12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in China
Ever since the world discovered China through the writings of adventurer Marco Polo more than 700 years ago, we've come to regard this large Asian country as the embodiment of all that is mysterious and exotic. Even now, after decades of economic growth, this vast country has lost none of its fascination; indeed, the contrast between China's ancient customs and the new ultra-modern state that is developing has only increased our fascination with a culture that dates back many millennia. And it's a culture that is much celebrated by the Chinese themselves, as evidenced by the preservation of such important historic sites as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace in the capital of Beijing, each of which magnificently recall the days of China's emperors. And then, of course, there's the famous Great Wall, winding for 6,700 kilometers from the Yellow Sea to Central Asia, while its countless shrines exude the spirit of age-old Eastern religions. As big as a continent, China offers limitless scope for adventure, and whether you choose to travel aboard a luxury cruise ship through the picturesque Yangtze gorges, visit a bustling city, or seek out the tranquility of an ancient temple, China has something for everyone.
1 Editor's Pick The Great Wall of China
"Nobody can be a true hero unless he has been on the Great Wall" goes the popular saying, one that clearly demonstrates the importance that the Chinese place upon this unique ancient monument. The magnificent Great Wall of China - known in Chinese as Changcheng, or the Long Wall - stretches more than 6,000 kilometers from the fortresses of Shanhaiguan in the east to Jiayuguan in the west, passing through Hebei, Tientsin, Beijing - where the best preserved section of the wall can be visited - Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Gansu along the way. Averaging six to eight meters in height but rising as high as 16 meters in places, and wide enough for cavalry to pass, the wall boasts numerous battlements and watchtowers, some dating back as far as the 7th century BC, with the best-known areas added around 210 BC when its various sections were joined. Today, the most visited section of the wall is near Badaling Pass northwest of Beijing, easily reached by public transport or organized tours. Other restored sections worth a visit include the section near Gubeikou, 130 kilometers from Beijing, and in Mutianyu, just 70 kilometers northeast of Beijing.
2 The Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace, Beijing
China's largest and most important building, the Forbidden City - also known as the Imperial Palace - is in the heart of Beijing and is a must-see when visiting the country. Started during the Yuan Dynasty between 1271-1368, much of the complex seen today (it's really many splendid palaces in one) was built between 1406 and 1420 as the residence of 24 Ming and Qing Emperors, whose presence forbade the entry of anyone other than the imperial family and their courtesans. Covering some 720,000 square meters and protected by a 10-meter-high wall with watchtowers and a wide moat, this massive complex consists of areas set aside for ceremonial and administrative purposes, as well as a private residence used by the emperor. While it can take many hours to see everything, highlights include the five white marble Golden River Bridges; the Hall of Supreme Harmony, a 35-meter-tall building housing the imperial throne; and the exquisite emperor's banquet hall (the Hall of Preserving Harmony), to name but a few.
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3 Editor's Pick The Terracotta Army
It was while digging wells on the outskirts of Xi'an in the 1970s that farmers stumbled across what was undoubtedly China's most important archeological find: the Terracotta Army. Distributed over three large underground pits and built to guard the First Emperor's tomb were more than 8,000 life-size warriors, some 520 horses, and more than 100 chariots, along with numerous other non-military characters dating from around 280 BC. Although some were severely damaged due to the passing of time, many of the statues unearthed have been painstakingly re-assembled and stand as testament to the importance bestowed upon the emperor and the afterlife. The site - part of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Site Park - is one of China's most important tourist destinations and offers the unforgettable experience of standing in front of this assembly of soldiers and horses as if inspecting a centuries-old parade.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Xi'an
4 The Summer Palace
An easy 15-kilometer commute from Beijing, the sumptuous Imperial Summer Palace (Yíhé Yuán) is set amid more than 700 acres of beautiful parkland and is one of China's most visited attractions. While the palace itself was built in 1153, its large lake was added in the 14th century to enhance the Imperial Gardens. Highlights include the magnificent Hall of Well-being and Longevity (Renshou Dian) with its throne, and the beautiful Great Theatre, a private three-story structure built in 1891 to satisfy the imperial family's love of opera. Other highlights include the Hall of Happiness and Longevity (Le Shou Tang Hall) with its lovely gardens and courtyards, as well as many miles of picturesque pathways and walking trails.
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5 Cruising the Li River
The town of Guilin, in the northeast corner of Guangxi, boasts some of China's most beautiful countryside and is famous for the crystal-clear rivers that meander through the town and its ring of mountains. While for hundreds of years this unique scenery has attracted poets and artists and has been the subject of countless fairy tales and legends, these days it's inundated with tourists from around the world wanting to see this natural splendor up close. The best way to enjoy the area is to take a boat trip along the Li River. The most popular stretch is from Guilin to Yangshuo where the river meanders peacefully through some 80 kilometers of beautiful bamboo forests, dense reed-beds, and remarkable rock formations and caves with romantic names such as the Mount of Unique Beauty, Elephant Trunk Hill, and Reed Flute Cave. Depending upon the type of boat used - you can choose from small punts to larger multi-passenger riverboats - trips can take anywhere from a few hours to multiple days.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Guilin
6 Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
No visit to China would be complete without at least one panda experience. While the country's top zoos boast many fine specimens of these fascinating creatures, the best place to see them in a close approximation to their natural habitat is at the excellent Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, located in the province of Sichuan. Here you'll have the chance to watch as many as 80 pandas go about their daily routines, from foraging to playing in the facility's large park-like setting. In addition to viewing these splendid animals up close, you'll learn a great deal about them from the many permanent exhibits and displays detailing ongoing conservation efforts to safeguard their future. English language tours are available (if possible, try to time your visit for the morning feeding sessions when the pandas are at their most active).
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Chengdu
7 The Yangtze River and the Three Gorges
Known in China as Chang Jiang ("Long River"), the mighty Yangtze River extends more than 6,000 kilometers, making it the longest and most important river in China and the third longest in the world after the Amazon and the Nile. Flowing from Tibet in the west to Shanghai in the east through eight provinces, the Yangtze has, for more than 2,000 years, been China's major transportation route (some 2,700 kilometers are navigable). Its vast catchment area with its 700 tributaries cover about one-fifth of the total area of the country and encompass a quarter of the country's agricultural land. While its immense length ensures the river can be visited at numerous points in China, by far the most popular for tourists is the beautiful Three Gorges - Qutang, Wu, and Xiling - a 200-kilometer stretch between the towns of Fengjie and Yichang. In places a mix of raging torrents and dangerous shallows, here the river winds its way through the gorges and their rugged cliffs and high mountain peaks in a stretch of scenery as dramatic as the Grand Canyon. Numerous sightseeing options are available, from luxurious riverboats focusing on the region's many historical attractions and places of scenic beauty to challenging adventure tours along the most dramatic sections of the river.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Yichang
8 The Classical Gardens of Suzhou
Considered one of the world's most important historic gardens - hence their designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site - the Classical Gardens of Suzhou should rank highly on your China itinerary. In the historic city of Suzhou in Jiangsu province, these magnificent gardens were established in the 11th century at a time when the city was experiencing unprecedented growth and were among some 270 or more gardens planted here. Of the surviving restored gardens, the most famous is the delightful Garden of Lingering, a seven-acre site laid out in 1800 on the site of a park originally created during the Ming Dynasty. One of the most famous garden complexes in China, the garden boasts a pool, several attractive buildings, a man-made hill, a grove of peach trees, and a lovely covered pathway on the walls of which hang more than three hundred stone tablets engraved with old Chinese characters. Also worth visiting is the Garden of the Cang Lang Ting Pavilion, a two-acre garden offering many unique features including a double arcade connecting the inner and outer sections.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Suzhou
9 The Potala Palace, Tibet
Another of China's most recognizable historic structures is the magnificent Potala Palace in the town of Lhasa, Tibet. Constructed as a fortress and residence for the Dalai Lama, it was for centuries the center of political and religious power and contains many of the religion's most important treasures. The first of the two Potala Palaces, the Red Palace, was built in the 17th century and contains the complex's most important shrines in the Enthronement Hall, the walls of which are covered with murals depicting scenes from the lives of the Dalai Lamas and the Tibetan kings. Other highlights of the Red Palace are its many vast halls devoted to the religion's teachings, and the elaborate tombs (known as stupas) of a number of Dalai Lamas. The equally impressive White Palace was completed in 1648 and includes the sleeping quarters, study, and reception rooms, most untouched since 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. While in Lhasa, be sure to visit the superb Jewel Gardens. Part of the Dalai Lama's summer residence, these 90-acre gardens were first started in the 1840s and encompass everything from grand palaces and pavilions to pleasant lakes.
Address: 35 Beijing Middle Road, Chengguan, Lhasa, Tibet
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lhasa
10 Shanghai's Promenade: The Bund
A remarkable act of smart city planning and preservation can be seen in Shanghai's splendid riverside promenade, the Zhongshan Lu or, as it's perhaps better known, the Bund (Wàitān). As you stroll this wide pedestrian zone along the Huangpu Jiang River, you'll almost forget you're bang-smack in the middle of China's largest city (Shanghai's population exceeds 25 million people). Famous for its European feel, a fact owed to the district's past as the location of the city's International Settlement, the Bund is popular for its 52 preserved English and French influenced buildings, many now restaurants, cafés, stores, and galleries. Representing a variety of influences from Gothic to Renaissance styles - including a number of Art Deco buildings - the architecture includes highlights such as the old harbor customs office with its bell tower and the majestic Peace Hotel. For the best views of the Bund, visit the 468-meter Oriental Pearl Tower on the opposite bank of the Huangpu Jiang River.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Shanghai
11 Hangzhou's Historic West Lake
Few cities in China can boast quite the same concentration of splendid historic sites and ancient temples as the city of Hangzhou (Hangchow), capital of Zhejiang province at the southernmost end of China's famous Grand Canal. Much of this rich collection is gathered around lovely West Lake, a six-kilometer-square stretch of water in the heart of the old city that is surrounded by numerous hills, pagodas, and temples. Divided into five distinct sections by man-made causeways dating back to the 11th century, it's a marvelous area to explore on foot as you cross from one lake to the next only to be met with another cluster of fine old buildings (it's particularly pleasant in spring when its many peach trees are blossoming). Part of the fun is lingering on the lake's many fine old bridges, one of the best being the Broken Bridge (Duanqiao) linking the Baidi Causeway with the shore, and exploring Little Paradise Island with its four mini-lakes linked by the zigzagging Bridge of the Nine Arches.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Hangzhou
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12 The Mausoleum of Light: The Northern Imperial Tomb
In China's mountainous northeastern region is the old city of Shenyang, an important center for trade and culture and home to the Mausoleum of Light (Zhaoling), also known as the Northern Imperial Tomb. One of northeastern China's most important historic sites, the tomb is noted for its unique architectural style: a combination of traditionally arranged Chinese burial sites and castle-like buildings of the early Qing period. Buried here is Emperor Huang Taiji, who reigned from 1626-35, in a vast site covering more than 180,000 square meters that took eight years to complete and is notable for its "Path of Souls," a laneway lined with stone columns and sculptures of the emperor's favorite horses. Another important site is the imposing Imperial Palace dating from the early Qing era, the second largest completely preserved palace complex in China after the Imperial Palace in Beijing. The complex served as a residence for the first Qing Emperors and includes several splendid courtyards around which are grouped numerous buildings, including the Hall of Exalted Government (Chongzheng Dian) housing the imperial throne.