Here’s the thing.
China is a huge country with so much variation from north to south and west to east.
It’s easy to feel vulnerable and think China is too large to explore on your own.
Heck, we did.
We had a GAdventure tour booked for part of our stay, but we still had 15 days by ourselves. We worried we had made a big mistake.
Would we be able to converse, would we get lost, was the food ok to eat, was it safe. So many thoughts passing through our heads. Maybe we had underestimated our own ability to survive China for a month.
But like most decisions, having a good nights sleep and reading some blogs, we got ourselves out of crisis mode and plucked up our courage to be enchanted by creating our own itinerary of China.
If China is one of your bucket list travel destinations, let China lure you, to its captivating must-see places to explore.
We understand if you’re still feeling a little nervous about visiting China, so we have some helpful suggestions and tips. To let you create your own itinerary of China knowing you are in for a fantastic time.
We have found 10 amazing places to experience the best of China. A few big cities, but some off the beaten track places as well.
So let’s get started.
Organize your VISA for China
If your country of residence is in the UK, Australia, Canada, and EU countries, you must apply for a Visa through the online Chinese Visa Application Service Center (CVASC).
Otherwise, you will need to make your Visa application at a Chinese Consular Office in your city or country. The documentation required will be listed on the appropriate website.
(In New Zealand, visit the Chinese Consular Visa Office in Wellington)
Some of the documentation required for the Visa application is:
- valid passport
- recent passport-sized photographs
- confirmation of outward travel from China
- confirmation of hotel accommodation
The visa process does ask for a lot of information, so grab a coffee and allow at least an hour to complete the documentation. For example, they want to know:
- who are your brothers and sisters
- your parent’s details
- where will you be staying in China
- and much, much more
So make sure that coffee is large.
Is China Expensive to Visit?
We are comfort travelers which means we are always looking for authentic and trustworthy deals when we make bookings, especially for accommodation.
What we found in China, was an increase in our daily travel expense to cover accommodation, especially in the larger cities.
We used 4-star hotels because the ratings and reviews were far better than 3 stars or below. The 4-star hotels felt like 3 stars to us, but at least the rooms were clean and the toilet separated from the shower.
(Yes, we have had bathrooms with the shower over the toilet!)
On the other hand, food was relatively inexpensive, even at restaurants. We tend to eat where the locals eat for authentic food, but also to mingle.
The bargain was public transport and high-speed trains. Compared to train prices in Europe and the UK, the Chinese high-speed trains were about half the cost, cleaner and on time.
Tips Before you Arrive in China
Before you embark on your trip to China you need to:
- Add What’s App to your smartphone
- Add WeChat to your smartphone (used most by the Chinese)
- Organize an email address (not Gmail which is blocked)
- Purchase an RFID card for your wallet
- Learn Mandarin for hello, thank you, where is …
Facebook and Gmail are blocked in China. We suggest you organize a different email provider before you leave your home country.
A way around this is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Again, set this up before you enter China so you have access to emails.
But, there are no worries about wifi in China.
It doesn’t seem to matter if you are in a large city, or some remote village, there’s always Wifi with a common password of 12345678.
Hello – Ni hao
Thank you – Xiexie (sounds like sher, sher)
Goodbye – Zaijian (sounds like tie chian)
Where is – Nali (sounds like Na li)
Please – Qing (sounds like ching)
10 Amazing Places to Visit in China
China is large in the size of the country, its cities, and its population. To say at times we were overwhelmed is an understatement.
Our home country New Zealand has a total population of 4.5 million, so standing in one of the largest train stations, Shanghai Hongqiao, with a total area of 1.3 million square meters, we felt insignificant.
Shanghai Hongqiao is currently the largest train station in Asia. And using the trains was one of the best ways to get around China.
We felt safe, we were able to converse by learning a smattering of Mandarin and we were ready for the allure of our China experience.
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Travel by Fast Train in China
Train travel in China is efficient, reasonably priced and the best travel option to see more of China.
Between the major cities, and we aren’t just talking Beijing and Shanghai, fast trains run to time, are clean, and take the stress away from flying.
We used China Highlights to book our online train travel.
You will need for the ticketing process:
- a valid passport
- VISA or Mastercard (PayPal is also accepted for online ticketing)
- choose to have the ticket sent to your hotel (easiest option) or
- choose to collect the ticket at the train station (if short on time)
A commission is charged ranging between USD5-USD15 and the ticket can be sent directly to your hotel or collected from the train station.
Otherwise, train tickets can only be purchased within 20 days of departure from the train station.
Check for National Chinese Holidays
Knowing when the major holidays take place in China, will definitely help you with your travel planning.
To avoid been overwhelmed with people, below are the dates to be aware of when traveling in China, especially May 1st.
If you are visiting during these months, make sure to book trains well in advance to be assured of a ticket.
- January to February – Spring Festival
- 1st May – National Holiday
- July – August – Summer holidays
Types of Trains and Reserved Seats
When booking your train travel, you have choices for the type of train and the type of seat you book.
- G Class Trains – are the most expensive but they are the fastest at 300 km/h
- D Class Trains – have more stops than Class G trains at a speed of 250 km/h
- C Class Trains – travel shorter distances between urban towns and cities
Seat reservation is First Class, Business Class or Second Class, the latter being the class most booked.
Important information for train travel:
- Before entering any train station, you will pass through a security check.
- Access to the train platform is allowed about 5 minutes before the train arrival.
- When the train arrives, you have about 1-2 minutes to board. Yikes, you need to be quick.
1. Unique Places in China
Shaolin Monastery is one of those lesser-known places to visit in China. Certainly unique as it is the training place of Kung Fu.
Maybe not be at the top of your bucket list of places to visit in China, but certainly worth considering a 2-day short break at Shaolin Temple, in Henan Province.
It’s certainly a talking point for any traveler.
The Shaolin Temple dates to the 5th century and continues today to teach young boys, Shaolin Kung Fu, and Buddhism from the monks.
By staying at a Guesthouse, you can observe the daily routine of some of the 30,000 students in training. To witness the dedication of boys as young as 6 years old, each day practicing King Fu as well as completing their school lessons gives you a different perspective of daily life.
During your stay, you have the options of taking the Cable car to Song Shan mountain for a cliff walk to the Huang Zhai Temple. Not for the faint-hearted. While the cable car is enjoyable, the cliff walk at times is very narrow. Even if the views are fantastic, just watch your step.
A day trip from Shaolin Monastery is the Longmen Grottoes to view over 100,000 Buddhas carved into the rocks during the North Wei dynasty. Very impressive to see the incredible carvings from centuries ago.
Take a train from Beijing or Xian to Zhengzhou city, then by bus to each place.
For a unique experience of China, book a Guesthouse stay at Shaolin Monastery.
Related Post: Visit Shaolin Monastery and Longmen Grottoes
Related Post: Five Best Things to See in Xian
2. Amazing Beauty of Hangzhou
Hangzhou is south of Shanghai and one of the best places to visit in China, even for local Chinese.
Steeped in history, you’ll be enthralled with West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since the 9th century, West Lake has been a place of inspiration for artists and poets.
West Lake showcases its unforgettable gardens, pavilions, temples and bridges making it a popular destination.
With lake cruises or cycle tours, West Lake is easy to navigate and explore.
Hangzhou was one of our favorite places to visit in China.
Related Post: Beauty of West Lake in Hangzhou
3. Walk the City Wall of Nanjing
Nanjing literally means ‘Southern Capital’, and held this position at various times from 229BC to 1949.
The city has an incredible history through the reign of various dynasties but also a period of sadness in 1937 when 300,000 Nanjingese were massacred by the invading Imperial Army of Japan.
Points of Interest to visit in Nanjing:
- Xuanwu Lake Park
- Confucius Temple
- Nanjing City Wall
- Presidential Palace
- Purple Mountain
- Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders
Besides walking the Nanjing City Wall, a visit to the famous Presidential Palace is a must-see in Nanjing.
It was here at the Presidential Palace on 1st January 1912, the founder of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen presidency began. It was then known as the Headquarters of the Nationalist Government.
To visit the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, you will need to take the metro to Purple Mountain.
Related Post: 7 Unique Things to See in Nanjing
4. Longji Rice Terraces Trek and Homestay
While trekking isn’t on everyone’s bucket list, for us it was more about experiencing the visual beauty of Longsheng rice terraces.
How often have you seen photos of these incredible rice terraces scaling up the sides of mountains?
It’s incredible to think these rice terraces date to the Yuan Dynasty (13-14th century). What a tribute to those men and women who even today still use manual methods to harvest the rice.
We chose a 3 night 2 day stay for Longji Rice Terraces, easily accessed from Guilin.
This website China Highlights has more information on how to get from Guilin to Longji and the best time to visit.
For a personal experience of Longji Rice Terraces Trek and Ping’an village Homestay, we have more information on planning your trip in the post below.
Related Post: How to Experience a Trek and HomeStay in Longji
5. Yes, Yangshuo is popular
Visiting Yangshuo in the Guangxi region was on our bucket list for views of its incredible landscapes of mountain karst and pinnacles.
With river cruises along the Li River, cycle tours in the Yulong River Ecological Park or a hike up Moon Hill, Yangshuo town makes a perfect 3 day stop on your China itinerary.
The town does have a resort feel, so the nightlife is colorful.
But Yangshou is perfect for experiencing the dawn sunrise at Xiang Gong Mountain, a site used by National Geographical photographers. The view overlooking the Li River as the sun comes up over karst mountains is something you will remember forever.
We also took a side trip to tea plantations at Seven Fairies Peak to learn about tea growing and the tea ceremony of China.
Related Post: Popular Highlights of Yangshuo
Organize your Travel Insurance for China
When organizing your travel insurance to visit places in Asia, make sure you purchase a robust policy. When you need urgent medical attention, a hospital where English is spoken is important to ensure you receive the best medical care. It will also mean you understand what is happening.
It’s one of the reasons we chose CoverMore.
Although we have had only minor claims over the past three years, CoverMore were efficient in their online response and payment. All done without any hassle.
To get a CoverMore quote, just hit the button below.
6. Cycle the Xian City Wall
Xian city was an unexpected visit.
Most travelers only know Xian for the UNESCO Terracotta Warriors, 40km drive from Xian city. A city they never get to visit. A huge mistake.
Xian city at the eastern end of the Silk Road was also the capital city for 13 different dynasties.
Xian is a fascinating city with food and shopping in the Muslim Quarter. Xi’an has an expansive variation for food lovers to sample from noodles and dumplings, lamb cooked with spices and kabobs.
Or cycle the 14kms Xian city walls built in the Ming dynasty era.
Related Post: Best of Xian in 48 Hours
Don’t be scared to try Street Food
Whenever we are unsure of new food, or street food, we pop a Travelan for extra tummy protection. Its active ingredient is 200 mg hyperimmune colostrum enriched with anti-E.coli antibodies. Natural and gluten-free.
No one wants to spend their time sitting on a toilet or in desperate need of finding a toilet.
A friend introduced us to Travelan and it was one of the best travel gifts. Knowing our stomach had an “extra lining” before we ate, gave us the confidence to try so many new foods throughout Asia.
We got through four months of Asia without any problems, apart from Terry not taking Travelan before eating fried grasshoppers.
Travelan is a traveler’s essential item.
Eat with confidence with Travelan
7. Find the Old and New of Shanghai
Shanghai is a stimulating city to spend 7 days exploring.
The city is diverse with a French Quarter, modern Pudong, The Bund, and People’s Park.
Exploring Shanghai on foot or using the metro, will allow you to cover most of the must-see places of Shanghai.
Within the city, you can relax in the Yuan Gardens, or wander through the hutong of Tanzifang or go shopping in Nanjing Road.
Go for a drink at a Bar in Yongkang Lu, watch the sunset at The Bund and enjoy dinner in the French Concession. Every day there are new foods to try like the local Chinese Pancake street food, Shanghainese food or French cuisine.
Related Post: Where to Spend 7 Days in Shanghai
8. Best of Beijing in 3 Days
Beijing, the capital city of China is one of the historical places to visit for the Forbidden City and the Great China Wall.
You’ll find it is an easy city to negotiate by metro (in English) to see famous temples and Hutongs.
Savor foods like Peking Duck, try ethic foods in Hutongs or relax in one of the many bars in the Xicheng district.
To book your tour of the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City check out the reviews, tour itineraries and prices with Viator.
What about the Smog in Beijing?
If you have concerns about the smog in Beijing, you can purchase masks in local convenience stores. We found we didn’t need them for Beijing as the weather was sunny and clear for our stay in June. However, we did use them for our cycle in Xian.
Related Post: How to See 10 Best Things in Beijing
9. What is the Famous Thing to Do in China
It would have to be walking the Great Wall of China. The incredible structure is one of the most historical places in China, along with the Xian Terracotta Warriors, making it an important bucket list must-see of China.
From Beijing, tour groups organized to spend a half-day or the whole day walking a section of the Great Wall of China.
For our tour group, we walked the Mutianyu Great Wall of China section. And most of it was deserted so at times we were the only two people to be seen.
The Great Wall is often referred to as the backbone of a dinosaur, as it traverses the ridge. Once you start walking the wall between some of the Towers you soon realize how steep it is with its narrow steps.
The bonus for your exertion, the views are phenomenal.
After paying an entrance fee for Mutianyu, you can either walk up to Tower 8 or take the cable car. The restored section of Mutianyu traverses from Tower 1 to Tower 20.
To read more about the best time to walk the wall, and experience climbing an unrestored section, check out the post below.
Related Post: Walking Two Different Sections of the Great China Wall
10. Book a Hong Kong Stopover
Hong Kong is a surprising stopover for travelers to Europe. Having the Chinese aspect of Kowloon and the British feel of Hong Kong island makes 48 hours in Hong Kong captivating.
If everything Chinese is your preference, then Kowloon has daily and night markets for shopping, authentic Chinese dishes to savor and the place to watch the light show every evening on Victoria Harbour.
For a more British feel, seek out Hong Kong island for the famous Peak Tram to Victoria Peak for unbeatable views of Hong Kong skyline.
If you are short on time, book a half-day or a full day tour with Viator.
Related Post: 5 Choices for a Hong Kong Stopover
Are you ready to visit China?
If like us you are ready to plan and book your own itinerary of China, at least you know it isn’t as scary as you first thought.
With subways in the major cities having instructions in English at platforms, ticket machines and in the carriages makes getting from the airports to the cities a breeze.
China, even in the remotest of villages still has you connected with the outside world with fast wifi. So, the family knows where you are, and how you are.
Having some of the lesser-known places to visit, some of them unique, will make your self-planned China itinerary so much more rewarding. You’ll definitely have awesome stories to tell.
China is a nice place to visit for a remarkable travel experience.