Taking your kids to China can be challenging, eye-opening, fun and memorable. Sure you’ll need to plan a bit, and at times be a super-patient parent, but you could also find yourself and your family on the journey of a lifetime.
Best Regions for Kids
Kids' big-ticket theme-park choices plus adrenaline-pumping high-altitude observation decks, kid-tastic museums, delicious dumplings and much more.
The Great Wall is a mandatory stop for older kids, zipping across Beijing’s frozen lakes in winter is sparkling fun for teens and tots, and guided tours will help bring Beijing's world-beating historic sites to life.
- Hong Kong
The evening magic of the Star Ferry and the gravity-defying Peak Tram, Disneyland and dolphin watching, plus super parks and hiking trails for exercising little legs.
Watch your kids go all wide-eyed at panda bears, especially the playful infants frolicking adorably with their human minders.
- Hainan Island
Surfing, swimming, China’s best beaches and mountains of healthy tropical fruit. Resort hotels in Sanya have excellent facilities for kids of all ages.
Young Indiana Joneses will relish all the archeological discoveries in China's ancient capital of Chang'an.
Family activities abound in the dreamy karst-landscape of Yangshuo, from bamboo rafting and off-road cycling to cooking classes, hot-air ballooning and rock climbing for older kids.
Little ones will enjoy exploring the crooked alleyways, delving into courtyard museums and walking atop the perimeter walls of this time-warped Qing dynasty town.
The perfect province for an intrepid family adventure: biking between minority villages, visiting Dali and Lijiang, and checking out the rainforests of Xishuangbanna, all set to breathtaking scenery and China's cleanest air.
Miles of sandy bathing beaches, fairy-tale Bavarian architecture, and bags (literally) of Qingdao beer to soothe harassed parents.
Kids can hit the slopes in summer at the world's biggest indoor ski centre. And when winter does come around, ice and snow sculptures turn Harbin into a dazzling winter wonderland.
China for Kids
In big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, you’ll find lots of choice with kids’ menus. In tourist towns and popular visitor destinations, it’s a similar story. Off the beaten path you’ll have to dine as locals do and work through Chinese-language menus.
Snacking on the hoof: order up steaming ròujiāmó (cooked meat sandwich, usually pork), lamb kebabs, Hong Kong–style egg waffles or watermelons. Look out for street-side sellers of popcorn, cooked up old-school with a bang in a traditional flame-heated popcorn machine.
McDonalds and KFC are everywhere in towns and cities; Burger King was a rarity but is increasingly common. Dicos (德克士; Dekeshi) is a decent Chinese alternative with tasty rice lunch sets.
Despite its size there’s often a surprising lack of free and accessible open space in China and you often need to pay to access what you discover. Much land is turned over to agriculture and most national parks levy an admission fee, while city parks are often quite synthetic places, without lawns or grass.
Kids should love overnight train journeys, hiding away on the top bunk. Long-distance bus journeys may be more fraught – limit their liquid intake as buses stop only rarely for the call of nature. Think about hiring a car or a taxi for the day to get to sights outside town. Prepare for seat-belt-free rear seats in taxis.
Largely painless, but prepare for delays (and then howls of protest from young lungs).
Crossing the Road
China’s roads are chaotic, so exercise great care when crossing the road and keep a close eye on the very small ones.
Your teenagers are going to need a VPN (virtual private network) on their smartphones to keep using Snapchat, Instagram or WhatsApp. Same applies to you. Download VPNs to smartphones and other devices before arriving in China.
This will require a bit more planning than many destinations as China’s disparities – altitude and climate as well as economic – can throw in some unexpected surprises.
Consider investing in face masks for your young ones as air pollution, although improving, can be caustic in China.
Pack any medicines your kids may need as you may not be able to find them easily in China.
Kids need to be prepared for, or assisted with, squat toilets.
Ticket prices for children are according to height rather than age (1.4m is usually the cutoff height for kids).
- Star Ferry, Hong Kong Bundle the kids on the cross-harbour ferry for a dazzling, all-colour evening trip.
- Hong Kong tram Head aloft to grab seats at the front of the upper deck for a full-frontal sightseeing tour of north Hong Kong island; tots under three go for free!
- Xi’an City Walls After visiting the Terracotta Warriors, get the kids cycling around China’s longest intact city wall.
The Great Outdoors
- Shaolin Kung fu Turn your kids into fighting monks in a martial-arts class at the Shaolin Temple in Henan province.
- The Plank Walk on Hua Shan Teenagers will get the ultimate white-knuckle buzz above a 2000m drop.
- Harbin Ice & Snow Festival Twinkling lights, snow and ice in the deep-winter deep-freeze of Heilongjiang.
Keeping Costs Down
Request a child's ticket for kids between 1.2m and 1.5m tall. These are half the price of adult tickets for seats, and about 25% off for sleeper berths. Children under 1.2m travel for free but don't get their own seat or berth.
- Tourist Sites
Kids can often get in for half price; or free if under 1.2 metres tall. It's always worth asking at the ticket office.
Choose Chinese restaurants over Western-style ones. Dishes are typically large and designed for sharing, and staples like plain cooked rice only cost a few yuan.
It's always worth enquiring about a family room (家庭房; jiātíng fáng), or failing that a suite (套房; tàofáng) where extra beds (加床; jiā chuáng) are permitted. And don't forget to always haggle for a discount in local hotels.
Parks in larger cities are either free or very cheap to enter. Ideal for family picnics and outdoor activities like kite-flying, some also have swimming facilities and fairground rides.
- Pack any medicines your kids may need as you may not be able to find them in China.
- Download VPNs to smartphones (to access Snapchat, Instagram, WhatAapp and other blocked social-media and messaging apps) before arriving in China.
- Although improving, air pollution can be caustic in China; consider investing in face masks for your young ones.
Lonely Planet Kids (lonelyplanetkids.com) Loads of activities and great family travel blog content.
Book: First Words Mandarin (shop.lonelyplanet.com) A beautifully illustrated introduction to Mandarin Chinese for ages five to eight.
Time Out Beijing Family (http://www.timeoutbeijing.com/family) Up-to-date family events listings for Beijing, plus dining round-ups, travel tips and more. Shanghai has the same.
Real-time Air Quality Index (http://aqicn.org) Accurate air quality ratings for multiple Chinese cities, updated hourly.