural capital of the world’s most populous country, Bĕijīng offers China’s most staggering array of attractions – the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Tiān’ānmén Square, and the Great Wall. Through its magnificent architecture visitors can trace every historical mood swing from Mongol times to the present day. Reminders of epic imperial grandeur and of imposing socialist realism stand strong amidst an emerging global powerhouse preparing to dominate the 21st century. In Bĕijīng you’ll encounter modernity and a switched-on, confident populace, but it’s the backdrop of enchanting alleyways, imperial palaces and incense-wreathed temples that makes this historic city so unique.
The Great Wall
A symbol of China’s historic detachment and sense of vulnerability, the Great Wall snakes over deserts, hills and plains for several thousand miles. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Wall is China’s standout ruin and a ‘must-visit’ destination for any visitor to Bĕijīng. While the most renowned examples undulate majestically over the peaks of Bĕijīng municipality, the Great Wall can also be realistically visited in many north China provinces. Select the Great Wall according to taste: perfectly chiselled, dilapidated, stripped of its bricks, overrun with saplings, coiling splendidly into the hills or returning to dust. The fortification is a fitting symbol of those perennial Chinese traits: diligence, mass manpower, ambitious vision and engineering skill (coupled with a distrust of the neighbours).
The Silk Road
There are other Silk Road cities in countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but it’s in China where you get the feeling of stepping on the actual ‘Silk Road’, with its pervasive Muslim heritage and fragments from ancient Buddhist civilisations. Travel by bus and experience the route as ancient traders once did. This fabled route’s legacies are visible everywhere, from historic sights to the Islamic religion. Kashgar is the ultimate Silk Road town and remains a unique melting pot of peoples, but the Uighur trading centre of Hotan is equally special: a rough-and-tumble town still clinging to bygone days.
Shrouded in mist and light rain more than 200 days a year, and maddeningly crowded most of the time, Huángshān is reputed to be the most beautiful mountain range in the country and therefore attracts millions of visitors every year. Perhaps it’s the barren landscape, or an otherwordly vibe on the mountain. Mist rolls in and out at will; spindly bent pines stick out like lone pins across sheer craggy granite faces. Not far from the base are the perfectly preserved Hui villages including Xīdì and Hóngcūn. Consider spending the night at the top for spectacular, but not solitary, sunsets and sunrises.
hile Bĕijīng may be the capital of China, Shànghăi is China’s economical, financial, and commercial centre, its largest city, and the key to China’s future. No other super city in China, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, is more vibrant or fascinating. Don’t come here for dusty tombs or creaking old palaces; Shànghăi doesn’t do those. Come instead for crisp modernity, youthful vigour, funky art deco architecture, gorgeous French Concession streetscapes, rocketing skyscrapers and charming 19th-century shikumen (stone gate) buildings. You could also simply come for its restaurants and bars – and rarely feel short-changed.