In China, antiquity and heritage meet 21st-century innovation and lighting-fast development.
This is a country packed with highlights – so many that it might be hard to craft a manageable itinerary. Start by immersing yourself in one of China's gigantic, sprawling cities – which contain plenty of frantic energy, but hidden pockets of serenity, too. Take a break from the crush by soaking up China's natural scenery – think jagged peaks and pine forests draped in a sea of mist that 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 millennia of history.
Don't know where to start? Whether you dream of gilded temples, boisterous urban environments, fabulous food or the wonders of the Great Wall, here are our picks of the best places to visit in China.
One of the world's greatest cities and China's absolute can't-miss destination, 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).
2. Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang
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.
3. Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan
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, the natural monument plunges to depths of 3900m (12,795ft), making it one of the deepest gorges in the world.
4. Le Shan, Sichuan
Standing at the confluence of two rivers, the monumental 1200-year old Buddha image at Le Shan is carved directly into the rock face. World Heritage–listed, the extraordinary monument stands 71m (233ft) tall and 28m (92ft) wide, making it the largest ancient Buddha in the world. Whether you're spiritually included or not, coming face to face with this sculpture is quite a moving experience.
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 to the city's sophisticated restaurants and rooftop bars to the sci-fi neon-lit skyscrapers across the bay, Shanghai is the past and future China brought to vivid life.
6. The Great Wall
Snaking through China's majestic mountainous terrain, the spectacular 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 a true marvel of human accomplishment. In fact, it's not one wall but many, stretching from the east coast all the way to the far western desert. The most easily accessible stretches can be reached by car from Beijing.
With its charming teahouses, lively nightlife and fiery Sichuan food, Chengdu is one of China's most popular cities for travelers. But most folk visit 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 of this inland regional capital include temples, pavilions and museums devoted to the culture of the ancient Shu kingdom.
8. Karst peaks, Guilin
Spanning the distance from Guilin to Yangshou, the picture-perfect 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.
This vibrant and dynamic megacity is one of China's 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 all of China.
10. Longji Rice Terraces, Guangxi
You'll find rice paddies all over China – but few are as spectacular as the ones in Longji, built against a backdrop of lush mountains. Walks here lead to viewpoints overlooking sculpted, iridescent green terraces with swirling patterns resembling the contours of a giant thumbprint.
11. Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an
Unearthed in Xi'an by unsuspecting rural workers in 1974, 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 an experience you'll never forget.
In a country where cities seemingly spring up overnight, this is one of the oldest and grandest. Known to most for its extraordinary Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an is also remarkable in its own right – notably as the beginning of the Silk Road, a trade route with a legacy that remains intact within its atmospheric Muslim Quarter.
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. If that's not daring enough, you can bungee jump off it, too.
14. Forbidden City, Beijing
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 overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911. Today, it's very much open to the public, attracting nearly 20 million visitors each year. Despite the crowds, its massive scale remains humbling.