Striking the perfect balance between tradition and modernity, China is where antiquity and heritage meet 21st-century innovation and lighting-fast development.

This is a country packed with highlights. Discover what makes China tick by immersing yourself in one of its gigantic, sprawling urban municipalities. They may be vast and frenetic, but they hide pockets of pure serenity. Or take a break from the crush by soaking up China’s natural scenery – the jagged peaks and pine forests draped in a sea of mist look like they've been lifted straight from one of the country’s masterpiece scroll paintings. As one of the world’s most ancient civilizations, China also offers wonderful opportunities to explore astounding relics from its rich past. 

The only problem is trying to narrow down the must-sees into one spectacular trip. But help is at hand. Whether you dream of gilded temples, boisterous urban environments, fabulous food or the wonders of the Great Wall, here is our pick of the best places to visit in China.

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1. Beijing

Best can't-miss destination in China

One of the world’s greatest cities, Beijing is home to many of China’s big-ticket attractions: the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace and more. But its appeal goes well beyond blockbuster sights. Get lost among its labyrinth of traditional hutongs (alleyways), marvel at its cutting-edge modern architecture, feast on Peking Duck and a million other dishes from across the country, check out the local indie music scene, admire Ming-dynasty ceramics, drop by a traditional teahouse or enjoy a boisterous evening sampling the local baijiu (sorghum wine). This is one place in China you don’t want to miss.

2. Tiger Leaping Gorge

Best landscape to trek through

One of China’s most famous treks, this 22km (14 mile) hiking trail winds through a World Heritage-listed gorge in Yunnan that is one of Asia's most striking landscapes. Framed by spectacular snow-capped mountains and the scenic Jinshajiang River, it plunges to depths of 3900m (12,795ft), making it one of the deepest gorges in the world.

3. Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an

Best archaeological discoveries

Unearthed in Xi'an by unsuspecting rural workers in 1974, the discovery of this enigmatic army of life-sized statues remains of the world’s most remarkable archaeological finds. Dating back 2200 years, they were built to protect the underground tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Needless to say, meeting the warriors face to face is quite an experience.

Shopping crowds on Shanghai's Nanjing Road
Commercial bustle in Shanghai's main shopping district © MarinaD_37 / Shutterstock

4. Shanghai

Best city for a sense of past and future

Glitzy, elegant, historic and cosmopolitan – everything you’ve heard about Shanghai is true. Just take a stroll through the French Concession or along the Bund and you’ll see for yourself. From the grand display of 1920s architecture and the city's sophisticated restaurants and rooftop bars to the sci-fi neon-lit skyscrapers across the bay, Shanghai is past and future China brought to life.

5. The Great Wall

Best iconic sight in China

Snaking spectacularly through China’s majestic mountainous terrain, the Great Wall is the nation’s most iconic landmark. Built over two millennia, this awe-inspiring 21,196km-long (13,170-mile-long) fortification is worthy of being one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It's not one wall but many, stretching from the east coast all the way to the far western desert, but Beijing has some of the most easily accessible stretches.

6. Guangzhou

Best city for dim sum

This vibrant and dynamic Cantonese megacity is one of China’s largest and most fascinating hubs. You’ll find an intriguing mix of old and new in a city where skyscrapers nudge the clouds and monks shuffle around 1500-year-old Buddhist temples. But it’s the Cantonese cuisine that lures in many, with some of the finest dim sum in China.

Pastoral landscape on Yulong river, Yangshuo, China
Between Guilin and Yangshuo lie China's iconic landscape of karst peaks © Liufuyu / Getty Images

7. Karst Peaks, Guilin

Best countryside scenery

Spanning the distance from Guilin to Yangshou, these ethereal karst limestone peaks offer an extraordinary backdrop to the scenic Li River and rice paddies. Grab a bicycle or board a raft to tour this beautiful countryside, passing farmers and water buffalo along the way.

8. Chengdu

Best place to see pandas

With its charming teahouses, lively nightlife and fiery Sichuan food, Chengdu is one of China’s most popular cities for travelers. But most folk are here for one reason: pandas. And while you’d be very lucky to spot one in the wild, sightings are guaranteed at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. Other draws include temples, pavilions and museums devoted to the culture of the ancient Shu kingdom.

9. Longji Rice Terraces, Guangxi

Best scenic rice paddies

There are rice paddies all over China, but few are as spectacular as the ones in Longji, built among lush mountains. Walks here lead to viewpoints overlooking sculpted, iridescent green terraces with swirling patterns resembling the contours of a giant thumbprint.

10. Forbidden City, Beijing

Best attraction

Among China’s imperial sights, none can compare in size, grandeur or mystique to Beijing’s Forbidden City. Built between 1406 and 1420, this sprawling palace was off-limits for 500 years until the overthrowing of the last Qing emperor in 1911. Today it’s very much open, attracting nearly 20 million visitors each year, but it's still humbling in its majesty.

The head of the Le Shan Buddha
Le Shan is home to the world's largest ancient Buddha © Ungvari Attila / Shutterstock

11. Le Shan, Sichuan

Best monument

Standing at the confluence of two rivers, the extraordinary, monumental 1200-year old Buddha image at Le Shan is carved directly into the rock face. World Heritage-listed, the monument stands 71m (233ft) tall and 28m (92ft) wide, making it the largest ancient Buddha in the world. Coming face to face with it is quite an experience.

12. Xi'an

Best for Silk Route legacy

In a country where cities seemingly spring up overnight, this is one of the oldest and grandest, known for its extraordinary Terracotta Warriors, but also remarkable in its own right. Xi'an is famous as the place that marked the beginning of the Silk Road, a trade route with a legacy that remains intact within its atmospheric Muslim Quarter.

13. Zhangjiajie

Best dramatic landscapes

Rising dramatically from the subtropical forests of northwest Hunan, the pinnacle rock formations of Zhangjiajie inspired the scenery in the film Avatar (2009). Take it all in as you walk over a vertiginous glass-bottom suspension bridge floating 300m (984ft) above ground. And if that’s not daring enough, you can bungee jump off it too!

14. Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang

Best Buddhist art

Sitting serenely along the ancient Silk Road, the atmospheric frontier town of Dunhuang is home to one of the world’s most important collections of Buddhist art. Among more than 490 Buddhist caves in the area, the mural and statue-filled Mogao Grottoes represent perhaps the zenith of Buddhist artistry in China.

This article was first published October 2021 and updated August 2022

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