China is one of the most captivating travel destinations in the world.
It offers an incredible mix of ancient history, natural beauty and modern masterpieces.
There are literally hundreds of famous Chinese landmarks and attractions that draw in an insane number of tourists every year.
But what are the most famous places in China, the ones that everyone talks about?
Well, here are the top 13. I couldn’t squeeze it into 10!
1. Great Wall of China
The Great Wall is China’s most famous landmark of all. It’s the one place you shouldn’t miss if you go and visit China.
The wall was originally built in the northern regions of the country to protect against nomads. The earliest parts of the wall were built around the 7th Century BC, and many successive dynasties built additional sections.
The Great Wall of China is around 13,171 miles (21,196 kilometers) long and sections of it have been demolished and rebuilt over the years.
The wall is often touted as the only man-made object that can be seen from space.
This isn’t exactly true as it isn’t visible to the naked eye from a low earth orbit and definitely can’t be seen from the moon. But these claims show just how huge and important the wall is.
There are several sections of the Great Wall that are popular among tourists, including:
- Mutianyu in Beijing, a fully restored section with good scenery and smaller crowds
- Badaling in Beijing, which is the best-preserved and most complete section but also the most crowded
- Shanhaiguan Great Wall in Hebei province, which is also known as Shanhaiguan Pass because of its strategically important position
- Jiayuguan in Gansu for its unique architecture and city of the same name.
2. Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is one of China’s most famous places for its historical significance.
It’s the largest imperial palace in the world and showcases the pinnacle of ancient Chinese architecture.
Located in the heart of Beijing, the complex was built during the Ming dynasty between 1406 and 1420. It boasts more than 9,000 rooms and halls to explore.
The palace was once home to the emperors of China but is now a museum that contains thousands of relics from the past. This includes calligraphy, books, paintings and imperial artifacts.
The Forbidden City is an amazing place to wander through and dream about what life was like for emperors centuries ago. You just might need a pair of earplugs to block out the noisy crowds!
To visit the palace, enter through the Meridian Gate or Wumen in the south and leave through the north or east gates.
3. Tiananmen Square
Also in Beijing is the world-famous Tiananmen Square.
It’s an enormous, mostly empty city square surrounded by some of Beijing’s most imposing government buildings and Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum.
Tiananmen Square was the site of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Nowadays, it’s where ceremonies and Chinese holiday celebrations are held. Every morning, you can see the Chinese flag being raised at sunrise.
To many people outside of China, the site represents the student uprising in 1989, known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
This isn’t an event that many of the locals seem to know or talk about, due to the country’s strict censorship laws.
You can read more about censorship and the various apps banned in China here.
4. Terracotta Army
In 1974, a group of farmers found pieces of a clay figure near Xi’an, which led to the discovery of an ancient tomb and the terracotta soldiers.
The tomb was built for Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, between 246 and 206 BC. Interestingly, the emperor’s remains are still undisturbed in an unexcavated part of the tomb.
An estimated 720,000 builders created the nearly 8,000 soldiers. These terracotta warriors were created to watch over the emperor’s tomb, and they’re works of art in themselves.
Each warrior is life-size and weighs around 600 pounds. And, no two warriors are the same, with each one displaying their own unique facial features, hairstyle, gestures, pose, or clothing.
The army also features horses and chariots, all of them ready to take on the emperor’s enemies, even in death.
Today, the site is protected by a huge warehouse-style roof in what has become the Terracotta Army Museum in Xi’an.
5. Hong Kong
This big, popular city has an intoxicating mix of Chinese and English cultures as well as the old and ultra-modern.
This makes Hong Kong easy to explore, as there’s lots of English around, and makes the city feel weirdly familiar even if you’ve never been there before.
Despite the English influence, Hong Kong is decidedly Asian at the same time and the locals are proud of their unique heritage.
Hong Kong is well-known for being a global financial hub but there are plenty of attractions in this tiny corner of China.
For example, the city skyline over Victoria Harbor is world-famous, and the views of the city from the top of Victoria Peak are breathtaking.
You can get an old-world tourist tram to the top of the peak, or if you’re not into mountains, you can see Hong Kong Island by commuter tram. The locals call them ‘ding dings’ for the iconic sounds they make!
In addition, Hong Kong is famous for high-end shopping, delicious Cantonese food, as well as its very own Disneyland.
6. Mount Everest
You probably think of Mount Everest as being in Nepal, but the north side of the mountain is actually on the Chinese border.
This famous mountain, the highest in the world, stands at an elevation of 29,029 feet or 8,848 meters, but you don’t need to go that high up to enjoy it.
The view from the top of the mountain is stunning of course, but the surrounding landscape is just as beautiful and dangerous looking.
Everest is surrounded by mountains that are almost as tall and just as imposing, so if you aren’t the mountain climber type, then there are still plenty of staggeringly beautiful views to enjoy.
The best time to visit the Mount Everest area is from early September to late October, before the windy and winter season sets in.
7. Potala Palace
This spectacular castle is located in Tibet, about 278 miles (448 km) from Mt Everest.
The palace symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and has been the traditional residence of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century. While I haven’t been there yet, it’s definitely on my bucket list!
Potala Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It contains a staggering 698 murals, almost 10,000 painted scrolls, and numerous other treasures including sculptures, porcelain, jade, gold and silver.
Potala Palace is technically the Dalai Lama’s winter palace, while Norbulingka – the much more modest summer palace – is located just a few miles away.
To visit Tibet, you’ll need a special pass which you can get as part of an arranged tour group. There’s no solo traveling there at this stage.
8. Panda Research Base
Of all the things that China is known for, pandas are easily the cutest. These lazy bears are native to China and a must-see while you’re in the country.
There aren’t many pandas in the wild anymore but breeding programs have brought them back from the brink of extinction.
There are several places to see pandas while you’re in China, but Dujiangyan Panda Valley is the biggest and the best.
Located in Mt Qingcheng Town, which is about 34 miles (56 km) northwest of Chengdu, this center focuses on panda breeding, rescue, disease prevention and recovery.
When you visit, you’ll get the chance to watch the pandas, cuddle the pandas or even volunteer to prepare and serve their food (all at different price points).
The best time of year to visit the center is in summer, when there are usually baby pandas to coo over. No matter when you come though, try to arrive when the gates first open.
You can read about some of the other amazing things to do in Chengdu here.
9. Giant Buddha
Located in Sichuan province, this Buddha was created in the 8th century and was carved over a period of around 90 years.
It’s the biggest Buddha in the world at 233 feet tall and is located at the confluence of the Min, Dadu, and Qingyi rivers. This is why it’s best seen by boat.
Its construction was originally spearheaded by a Buddhist monk named Hai Tong, who believed that the Buddha would calm the river’s famously treacherous waters.
When the project’s funding was threatened, he’s said to have gouged out his own eyes to show his piety!
Unfortunately, the Buddha wasn’t completed until after his death, with lots of stops and starts throughout the years.
The Buddha is part of the stunning Mount Emei Scenic Area, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
10. The Bund
The Bund is the most famous place in Shanghai.
This waterfront area is a protected historical district and runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River.
The riverbank is filled with historical buildings in various architectural styles, some of which date back over a hundred years. I really love the old colonial banks that have been preserved.
The opposite side of the river, Pudong, showcases Shanghai’s most modern skyscrapers. This includes the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, which is the city’s most recognizable building.
The streets around the Bund are always busy and crowded. They’re filled with shops and restaurants, so it’s a great place to have a wander, enjoy some history, and have a meal.
And, no visit to the Bund is complete without a river cruise along the Huangpu, which takes in views from all angles.
11. Li River
The Li River meanders through 273 miles of lush, green scenery in southern China.
This river has been an important landmark in China since ancient times and has inspired numerous artists and poets over the years.
With rolling hills, karst landforms, lush greenery, and limestone cones, the river offers a lot to look at and admire.
It’s best enjoyed on a riverboat cruise, but you can also go hiking or bamboo rafting to see specific sections.
One of the most famous sections of the Li River is the tourist town of Yangshuo, which is featured on the back of the 20 yuan bill. The river connects Yangshuo with Guilin, another delightful southern city.
(You can find out the best things to do in Yangshuo here.)
The Longmen Grottoes, a series of ancient caves, are also located on the Li River near the city of Luoyang in Henan province.
Construction on the caves began around 386 AD and today they consist of more than 2,300 caves and niches that were cut into steep limestone cliffs above the river.
12. Tiger Leaping Gorge
Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest river canyons in the world.
It’s located on the Jinsha River, north of the city of Lijiang City in Yunnan, an amazing place in its own right.
The gorge is home to the indigenous Nakhi or Naxi people, who live in little hamlets in one particular area of the gorge.
The gorge is visually stunning, with vertical cliffs rising from the turquoise waters to the peak of the mountain. It’s also a popular adventure sports spot, where you can take a hike from the town of Qiaotao along the hills of the gorge.
The hike is replete with ladders, stairs, and steep paths, but the views make it worth the work.
If you enjoy breathtaking natural scenery, then you should spend some time in Zhangjiajie Forest Park.
This mountainous area is located in Hunan province, and Tianzi Mountain is the most famous spot to visit.
Tianzi Mountain is known as ‘the Monarch of the Peak Forest’, and from it you can see the whole Wulingyuan Scenic Area as well as the surrounding mountain peaks.
The best way to see the view is by riding in the cable car, where you can really enjoy the views of the rugged sandstone peaks.
On a clear day, the views at Zhangjiajie are out of this world. This ethereal place actually inspired the floating mountains in the movie Avatar.
Psst! A quick travel tip
If you’re planning a trip to China, don’t forget the internet is censored there.
So, when using hotel Wi-Fi you won’t have access to your favorite sites and apps like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Gmail and so on, unless you get a VPN before you leave your country.
Find out the best VPN for China.
China’s famous places are incredible
Whether you enjoy ancient history, natural beauty or something more modern, China really does has something for everyone.
The most famous places in China are also famous worldwide, and if you get the chance to see them, you’ll realize why they deserve their international fame.
Exploring these landmarks and attractions can also be a great way to understand China on a deeper level as it will bring you face-to-face with the past and present of this incredible country.
If you’re looking for more travel inspo, then see off-the-beaten-track Inner Mongolia (yes, it’s a Chinese province) or check out the links below.
Keep learning about China
Take a read of these helpful articles and guides:
Main image credit: M15t3r Dr4g0n on Pixabay.
FAQ about the most famous places in China
What is the most famous place in China?
The Great Wall of China is the most famous landmark, while Beijing and Shanghai are the most famous cities.
What is the most famous place in Beijing?
Even though the Great Wall of China isn’t located in the heart of Beijing, it’s what the city is most famous for. Beijing is also known for the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, and the Olympic Stadium known as the Bird’s Nest.
What is the most famous place in Shanghai?
The Bund is the most famous place in Shanghai. It’s an historic waterfront area that runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River. The Oriental Pearl TV Tower, which is opposite the Bund in the new area of Shanghai, called Pudong, is also iconic.
What are some famous natural places in China?
The Li River, the Yangtze River, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Zhangjiajie, and the Chinese side of Mount Everest, are some of the most famous natural places in China. There are also numerous sacred mountains in China including Tai Shan and Hua Shan.