China is a country full of wonders – ancient, cultural, natural, man-made…they’ve got plenty of them all! For anyone planning holidays to China, deciding what to include on your itinerary is an exciting but epic task. But fear not, Wendy Wu Tours, the China experts, are here to help with our list, in no particular order, of unmissable sights!
Now we’re not saying you have to do all 42 but…
1. Jinshanling Great Wall
China’s most iconic sight, of course the Great Wall had to be on the list! To make it easier to tick off though we’ve narrowed it down to our favourite section of the Great Wall, Jinshanling. It’s distance from Beijing, 78 miles, means it is less busy but a cable car up to its highest point means it is accessible. With many original features it’s wonderfully preserved and has 31 watchtowers in many different shapes and sizes. Climb to any of them and you’ll get magnificent views over the stark but magnificent surroundings and has some great hiking opportunities too!
2. Forbidden City
At the very heart of Beijing, the sprawling Forbidden City is one of the capital’s most extraordinary sights. Home to China’s emperors and off limits to commoners for 500 years, this labyrinth of exquisite traditional architecture, perfectly symmetrical, covers 180 acres and is the world’s largest palace complex. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 there is no better place to glimpse the life of an imperial emperor.
3. Li River
The karst scenery of the Li River has long been the muse of many an artist and poet; in fact, it is so beloved that it even appears on the 20-yuan bank note! The lush countryside, dotted with towering limestone peaks, is best admired on the river cruise between the city of Guilin and the charming town of Yangshuo. From the water you’ll glimpse a different side to China, where the pace of life is slow, conical hatted farms tend to their paddy fields and water buffalo set contentedly in the shallows. Explore the area deeper from Yangshuo on foot, by bike or by raft.
4. Giant Pandas
The world’s most celebrated bear and at the heart of a huge conservation effort, the giant panda is China’s loveable mascot. Around 80% of the world’s population of pandas call Sichuan province home so this is the best place to see them. Chengdu Panda Research Base, located just 10 kilometres from the centre of the city, is easily reachable. Here you can see pandas of all ages enjoying life in surroundings that are very similar to their natural habitat in the nearby mountains. For a more rural, less busy encounter, try Dujiangyan Panda Reserve, just over an hour from Chengdu.
5. Yangtze River
A Yangtze River cruise is high on the list of many China explorers thanks to the magnificent landscapes of the Three Gorge, but there is so much more to it. One of the world’s longest rivers, the Yangtze has played a hugely important role in China’s historical, cultural and economic development for millennia; it was on its banks that some of the first Chinese cultures were born. Today, it’s shoreline is an endless tapestry of rural and agricultural, broken by the occasionally historical site – a fascinating glimpse at a little seen side of the nation.
6. Terracotta Warriors
The discovery of the Terracotta Warriors is a charming tale of pure luck, a group of farmers digging a well and stumbling across the greatest archaeological find of the century. Today, three pits of about 8,000 soldiers, horses and chariots stand in ranks in huge hangers 25 miles outside of Xian, wowing visitors with their realistic features and intricate detail. The army surrounds the burial mound of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who first united China in 221BC and the man the terracotta soldiers were made to protect in the afterlife; although the tomb has never been excavated, it’s thought to be full of untold treasures!
7. Temple of Heaven
At the heart of a huge and ancient parkland, the Temple of Heaven is a place of balance and harmony in the middle of chaotic Beijing. Actually an alter that was once used by the emperor himself to pray for a good harvest, the perfect symmetry of the whole complex is based on Confucian principles. Whilst the temple itself is a must- visit, so is strolling through the park as it is the perfect place to see locals playing mahjong, practicing Tai Chi, or taking a dance class.
8. Grand Buddha of Leshan
Around 2 hours from Chengdu, the magnificent Grand Buddha of Leshan sits peacefully at the confluence of three rivers. At 71 metres tall, he was carved from the rock face 1,200 years ago on the orders of a Buddhist monk, who felt that the presence of the Buddha would calm the river currents and protect the boats plying the waters. It worked, but whether that was down to the will of Buddha or because of the large amount of stone that went into the river is up to you!
9. Longji Rice Terraces
Swirling their way across an already undulating landscape, the Longji Rice Terraces, also known as Dragon’s Backbone, are a spectacular example of man and nature working in harmony. The aspect of the terraces changes with the seasons; in the spring waters reflect the moods of the sky, in summer they are full of fresh green shoots, in the summer bursting with lush rice plants, and in the winter grey and steely. Close to Guilin, it is a spectacular area to hike, giving you an ever-changing view of its beauty.
10. Summer Palace
The place that the imperial family lounged during the heat of the summer, the gorgeous Summer Palace is a masterpiece of traditional landscaping. On the outskirts of the city, intricately decorated halls, palaces and pavilions huddle harmoniously, following the principles of fengshui, on the shores of Kunming Lake, and offers a magical spot to relax and explore.
11. Tiger Leaping Gorge
In the mountainous reaches of Yunnan province, the waters of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River rush through a narrow, 16-kilometre long chasm – Tiger Leaping Gorge. At points it is over 3,000 metres from top to bottom, making it one of the world’s deepest gorges and is made all the more impressive by the fact it’s so narrow; at the spot where the legendary tiger leapt, it’s just 30 metres wide! Considered one of China’s most spectacular natural sights, it’s an easy day trip from the city of Lijiang and, for the more adventurous, can be explored on foot.
12. Potala Palace
Standing high above Lhasa on the summit of Marpo Ri, the Potala Palace is the winter abode of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, and the former seat of Tibet’s government. Built in the 17th century, it is a huge and opposing building, with 13 floors and over 1,000 rooms, some of which contain old treasures and intricately decorated chapels. For those with an interest in more recent history, you can also explore the simple apartments of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas.
13. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Incredible Zhangjiajie encompasses hundreds of towering sandstone pillars enveloped in lush, subtropical forest that is often swathed in a swirling mist, giving it a wonderfully otherworldly atmosphere. Take a cable car up to the pinnacle of one of the pillars to fully appreciate the views. As well as looking spectacular, Zhangjiajie is also exceptionally biodiverse and shelters a diverse range of flora and fauna, including civets and giant salamanders.
14. Mount Emei
Located just 2 hours from Chengdu and perfectly placed to be combined with the Grand Buddha of Leshan as a little jaunt from the city, Mount Emei (or Emeishan) is one of China’s four sacred mountains. The site of the first Buddhist temple in the country, built in the 1st century, the mountain is dotted with old temples which can be reached along mountain paths, often full of pilgrims, that wind through lush woodland. This pristine woodland is also wonderfully biodiverse – nature lovers should check out the Emei Mountain Rare Botanical Garden for a sneak preview.
15. Everest Base Camp
Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain at 8,848 metres, straddles the border between Tibet and Nepal. Base Camp on the Tibet side of the mountain looks onto Everest’s magnificent north face and give sweeping views of the extreme but starkly beautiful landscapes of the whole massif. Pay a visit to the monks of Rongbuk Monastery before venturing closer to Everest foot to the base camp proper, home to the world’s highest post office!
16. Stone Forest
A unique place full of myth and legend, the Stone Forest is located in Yunnan province, just outside of capital Kunming. There’s around 300 square kilometres of karst pinnacles which thrust out of the earth just like trees, hence the name, but were in fact formed by seismic activity 270 million years ago. Wandering through this fascinating illusion of woodland, you’ll discover caves, waterfalls and lakes to, and come a step closer to unravelling its mysteries.
China’s largest city and financial heart, Shanghai is where the East and West collide in a metropolis of gleaming skyscrapers. Sat on the mouth of the Yangtze, it was long a thriving port before becoming one of the world’s largest financial hubs in the 1990s. The city is a place of doing rather than seeing, with luxury hotels, shopping centres and entertainments galore, but there are still plenty of treasures to be found for those who want to find them. Stroll down the Bund for beautiful Art Deco architecture, wander the alleys of the old town to find lovely old temples or cruise the waters of the Huangpu River for the perfect overview.
A perfectly preserved Ming dynasty walled city, Pingyao offers a step back in time to a China of times gone by. There are plenty of atmospheric alleys to stroll down, still hung with red-lanterns and lined with old stone houses with swooping roofs, longstanding temples and historic stone towers, all encompassed by the immaculate and magnificent city wall. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pingyao also has some fascinating financial history and was the home of China’s first banks.
Boasting a blend of Chinese and Portuguese heritage, Macau is a unique and eccentric place to explore. Best known for its lively casino scene, there is so much more to the city and the UNESCO-World Heritage-listed Historic Centre is a must visit. The Macanese cuisine is also a revelation and is fantastically diverse, with options for all budgets – indulgent Michelin star all the way down to delicious street food.
A city famous for its classical gardens, Suzhou is home to around 60 traditional gardens. With a reputation for high culture and elegance, at the heart of Suzhou is an old town of waterways and cobbled streets, and it’s here that you’ll find 9 UNESCO World Heritage gardens that are considered masterpieces of garden design. The best known are the Master of the Nets and the Humble Administrator’s gardens, which you can visit and judge for yourself.
21. Hong Kong
One of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, thanks to its time as an important port and then British protectorate, Hong Kong effortlessly blends east and west. With a world-famous cityscape, which is best admired from Victoria Peak, Hong Kong is actually made up of 237 islands, some brimming with people and modernity and others quiet, peaceful and traditional. Beyond the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island, there are plenty of quiet corners where tradition still reigns supreme, with plenty of incense-filled temples and quaint old streets to explore.
22. Jokhang Temple
Tibet’s holiest temple, the 1,300-year-old Jokhang is the home of the ‘Jowa Sakyamuni’, a revered golden Buddha said to have been to a gift from the Chinese princess Wencheng, on her marriage to Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. This Buddha makes the Jokhang an amazing place to people watch, as pilgrims from all across Tibet come here to worship. Usually wrapped up in traditional dress, you’ll see them either prostrating themselves or swinging their handheld prayer wheels around the Barkhor, a pilgrimage circuit that surrounds the temple, before disappearing into the yak-butter-candle-filled interior of the temple. Follow them inside to experience the reverent atmosphere for yourself.
23. Kashgar Sunday Market
The city of Kashgar, part of the autonomous region of Xinjiang, exudes a different vibe to the rest of China, in part thanks to its Silk Road heritage. Watched over by towering minarets, Kashgar’s famous Sunday market is a vibrant affair, a time when thousands of locals, often in traditional dress, descend on the city to buy and sell. You’ll find anything and everything on the heaving stalls, from fresh fruit to electronics to clothing.
24. Mogao Grottoes
An astounding display of Buddhist art, the Mogao Grottoes, also known as the ‘Cave of the Thousand Buddhas’, came into existence in the 4th century as a place that monks, pilgrims and scholars taking the Silk Road could stop to worship. These worshippers would leave money, and over time, the complex filled with beautiful Buddha images; at its peak in the 7th century there were 1,000 caves temples in use. Mogao fell out of use in the 14th century and was forgotten about until the 19th, the darkness and dry air of the caves perfectly preserving a millennia’s worth of art.
A charming town in its own right and an ancient capital to boot, there are two reasons that Datong appears on this list. One is the Yungang, a cave network bursting with over 50,000 Buddhist rock carvings and statues dating from the 5th century. The other is the Hanging Temple of Hengshan, the world’s oldest wooden pagoda that is built into a cliff face, apparently defying gravity! Linked together by precarious wooden walkways and staircases, this is a place of worship for Confucians, Taoist and Buddhist.
Huddled amongst the forests and fields at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Lijiang is a charming town in a spectacular setting. Once the capital of the Naxi, the indigenous people of the Himalayas and the northern reaches of Yunnan province, Lijiang’s rich 800-year history is plain to see on the labyrinthine streets of the UNESCO-listed old town. Flanked by bubbling streams, trailing willows and picturesque stone bridges, wandering along them is a delightful step back in time. Make sure you stroll down to Black Dragon Pool for views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountains in all its glory.
27. Chengde Mountain Resort
High in the hills north of Beijing, the mountain resort of Chengde was once the summer retreat of the Qing imperial family, more popularly known as the Manchus, a cool respite from the searing heat of Beijing. It was built in the 18th century in a variety of architectural styles that represent each of the different regions of the empire, t the complex is perfectly landscaped, complete with regal gardens, waterways and hills.
If you’ve seen any Chinese art, you’ll recognise the jagged granite peaks of Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) as the central feature of many a traditional painting. Complete with precariously perched pines and swirling mists, Huangshan has been a huge source of inspiration for writers and painters for centuries. Take the cable car up into the peaks and follow some of the many walkways for breathtaking views and you’ll see why it’s called the ‘loveliest mountain in China’!
Huangzhou nestles amongst lush hills and vast tea plantations on the shores of the revered West Lake. Exploring the banks of the lake or take a cruise on its calm waters is the highlight of a visit here; thanks to swishing willows, quaint pagodas and lovely gardens it exudes a charming old world oriental air that much of the rest of China has lost. This is also a great base for visiting the tea plantations of the area and tasting plenty of steaming cups.
30. Longmen Grottoes
UNESCO-listed and easily reachable from Luoyang, one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, the Longmen Grottoes shelter some exquisite ancient stone art. There are about 5 centuries worth of carvings here, hewn into the limestone cliffs of the Yi River. These aren’t just your average Buddha images either, but statues, inscriptions and artistry that gives insight into life in 5th century China. There are more than 2,000 grottoes and about 100,000 statues, the biggest of which is about 17 metres, and nearly 3,000 inscriptions of admire.
31. Huanglong Pools
Deep in Huanglong National Park, the Huanglong pools tumble down a peaceful forested hillside. The pools, formed over thousands of years by mineral deposits, are in all different shapes and sizes, each filled with water that changes colour throughout the day. There are also caves, waterfalls and streams in a breathtaking display of nature, surrounded by towering mountain peaks. UNESCO-listed since 1992, the park, and its diverse ecosystem, is also home to a load of endangered species.
A glimpse at ‘old China’, Dali is a charming and relaxed place, full of lovely old houses and set in a spectacular landscape of lakes and mountains. A stroll through the old quarter will bring you face to face with the indigenous Bai community in their colourful traditional garb, whilst escaping the town to explore the villages on the lakeshore gives you a true taste of the region’s character. The Three Pagodas, on the outskirts of town, standing starkly against the peaks of the Cang Shan range, are a must-see.
33. Three Bridges National Park
Part of the Wulong Karst National Geology Park, these 3 unique geological wonders are natural limestone arches, caves until the ground collapsed from underneath them. They are the world’s highest karst bridges, reached either by a glass lift or a hike down into a steep-sided but spectacular ravine. With lush moss underfoot, waterfalls run gently down the gorge’s sides and an atmospheric mist regularly lingers as you explore the area below the bridges; it’s still relatively unknown so a wonderful time to visit!
34. Rainbow Mountains
Up in China’s northwest corner, the Rainbow Mountains of Danxia are quite the sight to behold. Thousands of years of rainwater flowing over red sandstone has sculpted a jagged landscape decorated with stripes of a whole range of colours, like the rainbows it is named for. Added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2010, it was also named one of the ‘Top 10 Geographical Wonders of the World’ by National Geographic.
35. Dunhuang Crescent Lake
An ancient oasis on the edge of the city of Dunhuang, this crescent-moon shaped lake sits amongst the sand dunes of Taklamakan Desert. Long famous with the imperial dynasties of old, a traditional pagoda sits on its banks, now joined by a vibrant market of souvenir stalls. Climb a towering sand dune for a fantastic birds-eye view of the oasis or hitch a ride on a camel to explore the desert farther.
36. Harbin Snow & Ice Festival
In China’s northern reaches, where the weather gets really cold, the annual Snow & Ice Festival is an extravaganza of bright colours and blocks of ice! The festival is particularly famous for its huge illuminated ice sculptures, each fitting in with a particular themed zone, with sculptors jetting in from all over the world to take part. Opening officially in early January, the festival is open for about a month, the freezing outside temperatures ensuring that the sculptures remain perfect throughout!
37. Jiayu Pass
The Great Wall comes to an abrupt end (or an abrupt start depending on which direction you’re going) amongst the starkly beautiful landscapes of northern Gansu province. The final fortress on the wall before wild frontiers and barbarian hordes (when it was built in 1372 anyway), Jaiyu was built to protect the Hexi Corridor, the Silk Road route into China and essential for trade. The fortress today is home to a museum about the Silk Road, and the Great Wall as well.
These old, atmospheric neighbourhoods are becoming ever rarer in Beijing, but those that are left have been, happily, given protected status and remain endlessly charming. Formed of narrow streets lined with traditional courtyard residences, they are an important aspect of the culture of northern Chinese cities and were first established during the Yuan dynasty (1206-1341) – wandering through them is a fascinating step back in time to a China of times gone by.
Also called the ‘Nine Villages Valley’ after the nine Tibetan communities that call it home, Juizhaigou is one of China’s most spectacular areas. UNESCO World Heritage-listed, this national park is enclosed by snow-capped peaks and filled with vibrant blue lakes, waterfalls and diverse flora and fauna. Each season offers a new, spectacular landscape – autumn brings a rainbow of colours, in winter frost twinkles and waterfalls freeze in place, the summer brings vivid hues and the spring brings colourful wild flowers and lush green buds. In Sichuan province, this incredible park is also easily accessible, with trails and broadwalks throughout.
40. Urumqi and Tianchi
The city of Urumqi occupies a lush plain in the shadow of Tian Shan, the Heavenly Mountains. A stop for the caramel caravans of the Silk Road, it still exudes an exotic Middle Asian ambiance, and the market is still a fantastic place to explore. For a glimpse of the nomadic roots of the area – Xinjiang province to be precise – head out to the banks of breathtakingly beautiful Tianchi, the Heavenly Lake, where you can visit, or even stay in a traditional Kazakh yurt.
41. Matchmaker’s Corner
You’ll find a Matchmaker’s Corner in parks in many cities across China, and they are a fascinating cultural practice! Here, parents and grandparents gather to find their children a suitor, bringing photos and information to pin up on a notice board or sometimes even setting themselves up with a little ‘stall’! The Marriage Market in Shanghai is the biggest and most famous example of this, but you’ll find smaller versions in many of the People’s Parks around the country – Chengdu is a good example.
42. Kaiping Towers
One of China’s many hidden treasures, the incredible Kaiping Towers, locally called ‘diaolou’, dot the lush countryside around the southern city of Kaiping. The tradition began during the Ming Dynasty when the towers were built for defensive purposes, but over time they became more and more elaborate and turned over to residential use; there are now about 1,800 of them! Blending Chinese and Western architecture, anything from gothic to renaissance, the whole lot are on the UNESCO World Heritage list; set in a spectacular landscape and relatively undiscovered, they are well worth exploring.
All of these incredible sights can be seen with Wendy Wu Tours on one of our fantastic group tours, or a tailormade itinerary made especially for you: