Things to Do in China
Anyone who’s experienced either of the Disney Magic Kingdom resorts in the United States will feel a sense of déjà vu when walking in to Hong Kong Disneyland. The Disney franchise has stayed true to form with a topnotch amusement park experience combining a few classic attractions, like Space Mountain and the Jungle Cruise with some new offerings, like the Toy Soldier Parachute Drop in the newly opened Toy Story Land. The park is split into six themed areas: Main Street USA, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Toy Story Land, Grizzly Gulch and Adventureland.
Weekdays have the lightest crowds, but no matter when you visit, remember to pick up a Fast Pass for the big attractions.
Have you ever wondered what's so forbidden about the Forbidden City? It's called that because it was closed to the outside world for 500 years. This was the seat of the Ming and the Qing emperors, and no one could enter - or leave - the imperial domain without their permission. These days, the Chinese mainly call it Gu Gong, or Former Palace.
The Forbidden City, or Beijing Imperial Palace, is BIG - you'll need to allow at least one day for your visit. UNESCO have listed it as the largest collection of ancient wooden structures in the world. There are nearly 1,000 rooms in over 800 buildings. However, because it's been ransacked by invaders and gutted by fire several times (wooden buildings, lanterns, you do the math) most of the structures date from the 18th century on. As you move around the gardens and palatial buildings, which have now been converted to museums, you'll start to get a feel for what it was like to live the imperial life.
Shanghai’s Old French Concession, an area once leased to the French in the Luwan and Xuhui districts of the city, is a reminder of an older Shanghai. The visitor-friendly area is packed full of beautiful colonial mansions and hotels dating back to the first three decades of the twentieth century. The French took control of the area in 1849, but it wasn’t until the 1920s when the neighborhood reached its peak of popularity as one of Shanghai’s most elite neighborhoods.
When you walk through the heart of the area on the tree-lined streets between Julu Road and Huaihai Road, you’ll find a collection of nicer restaurants and boutique shops occupying the surviving historic structures alongside Shanghai locals going about their day to day life. The French Concession is a good place to grab some food as there are so many choices; you’ll find almost everything here from Indian to French, Spanish and Thai food.
If the Li and Little Li Rivers are the lifeblood of Yangshuo, West Street (Xi Jie) is the heart. This marble-paved street, the oldest street in Yangshuo County, is lined with boutique shops, Western cafes, Chinese restaurants and youth hostels. The traditional architecture and close quarters lend a sense of antiquity to the area in spite of the neon lights that illuminate the street at night.
By day, West Street has a sleepy vibe as travelers lounge outside cafes and hostels sipping on tea and munching on banana crepes, a local breakfast specialty. By night, the area transforms into a vivacious hot spot replete with busy night clubs, relaxed beer gardens and a seemingly endless array of restaurants serving the local favorite: beer fish, and shops touting all sorts of tourist souvenirs.
Visitors planning to do some shopping along West Street should plan to visit in the evenings when most of the smaller vendors have their stalls set up.
Just up the Li River from Yangshuo sits the tiny ancient fishing village of Xingping. While Yangshuo has a lively international community of Chinese, expatriates and travelers passing through, Xingping offers a quieter, more authentic and rural Chinese experience. Nestled amidst the towering limestone karsts, the village has been inhabited since 265 AD and retains several well preserved Ming Dynasty buildings.
Apart from wandering the narrow alleys of the village, visitors can make the ten minute walk to 20 Yuan Point, a spot along the river with the view of the karsts that is depicted on the Chinese 20 yuan note; or make the challenging climb to the Bird’s View Pavilion atop a karst just outside the village.
Xingping Village is often a stopping point on boat excursions down the Li River from Yangshuo, but you can also get there by buses departing from Yangshuo throughout the day.
Impression Sanjie Liu is a unique outdoor night show directed by the renowned director, Zhang Yimou and staged at the Li River in Yangshuo. This is the world’s largest natural theater, using the setting of the Li River as its stage and the mist-shrouded karst hills as its backdrop – along with whatever weather the evening may bring. For this open-aired spectacle, which is performed twice every evening in the summer, the audience watch from designated terraces while hundreds of performers appear to float on the water before them. Most of these performers are fishermen from the villages along the river, and the show itself depicts the story of the history and culture of the local Yangshuo people. Throughout the performance, impressive lighting, sound, and special smoke effects blend in harmoniously with the natural landscape of the river and its surroundings, creating a truly mesmerizing experience.
The Meridian Gate of the Palace Museum is perhaps the most recognizable landmark of the Forbidden City. Built in 1420 and renovated in 1801, the Meridian Gate is the largest and southernmost of the Palace Museum’s gates; currently, it’s the sole entrance into the Forbidden City. When the imperial family occupied the palace, the emperor would sit at the top of the Meridian Gate to proclaim sentences on prisoners of war brought before him.
The structure is made up of five towers, meant to resemble a phoenix in flight when viewed from above. The doorway through the central tower was for the Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors exclusively, though the empress was allowed to pass through this central gate on her wedding day. The door directly to the west was for the royal family, while the one to the east was for imperial officials. The final two doors were only used during ceremonies at the palace.
As you walk along the north-south axis of the Forbidden City, you’ll eventually walk through the Gate of Terrestrial Tranquility and into the Imperial Garden of the Palace Museum, the final section of the palace before the north gate exit. Built in 1417 during the Ming Dynasty, the 3-acre (12,000-square-meter) traditional Chinese garden served as a private green space for the imperial family living within the palace.
Unlike gardens in the West, Chinese gardens typically contain various structures, ponds and pavilions with pathways winding between, and the Imperial Garden is no exception. You’ll find around 20 structures within the garden, including the Hall of Imperial Peace in the center. Just in front of the hall, you’ll notice a pair of trees that appear as if embracing. These 400-year-old consort pines are thought to symbolize harmony between the emperor and empress. Pavilions at the four corners of the garden represent the four seasons.
During the time when the Forbidden City served as the residence for the imperial family, the palace was divided into an inner and outer court. The outer court was where the emperor came to conduct official business, and the inner court served as the living quarters and private gardens for the royal family. In the days of the Ming Dynasty, only royal family members, the emperor’s concubines and eunuchs were allowed within the walls of the inner court.
Visitors enter the inner court by passing through the Gate of Heavily Purity (Qianqing Men) flanked by two bronze lion statues. Inside, the court contains three halls similar to the three found in the outer court. The Palace of Heavenly Purity was where the emperors lived until the 1720s, while the Hall of Union houses the throne of the empress.
More Things to Do in China
The Summer Palace - also known as Yiheyuan - was built in 1750. In those days, it was called the Garden of Clear Ripples, and was a lakeside oasis where the royal court could escape the dust and heat of the Forbidden City in summer.
It was razed twice by foreign armies and completely rebuilt, most extensively by Empress Dowager Cixi in the 19th century. To fund her projects, she's said to have diverted a bunch of money destined for the Chinese navy. Ironically, one of her grand schemes was a marble boat that sits at the edge of the lake.
The grounds were declared a public park in 1924. These days, the 290 hectares (716 acres) of the 'Gardens of Nurtured Harmony' are madly popular with both tourists and locals.
The gardens are liberally scattered with temples, covered walkways, pavilions and bridges. Longevity Hill, one of the garden's main features, was constructed from the earth excavated when the lake was extended.
The 1974 discovery of thousands of life-sized Terracotta Warriors near Xian was one of the archaeological sensations of the 20th century. The figures date from 210 BC and were meant to guard the first emperor of China in the afterlife.
A huge statue of the emperor now guards the entrance to the Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, undeniable high point of any trip to Xian. To avoid disturbing these priceless treasures, they were left in situ with enormous structures now shielding them from the elements.
Three enormous pits are filled with row upon row of these remarkable effigies, with the first pit alone holding some 6,000 examples in excellent condition. There is a fourth exhibition space which holds other pieces found here, including bronze horses and chariots.
A Ming temple, Temple of Heaven or Tian tan was built by the Yongle Emperor, who also built the Forbidden City, as a stage for the important rituals performed by the emperor, or Son of Heaven. Chief among these were the supplication to the heavens for a good harvest and the Winter Solstice ceremony, which was supposed to ensure a favorable year for the entire kingdom.
In those days it was believed that heaven was round and earth was square, so the architecture of the buildings (round, set on square bases) and the layout of the park (squared off at the Temple of the Earth end, rounded at the Temple of Heaven end) reflect this belief. The buildings are rich in symbolic detail - variations on the number nine, which represented the emperor; coloured glazes which represent heaven and earth; and pillars which represent the months of the year, the seasons and time. There are also echo stones where you can stand to hear your voice reverberate.
The Ancient City Wall at in Xi'an is one of the best-preserved city walls in China. It was built in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty, under the regime of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, and expanded upon from walls remaining from the Tang Dynasty. Visitors can either cycle or walk along the Ancient City Wall, which is almost 14 kilometers long and takes around three hours at a leisurely pace. The site features a moat, a drawbridge, the main towers, watchtowers, and gates, all of which combine to depict an impressive ancient defense system.
The South Gate is situated near the Bell Tower and is widely considered to be the most significant, with greeting ceremonies by the government held in the South Gate Square, which has recently been restored. Like the other gates, the South Gate features three towers – the gate tower, which holds the drawbridge, the narrow tower and the main tower.
The Bund (or Waitan) is the grand center of Colonial architecture in Shanghai. The former International Settlement runs along the waterfront of the Huangpu River, facing the Pudong district ('Bund' is a word of Indian derivation meaning 'embankment'). Loosely known as the "museum of international architecture," the Bund attracts visitors who are interested in the artsy side of Shanghai.
When foreign powers entered Shanghai after the Opium Wars of the 19th century, the Bund existed as a towpath. It quickly became the center of Shanghai as Western traders built banks, trading houses and consulates along its length, and has been synonymous with Shanghai's east-meets-west glamor ever since. Today the Bund faces the new wave of trading development - the vast towers of Jin Mao, the World Finance Center and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in the financial district of Pudong.
While the Big Wild Goose Pagoda - or Dayanta - follows the familiar pagoda format of successive levels diminishing in size the higher they get, this solid stone tower is largely free of the frills associated with such buildings. One of Xian’s oldest structures, it was built in 652 and originally had 10 levels, though the top 3 were later lost in an earthquake.
The pagoda played an important role in the spread of Buddhism in China. Relics, figurines and writings associated with the Buddha were brought here from India along the Silk Road which ends in Xian. You can still see statues of the Buddha and other religious figures inside.
There are few images more iconic to southwestern China than that of the giant panda. Unfortunately, despite its status as a Chinese national treasure, the giant panda population has been whittled down to just 1,000 pandas due to mass human development over the last century.
As a response to this ecological crisis the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was opened in 1987 and began caring for six pandas rescued from the wild. During the 25 years since its founding the Chengdu Panda Base has employed some of the world’s leading giant panda researchers to manage an open air sanctuary where giant pandas can be bred and raised in an effort to eventually be reintroduced into wild populations.
Located only seven miles from downtown Chengdu, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is inarguably one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of southern China.
Beijing has modernized so rapidly that it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in decades past. One neighborhood in Beijing has managed to hold on to its old-style hutong architecture, the Back Lakes (Hou Hai). Named after the three lakes in the area, the Back Lakes neighborhood is one of the last remaining places in Beijing where you can see traditional courtyard-style houses.
While wandering the hutongs lets you see Beijing as it once was, the streets surrounding the lakes, particularly Hou Hai -- the largest of the three -- shows you a modern, hip and international side of Beijing. The banks are lined with cafes, restaurants, bars and hookah dens catering to tourists, locals and the city’s sizable expatriate population alike. The best way to enjoy the Back Lakes area is to take a pedicab tour of the old hutong neighborhoods in the afternoon.
Yufo Si is a working Buddhist community - one of the few in China - but the star attractions of the Jade Buddha Temple are two figures brought to Shanghai by a Burmese monk in the 19th century.
The most impressive is the sitting Buddha, a 1.9 m (6.5 ft) giant encrusted with semi-precious stones. This Buddha is sitting in the pose which captures the moment of his enlightenment by meditation. The other Buddha is smaller and in the attitude of 'happy repose', as he goes peacefully to death. Both Buddhas are carved from white jade. Facing the reclining Buddha is a large copy in stone, brought to the monastery from Singapore. These are the main points of a visit to the temple, but take a look at the halls while you're there, particularly the Grand Hall with its golden 'Gods of the Twenty Heavens'. There's also a restaurant that serves the public, with a simple downstairs and a swankier upstairs.
Xin Tian Di (Xintiandi) is a sleekly restored area of Shanghai, where the more successful of the city's young come to play. It's also a popular strolling area for tourists, who like to check out the 19th century architecture.
The district abounds in shikumen, stone houses that were a popular residential form in the late 19th century and early 20th century city. When the districts that contained these houses were being razed, developers stepped in to save and restore this area. Today the shikumen house galleries, bookshops, antique stores, upmarket boutiques, bars and restaurants. It's particularly ironic that this Westernized playground should be cheek-by-jowl with the Site of the First Conference of the Communist Party of China.
The Ming Dynasty Tombs, or Ming Shisan Ling, are located outside of central Beijing and are home to the tombs and mausoleums of the Yongle Emperor. Currently, these tombs are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are listed as part of the World Heritage object, Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The Emperor, who built the Forbidden City, also chose the site for these Ming Tombs mausoleums according to the art of Feng Shui. Back in the Ming era, this secluded valley north of Beijing was closed to visitors and heavily guarded. The ground was considered so sacred that not even an emperor could ride a horse there. Three tombs are open to the public; only one, the Dingling, has been excavated (sadly, with artifacts being badly damaged). The other two tombs are more atmospheric. The highlight of the experience is probably the Spirit Way, the long approach to the mausoleums.
Things to do near China
- Things to do in Beijing
- Things to do in Shanghai
- Things to do in Xian
- Things to do in Guilin
- Things to do in Chengdu
- Things to do in Tianjin
- Things to do in Suzhou
- Things to do in Luoyang
- Things to do in Zhengzhou
- Things to do in Nanjing
- Things to do in Taiwan
- Things to do in Vietnam
- Things to do in Eastern China
- Things to do in Northwest China
- Things to do in Southwest China