If you’re trotting around East Asia, no country is more dynamic & enigmatic than China. As the world’s oldest continuous civilization, China’s a tour-de-force for travellers. Anyone who ventures to its expanses won’t just see the history of the nation play out before their eye, but also the future.
Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xian fast-forwarded into China’s modern era, becoming, in many ways, some of the world’s biggest urban development success stories. Not to say it always went according to plan, but these powerhouses still wear their history on their sleeves when you dig a little.
Between the glass skyscrapers and glitzy air-conditioned malls, you’ll discover age-old temples, grandiose palaces, alleyways lined with street food vendors, traditional restaurants run for generations, and some surprisingly green patches that complete disrupt China’s gloomy environmental stereotype.
Outside of the cities is a new world all together. If you can brave the difficulty of travelling towards China’s frontiers you’ll be introduced to a world that can, oftentimes, seem frozen in time. Despite the growing image of China as an industrial and economic powerhouse, there’s still plenty of space where stillness and serenity is more commonplace than the hustle and bustle.
Even as mass tourism sweeps through places like Lijiang, Pingyao, and Yangshuo, getting to experience their historic streets and dramatic landscapes truly rounds out the experience of spending time in China’s more famous cities.
Not sure where to start planning your travels? Get the low-down with this quick & easy China travel guide…
When to visit China
Asking a question like the best time to visit China immediately sets the answerer up for failure. Unlike in smaller East Asian destinations like Hong Kong or Taiwan, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when to travel to this vast continent-like country.
If we were to arbitrarily choose, spring (April to May) and autumn (September to October) are among the best months to go China for tourists. The summer high season can be more than a little uncomfortable for most as both temperatures and crowds swell throughout the country.
In spring, the weather in China is generally quite mild with temperatures ranging between 10–23°C (50–73°F). You’ll have better luck planning a trip in northern China than the south where heavy rains already start to pile up as summer nears.
An even better choice is to visit China in the fall. In autumn (particularly September and October), it’s relatively dry throughout the country with mild to warm temperatures hovering between 15 and 27°C (59 and 81°F).
Where to go in China
What makes China so special for travellers is its immense diversity. While most think solely of things like The Great Wall of China or the Forbidden City, some of China’s best moments are those that are discovered unexpectedly.
Perhaps its the Muslim Quarter of Xian, the giant pandas & spicy food of Chengdu, the karst peaks of Yangshuo or the Silk-Road-inspired bazaar of Kashgar that really move that thinking outside of the box. Either way, when you plan a visit to China you’ll need to strap in because it’s always going to be one hell of an adventure.
Looking for quick ideas on where to go in China? Check out these travel resources:
If there’s any place to start exploring China, it’s Beijing. The bustling Chinese capital combines the best of China’s past & future into one (perhaps not-so) tight package. Whatever you desire, whether its chomping down on some mouth-watering street food, hopping between temples & palaces or escaping the heat & droppin’ down some yuan in air-conditioned fashion boutiques, you’ll hit it all in Beijing.
And all that love for the city comes without even mentions it’s grandest attraction: The Great Wall of China. This crowning achievement of humankind lies just outside the city (1-2 hours to some of the most popular sections), and is the single most brag-worthy destination in the country (and, maybe, alongside the pyramids of Egypt, in the entire world).
Ready to plan your trip to Beijing? Get started with these resources:
- One Day in Beijing: A Complete Itinerary
- Best Things to Do in Beijing: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- Where to Stay in Beijing: The Best Hotels & Areas for Travellers
- What to Eat in Beijing: Must-Try Food Guide
Although it’s hardly got the touristic pull of other more famous Chinese cities, the sprawling city of Chengdu has nonetheless carved a spot in the hearts of travellers for its oh-so-adorable pandas and fiery cuisine that offer some of the wildest flavours in the country.
Even if its most obvious charms don’t trap you at first glance, Chengdu’s lesser-known ones might. Besides Chengdu’s famous cuisine (this city is after UNESCO-listed for its gastronomy), there’s a thriving tea culture here and a surprisingly hip & diverse nightlife scene offering everything from quiet nights chatting among craft beers to loud late nights in the club.
Ready to plan your trip to Chengdu? Get started with these resources:
While it might not have the household name of Beijing or Shanghai, the often-overlooked city of Guangzhou (perhaps once better-known as Canton) is a surprisingly interesting travel destination for the urban travellers.
Front and centre in mainland China’s Pearl River Delta region (the most populated urban conglomeration in the world, actually!), Guangzhou’s got plenty to keep anyone busy—even if it doesn’t look like much from the surface.
Tucked away under the layers of hyper-modernism, you’ll discover age-old temples, bustling markets, pocket of colonial architecture left over by the Brits, and, most importantly to foodies, a whole barrage of edible delights that are among China’s best.
Ready to plan your trip to Guangzhou? Get started with these resources:
- One Day in Guangzhou: A Complete Itinerary
- Best Things to Do in Guangzhou: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- Where to Stay in Guangzhou: The Best Hotels & Areas for Travellers
Next to the capital, the most populated Chinese city of Shanghai pops into the second slot as one of the best places to visit in China for lovers of urban travel. Although its ancient charms are a little less front-and-centre than Beijing, Shanghai’s got plenty of its own pull to keep visitors interested.
Not so long ago, the strategic location of Shanghai left colonial powers struggling for control. They left behind an architectural legacy that’s like nothing you’d imagine finding in China. Strolling through the leafy French Concession or along the elegant Bund will put to rest any doubts that Shanghai is worth visiting.
And, of course, there’s that whole space-age thing. From the 20th-century graces of The Bund, stare across the Huangpu River for a glimpse at what the 21st century’s brought to Shanghai. The Pudong skyline has become one of the most recognizable in the world. Getting to pop into one of its skyscrapers to check it out from above is truly one of the great pleasures in visiting the under-appreciated city of Shanghai.
Ready to plan your trip? Get started with these resources from our Shanghai Travel Guide:
- One Day in Shanghai: A Complete Itinerary
- Best Things to Do in Shanghai: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- Reasons Why You Need to Visit Shanghai
- What to Eat in Shanghai: Must-Try Food Guide
- Where to Stay in Shanghai: The Best Hotels & Areas for Travellers
Once you’ve tackled the basics, there’s no better place to expand your exploration of China than Xian. At the crossroads of Central Asia, this former Silk Road city was a prominent trading post and important ancient Chinese cultural centre where emperors, artists, and traders once co-mingled.
Wandering about Xian, it’s not difficult to grasp its illustrious roots. Xian’s touristic centre is still encased by its Ming-era city walls, offering some of the most interesting views you’ll find in any modern Chinese city. In the bustling Muslim Quarter, the spirit of the Silk Road surges back to life as vendors dish out Xian’s most delectable food, which is some of the most unique in the country.
Although the city itself is worthy of a visit, visitors come to Xian from far and wide to get a taste of its main course: the Army of the Terracotta Warriors. This wonder of the ancient world, uncovered in 1974 by local farmers, features thousands of life-sized warrior statues guarding the subterranean tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and is one of China’s must-sees.
Ready to plan your trip? Get started with these resources…
- One Day in Xian: A Complete Itinerary
- Best Things to Do in Xian: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- Where to Stay in Xian: The Best Hotels & Areas for Travellers
More destinations & places to visit to come…
What to eat in China
If there’s anything I can say about China is that it’s a foodie destination par excellence. And that greasy Chinese takeout that you love to chow down on back home isn’t exactly what you should expect here.
Flavours in China are as complex as they are varied. Vast regional differences in climates and local cultures, leaves no single thread running through Chinese cuisine. Whether its the Turkic influences in Uyghur food or the spicy tangy of Sichuan, there’s always something new for your palate to discover in China.
Not sure what awaits your tastebuds? Here are some ideas for what to eat in China:
- Xiaolongbao: If there’s any dish that’s lays down the perfect introduction to Chinese food it’s this delectable soup dumpling from Shanghai. Stuffed with ingredients like ground pork, scallions, and ginger, it’s one of those melt-in-your-mouth dishes that’ll always keep you craving more.
- Roasted Duck: In Beijing, the king of all foods is its famous Peking duck. The duck meat is cooked to juicy perfection while the skin is basted with syrup and brought to a satisfying crisp.
- Char Siu: Like roasted duck, this Cantonese barbecue dish creates a succulent pork tenderloin with a sweet and savoury outer finish.
- Xiao Mian (Chongqing Noodles): A traditional breakfast around the city of Chongqing, this delicious noodle dish consists of thin wheat noodles doused in a variety of spices including the Sichuan pepper that bestows its fiery reputation. Chongqing noodles are served both without or without soup.
Transportation in China
Unlike many other East Asian countries, getting to China isn’t necessarily the most straight-forward process. Most travellers will need to apply for a visa for China before they can even think about hopping on a plane.
If you’re only interested in a limited stay in one of the more popular cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xian), however, there’s another option: 144-hour visa-free entry to China.
With this option, you’ll be able to stay within your region of landing for up to 144 hours starting at 00:00 on the day following your arrival. The only stipulation is that your outbound flight from China must be to a third country (Hong Kong and Macau would count towards this requirement). It’s a fantastic option for those who want to visit China without all the complex paperwork!
By air: The two busiest airports in China for international arrivals are Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) and Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG). Due to the economic importance of each city, there are plenty of daily flights in and out to international destinations. Some of the airlines flying into PEK and PVG include Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, and Shanghai Airlines.
By train: With China’s extensive rail network getting upgraded at breakneck speed, travelling by train is becoming, without a doubt, the best way to travel around China. New high-speed lines are, seemingly, always opening up to reduce the travel times between major Chinese cities. Sample journey times include Beijing to Shanghai (5 hours), Beijing to Guangzhou (8 hours), Beijing to Xian (4.5 to 6 hours).
By bus: If high-speed trains aren’t available (or budget is a concern), buses are another alternative for getting around China. In more remote parts of China, buses might even be the only option. Keep in mind that long-distance buses in China are generally quite a bit slower and less convenient than trains.