China

Places to visit in China

China is a vast country, the third largest in the world, so any 2-3 week tour will inevitably only scratch the surface. However, within this time frame you can get a real overview of the highlights and throw in a few more off-the-beaten-track destinations as well. All first time visitors should include the imperial cities of Beijing and Xian, home to the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Warriors, as well as a few days exploring the iconic scenery around Yangshuo.

However, beyond this there are a huge number of options depending on your interest. The panda centre at Chengdu is always a firm favourite with families, as are the pretty towns of Lijiang and Dali in Yunnan. We have outlined some of the main attractions here but if you are bewildered by the options, call us and we can suggest what will work for your family.

Places to visit in China - Chengdu Panda Research Centre

Dujiangyan Panda Centre near Chengdu

Beijing

As China’s capital for the last 650 years, Beijing’s illustrious history is interwoven throughout the city. Ancient palaces and temples are towered over by modern skyscrapers and wide boulevards radiate out from the centre, just occasionally offering a glimpse into the nearby alleyways of Old Peking. You can spend a morning haggling in a crowded market full of knock-off designer goods and an afternoon in the company of China’s elite in one of the icy cold shopping centres that are home to all of the most expensive international brands.

Stop for a latte in the morning in a cosmopolitan café but in the evening head off into the side streets to discover a traditional Peking Duck restaurant in an old courtyard house. You sometimes have to work hard to find traces of old China but they are there if you know where to look!

The most famous attraction is of course the Forbidden City, which stretches north from the giant expanse of Tiananmen Square. Before entering the imperial city the children might enjoy flying a kite in Tiananmen and you can visit Chairman Mao lying in state in his mausoleum in the centre of the square.

Once you get into the Forbidden City itself, the scale of the palace becomes clear with endless vast courtyards and impressive temples, the red wooden pillars exquisitely carved with golden dragons. Make sure that you head off the main north / south axis to some of the smaller parts of the city where the concubines used to live. Here you can escape the crowds and also get more of an idea of what life must have been like under the emperor.

The Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) is also well worth a visit, one of China’s most iconic sites with its circular temples. The children will enjoy trying out the ‘sound walls’ where you can whisper into one section of the wall and the noise will carry around the smooth curved walls to someone right at the other side of the courtyard.

If possible try to visit Tiantan at the weekend when the large park around the temple is full of local people taking part in activities. Wander from group to group, some practicing ballroom dancing, others following the slow languid moves of Tai Chi, still others singing Chinese opera. Less bashful children may join in at the back.

Hong Kong

Part of China and yet so different from the mainland, Hong Kong is a great place to start or finish a trip to China. This is a city of futuristic skyscrapers that soar above the harbour, wide boulevards lined with designer shops, cramped restaurants with steaming baskets of dim sum, night markets, bird markets, flower markets and souvenir markets.

For younger children, this is a place to indulge every transport fantasy there is. Ride the world’s longest escalator, take the star ferry to the island and back, jump on a rickety tram and climb to ‘the Peak’ on a steep funicular. Older children will be keen to shop till they drop, picking up fake designer goods (or the more expensive genuine article) and browsing the stalls of Temple Street night market.

There is also much to see in Hong Kong away from the centre. After embracing the frenetic side of Hong Kong, Big Wave Bay on the southeast coast is a lovely spot for older kids to let off steam on a wide sandy beach, where they can swim, body board and surf. Easily reached from the city by bus, taxi or via the Dragon’s Back on the Hong Kong Trail, you’ll find cafés and small shops selling the beach basics and renting body boards etc.

If your schedule permits, kids of all ages will love island hopping with the locals, using the excellent ferry network. A favourite stop is the bustling island of Cheung Chau. Here Tung Wan beach on the east coast has safe swimming and there are short hikes, suitable for all the family, with one in particular that takes you to a great look out point. Best of all are the restaurants on the busy harbour quay where you choose your lunch from tanks of live fish and seafood from the day’s catch. Steaming dishes of fried salt and pepper squid and shrimp with garlic are specialities but if this doesn’t appeal to everyone, look for the cafés that specialise in delicious mango puddings and cakes.

The Ngong Ping Cable Car on Lantau Island is one of the longest in the world and the 20-minute trip to Ngong Ping Village to see the Big Buddha is immense fun and great way to see some of Hong Kong’s loveliest scenery.

Xian

Home to the Terracotta Warriors, Xian is China’s most important historical city and was the capital for 1,200 years before Beijing took over in the 1400s. The warriors themselves are incredible. They were first discovered by a farmer digging in the fields about 40 years ago and since then excavations have continued, slowly unearthing possibly the largest tomb in the world. The warriors are just a small part of the whole tomb (much of which is not yet excavated) and were created to protect the emperor in the afterlife. Each one is different and it is said that the artisans carved their own likeness into the face of the different soldiers.

The children will particularly enjoy the 360˚ cinema, which shows a short dramatization of the life of the emperor and the discovery of the tomb 2,000 years later.

If you are early risers, it is well worth trying to get to the site when it opens at 8am. This means that you can avoid the crowds that arrive in large numbers later in the day and it is magical to have the serried ranks of warriors almost to yourselves.

Xian also has a wide number of other historical sites. The children might enjoy riding bikes (or an electric bus) around the huge city walls or perhaps stopping for a calligraphy lesson in one of the workshops built into the side of them. There are excellent museums and ancient pagodas, our favourite of which is called the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

The Big Wild Goose pagoda was the tallest building in the world at the time it was built and you can climb up inside it for a panoramic view over the city. Stay on afterwards and wander around the city square near the pagoda. This is a favourite spot for Chinese families and every evening there is a musical fountain show. The children will love this and will inevitably be approached by friendly children wanting to practice their English.

Luoyang & Shaolin

Legendary Shaolin Temple is the home of kung-fu and a great place to take children, particularly those with an interest in martial arts. There is a kung-fu school here and you can watch the students practice in the courtyard, lines and lines of them identically dressed and running through a series of increasingly complicated moves. You can also watch a kung-fu performance in the Shaolin Theatre, in which the best students put on an incredible display of strength and acrobatics. They contort themselves into extraordinary shapes, do handstands on one finger, perform vertical splits, balance on spear tips and generally do moves that you can’t quite believe are feasible!

Nearby is the ancient capital of Luoyang, also well worth a visit. If you are an early riser, head to the large city square here to see it come alive in the morning with groups of people doing tai chi, ballroom dancing and aerobics. Later you can visit the Longmen Grottoes, where giant Buddhas have been carved out of the cliff-face, some 2,000 years old. You can also visit the White Horse Temple, one of China’s most important Buddhist temples as it marks the place where Buddhism first arrived in the country.

Shanghai and the East

The Eastern seaboard is where China’s rapid development has been concentrated and no more so than in Shanghai, the beating economic heart of China. The city never sleeps and never stays still with ever more ambitious building projects on an extraordinary scale. There are glimpses of the past in the occasional gardens and temples that dot the city, but for the most part this is a distinctly 21st century city and is proud of it.

Nearby are the cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou, famous throughout China for their beauty. Suzhou is home to China’s most renowned traditional gardens, which are exquisitely laid out and maintained. The children will love exploring by bike, bumping over the many small hump-backed bridges and cobbled streets. Hangzhou is spread around the picturesque West Lake and fringed by green hills that are dotted with temples and pavilions. The children will enjoy taking a boat ride on the lake or riding bikes up into the tea plantations on the edge of town.

Nanjing is also worth a visit, home to the mausoleum of Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China and revered throughout the country. There are also an abundance of temples, parks and markets which children will enjoy exploring.

Chengdu, Emeishan & Leshan (Sichuan Province)

Sichuan is home to China’s spiciest food and perhaps its greatest drawcard for kids, the giant panda. Just outside the provincial capital, Chengdu, is the panda research centre which has been remarkably successful in breeding pandas. If there are any newly born animals you can see them (pink, shrivelled and tiny!) in little incubators or watch slightly older ones rolling around in the enclosures, playing with each other in much the same way that children do.

For real animal lovers you can head further afield to Dujiangyan Panda Centre where you can spend the day as a volunteer, helping to look after the pandas. Your ‘chores’ will include feeding them, cleaning out the enclosures and collecting panda poo for inspection.

However, there is much more to this province than Chengdu. You can visit Mt Emei, a holy mountain that was home to China’s first Buddhist temple and which remains a place of pilgrimage for many. Older children will enjoy the hike up the mountain whilst younger children might prefer the cable car. Another popular spot is the Giant Buddha at Leshan, the largest Buddha in the world, hewn from the rock more than 1,300 years ago.

Further north, Sichuan offers plenty of off-the-beaten-track excitement for more adventurous families. You can venture up onto the fringes of the Tibetan plateau for a horse trek through the spectacular mountain scenery or hike to the turquoise lakes and waterfalls of the Juizhaigou National Park.

Lijiang, Dali & Tiger Leaping Gorge (Yunnan Province)

Yunnan is one of China’s largest provinces and nudges up against the edge of the Tibetan plateau. The scenery here ranges from lush fertile river valleys near the border with Laos to a wild and remote craggy wilderness nearer Tibet. The Mekong cuts through Yunnan, carving the deep Tiger Leaping Gorge, then meandering through more gentle scenery further south. Older children will love the challenge of hiking through Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of China’s most rewarding and beautiful treks.

Yunnan is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities and there are lively and colourful markets as well as small towns and villages constructed in the traditional way and still retaining a great deal of charm. Dali and Lijiang in particular are very picturesque with cobbled streets, hump-backed bridges and old-fashioned courtyard houses with curved-eave roofs.

Higher on the Tibetan plateau, Zhongdian will give you a taste of Tibet without actually going there.

Yangshuo & Guilin

Yangshuo is home to some of China’s most beautiful scenery. This is a bucolic landscape of endless paddy fields bisected by rivers and towered over by jungle-clad spiky peaks. Farmers in conical hats tend water buffalo in the fields, piglets and chickens rush about in farmyards and ancient hump-back bridges lead to traditional villages with stone houses and curved eave roofs. This is the ideal area to explore by bike and you can head off on peaceful trails through the fields with fabulous views. Perhaps climb one of the peaks and then stop in a village to have lunch with a farming family.

Families with younger children may not be able to cycle but will still be able to explore either in a local electronic vehicle rather like a golf cart, or perhaps on a bamboo raft or boat.

Yangshuo itself is also lovely, with many excellent restaurants and cafes serving up delicious Chinese food as well as many western dishes for slightly less adventurous children. Here you can also take an introductory lesson in tai chi or Mandarin or perhaps visit a fan workshop and paint your own fan.

Outside the city there are a number of large limestone cave complexes that you can visit, some gaudily lit whereas others offer a more traditional caving experience and you need to wear helmets with lamps and navigate through water channels as you pass through.

Guilin is the nearest big city. If your itinerary means that you have a night here, we can include a visit to the impressive Reed Flute Caves as well as the pretty park in the city centre. However, the attraction of this area is the landcape and this is much easier to see from Yangshuo so we don’t usually suggest staying overnight in Guilin.

Hill-tribe Villages (Guizhou & Guangxi Provinces)

Many visitors to China visit the gorgeous countryside around Yangshuo but seldom delve deeper into the rewarding and remote provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou. These offer extraordinarily beautiful scenery combined with traditional hill-tribe villages and an insight into rural China.

The Dragon’s Backbone terraces at Longsheng are probably the most accessible, with some good accommodation options and incredible terraces that stretch from the bottom of steep sided valleys to the very top. There are fabulous day and overnight hikes in this area for more intrepid families.

Further into the interior are traditional towns such as Kaili, Zhaoxing and Sanjiang as well as Huangguoshu, the largest waterfalls in China. These names will mean little to most travellers but they are home to minority tribes that still wear traditional dress and offer an exciting ‘off-the-beaten-track’ experience.

Western China & the Gobi Desert (Xinjiang Province)

The West of China is remote and includes the Taklamakan Desert, a southern outreach of the Gobi and one of the most forbidding places on the globe. This is the land through which the Silk Road used to pass, and there are a number of oases dotted through the desert where merchants would stop and refresh their camel caravans in years gone by.

In Jiayuguan you can visit the fortress that marked the western end of the Great Wall, a lonely place with views across the plains to the mountains of the Tibetan plateau. Dunhuang is home to ancient Buddhist cave sculptures, Turpan offers windswept and abandoned desert towns and Kashgar hosts the famous Sunday market where people from all over Central Asia congregate to buy and sell exotic goods.

This region is perfect for those who have either been to China before or who want to see something completely different.

Tibet

Cut off to the outside world until the 1950s, Tibet is being rapidly absorbed into China but still retains an identity all of its own. Temples redolent with the smell of burning yak butter candles, remote monasteries perched on windswept hill-tops, magnificent Himalayan views and high altitude passes, holy mountains and mystical lakes are all part of the rich Tibetan tapestry. Note that much of Tibet is at a high altitude and therefore may not be suitable for younger children.

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