Travel to China

Colossal, dizzying and fiercely, endlessly foreign, China is a destination not easily compared to anywhere else on the planet. Home to approximately one-fifth of the human race, China variously dazzles, befuddles, frustrates and thrills. The key visitor attractions are renowned around the globe — think the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Terracotta Warriors — but on the ground it’s the sheer scale and off-kilter energy of the place that leave the most lasting impression. China's landscapes unfurl dramatically across the map, its customs are as fascinating as they are numerous, and its sights, sounds and infinite oddities altogether amount to one of the world’s truly great travel experiences.

As China has opened up in recent years, so the emphasis on tourism has changed. Many well-known cities and sights have become so developed that their charm has vanished, while in remoter regions — particularly Tibet, Yunnan and the northwest — previously restricted or “undiscovered” places have become newly accessible. Whether you’re a shopaholic in Hong Kong, a culture vulture visiting Beijing, an adventurer trekking over the Silk Road, or a simple foodie enjoying a good meal, traveling through China is an endless adventure, so long as you keep an open mind.


China is vast — the world’s third-largest country with the world’s largest population. It’s so vast, we can’t hope to cover it all here. For information on the many and varied regions in China, click the following links to see Fodor’s recommendations.

See below for some common destinations.


Forbidden City

Ringed by a 52m-wide moat at the very heart of Běijīng, the Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved collectionm of ancient buildings, and the largest palace complex in the world. So called because it was off limits for 500 years, when it was steeped in stultifying ritual and Byzantine regal protocol, the otherworldly palace was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule until the Republic overthrew the last Qing emperor. Today, the Forbidden City is prosaically known as the Palace Museum, although most Chinese people simply call it gùgōng.

Allow yourself the best part of a day for exploration or several trips if you’re an enthusiast. Guides — many with mechanical English — mill about the entrance, but the automatically activated audio tours are cheaper and more reliable.

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Great Wall

No matter what you think it’ll be like the Great Wall will still blow you away. China’s greatest engineering triumph and must-see sight, the Great Wall wriggles haphazardly from its scattered Manchurian remains in Liaoning Province to wind-scoured rubble in the Gobi Desert and faint traces in the unforgiving sands of Xinjiang. The most renowned and robust examples undulate majestically over the peaks and hills of Beijing municipality, but the Great Wall can be realistically visited in many of China’s northern provinces:

Most visitors encounter the Great Wall at Bādálǐng, its most-photographed manifestation, 70km northwest of Běijīng. The scenery is raw and yields choice views of the wall snaking archetypally into the distance over undulating hills. More at

A wilder wall experience close to Běijīng can be unearthed at Huánghuā, where the Great Wall clings in two sections to hillsides adjacent to a reservoir. Around 60km north of Běijīng, Huánghuā is a classic and well-preserved example of Ming defence, with high and wide ramparts, intact parapets and sturdy beacon towers. More at

Renowned for its Ming dynasty guard towers and stirring views, the 2250m-long granite section of wall at Mùtiányù, 90km northeast of Běijīng in Huáiróu County, was developed as an alternative to Bādálǐng and is, in the balance, a less commercial experience despite motivated hawking and tourist clutter. More at

A steep, restored stretch of the wall known as The Tiger Mountain Great Wall, about 12km northeast of Dāndōng, was built during the Ming dynasty and runs parallel to the North Korean border. Unlike other sections of the wall, this one sees comparatively few tourists. More at


Shanghai is the future all other Chinese cities aspire to reach. Forget creaking temples and dusty old palaces (there are plenty of them elsewhere); Shanghai is where people come to see modern China at its glimmering best.

This fast-paced city of towering skyscrapers is, in fact, not without its own significant history. Its glory days of the 1930s helped build Shanghai's reputation as a City of Sin. But to pause for too long at the city's past would be missing the point: Shanghai is all about the future face of the world's future super power, and coming here is to witness what makes the business end of China tick.

Perhaps best visited at the end of your trip to China, Shanghai offers history-tired tourists the chance to dine at glitzy restaurants, wine at funky cocktail bars and shop inside dazzling malls before resting up in the country's most impressive hotels.

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The brash modernity of Beijing comes as a surprise to many visitors. Crisscrossed by freeways, spiked with high-rises, this vivid metropolis is China at its most dynamic. First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of apartment buildings, in which most of the city’s population of 22 million are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that slice it up. Outside the centre, the scale becomes more manageable, with parks, narrow alleyways and ancient sites.

Yonghe Gong is a colorful Tibetan Lama Temple that’s well worth a visit. Built toward the end of the 17th century as the residence of Prince Yin Zhen, the temple was retiled in imperial yellow and restricted thereafter to religious use in 1723 when the prince became the Emperor Yong Zheng and moved into the Forbidden City. It later became a lamasery, housing monks from Tibet and also from Inner Mongolia, and after the civil war in 1949, was declared a national monument. For thirty years it was closed and, remarkably, escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. More at

The Ancient Observatory is an unexpected survivor marooned amid the high-rises, a charming surprise, tucked in the southwest corner of the Jianguomen intersection, beside the Jianguomen subway stop. The first observatory on this site was founded under the orders of Kublai Khan, the astronomers’ commission being to reform the then faulty calendar. Later it was staffed by Muslim scientists. Today, the building is essentially a shell, and the best features of the complex are the garden, a placid retreat, and the eight Ming-dynasty astronomical instruments sitting on the roof, stunningly sculptural armillary spheres, theodolites and the like. The small attached museum, displaying early astronomy-influenced pottery and navigational equipment, is an added bonus. More at

Temple of Heaven, or Tiantan, is widely regarded as the high point of Ming design. Set in its own large and tranquil park about 2km south of Tian’anmen along Qianmen Dajie, for five centuries it was at the very heart of imperial ceremony and symbolism, and for many modern visitors its architectural unity and beauty remain more appealing — and on a much more accessible scale — than the Forbidden City. The principal temple building — the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, at the north end of the park — is, quite simply, a wonder. More at

The Summer Palace, or Yiheyuan, is certainly worth the effort to seek out. This is one of the loveliest spots in Beijing, a vast public park where the latter-day imperial court would decamp during the hottest months of the year. The site is perfect, surrounded by hills, cooled by the lake (which takes up two-thirds of the park’s area) and sheltered by garden landscaping. The impressive temples and pleasure houses are spread out along the lakeside and connected by a suitably majestic gallery. More at

The Western Hills are somewhere to escape urban life for a while, though they’re more of a rugged experience. Thanks to their coolness at the height of summer, the hills have long been favoured as a restful retreat by religious men and intellectuals, as well as politicians in the modern times — Mao lived here briefly, and the Politburo assembles here in times of crisis. The hills are divided into three parks, the nearest to the centre being the Botanical Gardens, 3.5km northwest of the Summer Palace. Two kilometres farther west, Xiangshan is the largest and most impressive of the parks, but just as pretty is Badachu, its eight temples strung out along a hillside 2.5km to the south of Xiangshan. The hills take roughly an hour to reach on public transport. You can explore two of the parks in a single day, but each deserves a day to itself. More at

Not to be Missed

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