The China Travel Classics Done Right

By Sam Braybon 2023-02-23 16:40:37

On these travel pages we've spent much of the last couple of years exploring some of this country’s most under-appreciated and off the beaten track destinations. As much as those spots continue to excite us, this month we’re turning the tables and going back to basics with a rundown of five classic travel destinations that every China resident should visit once.

After all, there’s a reason that these places have drawn in tens of millions of visitors over the decades – they’re pretty darn amazing in one way or another. So, whether you’re fresh off the boat, are counting down to your next move or have simply never gotten around to visiting these big hitters, then now is very much the time to start checking these classics off the list. With handy travel tips, garnered over multiple trips to each place, we hope to ensure you make the absolute most of each trip you take.


Guilin & Yangshuo, Guangxi


Why it’s a Classic: An early backpacker favorite turned tourism blockbuster, there’s no denying that the landscapes here are some of the most amazing in China: huge limestone karst towers line the Li River and paddy fields ploughed by buffalo. This is absolutely one of the best places from which to explore rural China.

Do It Right: We suggest skipping Guilin and the Li River cruise and heading directly from the airport to smaller Yangshuo in the heart of the area’s best scenery. From here you can take a far more tranquil bamboo raft ride. The central ‘West Street’ area is uncomfortably noisy so consider guesthouses next to the peaceful Yulong River, such as Yangshuo Mountain Retreat or Giggling Tree. Cycling is a great way to see the area, so look up the experienced team at Bike Asia who offer well-maintained bikes (including family options), good advice on routes and even guided rides.


Chengdu, Sichuan



Why it’s a Classic: Everyone dreams of seeing the pandas and Chengdu is hands down the best place to make that happen. This is also, of course, a foodie paradise known for its fabulous array of local dishes and hearty use of numbing spice.

Do it Right: As long a history as Chengdu has, it also has an excitingly modern feel. For the perfect blend of old and new, stay near the Taikoo Li area where chic hotels and trendy shops rub up against street food vendors and old temples. As for pandas, keep in mind that there is more than one place to view them. The panda base on the edge of the city is the biggest, but we’ve enjoyed visits to centers further afield in Dujiangyan and Wolong, which have fewer visitors and more natural settings.


Lijiang, Yunnan



Why it’s a Classic: Yunnan is known for its vibrant minority cultures and soaring mountains, and perhaps nowhere embodies this as well as little Lijiang does. The home of the Naxi people features fabulous traditional wooden architecture and winding streets lined with streams, all backed by the snow-capped peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Do it Right: As pretty as the old town is, the sheer number of tourists often renders it anxiety inducing. For a more relaxed experience, base yourselves in a smaller village like Baisha or Yuhu which both offer great views over the mountains and easy access to walking trails as well as enough restaurants and cafes to keep families entertained. Yunnan has so many great destinations, Lijiang is best included in a longer trip that takes in other nearby favorites like Dali and Shaxi.


Xi’an, Shaanxi



Why it’s a Classic: Aside from the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors is probably the top place that features on the bucket list of every visitor that sets foot in China!

Do it Right: Consider hiring an experienced guide to take you around the Warriors, this is one of those sites that is truly enhanced by in-depth knowledge. But don’t think of Xi’an as a one-horse town, this was the capital of China for centuries and there is loads to do beyond so make sure you have at least two days to do it justice. We love biking atop the old city walls and taking in the other museums and temples in town. Foodies should note that the eats here are some of the best in China, with excellent street food especially in the Muslim Quarter. But to get to the really good stuff, you’ll need someone to take you off the tourist trail. Consider a tour with a reputable local food outfit like Lost Plate, who zip around the backstreets by tuktuk.


Dunhuang, Gansu



Why it’s a Classic: With towering sand dunes and the famous Mogao Caves that house some of the most important Buddhist art on earth, this little oasis in the middle of the Gobi Desert is the stuff that Silk Road dreams are made of!

Do it Right: Firstly, Dunhuang is far from almost anywhere – really far. Rather than a stand-alone trip, plan this as part of a longer Silk Road journey to places like Jiayuguan and Zhangye, also in Gansu. Make sure you leave a full day to enjoy the Mogao Caves, a visit here is quite the endeavour, and beyond the grottoes themselves there are some excellent exhibitions that will give you much deeper insight into what you are seeing here. If you can possibly visit outside of the national holidays or summer break, then absolutely do it. The visitor numbers are much lower and the experience is enhanced greatly.


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