China’s top tourist attractions: Mike’s “Best of China” list

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”  —  Mark Twain

China is a huge country…and best taken in bite-sized chunks.  You could spend months — years even — traveling this vast country and still not see it all.  But the good news is that many of the top tourist highlights are clustered together so even the poor American traveler with only a two week (“too weak?”) vacation can see a good chunk of the country.  For instance, you could cross off half of the attractions on this list without having to stray too far away from Beijing and Shanghai.

I’m sure that many will take issue with my list.  How could you include that place, but leave out this one? And I admit, there are many places that I wish I could add to the list (and will do so in early 2011 after I come back from China & Taiwan).  This is not meant to be a definitive list, but instead a resource for travelers to better plan their limited time in China.

Whether sightseeing, shopping, hiking or partying in these destinations, I hope that you’ll discover memorable experiences that stimulate the body and mind—getting you into heart of China and under skin of the Chinese culture. Good luck!


A modern, vibrant city, Beijing is a good place for first time visitors to ease into culture shock.   For over a thousand years, the Chinese have literally believed that Beijing sits at the center of the Universe, with the emperor’s throne in the Forbidden City as the absolute center. The political, cultural, and geographical heart of China, Beijing caters to the luxury traveler as well as to the budget backpacker — offering world-class restaurants to ancient temples and old Beijing backstreet charm.  The 2008 Olympics left Beijing with a major facelift and tourists will benefit from an upgraded tourist infrastructure.

The Forbidden City

Beijing’s most famous tourist attraction is the Forbidden City — where China’s emperors held court for 500 years from the 15th century until 1911.  Since the Chinese believed that the emperor was the Son of Heaven, they believed that the Forbidden City was literally at the center of the Universe.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, the immense complex—really a city within a city consisting of almost 1,000 buildings and over 8,000 chambers— sees thousands of foreign and domestic tourists daily.

The Great Wall of China

A must-see tourist attraction to add to your travel itinerary, the Great Wall of China is undoubtedly one of the ancient world’s most amazing feats of engineering.  With the earliest pieces built around the 5th century BC, the wall spans over 5,500 miles (8,800km) — making it the longest man-made structure ever built.  And while you’ve seen pictures, the only way to truly appreciate the Great Wall of China is to stand on its walls and stare in awe as it snakes across China’s placid mountains like a majestic ridge-backed dragon.


Although is China’s Chengdu fifth most populous city in China (and that’s saying a lot), the mellow capital city of Sichuan province has managed to maintain a reputation among the Chinese as one of the country’s most cheerful and livable cities.  Chengdu locals love to relax outside in one of the city’s many teahouses, where they play games, listen to music, or just watch the world go by. Chengdu is also main transportation hub of southwest China and the gateway to Tibet, where travelers should apply for their travel permits and stock up on supplies.

Guilin & Yangshuo

Guilin has the good fortune being located in one of China’s most beautiful landscapes.  Surrounded by stunning karst peaks that give the city a hypnotic, otherworldly vibe, Guilin is a popular Chinese tourist destination.  But Guilin’s main tourist attraction is its position as the starting point for a cruise down the Li River to the popular backpacker-friendly town of Yangshuo.  The Li River cruise is the highlight for many travelers.  A photographer’s dream, the cruise passes through a never-ending procession of gorgeous karst peaks, as well as rural scenes of fishermen on narrow bamboo rafts and farmers in conical hats working the fields with water buffalo.


Marco Polo — writing at the end of 13th century — described Hangzhou as “the most beautiful and magnificent in the world.”   Undoubtedly one of China’s most picturesque cities, Hangzhou today is known among the Chinese as most romantic city in China (earning it the title as China’s Honeymoon Capital).  The undisputed star in this show is the spectacular West Lake, offering picture postcard-esque Chinese vistas.  Combined with a good supply of sophisticated restaurants, a funky arts scene, and lively nightlife, it’s easy to see why Hangzhou—a short train ride from Shanghai — is one of China’s most popular getaways.

Hong Kong

Probably the best, most succinct description of Hong Kong is from the travel writer Pico Iyer who described the city as “a dream of Manhattan, arising from the South China Sea.”  Hong Kong — like Manhattan — is one of those places that almost defies description…it needs to be experienced.   With one of best city skylines in the world, Hong Kong is colorful and superbly chaotic — a dazzling city of futuristic skyscrapers that also suprisingly offers serene mountains and stunning vistas of open sea and island.


The Chinese say that once you’ve ascended the peaks of Huangshan, you’ll never want to climb another mountain.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Huangshan mountains are arguably the most beautiful in China and a must-see attraction.   If the mist-wreathed granite peaks and twisted pines perched on jutting crags look familiar, it’s because the beauty of Huangshan has been immortalized in countless Chinese scroll paintings and movies (including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).  Hiking fans will love the many spectacular hikes around the 72 sheer rock cliffs, not to mention the famed Huangshan sunrise.

Lhasa, Tibet

The spiritual allure of Tibet has had a magnetic pull over travelers as one of the world’s great travel adventures since opening for tourism in the 1980s.   From adventure-seeking backpackers to luxury jet-setters, travelers everywhere have added the fabled “Roof of the World” on their places-to-see-before-I-die Bucket Lists. And while you may have to trek a considerable distance to add Lhasa to your itinerary, Tibet’s majestic mountain vistas—combined with the beauty of the Tibetan people and their Buddhist practices—will cast a sublimely hypnotic spell on you that will linger for a lifetime.


Surrounded by an impressive Ming-dynasty city wall, this former capital city is one of China’s most attractive and livable cities, offering plenty of historical sites and other tourist attractions and activities.  Nanjing (“Southern Capital”) — benefiting from its proximity to Shanghai and position on the Yangtze River — is a prosperous city with many pleasant parks and wide boulevards lined with stately trees and balconied houses.  Only a 3-hour train ride from Shanghai, Nanjing is famous in China as a university city and possesses that optimistic, and energetic vibe common to most university cities.


If Beijing is China’s traditional, responsible older brother, Shanghai is the fashionable, shopaholic Wall Street younger sister who works hard and plays even harder.  Visitors will benefit from an upgraded tourist infrastructure and supply of hotels from the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.  Like the days of old, Shanghai is a city of extremes — a dynamic, international city known for business, shopping, nightlife, and sophistication. Shanghai is undoubtedly China’s most modern city—a must-see travel destination for any visitor who wants a sneak preview into China’s future.


Less than an hour away from Shanghai by train, Suzhou is known as a top tourist destination in China — definitely worth visiting for a couple of days.   Suzhou has been called the “Venice of the East” because it was built around a latticework of 24 canals.  But Suzhou’s main tourist attractions are its classical Chinese gardens — intricately designed masterpieces that harmoniously blend surrounding buildings with nature.  The city is attractively photogenic with about 60 public tourist-friendly gardens dotted around Suzhou to enjoy (9 gardens are UNESCO World Heritage sites).

Xi’an & Terracotta Army

In 1974, farmers digging a well near Xi’an, China accidentally uncovered one of the world’s most spectacular architectural finds — an entire Terracotta Army of some 7,000 warriors, chariots, and horses. Although no records exist of terracotta soldiers, they were built over two thousand years ago. Tourists mainly flock to see the Terracotta Army…but there’s a lot more to do and see in this pleasant city, which is considered ground zero of early China civilization and served as capital of the Shaanxi province for more than 1100 years.

Xiamen & Gulangyu Island

An often-overlooked travel destination, the harbor city of Xiamen is one of the most prosperous — and most pleasant —cities in China, featuring attractive beaches, botanical gardens, waterfront promenades, and parks.  Sometimes referred to as “Shanghai’s little sister,” Xiamen’s thriving nightlife and chic restaurant scene has exploded with the region’s fortunes.  But the crown jewel of Xiamen’s tourist appeal is the small, tranquil island of Gulangyu, whose clean beaches, quirky streets and alleys, and tourist-friendly shops and restaurants are immensely fun to explore on foot.

Yangtze River Cruise

The Chinese have a saying: If you haven’t traveled up the Great River, you haven’t been anywhere.  And who doesn’t love a leisurely river cruise? Imagine kicking back with a drink while you soak in the magical sights of the Yangtze River.  Long steeped in myth and legend, the Yangtze is the third longest river in the world. And while the scenery isn’t quite as stellar as before the Three Gorges Dam raised water levels, no trip to China is complete without a trip down the Yangtze.

(see detailed Google map of China…)

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