More than just an economic giant, China is one of the world’s must-see countries. Its diversity is endless, covering geography, a wide variety of cultures, cuisines, and languages, plus a complex history dating back centuries. A first trip on China tours is a turning point for many Globetrotters, one that almost certainly includes the traditional imperial sights of Beijing, and the space-age skyscrapers of Shanghai, with an inland highlight or two in between.
But which of those highlights should a first-timer choose? And where should a second or third trip to China take you? It’s a big country to try and see all in one go, so we’ve broken things down into seven of our favourite cities.
Of all China’s cities, Xi’an is probably the most likely to appear on a first-timer’s itinerary for one excellent reason – the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, showcased in three pits just outside the city. But as one of China’s four great ancient capitals, Xi’an’s appeal goes beyond its most famous archaeological find. The ancient city wall reaches 13.7 kilometers around the old town, offering a great biking route 12 metres above the city. Don’t spend all your time elevated, however. Hit the streets of the Muslim Quarter for some of China’s most delicious street food, including staple favourites, regional delicacies, and unusual treats developed along the Silk Road through Central Asia.
Those travelling the Silk Road on China tours might have dreamed of reaching Suzhou – at least if they’d read the writings of Marco Polo, who compared this beautiful canal city to his home in Venice. The “Venice of China” label sticks to this day, describing a city criss-crossed with picturesque waterways and dotted with immaculate traditional gardens that have earned their own UNESCO World Heritage distinction. The Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest of them, with evening performances showcasing Chinese art forms, while the Lion Grove Garden is located right by the I M Pei-designed Suzhou Museum, an essential stop for those seeking a taste of local history.
As much love as Marco Polo had for Suzhou, he reserved his most gushing praise for Hangzhou, calling it “without doubt, the finest and most splendid city in the world.” High praise from one of history’s greatest globetrotters! While the city has changed somewhat since then, it’s still a feast for the eyes, particularly around the beautiful West Lake. Part of the Yangtze River Delta, Huangzhou has been shaped by water since its beginnings, sustaining traditional gardens in between intricate Buddhist temples. Duck into one of the traditional tea houses along Qinhefang Street, or visit local producers of tea and silk, two cornerstones of Hangzhou’s economy.
A step off the usual China tourist trail, Nanjing is a city steeped in Chinese history, and like Xi’an, is one of the four great ancient capitals of China. In fact, it’s been the capital on ten different occasions through China’s history, presiding over different dynasties. Despite this sometimes chaotic past, Nanjing is one of the most serene and pleasant cities in China, rich with green spaces, lakes, and grand sights and landmarks worthy of a former capital, including Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum on Purple Mountain, the 600 year old city wall, the Ming Emperor Tomb, and the Hall of Victims in Nanjing Massacre, a sobering reminder of what the city endured in the build-up to World War Two.
If you came to China to see giant pandas, there’s a good chance you’ll swing by Chengdu! The capital of Sichuan province is renowned for China’s spiciest cuisine, and its most famously adorable native animal. 80 percent of the world’s wild giant pandas are estimated to live in Sichuan, making Chengdu the ideal location for the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. But a panda encounter isn’t the only reason to visit Chengdu on China tours. The city also boasts inviting green spaces like Renmin Park, serene traditional temples like Wuhou Memorial and Wenshu Temples, and atmospheric ancient streets such as Jinli Old Street and Kuanzhai Alley. Then of course, you’ll want to dip your spoon into some Sichuan hotpot.
Guilin is famous for its mountain scenery including sheer karst cliffs, and for the rice terraces of Longji. Surrounded by two rivers and four lakes, water defines the geography and society of Guilin. Explore the Li River region, including otherworldly sights like the colourful Reed Flute Cave and Moon Hill. After dark, the Sun and Moon Towers illuminate the skyline, and a night-time walk along the Li River bank is a must. With an appetite from all that hiking, you’ll want to try the rice noodles of Guilin. They may not sound fancy – and they’re not – but you are in the region that perfected this Chinese staple, serving it in endless variations with gravy, vegetables, meats, and spices.
Home to China’s third major air hub, one of its busiest ports, and the fourth tallest free standing structure in the world, Guangzhou was made for urban explorers on China tours wanting a deep dive on Cantonese culture, old and new. The former can be found in sights such as the Guangziao Temple, the Chen Clan Academy, and on Shamian Island, where Guangzhou’s past as an important trading port is plainly seen in European influences. The Guangdong Museum tells the full story, or for a taste of modern Guangzhou, head to Redtory, a factory complex repurposed into galleries, studios, stores, and cafes. Don’t forget to stop in for stunning views and high altitude thrills at Canton Tower either.
Globetrotting Tip: How to Visit China without a Tourist Visa
Most visitors to China, including tourists, will need a visa. While the process isn’t as arduous as some might have you believe, it can be bypassed entirely if you’re willing to stay in one region on a short stopover. Passengers from both Canada and the United States can enjoy a layover of up to 144 hours (6 days) in several popular Chinese hub cities including Shanghai and Beijing, provided they’re flying on to another destination outside China or their home country. A similar 72-hour stay can be granted at airports in Guangzhou, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Guilin, and Xi’an.
These visa exemptions are designed to offer travellers a stopover in China on their way to another destination outside the country. For instance, those travelling to Japan on Air China, transiting through Beijing, can stay in Beijing and explore the surrounding region – including Tianjin and Hebel provinces – for up to 6 days. Those transiting through Shanghai can explore Shanghai, Jiangsu (including Suzhou and Nanjing), and Zhejiang (including Hangzhou) for up to 6 days, while Guangzhou, the country’s third major international hub, is expected to extend its visa-free period to 6 days soon.
During your visa-free stay, you will not be able to travel beyond the designated zone, but given the number of worthwhile sights and experiences in Beijing, Shanghai, and their surrounds, few visitors on China tours have any trouble filling in a 6-day itinerary. Cities offering shorter stopovers have their own rules regarding where you can visit, and changes are frequent, so check with your destination expert if you’re unsure. It’s a great way to get a taste of China on an Asia vacation before committing to a longer China trip.