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.

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.

Why?

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!

The Great Wall is the best place to visit in China

The Great Wall of China is the best place to visit in China. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

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 – visit the wall in spring or autumn. Northern China is unbearably hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.

And, some more advice. 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.

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.

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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.

Sadly, there are locals in the area who prey on unsuspecting tourists.

In China, generally speaking, no one will ever approach you (it’s very different to places like Thailand). So if they do, just be really careful.

Tourist in Forbidden City

Allow ample time to explore this enchanting part of Beijing. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

Having said that, there are people outside The Forbidden City who may approach you to give you a personalized guided tour.

These people are legitimate. I’ve never accepted, but if you do, make sure you bargain with them.

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 many times traveling overseas, can’t you tell?)

3. Zhangjiajie

Many people know Zhangjiajie as “the place Avatar was based on”.

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.

Zhangjiajie glass bridge in mist

On the glass bridge at Zhangjiajie. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

Zhangjiajie

What the view should have been! Image by Inain336 on Pixabay.

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 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.

Three Gorges China

The Three Gorges in all their splendor. Image by cq19690527 on Pixabay.

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.

5. Hangzhou

I love Hangzhou!

While it’s not as well-known as some of the other places on this list, it’s still worth visiting.

You can get from Shanghai to Hangzhou in about an hour by bullet train. And it will only set you back about 80 yuan (US$11).

Or, for about half that amount, you can take a slower train that takes 2-3 hours.

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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, temples, pavilions and gardens that you can explore.

When I was there, I hired a bike and rode around. It was such a good day.

Note: China’s pretty high-tech and you’ll need to download an app to unlock a rental bike. Here are the best China apps that I recommend.

Tourists on bikes in Hangzhou

Cycling around Hangzhou’s West Lake. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

Hangzhou is one of the best places to visit in China

Hangzhou is green. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

I like the chill vibe that you get in Hangzhou, despite its size (about 10 million people). You don’t get this from other big Chinese cities.

Although Hangzhou is green, it 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 Warriors

Ahh, the good old Terracotta Army. It really has to be seen to be believed.

These life-size terracotta soldiers depict the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.

They’re housed in an enormous shed, which is a little sad, but protects them nonetheless.

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 Warriors are located about 25 miles (40 km) from Xi’an, and have really put this city on the map.

Terracotta Warriors Xian

The Terracotta Army in Xi’an. Image by janeb13 on Pixabay.

If you’re doing a tour package you won’t have to worry about transport, but if you’re traveling solo I’d recommend Bus 306 from the Xi’an Railway Station. It’s about US$1 one way.

If you’re in Xi’an for a couple of days, there’s plenty to do.

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 interesting place to swing by for a snack.

7. Hong Kong

I highly recommend a trip to Hong Kong. I’ve been a few times and enjoy 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.

View from the Hong Kong ferry

On the Hong Kong ferry. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

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 pretty impressive!

Pandas at Chengdu Research Base

You have to see the pandas in Chengdu. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

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.

But by 10 am, it was near-impossible to get a photo without someone else accidentally photo-bombing it. After a couple of hours, I was ready to leave.

I definitely 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 front, rather than enter the actual grounds.

Like most tourist attractions in China, the place was jam-packed with people. 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.

Crowded staircase at Giant Buddha Leshan

The Buddha was as crowded as anywhere in China. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

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 Mt Emei (Emei Shan in Chinese). It’s a short bus ride away from Leshan, or a bullet train from Chengdu.

Mount Emei is one of the four holy mountains of China. It’s a lovely, green area with huge trees and Buddhist temples.

For a small fee, I jumped on the back of a scooter and got a ride part-way up the mountain. It was such a freeing experience.

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I remember meeting a French guy who had scaled the entire mountain in a day. Massive 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, 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 and it’s so nice to walk along it and take in the magnificent (man-made) views and coastal air.

The local government has done a great job of making the area really tourist-friendly.

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 the photo!).

View of The Bund from boat

Looking at The Bund from a boat. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

No visibility at Shanghai Tower

No visibility today. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

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.

Tourists holding umbrellas in Water Town

Getting wet in Water Town. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

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. 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 experienced.

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 places to visit in China, there are still some nice things to see there.

It’s 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’ve heard people rave about.

Tibet

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 one is definitely on my bucket list!

Yangshuo

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, looks terrific. Even Guiyang, which isn’t as touristy as Yangshuo, sounds nice and laid-back.

Yangshuo mountains and village

Beautiful Yangshuo in southern China. Image by Dezalb on Pixabay.

Harbin

Every winter, the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival takes place in Harbin, 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.

Ming Tombs

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.

Guangzhou

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.

Guangzhou city skyline from Canton Tower

Looking out at Guangzhou from the Canton Tower. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

Wuhan

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 and never end up staying long.

Bird’s Nest

This is the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Architecturally, it’s 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.

Bird's Nest Beijing

The Bird’s Nest. Image by Mike Cairnduff.

Shijiazhuang

Unless you’re going for business, you probably won’t end up anywhere near Shijiazhuang. Home to 11 million people, it’s one of the most polluted cities in China (and indeed the world) thanks to its heavy industry and reliance on coal.

The zoo

I haven’t been to a zoo in China for many years because they make me upset. China has a long way to go when it comes to treatment of animals. Enough said.

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, WhatsApp, 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 on which areas you want to explore.

While Beijing and Shanghai are on most people’s bucket lists (and they make my top 10), there are so many other places in China worth visiting as well.

So, choose wisely. You may never have the opportunity to return to China.

I hope you liked my blog 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!