Fast becoming one of the most popular destinations to visit on the planet, the ancient and varied provinces of China are home to some amazing tourist attractions. Whether you plan to spend time in one of the country’s sprawling cities or venture into its serene rural hinterlands, you will never be short of incredible sights to see in China.
With so much on offer, selecting a definitive top ten list of major tourist attractions of China is tough. But we’ve deliberated and contemplated and come up with our selection of the must-see tourist attractions in China. Some of these are obvious, while others are slightly alternative and yet still highlight the grandeur of one of the world’s most interesting civilisations. If you want more, check out our full list of historic sites in China.
What are the best tourism sites in China?
You cannot see the Great Wall of China from space – despite whatever rumours you have heard – but “walking the Great Wall” is still one of the most impressive things to do in this fascinating country. Construction of the wall, which was originally meant to protect China’s borders, happened as early as 476 BC and at its peak it stretched for approximately 5,500 miles from Shanhaiguan in east China to Lop Nur in the west. Various parts exist still today and the Great Wall is one of the most popular visitor attractions in China. Some of the best preserved and most visited parts of the wall are those just outside of Beijing, such as Badaling and Mutianyu. For a truly memorable experience, we recommend doing a hike to the older and more secluded sections. Most hotels in Beijing will be able to point you in the direction of a good guide.
Once home only to concubines, eunuchs and royals, the Forbidden City is one of China’s top tourist attractions. It’s a maze of impressive buildings from the Imperial age and visitors can easily spend half a day at the Forbidden City, which is located on the Western side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Each new courtyard wows more than the last and the stories from inside the City are at once fearsome and fascinating. Dating back to the 15th century, it housed 24 emperors in total, with the final one, Emperor Puyi, being evicted in 1924. Now a portrait of Chairman Mao hangs above the site’s entrance, an indication of how times have changed. Number two on our list of top ten tourist attractions in China for a reason.
One of the most famous visitor attractions in China, the 1974 discovery of buried vaults filled with thousands of terracotta warriors stunned the world. Who were they and why were they there? Turns out they were part of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor and date back to the third century BC. That morsel of information has done little to detract from what is still one of the world’s most arresting and intriguing finds. Around 7,000 life sized sculptures of soldiers, infantry, carts and horses have been excavated to date and thousands more are thought to be awaiting discovery. The Army is located just outside of the city of Xi’an, which is worth a visit in its own right, due its ancient walls and interesting ethnic mix. Visitors will be fascinated by the Great Mosque of Xi’an – which fuses traditional Chinese and Islamic architecture – and will enjoy the fusion of kebabs with dumplings. Plan to spend a couple of days to explore both of these fascinating places.
The magnificent temple of Puning is an eighteenth century temple built by the revered emperor Qianlong. Puning Si blends Tibetan and Chinese styles and was meant to symbolise harmony between the ruling dynasty and the ethnic minorities in the area. Predominantly red – China’s favourite hue – the exterior is vast and impressive. However, inside is the real gem – a 73-feet tall statue of Guayin. Puning Si is part of a larger complex of temples and palaces in and near Chengde, which originally formed part of the Imperial Summer Retreat from 1703, due to its proximity to Beijing. The surrounding countryside is very beautiful and it’s worth exploring as much of the area as possible.
The weathered caves at Longmen constitute one of China’s few surviving masterpieces of Buddhist rock carving. This epic achievement was first undertaken by sculptors back in the fifth century. Over the course of 200 years, more than 2,000 caves were carved in the shape of 100,000-plus stone Buddhist statues. It’s a truly remarkable feat, and the caves’ location, on the bank of the Yi River in the Chinese countryside, adds to the spectacle. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a twist and you’ll understand why it’s an absolute shoe-in for our list of Chinese visitor attractions.
Those pedestalled emperors really liked their tombs. No more so than the Ming emperors, who were known for their luxurious lifestyles (and death-styles). There are 13 imperial tombs of the Ming Dynasty in total, scattered over an area of 40 square kilometers just outside Beijing. The top prize goes to Emperor Yongle’s magnificent resting place, though be sure to visit Ding Ling’s tomb too, since you can venture inside that one. The Ming Tombs are near the Badaling section of the Great Wall and many tours will offer day trips to both, so you can see two great Chinese sights for the price of one – steal! Just try to avoid being taken to one of the country’s infamous “jade” or “porcelain” factories.
If you can bear to tear yourself away from the shops and restaurants of Shanghai, mainland China’s most fashion-forward city, a trip to the Shanghai Museum is a must. Located in the middle of People’s Square in the city centre, the museum chronicles China’s illustrious and extensive past. Housed within a very modern building – a tick to China’s increasingly daring new architectural styles – and spanning across several floors, the museum allows you to see how Chinese culture developed from prehistoric times through to the last Chinese empire. Compliment your trip to the Shanghai Museum by visiting the historic Bund and Old Town and you’re sure to get a sense of where China has come from and where it might be heading.
He sits at the base of a mountain, along a river and he is huge. For these reasons the Giant Buddha of Leshan is one of China’s most underrated tourist destinations. The Buddha measures an incredible height of 230 feet, but numbers really don’t do this man justice. He’s simply astonishing to behold, not least when put into perspective – he was created back in 713 AD. Since then, many Buddhist temples and structures have been built around the Giant Buddha of Leshan, turning this insanely scenic spot into a very holy one too.
Modern China has been shaped by a very turbulent and tragic recent past and to understand the country you really need to understand some of these darker chapters. The Nanjing Memorial is your best pitstop. The memorial commemorates the Nanjing massacre of 1937, sometimes referred to as the Rape of Nanjing. Around 300,000 civilians were killed by soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army and thousands more were subjected to other atrocities. Still a cause of tension between the Chinese and Japanese, the Nanjing Memorial is one of the most harrowing places to explore and contemplate in China. Visitors can read about the events of the massacre in its memorial hall and see remains from excavated mass burial sites.
If you want an insight into what traditional Chinese society looked like, Pingyao is your best bet. With its red lanterns and curved roof houses, it’s China as you’ve seen it in Disney’s Mulan. And it’s not just the sense that time has stood still that makes Pingyao special; it’s the Ming City Walls. These are some of the sole surviving fortifications of their kind. Built in around 1370 by the Ming Hongwu Emperor, they span six kilometres in length and were a main reason why Pingyao was made a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like the town they surround, they’re extremely well-preserved and together comprise one of China’s best tourist attractions.