The first timer's guide to China: where to go and what to do

China is a massive country filled with ancient traditions, diverse cultures, extraordinary landscapes and enormous cities. It can be overwhelming when planning your trip to China, so we’re here to help with our China travel guide. From the best things to do, to cultural norms and what to wear, here are all the things you need to know before travelling to China.

Best places to visit in China

Beijing

As the capital city of China, bustling Beijing is packed with treasures. You can go from the historic Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public space, to the ancient hutongs, the beautiful alleyways around the traditional courtyard residences. Your China travel guide will show you around it all, and even take you on a scenic rickshaw ride!

Forbidden City

We’ll take you back in time to the Ming dynasty era when we explore the UNESCO-listed Forbidden City in Beijing. You’ll walk in the path of emperors and learn how the aptly named city was a private complex for the elite imperial families for over 500 years. Your China travel guide will reveal all the ancient traditions and history of this palace complex-turned-museum and share China’s spiritual culture at the Buddhist and Taoist shrines

EXPERIENCE IT FOR YOURSELF: Classic China

Temple of Heaven

This stunning UNESCO-listed temple is another highlight of Beijing and we’ll take you exploring through this incredible religious complex. It’s one of the most important imperial temples in China, and one of the most remarkable examples of traditional Chinese architecture. It was designed to represent the belief that the earth is square and heaven is round.

You’ll walk in the footsteps of royalty here too. The emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties once came to the Temple of Heaven for annual ceremonies to pray for good harvests and guidance.

Great Wall of China

Hailed as one of the world’s top bucket list experiences, you can’t miss seeing the UNESCO-listed Great Wall of China. This 21,000-kilometre engineering marvel is one of the greatest feats of the Ming Dynasty. With nearly 3,000 years of history held in these stones, it’s a truly special experience.

You’ll get to walk a part of the Great Wall, taking in the lush green valleys and the incredible wall snaking for miles into the distance. As you learn the history of the wall from your local China travel guide, you’ll come to appreciate the enormous man-power it would have taken to build these fortifications so many years ago. You’ll also get to walk the Sacred Way. Here the stone statues guard the Ming Tombs and the remains of the 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty.

Xi’an

As the starting point of the ancient Silk Road trading route and the former capital of 13 dynasties, Xi’an packs a serious historic punch. We’ll show you around all it’s iconic relics, including the Great Mosque, one of the largest, oldest and best-preserved mosques in the country.

You can’t miss the UNESCO-listed Terracotta Army, with thousands of hand-moulded, life-sized warrior figures. We’ll take you to see this ancient wonder in Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s underground tomb. 

You’ll also visit a jade factory and learn how the revered stone is considered more precious than gold in China. Cycle around the ancient City Wall of Xi’an or learn the elegant art of T’ai Chi with a Local Specialist… Whatever you do, Xi’an will be unforgettable.

Chengdu

If you love all things cute and cuddly, you’re in for a treat in Chengdu. It’s the hometown of the giant panda, and you’ll get to visit the incredible Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

Your China travel guide will show you around this non-profit facility and share how they rescue these endangered pandas. Snap some adorable photos of these gorgeous bears, and leave knowing your visit made a difference to this groundbreaking centre.

But Chengdu isn’t just about pandas. We’ll also take you to the People’s Park to see the stunning Chinese gardens and teahouses, and enjoy a spot of people-watching as the locals enjoy games of mah-jong and relaxing neck massages. We’ll then switch up the pace with a visit to the vibrant Jinli Old Street. Here you’ll find all kinds of exquisite handicrafts including paintings and calligraphy. 

You’ll even have the chance to visit the Jinsha Site Museum, where you’ll discover the ancient archaeological treasures found on the Jinsha site. These precious relics date back up to 3,000 years and display the amazing skills of the Ancient Shu people. You’ll see everything from jade and gold objects, to bronze and stone tools and ivory carvings.

Shanghai

Shanghai is a breathtaking experience for any visitor and your China travel guide will show you the best of this dazzling city. Famed as the Paris of the East, we’ll take you down the famous trading hub, the ‘Bund’. Here, you’ll admire the elegant French colonial buildings that have sat along the waterfront since the early 1900s.

We’ll then explore the lively markets of old Shanghai and see how the locals preserve their traditional lifestyle. For something more modern, we’ll head to the top of the 88-storey Jinmao Tower. You’ll be amazed by the spectacular views over the Shanghai skyline, the most populated city in the world.

Head back down to earth and admire the antique façades and trendy boutiques and bars of the Xintiandi district. Or, enjoy a mesmerising performance by the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe.

Zhujiajiao Water Town

Famed as the Venice of China, this ancient water town has been around for over 1,700 years. Originating as a busy market town, today it’s one of the best-preserved ancient towns in the country. We’ll take you here to marvel at the historical buildings like spice stores, rice shops, banks and a Qing Dynasty post office. 

See the charming terrace homes dotted with red lanterns and stroll over the stone bridges that cross the canals. You can even take a paddleboat ride to see the sights from the water or indulge in the town’s famous cuisine like lotus roots, braised pork leg and homemade sweets. After lunch, you might like to relax under the old willow trees and soak up the tranquillity of the town that floats.

Top things to do in China

Cruise the beautiful Yangtze River

A Yangtze river cruise is one of the most memorable experiences you can have in China. We’ll take you to some of the most extraordinary stops on the Yangtze, including the 12-storey cliff-top temple of Shibaozhai, and the mystical shrines and monasteries of Fengdu’s ‘Ghost City’.

You’ll also sail through the Three Gorges Dam, starting with the spectacular Qutang Gorge. Then it’s Wu Gorge, with its green forests and sheer cliffs, and lastly, beautiful Xiling Gorge. Hop on board a small motorboat and cruise to the enchanting Goddess Stream, a tributary of the Yangtze. Here you’ll discover lush limestone cliffs rising out of the glowing emerald water – a truly magical experience.

EXPERIENCE IT FOR YOURSELF: Best of China with Yangtze Cruise

Enjoy the Tang Dynasty Show

The Tang Dynasty show is the ultimate entertainment experience in China. It starts with a mouthwatering Tang dumpling banquet, followed by a performance of music and dance that originated centuries ago. You’ll be swept away in time with traditional music, vibrant choreography and dazzling costumes telling the incredible story of the Tang Dynasty.

Learn the art of making dumplings

You can’t miss tasting the scrumptious dumplings of China and we’ll show you how to make your own at a local restaurant. After watching a dumpling-making demonstration, including fried, steamed and boiled dumplings, you’ll get to enjoy them for lunch. Yum!

RELATED CONTENT: 6 local and immersive food experiences you can do with Trafalgar in China

Enjoy a foot massage at the Foot Reflexology Centre

Feeling a little weary after all your travel adventures? There’s no better remedy than a Chinese massage. We’ll show you where to go for a soothing foot reflexology session, where you can kick back, relax and feel your qi energy come alive.

Spend an evening at the Sichuan Opera

You’re in for a spectacular evening at the Shufeng Yayun Sichuan Opera House in Chengdu. The dazzling Sichuan opera performance features many different shows including a puppet show, fire spitting, a comedy act and the famous face changing show. With live music and traditional Chinese instruments bringing the courtyard setting to life, this will be an evening to remember.

Learn about China’s tea-making rituals

Tea making is one of the most important traditions in China. We’ll take you to a teahouse where your China travel guide will share the history of tea-making. You’ll also get to learn how to prepare and serve authentic Chinese tea, and sample some of the warming brews yourself.

Watch the Legend of Kung Fu Show

We’ll take you to the Red Theatre in Beijing to see the Legend of Kung Fu, a show of traditional martial arts, dazzling dance and acrobatics. Performed by incredible Kung Fu artists with an average age of just 17, you’ll learn the story of a young boy who dreams of becoming a true master of Kung Fu. You’ll be amazed by the graceful moves, fearless acrobatics, and the beautiful story of a child overcoming his fears.

Learn how to cook Sichuan cuisine in Chengdu

Sichuan cuisine is famed for its rich spices and you’ll learn how to wield these bold flavours when we take you to a cooking class at the Museum of Sichuan Cuisine. Your local chef will show you the ancient kitchenware and cookbooks, then teach you how to crush chilli into powder using a historic Qing Dynasty pestle and mortar.

You’ll dive into your culinary creations with a local chef on hand every step of the way. And of course, you’ll get to enjoy your delicious meal for lunch, and leave feeling totally satisfied in both stomach and soul.

Things to know before travelling to China

China is a land of ancient traditions and customs, and it’s important to travel this incredible country with an open mind. Here are some of our top China travel tips to help you prepare for your adventure.

traditional dancers in bright costumes China travel guide

Apply for your Chinese visa early

Unless you’re from Japan, Singapore or Brunei, you’ll need a visa to stay in China for over 72 hours. The process for getting a tourist visa differs between countries, but you’ll likely need to visit your local Chinese consulate. Prepare for the visa process to take around a month or more. 

Once you’re in China, make sure you keep a photocopy of your passport and visa everywhere you go. You’ll need it when checking in to hotels, and it’s best to have identification on you at all times.

Get camera ready

The Chinese love to take photos! China welcomes millions of international travellers every year but many people are still fascinated by new faces, so don’t be surprised if a local asks to take a photo with you. If you’re the one taking the photos, always ask permission before snapping a photo of someone. You should also never take photos of government buildings or officials.

Personal space

With a population of around 1.4 billion, China is a very crowded place. Most locals are used to having less personal space and it’s common to experience jostling or queue jumping. The best thing to do is be patient and remember it’s the cultural differences that make each country unique.

Spitting in China

In China, it isn’t considered rude to burp or spit in public. In fact, burping after eating is a sign you enjoyed the meal, and the locals prefer to spit to clear their noses instead of using tissues. You might be a bit shocked at first, but remember that the Chinese are just as confronted when visitors blow their nose in a handkerchief and put it back in their pocket!

You don’t need to tip in China

Tipping culture doesn’t exist in China, and you should never leave cash tips on the table. 

Haggle at the markets – but not in stores

If you’re shopping at the local Chinese markets, you’ll need to learn the art of haggling. Save the bargaining if you’re in a shop with price tags however, as it’s considered rude.

Chinese market vendor China travel guide

Don’t drink the tap water

Most locals don’t drink the tap water in China and you shouldn’t either as it can make you sick. Always drink bottled water or, ideally, bring your own reusable bottle and fill it up at water filter stations. You can often find these at your hotels.

Bring toilet paper and hand sanitiser

Squat toilets are the norm in China and most bathrooms do not provide toilet paper, except for hotels and nicer restaurants. It’s a good idea to carry a roll of toilet paper or some tissues, and a bottle of hand sanitiser.

What to wear in China

When travelling in China, you can generally wear whatever you normally wear back home – with a few exceptions.

Religious sites

When visiting temples and holy sites, you should wear modest clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. You may also need to remove your shoes before entering a temple or sacred site. If you’re not sure, watch what the locals do or ask your China travel guide.

Dress for the weather

China has four distinct seasons that vary across the regions, from sweltering heat to icy snow. Check the weather forecast before your trip, and pack clothes to keep you comfortable.

Conservative clothing

While the locals in the major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an are very fashionable and less conservative, they still generally show less skin, so it’s best to leave the short shorts at home. If you’re travelling to rural areas, it’s more important to wear modest clothing with not much skin showing.

local fishermen with baskets China travel guide

Walking shoes

From wandering the Great Wall to exploring the big cities, you’re sure to do a lot of walking in China. It’s best to bring a comfortable pair of shoes that have already been broken in. The last thing you want is blisters!

Face masks

Many of the largest cities in China, like Beijing and Shanghai, have problems with smog and air pollution. Do as the locals do and wear a face mask on days with bad air pollution. 

Are you dreaming of a trip to China? Do you have any China travel tips to share? Let us know in the comments below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

  • Sign up to our newsletter

  • Monthly travel tips, stories and inspiration, delivered straight to your inbox.