Ah, China. It’s difficult to think of a country more diverse in its landscapes, its people, its cuisine, and its reasons for reeling travelers in.
And although it’s incredibly scenic (yes, of course there’s the Great Wall, but also so much more), its cities are where much of the country’s magic happens. The best cities in China are destinations that can be confronting and chaotic, bewildering and beautiful all at once.
We’re talking places where skyscrapers are constructed at lightning speed next to humble alleyways serving the best dumplings you’ve ever had. Cities where vendors sell everything under the sun, where you can walk for hours and stumble upon a million different neighborhoods, destinations where you can spend years and not see everything.
And, as you know, it’s an incredibly large country with a vast array of cities – so, where to begin? We think this list is a pretty good place. We got in touch with Intrepid’s very own China local, country expert and Destination Manager, Karen Zhao, to get her picks on the best cities in China for culture, nightlife, food and more. And we compiled them into this all-encompassing guide.
It features the must-see spots, the overlooked gems, and pretty much everything else you could want to know about China’s best cities. Enjoy!
The best city in China for culture: Xi’an
This is a tough one, seeing as Beijing has the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China, and all the accolades a capital city tends to get. That said, Xi’an – the capital of central China’s Shaanxi Province – has more than its fair share of cultural sights and tourist attractions.
The must-visit place is the Terracotta Army Museum which is world-famous already. One of the greatest archaeological sites in the world, it’s a collection of collection of life-size terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.
Insider tip from Karen Zhao, Intrepid’s China Destination Manager (and someone who lived in Xi’an for 7 years!):
There is also another similar museum showcasing Terracotta figures from 2000 years ago, called the Hanyangling Mausoleum. This mausoleum is pretty underrated; in fact it’s almost even better than the Terracotta one. The setup and design actually give you the chance to go into the pit and see the ancient tomb and its contents up-close. It’s also not as crowded as the Terracotta Museum either. You can visit this museum on our 15-day ‘Travel the Silk Road’ trip.
Xi’an offers so much more than museums such as these. A bike ride on top of the city wall is one of the best ways to experience the city and its history. These fortifications date back to about 600 years ago (i.e. Ming Dynasty times) and make up the only intact ancient city wall in China.
Another can’t-miss experience is visiting the city’s Muslim Quarter. Situated right behind the Drum tower, it’s one of the most lively and unique neighborhoods in all of China. Soak up all the culture and as much delicious food as possible (Xi’an is known for its cold noodles). It’s overwhelming for the senses, but in the best possible way.
The best city in China for nightlife: Hong Kong
Again, this is tough. Shanghai and Hong Kong both have excellent, all-hours nightlife. But we’ll give the crown to Hong Kong, seeing as cultural activities – like theaters and movies – are as big a part of the nightlife as drinking, clubbing and KTV (karaoke).
Fire off, we’re aware that Hong Kong is an autonomous territory and former British colony, but we’d go so far as to say that the nightlife is so diversified, in part, due to this history.
So, where to visit when the sun goes down? Well, you might want to get the tram to Victoria Peak, which offers up panoramic views over the city’s sprawling high-rises. You could also watch the nightly light show that illuminates the city’s buildings with laser light displays and pyrotechnic fireworks. Or head to Kowloon, in northern Hong Kong, to visit Temple Street Night Market, an iconic spot for street food. Kowloon has fewer iconic skyscrapers than Hong Kong Island proper, but the fantastic sky-high bars (Eyebar and Ozone Sky Bar) more than make up for it.
Last but not least, head to Lan Kwai Fong, or “LKF”, as the locals and expats call it. This small section of Hong Kong’s Central Business District has over 90 restaurants and bars. If it’s a big night out you want, this is where you’ll find it.
It’s also worth noting that Canton culture has a tradition of late evening dining, which is called “Ye Xiao”. In other words, restaurants and lots of street food stalls are at their busiest late in the evening. Some serve simpler food like porridge, noodles, fried rice, soup, and others more complicated eats like seafood or hotpot.
The best cities in China for scenery: Yangshuo & Guilin
If you think that every city in China is a smoggy, sprawling metropolis, think again. There are tons of scenic spots, and none more dramatic than the stunning southern towns of Yangshuo and Guilin. Both in China’s Guangxi region, and just an hour or two apart, they perfectly showcase the area’s landscapes: karst mountains, rice paddies and picturesque countryside. In fact, the scenery is so iconic it’s long been depicted in different drawings and even on the 20 Yuan note.
In the past few years, both cities have attracted an increasing number of tourists. And although this means you have to venture just outside the urban areas to discover the tranquil charm, the Li River and area’s astonishing land forms are worth it.
What would we recommend to do in Yangshuo? Well, get your bearings with a short hike up to Moon Hill, a vista just outside the town. Try a Southern Chinese cooking class at Yangshuo Cooking School. Or sit back and relax with a small cruise down the river.
Finish up by watching an outdoor light show staged by 2008 Beijing Olympics’ Opening Ceremony director Zhang Yimou.
How do Intrepid trips to Yangshuo and Guilin make the visit more special? Karen Zhao, Intrepid’s China Destination Manager, says:
We normally do a bike ride through the countryside and have lunch at a local farmer’s house, a great experience!
Although Guilin has similar scenery that you can enjoy in a similar way, there are several cool sights worth noting. First off, Reed Flute Cave is a fascinating limestone cave formation that’s been enhanced by multicolored lighting. Secondly, another must-see is the city’s twin pagodas, the Sun and Moon, lit up at night.
The best city in China for food: Chengdu
Where to begin?! There is simply so much more to Chinese cuisine than the fried rice and the sweet ‘n’ sour pork you order at your local takeout.
Begin in Chengdu. There’s a reason our 12-day Food Trip through China starts there. The UNESCO City of Gastronomy and capital city of the Sichuan Province is truly in a class of its own. Yep, there’s a reason there’s so many Sichuan restaurants are so popular in the West. The food scene here is that amazing.
Start off exploring Jinli Street, famous for its historic atmosphere and local snacks in equal measures. Enjoy sticky rice cakes with sesame sauce, spicy chicken on a stick, sweet rice jelly, fried beef pancakes and, for the more adventurous, spicy rabbits heads. From hole-in-the-wall restaurants to authentic markets to peaceful tea houses, there’s something for everyone in this city. But whatever you do, be sure not to miss out on Sichuan hot pot.
One of the country’s most renowned dishes, and roughly translating to ‘fire pot’, the communal pot of spiced broth that you dip your choice of ingredients into, is quite the (delicious and spicy) experience.
The best cities in China for relaxing: Chengdu & Shaxi
We just mentioned one of these, but we couldn’t resist giving it another shout-out…
Yes, Chengdu. Although one of the biggest cities in China, the pace of life is much slower than in Beijing and Shanghai. It still has the construction and development you’d expect from the country, but the locals here are genuinely some of the most chilled out people you’ll meet.
Just head to any park and you’ll see them socializing, exercising and partaking in any number of activities – from playing Mahjong to sipping tea in tea houses to practicing Tai Chi.
Chengdu is more well-known for its Panda Base, a non-profit research and breeding facility for giant pandas and other rare animals. This is 100% worth a visit (it’s a highlight of our 21-day China trip), but the parks are where you’ll really get to understand how locals have a ‘bashi’ life (‘bashi’ being local dialect for relaxed and casual).
Here in People’s Park – massive, popular year-round and one we’d recommend visiting – you can find people chilling by the artificial lake, practicing calligraphy on the park’s pavements, and enjoying one of the many informal dance classes on offer.
If you’re looking for more of a town than a city, and somewhere with culture and beauty in abundance, we suggest heading to Shaxi in Yunnan. Deep into the countryside, this small town on the old Tea Horse Trail (ancient trade route) is like few others.
This is partly because it’s been restored rather than rebuilt, but also because the Bai people live here (an ethnic group in China who have maintained their traditions). See the original walled town and the Old Town Market Square, then go trekking in the nearby mountains.
If you visit Shaxi on our 13-day trip through lesser-discovered China, you will get the chance to stay in a family-run guesthouse where you can eat eat meals with and chat to the incredibly hospitable locals.
The best cities in China for few tourists: Xiahe & Quanzhou
There are so many places in China that are frightfully overlooked by tourists, but two places come to mind immediately.
The first, Xiahe, is not often on must-visit lists, but the Tibetan culture and its surrounding landscape means that it’s certainly worth the visit.
Situated in the south of Gansu province (an area recently rated the number one destination in Asia by Lonely Planet for 2017!) the Tibetan town lets you experience the religion in an incredibly authentic way. Be sure to explore the fascinating Labrang Monastery, where Tibetan monks can be seen going about their daily rituals.
Although fairly off-the-beaten-path, you can visit Xiahe on this 13-day Intrepid trip. After visiting the monastery, our trips head out to the grasslands to have lunch with a local Tibetan family.
Another city that’s not known for tourism but is very tranquil is Quanzhou. Quanzhou marks the start of the Silk Road on the Sea, a Maritime Silk Route that’s completely different from the traditional Silk Road. The city has preserved a great atmosphere from its ancient heritage and has a variety of experiences to offer. Visit the local Buddhist temples, go to the seaside and try your hand at fishing, and indulge in the local food scene.
The best cities in China final shout outs: Beijing and Shanghai
Although we’ve mentioned two of China’s biggest cities with regards to their culture and nightlife, it’d be a shame not to give them more credit.
Yes, the Peking Duck and proximity to the Great Wall are a great bonus of China’s capital (in addition to the fact it has pretty much every important political and cultural monument), but there’s so much more.
Where to begin? Well, aside from the fact Beijing has 6 Unesco World Heritage Sites, the hutongs (narrow alleys) offer an intriguing perspective into the city.
Some of these are designated as protected areas, to preserve their traditional history. And all of them show what everyday life is like, away from Beijing’s sometimes-clinical, more-modern parts. The hutongs near Nanluoguxiang (subway line 6) and Ping’anli (line 4) are easily accessible and great for a wander.
Another Beijing must-do is exploring 798 Art Zone. This is an area of disused, Mao-era factories now full of contemporary art galleries, bookshops and cafes.
Last but not least, Shanghai. The global financial hub is so fast-paced, so glamorous, so totally insane it defies comprehension. Attractions here are less defined but do walk down the Bund (glitzy waterside walkway) and visit the beautiful Yuyuan Gardens.
Then get a glimpse into expat life in the tree-lined, restaurant-filled French Concession and rooftop haunts like Bar Rouge. Or see the city’s more traditional by exploring the water town of Qibao. Don’t leave without also visiting hip neighborhoods like Tianzifang, up-and-coming ones like The Cool Docks, and graffiti-filled ones like M50.
Phew, that’s probably enough for now. Shanghai is China in a nutshell – full of surprises, chaotic and completely captivating.
Tempted to visit this incredible, awe-inspiring country? Check out our range of small group adventures in China.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Rebecca Shapiro, Intrepid Travel, Rebecca Shapiro x2, Intrepid Travel x2, Rebecca Shapiro x3, Intrepid Travel x2, Rebecca Shapiro x2)