China may not spring immediately to mind when choosing a destination for a family trip, but the Middle Kingdom is full of places that suit families with children of all ages.
Many visitors underestimate how generally safe and easy it is to travel with a family in China. Most destinations are linked by direct flights, and trains and buses have reliable timetables, meaning getting from A to B with your menagerie might not be as stressful as you think.
We’ve got the lowdown on how to get around in China with children in tow and our picks for the top family destinations that are sure to be a hit.
Top tips for family travel in China
• Book boutique-style accommodation like Yangshuo Mountain Retreat (yangshuomountainretreat.com). Often managed by westerners or well-travelled, English-speaking locals, they have high service standards and easily accommodate families. They are all-around experts on their local areas and can help organise family-friendly transport and activities.
• Carry toddlers and leave the pram/stroller at home. There are no straight, bump-free sidewalks or roads, so a comfortable child backpack will make life a little easier.
• Food is half the journey, and in China it’s cooked fresh and sometimes right in front of you. Basics such as rice, noodles, fruit, bread and eggs are easy to procure anywhere, and western-style cafés and fast food places abound for those homesick (or picky eater) moments.
• Bring your own water bottles, preferably those that can be attached to a backpack or stroller. Be aware that tap water is not drinkable anywhere in China, but purified water is easy to find in hotels and restaurants.
• Since most pharmacies only stock medicines labelled in Chinese, it helps to pack your own medical kit for minor emergencies. A practical kit should contain pain and fever, cold, cough and flu medicines as a must for parents and kids alike. It's also handy to have eye drops, antiseptic, bandages, dehydration salts, diarrhoea medicine and any other medical essentials.
• If you find yourself stumped, ask a local. Chinese people are usually willing to stop and help and you may even have a celebrity moment as friendly locals ask your family to pose for a picture.
Yunnan province: Kunming, Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge
Yunnan province is the perfect getaway if you have longer than a week. Kunming offers famous sites such as the Stone Forest where kids can explore rocks in maze formations millions of years old. In Dali, the old town is worth a quick glance before heading to Xizhou, a local village where you can get a feel for local life.
In Lijiang, an outdoor show is held on a massive stage at the Jade Dragon Mountain. Complete with horses and a cast of hundreds, it is a sure-fire kid pleaser. Staying in quiet Shuhe Ancient town, just outside of Lijiang, will give you a break from the tourist crowds and the chance to hire bikes to explore the local area or take the kids on a horse-and-cart ride. Yunnan also offers the chance to hike along Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of China’s most famous canyons. Only a few hours’ drive from Lijiang, it can be visited in a day as there are some short, well-constructed pathways along the banks, perfect for a quick hike.
In Kunming, Yunnan Taste (yunnantaste.com), is a local homestay run by Eric who hosts and guides guests from this small apartment. Eric speaks great English and is well-travelled himself. The accommodation is affordable and small with basic amenities, and Eric is a wealth of knowledge about what to visit and where to eat.
In Xizhou, Dali, the Linden Centre is a boutique hotel run out of a tastefully renovated, old-style Chinese farmhouse. The Linden Centre caters to families with a wide range of activities, such as cycling, hiking, arts and crafts and making rice noodles and cheese (local specialities). To make the most of the Linden Centre, you need to stay at least four days.
The Bruce Chalet in Lijiang is run by a couple from Hong Kong, who easily accommodate families and are available 24/7 to help organise activities and trips in the area.
Deep in China’s south, the city of Yangshuo offers plenty of activities to keep the kids moving: river swimming, float trips on bamboo rafts, nightly excursions to watch the locals use birds to catch fish and the Impressions Liu Sanjie light show, choreographed by the creator of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Families can also hike in the surrounding mountains, learn to cook local dishes at the Yangshuo Cooking School (yangshuocookingschool.com) and cycle around rice paddy fields. You’ll want five to seven days to enjoy everything here.
This area is home to numerous family-friendly B&Bs, such as Yangshuo Mountain Retreat (yangshuomountainretreat.com) and Yangshuo Tea Cozy. These cater to families of any size, offer western and Chinese meals and kids’ menus and can help arrange outings and activities. And they are well-equipped with bikes for both adults and children, including all-important baby seats to secure your little ones on the back.
Located in the far northeast, Harbin is a little chilly (well, freezing actually) with temperatures reaching anywhere as low as -40°C in winter. But don’t let the cold put your family off: the city hosts one of the most spectacular ice displays in the world, the Harbin Ice & Snow Festival. The ice festival is full of dazzling ice sculptures and is kitted up with an ice playground for kids. Combine this with a visit to the Siberian Tiger Park to see these amazing cats up close, and spend some time on frozen Taiyung Lake, where kids can ride horses and go skating or sledding alongside local families. You’ll want at least three days to get the most out of a snowy family adventure in Harbin.
Though a bit pricey, the Shangri-la Hotel offers plush surrounds, western food and is in the perfect location for the ice festival.
Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou Valley
The only downside to taking your family to Chengdu is that you may have trouble tearing them away from the Paradise Island Water Park at the New Century Global Centre, the world’s largest building. In addition to the water park (which has its own artificial beach), there is shopping, a cinema and a myriad of restaurants. Parents should note that kids must be taller than 140cm to gain entry to a majority of the water park rides.
The main focus of a trip to Chengdu, though, is the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. Here, you can get up close to pandas and even arrange to feed or hug the bears on a personal one-on-one visit.
To extend your adventure, add a trip through the nearby Jiuzhaigou National Park. One of the natural wonders of China, it has diverse flora and fauna, lakes and hiking trails, making it a perfect place for kids to get in-depth experience with China’s natural wonders.
On the doorstep of the New Century Global Centre is the Holiday Inn Century City –West for value accommodation, or the Intercontinental Chengdu Global Centre for a more luxurious stay and a short walk to the water park. Jiuzhaigou also has a range of hotels, including the 5-star Sheraton next to the national park and Zhuo Ma’s, a unique Tibetan homestay.
Xi’an is a lesson in history and a holiday at the same time. The Army of Terracotta Warriors is the highlight of the trip. In carefully constructed displays, the famous terracotta warrior sculptures can be viewed as they were when unearthed. The museum is situated a little ways out of the city centre, but is easily navigated in a one-day tour. Xi’an is also well-known for its dumplings, served fried or steamed with meat or vegetables, though there are plenty of western options available here, too.
A fun activity on your second day is to hire bikes or rickshaws and cycle along the the old city wall, and in the evenings, Xi’an comes alive with entertaining street performances and multicoloured lights decorating buildings. Two days here is plenty and it makes a great stopover if you’re transiting between Beijing and Shanghai or destinations south.
Most hotels in Xi’an can help organise tours, while My Terracotta Army (myterracottaarmy.com) or Uitourxian (uitourxian.com) are local experts with family-friendly tour options. If you’re on a budget, the Han Tang House offers value accommodation, or for a more luxurious stay, the Hilton is within walking distance to most of the city's highlights.
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