Top 10 highlights of China

Georgina Willcox | 24 January 2022


When it comes to planning a holiday in China, there’s so much to see and do that it can be overwhelming. From rickshaw tours around the streets of Beijing to cycling on the Old City Wall of Xi’an, there is never a dull moment in this diverse country. So we’re here to help with our top 10 highlights of China, so that you can plan your perfect oriental escape today. 

1. The Great Wall of China


The Great Wall of China, known in Chinese as Changcheng, or the Long Wall, is an awe-inspiring example of ancient architecture. It is the longest wall in the world, stretching for over 6,000 km from the fortresses of Shanhaiguan in the east to Jiayuguan in the west. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is an important UNESCO World Heritage Site, so needless to say it should be top of any visitor’s wish list when they come to China. First developed as a series of smaller walls protecting various separate Chinese states, the Great Wall of China was connected more than 2,000 years ago by the Emperor Qin to defend the first consolidated Kingdom of China. We recommend embarking on a guided trek along a section of the Great Wall of China with a local expert guide so you can explore the ruins of this marvellous man-made structure.

2. The Summer Palace in Beijing


The stunning Imperial Summer Palace (Yíhé Yuán) is situated just outside of Beijing, amid over 700 acres of beautiful parkland and is one of China's most visited attractions. The palace, which was constructed in 1153 and is located on the edge of a lake was once the destination of choice for vacationing emperors and empresses. Badly damaged by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War (1860), the restoration of this palace became an aspiration of Empress Dowager Cixi, the last of the Qing dynasty rulers. The restoration project was never fully completed however and the only finished restoration was of a marble boat which now lays at the edge of the lake in all its glory. While it would be easy to spend a day soaking up the beauty and magnificence of this ancient palace and extensive gardens, must-see highlights include the Hall of Happiness and Longevity (Le Shou Tang Hall) with its lovely gardens and walking trails, the magnificent Hall of Well-being and Longevity (Renshou Dian) and the beautiful Great Theatre.

3. The Terracotta Army


These life-sized terracotta figures of warriors and horses were discovered in 1974 by farmers digging for a well near the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. Altogether over 8,000 pottery soldiers, horses, chariots, and weapons have been unearthed from the pits where they were found and work on the site continues today. Some statues had been damaged over time, but as testament to the importance of the emperor and his afterlife, many of the statues have been painstakingly re-assembled and now stand on display. One of the most unforgettable experiences you can have in China is standing in front of these soldiers and horses and soaking up their historical and cultural significance.

4. The Forbidden City


The largest and most important building in China, the Forbidden City (also known as the Imperial Palace) is the best conserved collection of ancient buildings in China, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is situated in the heart of Beijing and is one of the top attractions of this fascinating Chinese city. The Forbidden City was the Chinese Imperial Palace during the Ming Dynasty and served as the home of emperors for almost 500 years. It is now under the charge of the Palace Museum and is home to an impressive collection of porcelain, paintings, jewels and sculptures, as well as beautiful imperial gardens. The design of the Forbidden City was meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious principles of the Ming Dynasty and to symbolise the majesty of Imperial power. While you could spend hours exploring this historical gem, highlights that you simply cannot afford to miss include the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the five white marble Golden River Bridges and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.

5. The Old City Wall of Xi’an


The awe-inspiring city of Xi’an is the ancient capital of China and is enclosed by an impressive old ancient wall. The city wall represents one of the oldest and best preserved city walls in the country and was re-constructed in the 14th century, during the early Ming Dynasty. The design of the Old City Wall is based on the inner imperial palace of the Tang Dynasty. The wall is just under 14km long so you can walk it at a leisurely pace but our top suggestion would be to explore Xi’an’s Old City Wall by bicycle with a local guide. After a climb of approximately 70 steps you can reach the top of the wall, from where you will be able to cycle along, taking in beautiful views of the city beneath you.

6. Giant Pandas - Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Centre


The giant panda is considered to be a Chinese national treasure and one of the rarest animals in the world. No trip to China would be complete without taking the time to enjoy a unique panda experience. One of the best opportunities to see pandas in China and to admire these fascinating creatures up close in their natural habitat is in the province of Sichuan at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Centre. This centre offers you the unique opportunity to observe almost 80 pandas as they go about their daily routines. Tours are available but if possible, try to take in the morning feeding sessions when the pandas are at their most active.

7. The Yangtze River


The impressive Yangtze River is China’s longest river and the third longest river in the world, extending over 6,000 km. The most scenic point at which to visit the river is at the beautiful Three Gorges - Qutang, Wu, and Xiling - a section between the towns of Fengjie and Yichang. We recommend enjoying a scenic boat cruise through this region to take in the dramatic scenery, rugged cliffs and mountain peaks as you wind your way through the waters. Take in the White Emperor City, which is located at the entrance of the Qutang Gorge on the north bank of the river. Marvel at the breath-taking scenery of the Qutang Gorge as you travel from White Emperor City down the river enjoying views of Mount ChiJia to the north and Mount Baiyan to the south. Continue to Wu Gorge, which is known as the most enchanting of the three gorges as it’s surrounded by twelve peaks and is often shrouded in mist making it the inspiration for many poems and paintings in Chinese history. You can experience a Yangtze River cruise with us on one of our China tours. 

8. Shanghai's Promenade: The Bund


If you’re ever lucky enough to visit the vibrant city of Shanghai, take some time to walk along the beautiful riverside promenade, the Zhongshan Lu, also known as the Bund. This picturesque pedestrian zone which runs along the Huangpu Jiang River is well known for its shops, restaurants and galleries and there are a range of tourist highlights to explore such as the old harbour customs office and the majestic Peace Hotel. For stunning views of the Bund, visit the Oriental Pearl Tower which stands tall at 468-metres on the opposite bank of the Huangpu Jiang River.

9. The Temple of Heaven


The Temple of Heaven is a large imperial complex of religious buildings situated in central Beijing. It was where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties (from 1420 to 1900) worshiped the god of heaven and prayed for good harvests. If you have a few hours, we suggest getting there ahead of the crowds early in the morning to explore this fascinating area. The Temple consists of a large area of parkland with three main buildings; The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, The Imperial Vault of Heaven and the The Circular Mound Altar. The highlight of the park is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This awe-inspiring structure consists of a purple umbrella roof sitting on layers of marble. Also well worth checking out is the octagonal Imperial Vault of Heaven which contained tablets of the emperor’s ancestors and was protected by the Echo Wall which surrounded it. A whisper can travel clearly from one end of the structure to the other, but get there early while it’s nice and quiet. Finally the impressive Circular Mound Altar consists of white marble arrayed in three tiers, and thanks to the unique design of the altar, the sound of the prayer is reflected by the guardrail allowing them to communicate with Heaven.

10. Li River


The Li River is famous among artists due to its unique and rugged landscape which has been the inspiration for many a masterpiece over the centuries. Chinese painters and poets over the generations have been inspired by its natural beauty and today it is still a popular photography destination. The surrounding landscape of the river is decorated with tumbling hills, imposing cliffs and quaint farming villages. The picturesque town of Guilin, in the northeast corner of Guangxi, is home to some of China's most beautiful countryside. Take some time to explore the beautiful natural wonders of this area from the crystal-clear rivers that meander through the town to the impressive mountains that surround it. The best way to explore the area is to take a boat trip along the Li River. The most popular stretch of river runs from Guilin to Yangshuo where you will enjoy views of unique bamboo forests, impressive rock formations and awe-inspiring caves such as Elephant Trunk Hill and Reed Flute Cave. Depending on your chosen transport method, you can enjoy anything from a few hours to a few days exploring the area.

Combining ancient traditions, a fascinating culture and centuries of history, a guided tour of China will leave you with memories to last a lifetime. Whether it’s discovering architecture from imperial dynasties, visiting Buddhist temples or getting lost in modern cosmopolitan cities, you’ll be blown away by the unique history and culture of this oriental destination. If you've been inspired to visit China, why not let the travel experts at Travel Department plan your perfect escape with a knowledgeable local guide?

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