Top 5 must-see places in China

China is enormous. Even assuming that travel is limited to the eastern half of the country, the latter is larger than the whole of Europe. Getting an authentic China experience can prove difficult because of its size, and the propensity to be stuck in tourist traps and mobbed by crowds. For the ultimate ‘Real China Experience’, here are the five must-see destinations:

Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant, glorious city, and the epitome of the luxury experience. There is no end to the pampering you can treat yourself to, but Shanghai also has an astonishing historical legacy enabling you to move from the very high-end experience to the early 20th century and older seamlessly. Stay on the Puxi side, either at the Langham in Xintiandi or the Peninsula next to the Bund. Visit the Bund for the view, architecture, and nightlife, shop in Xintiandi and stroll the Shikumen-style lane house neighbourhoods of the Luwan district nearby, and enjoy the French Concession’s Changle Road boutiques and European cafes. For truly authentic and unbelievable Chinese food, go to Ding Te Le on Huaihai Road for the spicy pork noodles, and Ling Long Fang on Jianguo Road for traditional Shanghai Xiaolongbao dumplings. For an ambrosiac dining experience, head to Jean-Georges’ Mercato on the Bund for dinner (and partying at Unico downstairs afterwards). Mr. & Mrs. Bund also caters to foodies not on a budget, and has an incredible vibe and after-dinner ambiance. Finally, definitely try Yuxin on Zhaoshangju Square for incredible high-end Szechuan cuisine! There is no end to the sights that Shanghai offers. Must see are the Jing ‘An Temple, the 88th Floor Observatory in the Jin Mao Tower, the old Tianzifang Lane-House enclave, the Longhua Temple, and definitely consider a city tour in the side-car motorcycle service. The museums in Shanghai are rich with content and exhibitions, particularly the Museum of Contemporary Art in People’s Square Park, the Rockbund Museum, and the China Pavilion.

Longhua Temple, Shanghai

Suzhou

Suzhou is a short 30-minute bullet train ride from Shanghai, but transports you back to 500BC. It is a spectacular city built around canals and waterways, and featuring several ancient and majestic parks and endless exciting little side streets to lose yourself in. It isn’t known as the Venice of China for nothing! Stay the night, and take advantage of strolling the old town and lit canals in the evening. Stay at the Shangri-La, centrally located, luxurious, and has a helpful English-speaking staff. A great place to experience authentic Suzhou cuisine is at Wu Men Zhi Jia , nestled in an ancient walled home with mind blowingly great food! For the epicures, try Bistronomy on Shiquan Road. Suzhou is famous for its ancient gardens, and none are more spectacular than the Humble Administrator’s Garden. The Master of Nets garden is smaller, but is incredibly charming. Enjoy a coffee or traditional tea service in one its private walled gardens dating back nearly 1,000 years. The pedestrian-only Pingjiang Road is famous for its little boutiques, galleries, and tea houses, offering a vast number of side streets to explore (especially Dashitou Alley!). It is dotted with beautiful and delicate arched bridges along its canals, and is spectacularly beautiful at night.

Suzhou Creeks

Yangshuo

Yangshuo is a charming little town along the Li River in Guangxi Province. The area is famous for its amazingly beautiful Karst peaks and mountains, and serene Li River. It exemplifies the harmony between what was once a small Chinese village and China’s bountiful countryside, offering the best of China’s amazing landscapes and the serenity and quiet rarely found in its cities. Stay at the River View Inn, which is very modestly priced and faces the river and the magnificent mountains surrounding it. It is clean, comfortable, and the extremely helpful staff all speak English and can organize anything for you. For a 5-star luxury stay, consider the recently opened Yangshuo Resort just outside of town along the river. The highlight of a trip here is taking a ‘Bamboo’ down river, and enjoying your inner Tom Sawyer. The trip is incredibly serene, and the mountains alongside the river are simply breathtaking! Be prepared for the breakwaters, which is all part of the fun experience. Rent a bicycle (with a guide) for a cycling trip through the countryside, and climb Moon Mountain; the views from the top are worthy of a National Geographic spread! And definitely go see the “Sanjie Liu Impression”, an absolutely stunning evening performance utilizing the Li River and Karst Mountains as its backdrop. Think “Les Miserables” in the most amazing open-air setting anywhere, with literally a cast of hundreds!

Yangshuo, China

Lijiang

Lijiang’s Old Town is famous for good reason: it is the essence of China’s ancient history. Lijiang’s Old Town offers a maze of winding cobblestone streets alongside delicate tree-lined canals fed from the Li River. Its 800 year old wooden structures showcase intense charm, and an incredible history. Lijiang is noted for its artists & handcrafters, and there is no shortage of great works to choose from in its galleries. Lijiang is at the edge of Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan, providing some spectacular views of the mountain ranges such as the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Stay at the Pullman Resort and Spa, or the Banyan Tree. Both are very high-end and define the luxury experience. Lijiang offers many dining opportunities, but for a truly luxurious experience enjoy your private chef preparing an amazing lakeside feast at the Pullman, or dine under a Naxi-style lakeside pagodas at the Banyan Tree. The Old Town is extraordinary on its own, and worth taking your time over. The Mu Palace and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain are definite highlights of your trip, as are biking from town to town locally and visiting Naxi villages nearby. For the adventurous, take the cable car to see Yak Meadow. It is stunning!

Lijiang

Lhasa, Tibet

Lhasa is surely on every luxury travelers list of must-see places. A visit to the Potala Palace would be sufficient on its own, but Lhasa is blessed with a vast number of incredible places to see. Top of any list would be the Potala Palace, Sera Monastery, Jokhang Temple, the Ganden Monastery, and of course Yamdrok Lake (see author’s dedicated blog on Tibet here). Stay at The St. Regis, an amazing experience, wrapped in luxury. The Tibetan Experience is bookended by two themes: the religious life and its geography. Tibet and its people are deeply spiritual, and it is obvious in the numerous and absolutely astonishing monasteries and religious sanctuaries, with the Potala Palace as the crown jewel. See them all if you can, each is unique and stunning on its own. Day or overnight trips into the mountains will give you a Himalayan experience far exceeding what you can get in Nepal. Yamdrok Lake is one such experience, leaving you in no doubt that you are truly on top of the world.

Yamdrok Lake, Tibet

Comments (8)

  1. Simon Lee says:

    I have been to Su Zhou lately, visited a few gardens, well maintained and nicely landscaped. Will be there in the future:)

    Simon Lee

  2. Hannah says:

    You make Suzhou sound lovely! It’s actually a city of 6 million people and very touristy, in fact most of the places you’ve listed are very touristy with not much of the local flavour left which is an absolute shame. I wouldn’t count Suzhou as a must see at all!

  3. jennifer says:

    I should be crossing two of these off my bucket list in May/June. I need to see Tibet, it looks incredible. I will definitely be in Shanghai, as that is where I am flying home from.

    China is so enormous. I wish I could see everything.

  4. Gaetan Green says:

    Interesting selection of top-5 places.
    All the places that make it to one’s bucket-list of top destinations to see are always very personal.
    I sometime go to Suzhou for business and the gardens seem a place to see.
    Do not forget an anti-pollution mask for Shanghai, because smog can be very heavy with China’s push to urbanization of the country.
    If I could add five more places to make it a Top-10 :
    6) The ancient town of Fenghuang, in Hunan province. As touristy and commercialized as Lijiang, but way more picturesque.
    7) The old town of Qiangyang. Just 2 hours south of Fenghuang. Off the beaten, tourist free old town. You step back in time. The town looks like China 100 years ago.
    8) The ethnic villages of Chengyang and the incredible bridge in Guangxi. Just 4 hours north of Yangshuo.
    9) The region of Kaili in Guizhou and a visit to the different Miao and Dong ethnic minority villages. It’s a neat way to experience China’s cultural diversity.
    10) The monastery of Labrang in Gansu province. The largest Tibetan monastery outside Tibet.

  5. Ram Malhotra says:

    Hanna,

    I agree with you 100%
    I have lived in Suzhou for 5 years and there is nothing to write home about this place except the industry.
    60years ago it was 80,000 people and waterways all around and might have been Venice of the east.But in grand chinese style they have ruined it like many other cities

    Ram malhotra
    ram.malhotra#sunrise.ch
    Zurich

  6. Adam Lewis says:

    My focus in writing this post was to provide visitors to China with suggestions of interesting and enchanting places to see, during a typically brief stay (less than two weeks, common to most visitors). There are dozens of fantastic places and things to see in China, as Gaetan suggests, but distance, available time, and transportation considerations make most impractical for a typical visitor, to say nothing of whether those destinations conform to a luxurious experience in any form. Understandably, for current or former expats and Chinese nationals living here (such as Ram and Hanna), China’s growth and commercialization has probably taken the sheen off a lot of these wonderful places. As a relatively new resident and traveller in China, I still find them enthralling. Please visit, China is wonderful!

  7. Tara says:

    Five out of five. Yes! :-)
    China is a vast country and there is so much to see and do! I would add Chengdu ( BA is flying directly ), Pingyao ( the whole city is UNESCO site), Leshan ( Giant Buddha and UNESCO site), Hangzhou ( you can visit on a day tour from Shanghai) and Macau. No one is talking about Macau – ex Portuguese colony and a UNESCO site.

  8. Kim says:

    Only made Shanghai and Suzhou out of the five, but I can agree they are simply fantastic. One of my favorite parts of Shanghai is actually the subway system. This extensive network includes countless underground shops. Some stops even have multiple levels and this really lets you experience a finer Chinese marketplace.

    The gardens in Suzhou are simply gorgeous. I recommend Master of the Nets Garden, which is not accessible to tour buses. It is easier to appreciate the lakes, rock formations, and pagodas with less guided tours.

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