So, you want to go to China, but where? China still fascinates us with its mystical oriental charm and ancient history, especially for first-time visitors. So, for a first-time China trip, let’s explore some of the classic itineraries that take in the key historical and cultural sites that should not be missed.
The Classic China Itineraries
The superb thing about these routes and destinations is that with some advance planning it is unlikely that you will need a guide or to go on a tour package unless you expressly desire such.
These routes are well-traveled, have solid tourism resources in place, are foreigner-friendly and it’s never to difficult to find someone who speaks English. If your good with a smartphone, you’re patient and flexible, you’re friendly and approachable, then you will have a great adventure.
These are all the classic key attractions that really should be first on your list. One, because they are the most significant attractions historically and culturally, and also because they are easy to navigate for first-time visitors to China.
The most popular destinations can be covered in two weeks with an itinerary like the one below that covers the major must-see historical sites, the mighty Yangzte, and the history and modern front of Shanghai. It’s a great introduction to China.
14-Day Classic History and the Yangtze River itinerary
Route: Beijing (4 days) – Xi’an (2 days) – Chengdu (2 days) – Chongqing (2 day) – Yangtze River Cruise (2 days) – Yichang (1 day) – Shanghai (2 days)
Attractions by City
- Forbidden City Palace Museum (故宫博物院)
- Temple of Heaven (天坛公园)
- Tiananmen Square (天安门广场) and National Museum (中国国家博物馆)
- Guozijian Street Hutong (国子监街), Lama Temple (雍和宫) and Confucius Temple (孔庙)
- Water Cube (北京國家游泳中心) & Birds Nest Stadium (国家体育场)
- Great Wall at Badaling (八达岭长城)
- Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum (秦始皇陵) and the Terracotta Army (兵马俑)
- Huaqing Hot Springs (Huaqing Palace) (华清池)
- Big Wild Goose Pagoda (大雁塔)
- City Wall (城墙)
- Giant Panda Breeding Research Base (成都大熊猫繁育研究基地)
- Mount Emei (峨眉山) and Leshan Giant Buddha (乐山大佛)
- Wenshu Yuan Monastery (文殊院)
Yangtze River Cruise sights (from Chongqing to Yichang)
- Shibaozhai Pagoda (石宝寨)
- Fengdu Ghost City (丰都鬼城)
- Sail through the Three Gorges (三峡)
- Three Gorges Dam (三峡大坝)
- The Bund (外滩)
- Pudong (浦东新区) and its skyscrapers
- Yu Yuan Garden (豫园)
- Xintiandi (新天地) and Tianzifang (田子坊)
Other Tour Route Itinerary Options
8 Day Ancient history and modern China itinerary
Route: Beijing (3 days) – Xi’an (2 days) – Shanghai (2 days)
12-Day China Classical Wonder itinerary
Route: Beijing (4 days) – Xi’an (3 days) – Guilin/Yangshuo (2 days) – Shanghai (3 days)
18-day China Ancient Wonder, Nature and Shopping itinerary
Route: Beijing (4 days) – Xi’an (3 days) – Chengdu (3 days) – Three Gorges (3 days) – Yangshuo (2 days) – Hong Kong (3 days)
23 Day Classic China explorer itinerary
Route: Chengdu inc Mt. Emei and Leshan (3 days) – Lijiang (2 days) – Xi’an (3 days) – Beijing (4 days) – Shanghai (3 Days) – Xiamen and Yongding (3 Days) – Shenzhen (2 days) – Hong Kong (3 days)
23-Day Classic Villages, Ancient Wonder, and Modern Metropolis itinerary
Route: Shanghai (3 days) – Beijing (4 days) – Xi’an (3 days) – Chengdu (2 days) – Lijiang (2 days) – Dali (2 days) – Kunming (2 days) – Guilin/Yangshuo (2 days) – Hong Kong (3 days)
When you have your feet, so to speak, then it’s time to get more focused. And it never ends, it depends on your interest, but here are some examples
Central China: The Yellow River itinerary
Route: Xi’an (3 days) – Hua Shan (2 days) – Luoyang (2 days) – Song Shan (2 days) – Kaifeng (2 days) – Qufu (2 days) – Tai Shan (3 days)
The Great Wall: east to west itinerary
Route: Beijing (3 days) – Datong (2 days) – Hohhot (2 days) – Shapotou (2 days) – Lanzhou (2 days) – Jiayuguan (2 days)
Great Wall and the Wild West itinerary
Route: Beijing (2 days) – Datong (2 days) – Hohhot (2 days) – Shapotou (2 days) – Lanzhou (2 days) – Jiayuguan (2 days) – Dunhuang (2 days) – Turpan (2 days) – Kashgar (2 days)
Yunnan: Mountains and Minorities itinerary
Route: Kunming (2 days) – Dali (3 days) – Shaxi (2 days) – Lijiang (3 days) – Zhongdian (3 days)
Historic, Scenic and Cultural areas less traveled
Once you really have your China feet, here is a list of ‘off-the-beaten-path’ cities and regions that are screaming to be explored 😀
- Dengfeng, Henan Province – Packed with temples and martial arts academies, it is one of China’s main centers for Zen Culture and Shaolin Martial Arts along with the development of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism.
- Handan, Hebei Province – Once a capital of the ancient Zhou Kingdom, the city has a history of more than 2,500 years and the region has archaeological finds dating back 7000 years.
- Jingzhou, Hubei Province – an ancient cultural city that was once the capital of the Chu State dating back 2000 years.
- Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province – surrounded by scenic and famous mountains it is famed for being a porcelain production base during the ancient Song Dynasty
- Meizhou, Guangdong Province – An ancient home of the Hakka minority featuring many old villages and a Hakka culture museum.
- Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province – a classical water town that has a history of almost 2,500 years.
- Yongding, Fujian Province – famous for it’s Hakka Tulou buildings.
- Zigong, Sichuan Province – near to the Leshan Giant Buddha is not often visited by foreigners but is very scenic, and also featuring one of the world’s largest dinosaur museums.
- Kumul (Hami), Xinjiang Province – A city on the ancient silk-road and renowned for its epic natural landscapes.
- Yantai, Shandong Province – Claiming a history of 10,000 years the small city is famed as the most “Charming City of China”.
- Zhangye, Gansu – an ancient silk-road port and home to several ancient temples and the Danxia National Geological Park.
- Alshan, Inner Mongolia – home to one of China’s top ski resorts.
- Baotou, Inner Mongolia – rich with ancient history and what could be the oldest section of the Great Wall.
- Datong, Shanxi Province – a coal mining city that is famed for its Yungang Grottoes, a section of the Great Wall, the Hanging Monastery, and other historical sites.
- Tonghua, Jilin province – bordering North Korea it features ancient remains of the Koguryo Kingdom (37 BC – 668 AD), two ski resorts, and several natural scenic areas.
- Weihai, Shandong Province – a popular coastal city featuring beaches, marine park, islands, and hot springs.
- Zibo, Shandong Province – near to Mount Tai, Great Wall ruins, and several museums.
- Luding, Sichuan province – a small charming city that is known for the nearby Hailuogou Glacier Forest Park.
- Ya’an, Sichuan Province – home of the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base, Mount Mengding, Mount Erlang, and tea culture.
- Shiyan, Hubei Province – famous for automotive production and the UNESCO listed Wudang Mountains.
- Suzhou, Anhui Province – an economic and cultural hub it features many scenic and historic attractions such as Huangcangyu National Forest Park, Tomb of Concubine Yu, and artifacts of the peasant uprising in 209 B.C against the Qin emperor.
- Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province – known for its ancient water towns of Wuzhen and Xitang.
- Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province – a historic city that is famed for its ancient scholars, bridges, and tranquility.
- Shaoshan, Hunan Province – a base for ‘Red Tourism’ and birthplace of Mao Zedong.
- Wuyuan, Jiangxi province – known for its natural landscapes, in particular, golden rape flowers in spring plus history dating back to the Tang Dynasty.
- Huanglong, Sichuan Province – home to the spectacular Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area.
- Anshun, Guizhou province – a natural scenic area that is home to the Huangguoshu Waterfall National Park, Dragon Palace Cave Scenic Spot, Miao villages, and Getu River Scenic Area.
- Yuanyang, Yunnan Province – home to the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces and many villages.
- Tongren, Guizhou – Home to many ethnic-minority villages of the Miao, Tujia, Dong, Gelo, Man and other minority.
- Kaili, Guizhou province – Famed for its natural landscapes and Miao ethnic minority villages such as Xijiang Qianhu Miao Village, Langde Miao Ethnic Minority Village, and Zhenyuan Ancient Town.
- Kuqa, Xinjiang – a historical Buddhist Kingdom on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.
- Korla, Xinjiang – home to many attractions including Ancient City of Loulan, Bosten Lake, Bayanbulak Grassland, Lop Nur, Takla Makan Desert, Iron Gate Pass and Yadan Spectacle.
- Yarkent, Xinjiang – another city on the ancient silk road.
- Dunhuang, Gansu Province – an ancient silk-road city that is known for its attractions including Mogao Caves, Yangguan Pass, Yumenguan Pass, Dunhuang Museum, Echoing-Sand Mountain, Crescent Lake, White Horse Pagoda, Western Thousand-Buddha Cave, and Yardang National Geopark.