These seven cities serve up the most intoxicating sample of what China has to offer.
Home to nearly one in five humans – and one of Earth’s oldest civilizations – China can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never been. It’s not just the unique traditions and norms of the so-called ‘Middle Kingdom’, either – the physical demands of traveling China, from the crowding, to the frequently polluted air, to perpetual sensory overload can be, well, demanding. Indeed, it is only by leaning into the cultural quandaries of China that you rise above the rest of the noise (literally, in some cases) and see the world’s most populous nation as its most wondrous one, as well.
Whether you visit during the frigid Manchurian winter or when the summer heat causes steam to rise between the limestone karsts of Yangshuo, a trip to China is a delightful celebration of culture. If you arrive with an open mind (and, to be sure, an empty stomach), you’ll depart with a well of awe and appreciation as deep as the Great Wall is long. The only question now is which of these cities to visit, and how long to stay!
No matter how many of the world’s great cities you’ve visited, there’s no feeling quite as majestic as walking into Tian’anmen Square for the first time. Flanked by monuments both to Mao-era communism and to Imperial China (the Chairman’s image hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City), it’s the single point where all the many threads of China’s past converge. Culture is plentiful throughout the city, whether you take a stroll through the hutong water houses that line the shores of scenic Houhai Lake, visit the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple or catch an authentic Beijing Opera performance at iconic Liyuan Theater. Beijing is also the place where most trips to the Great Wall set off.
If Beijing is where China’s past and present converge, then Shanghai is where its future is born. As you traipse through the skyscrapers of Lujiazui, you might feel like you’ve stepped onto the set of the next movie in the Blade Runner franchise. Shanghai has long been China’s Gateway to the West, however, as you’ll see cruising down the tree-lined boulevards of the former ‘French Concession’, which European merchants called home during the early 20th Century. There’s other history on offer in Shanghai as well, but the most authentic depiction of Shanghainese culture arguably occurs on the Bund, a bustling riverfront boulevard where the city’s internationally-minded upper class goes for cocktails and conversation.
Chengdu is most famous, globally, for being the home of the endangered pandas, but is known throughout China for its delicious food. Named for the province in which Chengdu sits, Sichuanese cuisine revolves around the mouth-numbing heat of the Sichuan peppercorn, which you’ll find in street food like sweet-and-spicy Dan Dan Mian noodles, to the more upscale fare served (in a 33-course set menu, no less) at the famous Yu’s Family Kitchen. Other cultural adventures to be had in Chengdu, the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding notwithstanding, include historical Jin Le Street and Mt. Emei, which sits around three hours away by train, and whose Baoguo Monastery allows a limited number of tourists to stay overnight.
Most travelers head to Xi’an, China’s erstwhile western capital, to see the famous Terracotta Warriors, and rightfully so. However, they’re only the beginning of all the culture there is to take in here. Start your day atop the 14th-Century fortifications that circle the city, biking or walking any portion of its 14-kilometer perimeter. Spend the afternoon exploring the spacious grounds of the 7th-Century Wild Goose Pagoda, watch the sunset behind the Ming-era Bell Tower as it lights up, then end the day in the bustling Muslim Quarter, where fresh grilled lamb skewers and rou jia mou (the infamous ‘Chinese hamburger’) await to tantalize your taste buds. Xi’an is so rich in experiences you may wonder why it’s not still China’s capital!
Among Chinese banknotes, the honey-colored 20 yuan bill is perhaps the most beautiful, depicting a traditional bamboo raft weaving along a serpentine river through towering mountains. This is not some artist’s romantic creation, but the real-life art scape of Yangshuo, whose limestone karsts and majestic Li River are the crown jewel of central China’s tourism hub Guilin. Back on dry land, hike up to the hilltop Longevity Buddha Pagoda or take a morning visit to the scenic Longsheng Rice Terraces, where millennia-old farming techniques still yield crops. Then, stop at the Li River Folk Custom Center to get a more detailed look at the cultural traditions of the ethnic minority groups that call Guilin home.
Few foreigners have heard of Xiamen, the pearl of China’s coastal Fujian province, which is part of what makes a trip here so enlightening. Once you arrive, get a ferry over to Gulangyu, a pedestrian-only island where history is literally built into the cityscape. Indeed, many of the structures you find here date back to the mid-19th century, when the end of the First Opium War heralded the first large-scale incursions of foreigners into China in modern times. Head back to the mainland and the cool cafés of the increasingly trendy Shapowei dockyards, then visit Xiamen Shinegood Culture Gallery, whose collection of ancient jade artifacts is truly impressive.
Would you brave temperatures as low as -50ºC to walk amid literal ice castles? Even if you think the answer might be "no", you should still entertain a trip to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture. Every year between late December and mid-February, massive structures of snow and ice (which is cut from Harbin’s Songhua River in huge blocks) rise as high as 100 meters into the air, depicting everything from traditional Chinese architecture, to Russian Orthodox churches, to Chinese cartoon characters. Makeshift tea houses and restaurants are set up all around the festival grounds, which means a reprieve is never far away if the cold becomes too much to bear.