Are you looking for the best places to visit in China?
Well, you’re reading the right blog!
I’ve traveled across most of China, and would love to share my favorite places with you.
You deserve an honest list, where the author (me) has actually visited the places.
I’ll also share some places in China I’m dying to go to, as well as some places you should avoid based on my experience.
So, in no particular order, here are the best places to visit in China.
1. Great Wall of China
OK, I said this list is in no particular order, but if you were to go to China and see just one thing, it would be this.
The Great Wall of China is, beyond doubt, the best place to visit in China.
It’s massive, it’s beautiful, it’s full of history, and it makes for some stunning photography!
It’s also not too far from Beijing, so it’s easy to get to.
The Great Wall stretches around northern China for thousands of miles, and there are countless areas you can explore along the way.
Spoiler alert – you really can’t see The Great Wall from outer space.
I’ve been to the wall a number of times (I think four on last count). I’ve discovered new things about it every time, and would love to go back again.
The last time I was there I did a private tour from Beijing and it was so much better than being on a bus full of people.
A word of advice, though – spring or autumn in China is the best time to visit the wall. Northern China is unbearably hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.
And, try to avoid the part of the wall that’s closest to Beijing (called Badaling). It’s overrun with tourists.
2. The Forbidden City
While you’re up north, you must visit The Forbidden City. It’s in the cultural heart of Beijing, right next to Tiananmen Square, and it’s one of the most famous places in China.
Entering the palace gates is like stepping back in time. It’s such a special place.
There are hundreds of rooms to explore, and plenty of photo opportunities. So, don’t rush your time here.
Like most tourist attractions in China, The Forbidden City is always super busy. Keep your travel group close – you don’t want to lose anyone!
Outside the palace, if anyone approaches you offering a tea ceremony or asking you to come to their restaurant, don’t go with them. It’s a scam.
It’s one of the few places in China where there are locals who prey on unsuspecting tourists.
In China, generally speaking, no one will ever approach you (it’s very different to other holiday destinations like Thailand). So if they do, just be really careful.
Having said that, there are people outside The Forbidden City who may approach you to give you a personalized guided tour in English.These people are legitimate. I’ve never accepted, but if you do, make sure you bargain with them.
See also: Beijing travel guide
Once you’ve agreed on a price, go to the ticket booth and buy a ticket for both you and the guide. Once you’re inside, then hand your money over to the guide.
That’s how I would do it, anyway!
(I’ve been swindled a few times traveling overseas, can’t you tell?)
Many people know Zhangjiajie as the place that inspired the movie, Avatar.
Famous for its jagged sandstone pillars, this nature park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s a truly stunning area, probably one of the most beautiful in China.
However, I have to be honest with you.
Although I’ve spent a whole day in Zhangjiajie, it was in the middle of winter. The entire place was covered in a thick fog, so I didn’t get to experience it in all its glory.
As you can see in the photo, at times I could barely see a few feet ahead of me! I still had a great day though.
If you can, try to book a Zhangjiajie tour when the weather is clear.
4. The Three Gorges
While I’m on the topic of fog, let me tell you about the Three Gorges.
This is another great place to visit in China, but you really need to pick the right cruise ship to see them.
I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you the following story, actually.
On my first trip to China about 20 years ago, my friends and I made our way to the city of Chongqing.
From there, we lugged our suitcases down to the Yangtze River to book a four-day cruise.
Back in those days (boy, do I sound old), no one spoke English and all the cruise details were printed in Chinese.
We’d been studying Mandarin in Xi’an though, so we were fairly confident we could organize everything. We bought our tickets and jumped on board.
As we approached the Three Gorges the following day, we couldn’t understand why the sun was starting to set.
We soon realized we were going to pass the gorges in the middle of the night!
Just so we could say we saw the Three Gorges, we set our alarm clock, put our jackets on (it was freezing) and went outside on the deck to take some photos.
The photos turned out terribly bad, as expected. Just people in front of a totally black backdrop.
I was devastated at the time, but it’s pretty funny now that I look back at it.
I love Hangzhou!
While it’s not as well-known as the others on this ‘best places to visit in China’ list, it’s still definitely worth visiting.
You can get from Shanghai to Hangzhou in about an hour on the bullet train. (You can buy China train tickets here.)
Hangzhou’s claim to fame is its West Lake.
It’s an enormous lake in the heart of the city, surrounded by an urban jungle of lush greenness.
There are little islands and bridges, quaint temples and pavilions, and exquisite gardens that you can explore.
When I was there, I hired a bike and rode around. It was such a nice day.
If you want to rent a bike or e-scooter in China, you’ll need to download the Alipay app and sign up for the Tour Card. This allows you to pay for things on your phone without needing a local Chinese bank account.
(I suggest reading my article on China travel apps for more helpful apps.)
I like the chill vibe that you get in Hangzhou, even though it’s home to about 10 million people. You don’t get this feeling in many other big Chinese cities.
Despite Hangzhou’s greenness, the city can still get really hot and humid.
In summer, the temperature can easily reach 95 F (35 C). You can also expect heavy rains, as well as the odd typhoon in August and September.
If you’re interested in hiking the surrounding tea fields and villages, I’d save this activity for spring.
6. Terracotta Army
Ahh, the incredible Terracotta Army. It really has to be seen to be believed.
These life-size soldiers and horses, made of terracotta, depict the armies of Qin Shi Huang. He was the first Emperor of China.
The warriors are housed in three enormous sheds to protect them. You can’t use your camera’s flash when taking photos, though I did see a few sneaky flashes go off when I was there.
The Terracotta Army is located about 25 miles (40 km) from Xi’an, and draws huge crowds no matter the day or time.
If you’re on a tour, you won’t have to worry about transport. But if you’re traveling solo in China, you’ll have to catch the subway and then a bus, otherwise I recommend catching a taxi from your accommodation for about 150 yuan depending on traffic.
If you’re in Xi’an for a couple of days, there are plenty of other things to do as well.
I loved riding a bike along the City Wall, which is an ancient wall surrounding the traditional city center. The adjoining Bell and Drum Towers are really nice too.
And, if you need a break from traditional Chinese food, the Muslim Quarter is an amazing place to swing by for a tasty snack.
7. Hong Kong
I highly recommend a trip to Hong Kong. I’ve been a few times and love it every time I’m there.
HK is modern and cosmopolitan, and full of friendly, English-speaking people.
If you have a tour booked for mainland China, Hong Kong is a nice way to acclimatize yourself for what’s to come!
Hong Kong is built for tourists as there are so many things to see and do.
One of my favorites is simply jumping on a local ferry and going from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island (or vice-versa) for a few dollars.
The view of HK from Victoria Peak is awesome, and if you have kids they’ll probably get a kick out of traveling on one of the longest escalators in the world (I still do!).
The downside to Hong Kong? Most of the shops are expensive, high-end brand names. That’s not my cup of tea at all.
But if you’re into luxury shopping, you’re gonna love HK!
8. Chengdu Panda Sanctuary
No trip to China is complete without catching a glimpse of a giant panda.
And there’s no better place to do it than the Panda Sanctuary in Chengdu, or as the Chinese call it – the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Given China’s treatment of animals generally, I was expecting poor zoo-like conditions at best.
Surprisingly though, the place is enormous, there’s lush vegetation everywhere and the enclosures are excellent. It’s very impressive.
I got there just before 8 am, and the guide took us to the best enclosure before it got too busy. In was so nice to see four young pandas munching on bamboo, just a few feet away.
However, by 10 am it was near-impossible to get a photo without someone else accidentally photo-bombing it, and after a couple of hours, I was ready to leave.
I highly recommend getting there when it opens (7:30 am).
9. Giant Buddha
The Giant Buddha in Leshan really surprised me.
It’s such an imposing structure – a lot bigger and more beautiful than I expected.
If I had my time again, I think I’d catch the boat and take some awesome photos from the deck, rather than enter the actual grounds of the Buddha.
Like most tourist attractions in China, the place was jam-packed with people when I was there. Being squashed on the staircase made me feel claustrophobic.
You can catch a bus or bullet train from Chengdu to the Big Buddha and do it in a day. Bus 3 (1 yuan) or K1 (2 yuan; slightly quicker) will take you from Leshan Bus Station to the Buddha entrance.
Like the panda sanctuary, get there as early as you can.
If you’re the hiking type, I also recommend a day or two exploring Mount Emei. It’s a short bus ride away from Leshan, or a bullet train from Chengdu.
Mt Emei is one of the four holy mountains of China. It’s a lovely, green area with huge trees and serene Buddhist temples.
For a small fee, I jumped on the back of a motorbike and got a ride part-way up the mountain. It was such a freeing experience.
I remember meeting a French guy who had scaled the entire mountain in a day. Big effort!
My recommendation is to go on a guided tour, particularly if you’re stretched for time and can’t speak any Chinese.
There are signs to help you find your way around, but I still found it really confusing to navigate.
10. The Bund
Last but not least, The Bund.
This is the entire waterfront area in front of the historical European buildings in Shanghai.
The Bund stretches for miles. It’s nice just to meander along, take in all the views and enjoy the coastal air.
The local government has done a great job of making the area really tourist-friendly. You can easily catch a ferry across the Huangpu River to the Pudong area, which is the newer, more modern side of Shanghai.
There are quite a few skyscrapers you can go up to get an awesome view over the city. The biggest and best are all bunched together in Pudong:
- Shanghai Tower – the tallest
- Shanghai Pearl Tower – the OG
- Jin Mao Tower – has a nice bar at the top
- Shanghai World Financial Center – looks like a bottle opener.
Just choose a good day or the observation deck will be covered in fog and you won’t see a thing (just look at my photo!).
Shanghai is also famous for shopping, and there are countless malls and stores on Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street.
When I’m in Shanghai, I always stay at the Pacific Hotel. It’s a 4-star hotel located conveniently on West Nanjing Road, opposite People’s Square, and close to The Bund.
I love the hotel’s old facade – it’s easy to think you’re in Shanghai in the 1920s.
While you’re in Shanghai…
About an hour from Shanghai is a place called Zhujiajiao Water Town.
It’s a quaint tourist village with little bridges over the canals, kind of like Venice but on a much smaller scale.
I did a private tour with my friend, Louisa, and we paid extra to do a gondola ride. The woman rowing the boat even sang a traditional song for us!
It was a really memorable experience. You can watch the quick the video below.
Once again though, the weather was miserable. The downpours of rain were some of the heaviest and longest I’d ever seen.
Lou and I were literally soaked right through, but we still had a fun day.
If you have time on your hands, you could venture out a little further to a city called Suzhou. While it doesn’t make my top 10 best places to visit in China, there are still some nice things to see there.
It’s especially famous for its classical Chinese gardens.
Places in China I’m dying to visit
While I’ve been to most corners of China, I haven’t been to every corner. Here are three places I really want to tick off my bucket list.
It’s always been a dream of mine to see the Potala Palace in Tibet. I don’t know much about Tibetan culture, but it seems fascinating.
This place is definitely at the top of my bucket list.
I’ve heard so many great things about the stunning landscapes of Yangshuo – I’m just dying to go. In fact, the entire southern part of China, which I haven’t explored much, looks beautiful.
Even Guiyang, which isn’t as touristy as Yangshuo, sounds really nice and laid-back.
Every winter, the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival takes place in Harbin, in northern China.
The photos I’ve seen look magical. I think the festival would be loads of fun too.
Places to avoid in China
Here are some places in China that others might recommend, but in my opinion are not worth your time.
If you disagree, just let me know in the comments area at the bottom of the blog. I like finding out about other travelers’ experiences.
Every coach heading to The Great Wall of China seems to stop at the Ming Tombs on the way. Why? I have no idea!
I think it’s one of the most boring and over-rated places in Beijing.
From a tourist’s perspective, there’s not a whole lot to do in Guangzhou.
I personally don’t think there’s anything special about the city. Just skyscrapers, skyscrapers, and more skyscrapers.
COVID-19 has really put Wuhan on the map, hasn’t it? Sadly, there’s not much to do there, apart from checking out the Yellow Crane Tower.
I’ve been to Wuhan a couple of times yet have never stuck around too long.
The Olympic Stadium in Beijing is interesting to look at, but there’s not much going on in this windswept area of the city.
I wouldn’t make a beeline for the Bird’s Nest unless it was part of a Beijing city tour with other places included as well.
One last travel tip
Are you planning on using your hotel’s Wi-Fi in China? If so, you’ll need to get a VPN before you leave your country.
If you don’t, you won’t have access to foreign websites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, Google, Gmail, YouTube, and countless others.
Please check out my review of the best VPNs for China.
A one-month plan costs about the same as a McDonald’s meal.
Where do you think you’ll go?
Now that I’ve shared my favorite places in China, where do you think you’ll go?
China is such a huge country with plenty of great places to visit, the hard part is deciding which areas you want to explore.
While most tourists head to Beijing and Shanghai, there are so many other places in China worth visiting as well.
I hope you liked my article on the best places to visit in China. I’ve also written one on the best time to visit Beijing and Shanghai. I think you’ll benefit from reading it. And don’t forget your VPN!
FAQ about the best places to visit in China
What are the best places to visit in China?
I think the very best places are the Great Wall of China in Beijing, and the Terracotta Army in Xi’an. You can fly or catch a high-speed train between the two cities.
How long should you spend at the Great Wall of China?
I recommend at least a whole day. Try to avoid the part of the wall closest to Beijing (called Badaling) as that’s the most crowded.
How many days in Shanghai is enough?
I suggest a minimum of three days in Shanghai to get a feel for the city, explore the Bund, shop on Nanjing Road, and go up the skyscrapers in Pudong. You can also do some great day trips from Shanghai, like visiting Suzhou or Zhujiajiao Water Town.