China Travel Guide, with Insider Tips
The term “Middle Kingdom” is a direct translation from the Chinese “Zhōngguó” (中国), which is the name used by the Chinese to refer to their country. Over time, the term evolved to represent China’s perception of itself as the cultural centre of the world. This view was based on the fact that China was the most advanced civilisation for many centuries, especially during the periods when Europe was in the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages.
This concept is also tied into the traditional Chinese worldview of “tianxia” (天下), which translates as “all under heaven.” This philosophy held that the Chinese emperor, as the “Son of Heaven,” had the Mandate of Heaven to rule not just over China, but the entire world, even if in practice his power didn’t extend beyond China’s borders.
After spending several months exploring this diverse country, I have put together a comprehensive China Travel Guide to help you discover a country that’s rich in history, culture, and natural beauty.
From modern metropolises to ancient villages, I can truly attest that China is one of the most fascinating countries you can visit in Asia. China’s borders are fully open again, so pack your bags and discover the magic of the Middle Kingdom for yourself!
Unmissable Activities in China
#1 Discover Rainbow and Avatar Mountains in China
When it comes to cool mountains in China it doesn’t get much more amazing than the Rainbow and Avatar mountains!
Rainbow Mountains: The Rainbow Mountains of China are truly a breathtaking sight to behold. These colourful mountains in China are located in Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park and famous for their vibrant and colourful stripes, which range from deep reds and oranges to yellows, greens, and blues.
As the park is expansive, it can be challenging to navigate without guidance and is often considered one of the most dangerous hikes in China for this reason. So, I thoroughly recommend doing a scenic tour with an expert to guide you around these unique geological formations! In my opinion, this is by far one of the best things you can do in China and one of the top places to snap some epic pictures!
Fun fact: The colours of these cool mountains in China are believed to have been formed over millions of years through the accumulation and erosion of different layers of sandstone and mineral deposits, creating a stunning rainbow-like effect.
Avatar Mountains in China: Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is iconic – it was the inspiration for the floating Hallelujah Mountains in the movie Avatar and is a very popular destination for hikers and nature lovers.
Located in the Hunan Province of China, this park is home to towering sandstone pillars that rise up to 200 meters tall, covered in lush greenery and misty clouds. The park is known for its stunning views of deep gorges, waterfalls, and tranquil lakes. You can explore the park on foot or by taking a cable car or glass elevator to get a bird’s eye view.
This China National Parks truly feels like a magical wonderland and is undoubtedly a must-see destination in China. If you have the time, I highly recommend doing a private tour with your own guide to get the most out of the trip.
#2 Explore the Ghost Town of Fengdu!
Located in Chongqing, this city is known as the home of the dead. It’s certainly a mysterious and haunting sight to add to your China itinerary! Once a thriving city, it was said to be a gateway to the afterlife in Chinese mythology, with various temples and shrines dedicated to the gods of the underworld.
Today, the city is mostly deserted, with ancient ruins and crumbling buildings that have been left untouched for decades. Here you can explore the eerie abandoned streets, taking in the haunting atmosphere and trying to imagine what life may have been like in this once bustling city.
One of the most iconic features of Fengdu is the “Ghost City“, which is a collection of temples and shrines that were built to honour the spirits of the dead. This abandoned city is a haunting reminder of the transience of human civilisation and a must-visit destination for anyone interested in the history and mythology of China.
#3 Attend a Traditional Tea Ceremony
China is known for its tea culture – it’s the world’s largest producer and consumer of tea, with over 2.5 million tons produced annually! Attending a traditional tea ceremony in China is a great way to experience this unique aspect of Chinese culture and it’s a truly immersive and captivating experience.
From the moment you enter the serene tea room, you’re transported into a world of calm and tranquility. The ceremony typically begins with the tea master carefully selecting and preparing the tea leaves, paying close attention to the temperature and brewing time. As the tea is poured into small ceramic cups, the aroma and flavour fill the room, creating a sensory experience that’s both soothing and invigorating.
Usually, the tea master will explain the history and cultural significance of the tea, as well as the proper etiquette for drinking it. The ceremony itself is a slow and deliberate process, with each step carefully orchestrated and steeped in tradition.
As you sip the tea, you can’t help but feel a sense of connection to the rich cultural heritage of China. It’s a true celebration of the art and beauty of tea, and one of the best things to do in China.
#4 Visit the Terracotta Warriors
When it comes to famous monuments of China, the Terracotta Warriors are one for the list! This collection contains over 8,000 life-sized clay figures, each one unique in appearance, clothing, and weaponry.
Visiting the Terracotta Warriors transports you back in time, as these figures were buried with Emperor Qin Shi Huang over 2,000 years ago. Although they were only discovered by some local farmers in 1974 who accidentally came across them!
The warriors are arranged in intricate formations, with each one serving a specific role in the emperor’s afterlife army. As you walk through the massive excavation site, you can’t help but be amazed at the level of detail and craftsmanship that went into each figure. From the expressions on their faces to the individual hairs on their heads, every aspect of these warriors is a testament to the incredible skill and dedication of the ancient artisans who created them.
Undoubtedly the Terracotta Warriors are one of the great landmarks in China and a true marvel of ancient history and art.
#5 Hang out with Giant Pandas
Giant Pandas are one of the most endangered species in the world, with only around 1,800 remaining in the wild. These rare creatures are known for their playful nature and are a celebrated national treasure in China.
To see the Giant Pandas for yourself, head to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Here, we actually arranged to volunteer at this conservation centre so we could spend as much time as possible observing and looking after these gorgeous creatures.
To our delight, they were actually quite social and enjoyed interacting with us and the other pandas. Although, one cheeky little panda did throw a poop ball at us (luckily they only eat bamboo so it could have been much worse!) Anyway, don’t let that put you off, we had a fantastic time and it was one of the most unique and incredible experiences I had in China. If this sounds like fun, why not book to volunteer here yourself.
Even if you don’t fancy volunteering, the base is still a must-visit destination in China. You can opt to visit for a few hours to see the pandas up close and learn more about the conservation efforts. The base also offers educational exhibits that provide insight into the daily lives of the pandas, as well as the challenges facing their survival in the wild.
In addition to Giant Pandas, the base is also home to a variety of other endangered animals, including gorgeous red pandas, golden monkeys, and white storks. It’s truly an unforgettable place that offers a glimpse into the beauty and fragility of the natural world.
#6 Explore Guilin and the Li River
Guilin and the Li River are two of the most scenic destinations to add to your China itinerary. Located in the Guangxi province, Guilin is famous for its stunning natural beauty, with picturesque mountains, caves, and rivers that seem almost otherworldly.
The Li River, which runs through Guilin, is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, with crystal-clear water and a peaceful, serene atmosphere. Taking a boat ride down the Li River is a must-do experience, as you’ll pass by towering cliffs, lush green forests, and traditional fishing villages.
Along the way, you can also explore the many caves and rock formations that dot the landscape, including the famous Reed Flute Cave (more about this below). While in Guilin, you can visit many parks and gardens, which offer a peaceful respite from the bustling city streets.
The combination of natural beauty and rich cultural heritage make Guilin and the Li River truly magical places in China that will leave you with memories to last a lifetime.
#7 Coolest Cave in China
Usually caves are dark, damp and grotty…But not Reed Flute Cave! This spectacular Chinese ‘rainbow cave’ will leave you in awe. Located in Guilin, it is famous for its stunning stalactites and stalagmites that have formed over millions of years.
This cave in China is illuminated with colourful lights that highlight the natural beauty of the formations, creating a breathtaking display of colour and light. Here, you can take a leisurely stroll through the cave, marvelling at the intricate patterns and shapes that have been formed by the slow and steady drip of water. One of the most stunning features of the cave is the Crystal Palace, a chamber filled with sparkling crystal formations that glimmer in the light.
Overall, the Reed Flute Cave is definitely a must see destination in China and a true testament to the incredible power and beauty of nature. I highly recommend booking this stunning experience ASAP!
During my China itinerary, I had the privilege of working at the Starfish Foster Home in Xi’an, which is dedicated to looking after disabled or sick children in Southeast China.
Volunteers make up the heart and soul of this incredible non-profit, which is always looking for dedicated volunteers that can provide the children with love, attention, and support.
Volunteering, even just for a few days, is one of the best things you can do in China as it’s such a meaningful and humbling experience that will genuinely leave you with a lasting sense of purpose and fulfilment.
#9 Explore the Forbidden City
Located in the heart of Beijing, the Forbidden City was once the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. With over 9,000 rooms, it’s the largest palace complex in the world and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With its striking red walls, towering gateways, and ornate roofs, the Forbidden City is an impressive sight. On our city tour, we loved exploring the many courtyards, halls, and gardens each adorned with intricate carvings, paintings, and other artistic masterpieces.
The Forbidden City is a true testament to the wealth, power, and cultural heritage of China’s imperial past. A visit to the Forbidden City is not only a journey through time, but also an opportunity to marvel at the incredible craftsmanship and ingenuity of the ancient Chinese.
Whether you’re a history buff, an architecture enthusiast, or simply someone who appreciates beauty and culture, the Forbidden City is an unmissable destination that will leave you feeling inspired, so be sure to add it to your China itinerary.
#10 Learn Tai Chi
Another activity I highly recommend doing in China is attending a Tai Chi class! The class we did in Beijing was a wonderful way to deepen our understanding of this ancient practice which is rooted into Chinese culture, as a means of self-discipline, health promotion, and spiritual cultivation.
Here’s a link to the Temple of Heaven and Tai Chi Tour we did, which was a bargain, as it included a tai chi class with a local master AND a visit to the Temple of Heaven (a complex of religious buildings used for harvest ceremonies during the Ming and Qing dynasties).
#11 Marvel at the Great Wall
Of course no visit to China would be complete without a trip to the Great Wall! This iconic symbol of China was built over 2,000 years ago to protect the Chinese Empire from invading forces. It stretches over 13,000 miles and is the longest wall in the world.
Walking along the Great Wall of China, you can’t help but marvel at the sheer size and scale of the structure, with its watchtowers, battlements, and fortifications. The wall winds its way over rugged mountains, across vast deserts, and through lush forests, providing breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
Whether you visit the Wall during the day or at night, in the Summer or in the Winter, the experience will leave you with a sense of awe and wonder. However, do note that if you go during Winter (like I did) be prepared for frigid temperatures (-15 degrees or colder!)
Since it would take you over 18 months to walk this wonder of the world, why not speed things up and slide down it on a Toboggan?! Amazingly, this is actually something you can do on your visit to the Great Wall of China! The ride reaches speeds of up to 45km per hour, and takes you from the Wall to the valley below on a metal winding track.
When I was there, the ride was situated between Tower 6 and 5 in the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. There was no sign, the entrance was just a side gate on the Wall, so keep your eyes peeled or take a guided tour!
In the Summer, the open hours of this ride are 8am – 5pm and 8.30am – 4.30pm in the Winter months. Don’t miss out on this wild ride, add it to your China itinerary – you won’t regret it!
China Foodie Guide
The culinary scene in China is incredibly diverse and dynamic, with a wide range of regional specialties, ingredients, and cooking techniques that reflect the country’s rich cultural heritage and traditions.
In general, Chinese cuisine is characterised by its emphasis on balance and harmony, both in terms of flavours and textures. It typically incorporates a wide range of fresh vegetables, meats, seafood, and spices, and often features a variety of cooking methods, including stir-frying, braising, steaming, and deep-frying.
Some of the most famous dishes in Chinese cuisine include Peking duck, hot pot, dim sum, kung pao chicken, and ma po tofu. Expect to see these dishes on most menus and even at breakfast buffets – when I got home I actually missed having duck & pancakes for breakfast!
One notable aspect of the Chinese culinary scene is the importance of street food, which can be found in virtually every city and town in the country. Street food vendors offer a wide variety of snacks and dishes, ranging from steamed buns and fried dumplings, to spicy noodles and grilled meats – they’re all worth trying if you have the chance.
China is also known for its alcoholic beverages, including baijiu (a strong distilled spirit) and various types of rice wine. Warning: as someone who rarely drinks, I found these beverages to be incredibly strong!
Important Things to Know Before Travelling to China
The currency used in China is the Chinese Yuan Renminbi, often referred to as the Chinese Yuan or simply Yuan (CNY). In tourist areas of China, some establishments accept other major currencies, such as the US Dollar or the Euro. However, it’s important to note that the acceptance of foreign currencies can vary from place to place and is generally not as widespread as the use of the Chinese Yuan. I recommend exchanging your currency for Chinese Yuan at authorised banks, currency exchange offices, or simply use ATMs to withdraw local currency.
The official language of China is Standard Chinese, also known as Mandarin. It is the most widely spoken language in the country. Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect and is characterised by its tonal nature, meaning that the meaning of a word can change depending on the tone in which it is pronounced. While Mandarin is the official language, there are also several other recognised regional languages and dialects spoken in different parts of China, such as Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Hokkien, among others. However, in many tourist areas, English is widely spoken.
The Culture in China
China’s culture is rich, diverse, and deeply rooted in a long history that spans thousands of years. It’s influenced by various factors such as geography, religion, philosophy, and the country’s numerous ethnic groups. While it is challenging to capture the entirety of Chinese culture in one blog post, here are some key aspects:
- Confucianism: Confucianism has had a profound influence on Chinese culture, emphasising principles like respect for authority, filial piety, social harmony, and moral conduct. Confucian values continue to shape social relationships, family structures, and the educational system.
- Traditional Arts: China has a rich tradition of various art forms, including calligraphy, painting, poetry, music, dance, and opera. These art forms often embody the country’s aesthetics, philosophy, and historical narratives, reflecting a deep appreciation for balance, symbolism, and storytelling.
- Philosophy and Spirituality: Chinese culture is influenced by philosophical systems like Taoism and Buddhism, which emphasise harmony with nature, self-cultivation, and spiritual enlightenment. These philosophies have shaped Chinese thinking, ethics, and approaches to life, fostering an appreciation for balance, moderation, and personal growth.
It’s important to note that Chinese culture is incredibly diverse due to regional variations and the influence of different ethnic groups within the country. This short summary provides a general overview but does not capture the full breadth and depth of the culture found across China!
Best Time to Visit China
The best time to visit China depends on your travel preferences and the specific regions you plan to visit. Generally, the best time to visit is during the Spring (March to May) and Autumn (September to November) months, when the weather is mild and pleasant in most parts of the country.
In spring, you can enjoy the beautiful cherry blossoms in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, while in Autumn, you’ll experience the stunning fall foliage in places like Zhangjiajie and Jiuzhaigou.
If you plan to visit northern China, including Beijing and the Great Wall, it’s best to avoid the Summer months (June to August) when temperatures can be hot and humid. Similarly, if you plan to visit southern China, including Guilin, it’s best to avoid the rainy season in June and July.
Winter (December to February) can also be a good time to visit China, especially if you plan to go skiing or enjoy winter sports in places like Harbin or Zhangjiakou. However, I can attest that some parts of China can be incredibly cold and snowy during this time, so be sure to pack warm clothing and check the weather forecast before you go. As much as I enjoyed my time in China, it was so cold in February I ended up using a thick blanket as a scarf for most of that month (see below!)
China is a vast and fascinating country with a wealth of amazing places to visit. From the historic sites of Beijing to the natural wonders of Zhangjiajie and Guilin, you’re bound to have the time of your life wherever you go on your China itinerary!
I hope this blog about the best things to do in China inspires you to plan your own trip to the Middle Kingdom! If you have any questions about travelling to China, feel free to post a comment below! 🥢🐉
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