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Best Places to Visit in China

China offers an enormous wealth of enticing tourism opportunities, ranging from the headline acts like the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army and the Yangtze River, through to culturally-rich provinces such as Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. Landscapes range from misty karst peaks to snow-capped mountains, graceful rice terraces and jaw-dropping river gorges, whilst in the biggest cities there is always a rich seam of interesting local life to be enjoyed or epic tales of the past to be told. With so much on offer, how do you plan a holiday to China which suits you and your interests? Where does one begin exploring one of the world's oldest cultures and most mysterious societies?

Let's look at how we constructed our range of China holidays and help you decide which is the best starting point for you.

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The perfect start: Beijing & the Great Wall

We feel that the capital is the best place to start your China holiday because it offers visitors the chance to explore the many fascinating layers of Chinese history. You might start back in ancient times with visits to the beautiful temples dedicated the ancient philosophies of Confucius, Taoism and Buddhism, then explore the centuries of imperial rule in the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace. Continuing on leads through to the communism imposed by Chairman Mao in the 20th century and finally the capitalism which has seeped into modern China.

Within two or three hours drive of Beijing are many different places to access the Great Wall of China, ranging from wild and overgrown hiking sections, through to restored (and busier) parts.

holidays to china - beijingClockwise from top: Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Mao's Red Books at antiques market & wild section of Great Wall

Iconic China by Train

From Beijing you can ride the high speed Bullet Train to the ancient city of Xi'an. Whilst the city is best known for its wonderfully-preserved city walls and its proximity to the Terracotta Army, it is well worth spending an afternoon in the company of our local guide to explore the vibrant Muslim Quarter. Here we find the Great Mosque and a thriving street food market and it is the best place in the city to gain a sense of life here at the height of the Silk Road, when Persian and Arabic traders settled in Xi'an to study, and so began the Muslim community.

Another short train ride will bring us to Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan province. Known for its spicy food and its famous Panda Research Base, the city is also a great place to see locals gathering to socialise in the tea houses of People's Park and also to shop for souvenirs on Jinli Street. Two hours south of the city is the 71 metre high Leshan Giant Buddha, carved out of the mountainside over 1,200 years ago to bring calm to the point where three rivers converge. It is a spectacular sight when seen both from the river and up close at eye level.

holidays to china - ChengduClockwise from top: Panda Research Base, Leshan Giant Buddha & locals at teahouse in People's Park, Chengdu

Exotic Landscapes of Guilin

From Chengdu most tours follow two distinct routes; a short train ride to Chongqing for a three night Yangtze Cruise, followed by a short flight to Shanghai to finish. Or alternatively flying to Guilin and then finishing in Hong Kong, another bullet train ride away.

Guilin encompasses some of the most beautiful scenery in all of China. A two hour drive from the city are the spectacular Longji Rice Terraces, often omitted from most 'highlights of China' holidays but an absolute must in our view. Graceful terraces curve around the hillsides to create astonishingly beautiful vistas, whilst the small communities preserve some rather interesting local customs. You can stay overnight here, or return to Guilin the same day, before taking the memorable Li River cruise to Yangshuo, passing stunning views of the karst peaks as they rise in immense numbers behind the paddy fields which line the water's edge. It is well worth staying in Yangshuo for a couple of nights to take in an early morning bamboo raft excursion and do some hiking or cycling through the countryside. From here it is on to Hong Kong...

holidays to china - guilinClockwise from top: Longji Rice Terraces, local at rice terraces, Guilin's karst landscape

Yangtze River Cruises

As mentioned, another popular option to is to take a relaxing three or four night Yangtze River Cruise between the cities of Chongqing and Yaching. Enjoy on-board cultural activities, watch the dramatic scenery of the Three Gorges roll by from your private balcony and take insightful shore excursions to remote communities and temple complexes. You will then fly to Shanghai...

Yangtze River Cruise Holidays to ChinaCruising on the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer 

Shanghai & Hong Kong beyond the skyscrapers

These two modern metropolises share much in common; beyond the neon lights and towering skyscrapers are pockets of tranquillity, atmospheric streets and thriving local life. Shanghai offers traces of the European grandeur of its past, when it was once the most important port in the country, controlled by European concessions gained during the Opium Wars. Visit the peaceful Yu Gardens and stroll through one of the nearby picturesque ancient water towns. Hong Kong boasts exotic islands, traditional fishing communities and a collection of fascinating local markets in Kowloon.

Both also offer the chance to visit a neighbouring city for the day; from Shanghai you can take the bullet train to see the classical gardens of Suzhou or from Hong Kong you can ride the ferry across the Pearl River to the former Portuguese colony of Macau, a unique city where east meets west.

holidays to china - hong kongClockwise from top: Street signs in Hong Kong, Lantau Island near Hong Kong, Macau's Portuguese architecture & Lamma Island, Hong Kong

Yangtze River Delta in-depth

Many visitors might wish to explore a specific region in greater depth, with less distances to travel between destinations, more time to linger and a more immersive and varied itinerary within a given area. We are now going to briefly look at three of these regions, starting with Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta, experienced on our Ming Tour.

As previously mentioned, one place easily combined with Shanghai is Suzhou; a city famed for its classical Chinese gardens, silk production heritage and picturesque waterways. It can easily be reached from Shanghai by road or on a high speed Bullet Train, either as a day trip or with an overnight stay, incorporating the nearby ancient water town of Luzhi. The area around Shanghai is noted for its picturesque water towns and these can also be visited as excursions from the city.

Also reached without the need for an internal flight are the dramatic peaks of Huangshan, landscapes captured in classical paintings by generations of Chinese artists, and the beautiful city Hangzhou and its idyllic West Lake, Buddhist temples and surrounding tea plantations.

Holidays to China - ShanghaiClockwise from top: Shanghai's historic Bund, classic Suzhou, Hangzhou's West Lake & ancient water town

Holidays to Tibet & Mount Everest

Best reached on the 22 hour sleeper train from Xining to Lhasa, the high Tibetan plateau is an astonishingly beautiful land of snow-capped mountain peaks, fluttering prayer flags, timeless incense-filled monasteries and sacred turquoise lakes. We explore it in detail on our Yak Tour.

Travelling here is an enriching, moving and intrepid experience. It will reveal the true answers to questions you thought you already knew the answers to and propose a whole raft of new ones; how is Tibet adapting to decades of life under Chinese rule? How do the people preserve their traditional ways of life? How is Buddhism observed in the 21st century? What are the challenges facing the sacred Tibetan landscape? Besides these questions, you will leave with a memory card full of wonderful pictures and vivid memories of the sights, sounds and smells of the plateau.

The starting point is the capital Lhasa, where one can follow in the Dalai Lama's footsteps in the vacated government palaces, drink tea with monks and the locals in a bustling tea house and watch as pilgrims from across the region encircle the sacred Barkhor, spinning prayer wheels and prostrating themselves on the ground. Leaving the city reveals roads leading through rugged mountains, along the flourishing Yarlung Tsangpo River and past the grassy yak-strewn fields of wide valleys. The shimmering holy water of Yamdrok Lake adds a splash of colour to the landscape, as do the prayer flags which frame the Karola Glacier, which tumbles down the mountainside. The timeless monasteries of Shigatse and Gyantse are important parts of the tapestry of Tibetan Buddhism, whilst the peak of the world's tallest mountain awaits at Everest Base Camp, nestled in the Himalayas.

Holidays to China - TibetClockwise from top: Everest Base Camp, pilgrims outside the Summer Palace, pilgrims at Sera Monastery & Potala Palace

Tours in Yunnan Province

One of the most culturally rich and scenically diverse regions is Yunnan province, explored on our Shangri-la Tour. It is home to a number of minority communities, who preserve traditional customs and industries and inhabit tiny mountain villages, atmospheric cities and the edges of picturesque lakes. Landscapes range from alpine Swiss meadows, glistening lakes and snow-capped mountains to flourishing wetlands, limestone forests and dramatic river gorges and canyons. It is here that we find the first bend of the Yangtze River, as it beings its journey across China towards Shanghai, as well as China's only surviving wild elephant population and thriving pockets of Tibetan culture.

In our opinion, the best way to travel through Yunnan, combining the headline acts with a huge variety of lesser-visited villages, landscapes and monasteries, is to travel along the old Tea Horse Road as part of the LUX experience. Small groups of up to five or six travel between the timeless old towns of Lijiang and Shangri'la, visiting pottery masters, Tibetan hamlets and a seldom-visited monastery, where you can watch the lively afternoon monk debates. En route you encounter a broad cross-section of the Yunnan landscapes, including the Tiger Leaping Gorge, and stay in two five star properties; one in Lijiang and the other in the hills of Benzalin.

We bookend this five day journey with visits to two other rewarding cities; the capital Kunming and its other-wordly Stone Forest and Dali, famed for its centuries-old Three Pagodas and the peaceful Erhai Lake.

Holidays to China - Yunnan

China holidays off the beaten track

There are a number of ways to get off the beaten track in China, without having to venture to a little-visited outpost of limited value. We offer a number of short two night modules, each of which are designed to fit into our holidays, typically in-conjunction with Beijing, Xi'an and Chengdu. Whilst these places can get very busy with domestic tourism, they are not as heavily promoted to UK travellers as many of the other highlights of China, but we believe they warrant your attention and consideration.

Close to Xi'an and easily combined with Beijing is the ancient walled city of Pingyao, one of the very best examples of a classic Chinese city, thanks to its wonderfully-preserved Qing era architecture. It is also home to China's very first bank and can be combined with a visit to an outstanding example of a typical luxury family compound, akin to a stately home in the UK.

Also accessible by Bullet Train from Xi'an is the world famous Shaolin Temple, famed for its martial arts and Zen Buddhism. The best way to visit the temple is to combine it with the ancient Longmen Caves; a complex system harbouring thousands of Buddhist cultural relics and artwork, some dating back to the fifth century.

Another fine example of an ancient Buddhist cave is the Magao Caves, visited as part of a two night stay in Dunhuang. Formerly a key stopping point on the Silk Road caravan route, Dunhuang is a great place to explore this heritage and take camel rides to survey the towering Singing sand dunes. You will also have the chance to see the spectacular Yudan Landform, the Yumen Pass and the Great Wall of the Han Dynasty. It is a highly rewarding journey back through thousands of years of Chinese history and culture.

Finally, there is Mount Emei, just a two hour drive south of Chengdu and a short distance from the Leshan Giant Buddha. This forest-covered mountain is home to innumerable Buddhist temples and some very playful monkeys, plus lookout points and cable cars from which to survey the Sea of Clouds.

Off the beaten track Holidays to China Fuhu Temple & wild monkey at Mount Emei

Family travel in China

Our specially designed family holiday to China encompasses a memorable hike along the Great Wall, close encounters with the Terracotta Army, baby pandas and a giant Buddha and plenty of time to explore the local life, markets and exotic islands of Hong Kong. Enjoy tailored family activities to gain insights into Chinese culture with your local guides and stay in hotels with connecting or family rooms where possible.