Start planning your trip to the Middle Kingdom with this ultimate China bucket list.
What should be on your China bucket list
China is a land of tremendous monuments, staggering landscapes, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, bright cities – and a complete culture shock to most visitors from Europe and the US. And not just because of the language barriers.
It’s also vast. You’ll never be able to visit the whole country within a standard holiday or vacation period. But with two to three weeks, you can visit most of the top attractions in China with a fair bit of travel and a flexible attitude.
Here’s what we would add to our China bucket list.
The Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is simply enormous. Built over centuries, the wall symbolises the country and its sense of ambition. Back in the day, the inside meant culture, society and peace. The outside meant nothing but barbarian hordes and dangerous foreign influencers.
Mutianyu is one of the best sections for visitors, easily accessible to the north of Beijing.
Here, you’ll find great columns of stone snaking their way through pine forests, and weaving their way through vast mountain ranges. The area is enormous and you could spend an entire week just walking along this impressive monument. It’s almost unthinkable that the structure is a relic from the ancient world, a time when practically everyone except the emperor lived in thatched huts.
Wear sensible shoes and brace yourself for crowds – and the slight disappointment that, no, you can’t actually see it from space. You should still see it, though. It deserves pride of place on any China bucket list.
Victoria Peak, Hong Kong
Further south in Hong Kong, you’ll find Victoria Peak, the highest hill on the island at a cool 552 metres.Take the Peak Tram all the way up to see the sprawling skyline with the densest concentration of skyscrapers anywhere in the world.
Victoria Peak, though, offers more than just incredible views. It’s also a full-blown experience. You can watch shows, go to restaurants, and of course, experience one of the steepest trams in the world.
Plus, you get a nice break from all the traffic and noise below. It really is worth checking out if you are in the area.
And while you’re there, check out these unusual things to do in Hong Kong.
Wai Tan, Shanghai
Those headed for Shanghai should check out Wai Tan, one of the most magnificent areas in this metropolis of nearly 30 million people. Also called The Bund, this neoclassical arcade runs along the port area and is fantastically popular among locals and tourists alike. Here, you’ll find a bustling community of waterfront attractions and street sellers trying to entice you in with their wares.
You don’t have to buy anything, of course. It can be a nice place to walk through, offering scenic views of the harbour and the surrounding area. You can also hire bikes and ride them locally.
The Hong Kong Star Ferry
One of the classic experiences for any Hong Kong bucket list is a ride on the Star Ferry.
The Star Ferry is essentially a collection of wooden boats that link Hong Kong with the rest of Kowloon. The service dates back more than a century but has kept its traditional heart. Stepping onto one of these vessels makes you forget you’re in the middle of a modernized area and helps you take a trip back in time. It makes leaving Hong Kong more of an experience.
The great thing, too, is that getting on one of these ferries only costs a few dollars. You don’t have to spend a fortune if you want to travel in style. Taking the boat at 8 pm lets you see the Symphony of Lights, when all of the buildings in the city light up and put on a display.
The Big Buddha, Hong Kong
The Tian Tan Buddha, or “Big Buddha” is one of the largest statues in the world. The monument sits atop a small hill and has a commanding presence over the surrounding landscape. You can find the buddha on Lantau island to the west of Hong Kong.
The Summer Palace, Beijing
The Forbidden City is one of the most magnificent tourist destinations in the world, but the Summer Palace is perhaps even more exciting. This resort was a place of peace for the rulers of China’s Qing dynasty. The area is three-quarters water, with the rest covered in forested hills with various palace buildings and structures poking out of the undergrowth.
What’s great about the Summer Palace is how well-preserved it remains. Despite being hundreds of years old, all the buildings look relatively new.
Architectural enthusiasts will appreciate the Long Corridor, the longest such example in the world which runs from one end of the structure to the other in a straight line. On the other side is a stunning lake, which remains relatively free from the pollution afflicting the rest of Beijing.
The Museum of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors And Horses
Often called the terracotta army, this museum is a celebration of sculptures from the third century BCE. Here, you’ll find row upon row of life-size figurines, inside a structure that looks a bit like an aircraft hangar.
In total, the Museum of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors is more than 16,300 square feet and houses over 7,000 individual figures, all in battle formation. Between each row of figures sit these remarkable stone walls that look like trenches. They were made to be buried with the first Emperor of China to protect him in the afterlife.
Another surprising thing to do in China involves travelling into Guilin for the Yao Hair Show.
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is a must on any China bucket list. Built in the fifteen century, it has more than 9,000 rooms and sprawls over more than 250 acres right in the middle of Beijing.
During the 17th century, The Forbidden City fell into a state of disrepair. However, the Qing dynasty of the 18th century restored much of it to its former glory, with other restoration efforts in full swing ever since.
As impressive as the The Forbidden City is, it is also huge and so you’ll get more out of the experience with a guide.
Explorient offers a variety of luxury tours throughout Asia. By travelling with a tour company like this you can get more of a sense of how the emperors of old lived.
The Great Wall At Badaling
Yes, there are many places to see the Great Wall. Another top spot involves Badaling, where you can find some of the most spectacular scenery you’ll find anywhere in China.
Researchers used to think China built the wall during the ancient Qin dynasty in the third century before Christ. However, more recent evidence suggests that parts of the walls may go back even before this.
Interestingly, China was building its monuments at the same time as other civilisations were constructing theirs, with no communication between them. The Badaling area is replete with lush, jagged mountains and feels a long way from the crowded cities when you arrive.
The Wudang Mountains
When you visit the Wudang Mountains, deep in China’s western interior, you can’t help but get the feeling that it was the inspiration for Kung Fu Panda. The mountains are spectacular. And if you look hard enough, you’ll see various Daoist monasteries perched on their peaks.
When exploring Wudang, you’ll want to go with a guide. The area is somewhat cut off from the rest of the country and difficult to navigate if you’ve never been before.
The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base
Found in Chengdu, the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base is one of China’s obsessions. The country wants to repopulate the wild with pandas but it can’t figure out how to get them to breed.
The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base is trying all sorts of things to get these critters to go to bed with each other and make children. Visitors report having an amazing experience at the venue, making it a must-visit for anyone in the area. Trips tend to be well-organized, and if you are lucky, you might get the chance to see a baby panda up close.
The Temple Of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven was built more than 600 years ago across 270 acres, making it the largest religious building in the world. Originally, the temple was for Qing and Ming emperors to pay homage to what they called “heaven” but now it is open to the public. People flock here around harvest time to pray for bumper wheat and rice crops. Expect to spend at least one to two hours here, touring the area.
The authorities keep the Temple of Heaven in excellent condition. You may need to give your passport number to the entry staff when you arrive at the site, so bring all relevant documents with you.
Your China Bucket List in Summary
In short, here are the top recommendations for the best places to visit in China:
- The Great Wall of China
- Victoria Peak, Hong Kong
- Wai Tan, Shanghai
- The Star Ferry, Hong Kong
- The Big Buddha, Hong Kong
- The Summer Palace, near Beijing
- The Museum of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors And Horses
- The Forbidden City
- The Wudang Mountains
- The Giant Panda Breeding Base
- The Temple of Heaven