China is massive. You could travel for months and only see a fraction of the diverse country, so it can be overwhelming trying to decide where to go. This list provides a guide to the best cities to visit in China, and what to do when you are there.
Everyone says go to Beijing and in this case, everyone is right! When people ask me where in China to go, I always start talking excitedly about the Beijing’s authenticity and charm. It feels like history. It feels like you are in China. It’s just so cool. You have to go. So if in China you do just one thing, go to Beijing (see how that rhymed there).
If You Do Just 1 Thing || Visit the Hutongs (Alleys)
Wander around the Hutongs (alleys) in the old city. The low-walled alleys are home to restaurants, shops, residences and so much more. It feels like you’ve stepped back in time, and each twist and turn, nook and cranny offers a surprise. The area is packed with culture and very unique (definitely bring a camera).
Offbeat Offering || Check out the Great Leap Brewery hidden in the hutongs. It’s a tiny local craft brewery, and one of the cooler breweries I’ve been to.
Featured Food || Beijing is of course famous for Peking Duck. But my personal favorite is the Haw or Hawthorne, a type of crab apple made into a tasty street snack. Look out for a wooden skewer with small apples stacked on it, covered in a red candy coating. It is literally delicious. Processed haw candy is also available in stores.
Top Day Trip || No trip to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall. It’s not a creative choice, but it’s completely obligatory and does not disappoint. If you want to escape the crowds, I recommend visiting a more obscure section of the wall further from the city or going in winter (it’s cold but substantially less crowded – we had the place to ourselves). There are also some other cool parts of the wall in other parts of China – the submerged portion, for example (still on my “to visit” list).
Standard Sights || Beijing offers many standard tourist sights, many of which are exceptional and I recommend seeing. These include the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tienanmen Square, Drum Tower, Wanfujing (shopping street), Ghost Street (over 100 restaurants and red lanterns announcing hotpot places) and much more.
Shanghai is a huge, modern city on China’s coast. Of the places I visited, it felt the most cosmopolitan and more like “any city” than unique — but it was still highly unique! It’s a good spot for people who love cities, and offers a range of things to see and do from budget to extremely upscale, and authentic to extremely city-like generic.
If You Do Just 1 Thing || Yang’s Dumplings
Go to Yang’s Dumplings. It’s a chain located throughout the city, advertised with bright pink signs. Seriously among the top 5 things I have ever eaten in my life. My sister and I woke up an hour early every day of our trip and walked 3 miles to get these dumplings before our other activities started. We still talk about them years later.
Offbeat Offerings || There is a building you can enter which is the First Communist Party Meeting Site, where the first meeting of the communist party took place. They will scan your things and inspect your water, but it’s an interesting place to see! There is also a marriage market, which is, well, what it sounds.
Featured Food || Different from normal dumplings are Soup Dumplings, where there is soup baked into the dumpling. Delicious! But also dangerous, beware of burns if you get greedy eating them too fast (which you probably will).
Top Day Trip || Take the train outside the city to any of the small Water Villages – I visited Zhouzhuang and another whose name I forget (pre blog days). These villages preserve a small-town, authentic feel that’s worlds away from the modern metropolis that is Shanghai. Wander the alleys, try the foods, grab a coffee along the water and relax for a while.
Standard Sights || Spend an afternoon or two getting lost in the narrow, upscale streets of the French Concession area. Go for a stroll on the Bund and capture some panoramas of Shanghai’s skyline – it’s especially beautiful at night. Cool buildings include Oriental Pearl Tower, Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai Tower, Shanghai Financial Center. If you like shopping, check out the Nanjing Road.
Xi’an is best known to travelers for being the access city for the famous Terracotta Warriors. While this is a must-see in the area, the city has a lot more to offer than just the warriors and arguably the warriors are a lowlight given all Xi’an has to offer!
If You Do Just 1 Thing || Beiyuanmen Street
I’m going to cheat and put two things here – one inside the city and one about 30 minutes outside. In Xi’an, it’s essential to spend some time wandering around Beiyuanmen Street checking out the food stalls, old buildings and jam-packed alleys. Outside Xi’an, take a taxi to the Han Yangling Mausoleum (I mention this in more detail below).
Offbeat Offering || While most people go to drink at Du Fu Bar Street, there is a cool Terracotta Warriors Themed Bar called Park Qin which is more unique and exciting. Inside decor of the warriors, of course, plus a smokey, low-light atmosphere with music, colored lights and free bar snacks.
Featured Food || Try the Spicy Xi’an Noodles at one of the many spots around town – but if you aren’t into spices, beware! Dongmutou Shi Street is a good place to grab a meal, too.
Top Day Trip || Of course you will go to the Terracotta Warriors, you kind of have to, but I found the Han Yangling Mausoleum way better. This site is an underground tomb (obviously, as it’s a mausoleum). Visitors walk around atop the excavated sites, peering down through glass onto the dirt and relics below. It’s off the beaten path and when I went, there were only about a dozen other people in sight so felt very authentic.
Standard Stuff || Xi’an is one of few cities with its original city wall still in tact, so walking the city wall is a popular attraction, as is visiting the Old City confined within it. There is also a Bell Tower and Drum Tower (combined ticket available). On Beiyunmen Street, check out the Gao Family House/Courtyard and the Muslim Quarter plus the Grand Mosque. People really like the popular Big Wild Goose Pagoda, although I thought it was lame. And, of course, the Terracotta Warriors.
Chengdu is a huge, modern city kind of sort of in the middle of China. It’s massive – but luckily relatively easy to get around via subway. It has a ton of histroy, too, with ancient alleys and temples to visit in the city center. It’s also a great place to see pandas. Who doesn’t want to see pandas?
If You Do Just 1 Thing || Giant Panda
Go to the Giant Panda Research Base in Chendgu to see the pandas up close and personal. They are absolutely amazing and cute and awesome and you will want to jump into the pen to get close to them. Go early (by 8) and catch them when they are most active at feeding time!
Offbeat Offerings || Skip town and check out the Dujiangyan Irrigation System and the town of Dujiangyan itself. It’s the oldest non-dam irrigation system in the world, and even if you’re not that into irrigation the flowing bright blue waters and beautiful park is still worth seeing. The town has much to offer, too, with ancient alleys a beautiful green canal and plenty of street snacks.
Featured Food || The Sichuan Provence is known for spicy food, and no trip to Chengdu is complete without trying a spicy Hot Pot. Pick your base/broth, your vegetables, meats, and more and throw them in the chili-red oil to cook. The meal is always an experience in itself!
Top Day Trip || If you like oddities, definitely visit the Leshan Giant Buddha – a massive buddha head carved into a mountain that took 90 years to build. Pair this with a night (or 2) in the town of Emishan, so alive with local experiences and culture on a Saturday night!
Standard Stuff || Some of the standard sights include Tianfu Square, the Face Changer Opera, the Wide and Narrow Alleys (with a historical but touristy feel), and Jinli Ancient Street (great place for street snacks).
Located in Southern China’s Yunnan province, Kunming isn’t a huge travel destination – but it should be. The city is laid back but full of things to do, the food delicious, and the lack of foreign tourists a huge draw for those looking for an authentic experience.
If You Do Just 1 Thing || Zhuanxin Wet Market
The Zhuanxin Wet Market is an authentic, local market with fruits, veggies, meats and more – plus plenty a street snack to try. Not touristy, we stumbled upon it unexpectedly.
Offbeat Offerings || The Da Guan Refreshments Street has literally dozens of stalls serving tasty tea and juice drinks line this street. It’s near the university, so it has a different vibe than other spots in the city. I loved the drink so much I immediately went back for another.
Featured Food || Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles don’t taste as weird as they sound. You get a pot of boiling soup, all the ingredients, and throw them in to make your own soup. It’s kind of like a hot pot, but much less spicy and intense in terms of flavor and you get a personal bowl. It’s also important to note I’ve been informed this is a mis-translation and I have no idea what the noodles are actually called.
Top Day Trip || It was disappointing due to the number of tourists present, but the Shilin (Stone Forest) is a marvel of nature to be seen. I recommend going early or late to avoid the rush.
Standard Stuff || The main things to do in Kunming include Green Lake, a large lake full of people, dancing, giant lilypads, and beautiful views. There is also the Yunnan Library and Yuan Tong Temple which are kind of lame. Slightly outside the city is Dragon’s Gate, a passageway cut into the side of the mountain, which offers panoramic views.