Must see attractions in Shanxi

  • Top ChoiceSights in Datong

    Yungang Caves

    One of China’s most supreme examples of Buddhist cave art, these 5th-century caves are simply magnificent. With 51,000 ancient statues and celestial beings, they put virtually everything else in the Shanxi shade. Carved by the Turkic-speaking Tuoba, the Yungang Caves drew their designs from Indian, Persian and even Greek influences that swept along the Silk Road. Work began in AD 460, continuing for 60 years before all 252 caves, the oldest collection of Buddhist carvings in China, had been completed.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Pingyao

    Shuanglin Temple

    This fascinating Buddhist temple houses many incredibly rare, sublimely carved Tang, Song and Yuan painted statues. Rebuilt in 1571, it’s a mesmerising complex of ancient halls: the interiors of the Sakyamuni Hall and flanking buildings are exquisite. The beauty is overwhelming, not just of the painted clay sculptures, which are among the best in China, but also in the backgrounds – the grotto-like niches behind the statues, and the clouds and waves on the relief pieces.

  • Sights in Datong

    Bā Táizi

    Alongside magnificently dilapidated earthen sections of the Great Wall that disappear over the top of Horsehead Hill (马头山, Mǎtóu Shān), a fabulous Gothic church ruin is quite a sight. All that remains of the Holy Mother Church (圣母堂, Shèngmǔ Táng), built in 1876, is its front gate and bell tower and lopped-off spire above it. No explanation for the church's demise is given in the blurb on the board alongside, nor how the church arrived in such a remote spot.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Jincheng

    Jade Emperor Temple

    This picturesque temple littered with Taoist deities is an enjoyable place to visit by any measure. But what makes it exceptional are the painted sculptures of the 28 lunar mansions masterfully personified as scholars and nobility in pensive and playful poses; they're some of China's very best Taoist painted sculptures. You'll find them in the western chamber – on your right as you leave the Jade Emperor Hall. If the door is locked, ask the guard to open it for you.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Taiyuan

    Jinci Temple

    This sprawling complex sits on the source of the Jin River in arid Shanxi. The earliest structures and the irrigation canal (which still gushes on rainy days) were built between the 7th and 2nd centuries BC. Over the dynasties, Jinci Temple has been a site for the worship of ancestors, water deities and a plethora of gods; it was also an imperial garden where religious rites and sporting contests were held. The highlights are structures on the central axis, including the magnificent Hall of the Sacred Mother.

  • Sights in Shanxi

    Qiao Family Compound

    This 18th-century complex of courtyards covering 24,000 sq m is a fine example of a traditional private residence in China. Once home to a celebrated merchant, it’s an austere yet elegant maze of doorways and courtyards that lead onto a seemingly infinite number of rooms (over 300). The complex is famous as the set of director Zhang Yimou’s tragedy Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂; 1991) starring Gongli. If you have seen and enjoyed the film, a visit is a must.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Wutai Shan

    Tayuan Temple

    At the base of Spirit Vulture Peak (灵鹫峰, Língjiù Fēng), Tayuan Temple is the most prominent landmark in Wutai Shan and virtually all pilgrims pass through here to spin the prayer wheels at its base or to prostrate themselves, even in the snow. Even Chairman Mao did his tour of duty, staying in the Abbot Courtyard in 1948.

  • Sights in Pingyao

    Wang Family Courtyard

    More castle than cosy home, this grand Qing dynasty former merchant's residence has been very well maintained (note the wooden galleries fronting many of the courtyard buildings) and exudes an austere magnificence. Due to the sheer size (250,000 sq m), the seemingly endless procession of courtyards (123 in all) become a little repetitive, but it's still beautiful and the complex is interspersed with gardens. Climb up onto the walls around the vast courtyard for excellent views and be eye-level with bird's nests.

  • Sights in Pingyao

    Zhenguo Temple

    While not as famous as Shuanglin Temple, Zhenguo Temple also houses a magnificent collection of old halls and ancient statues. Don't miss the still-living 1000-year-old Dragon Scholar Tree. The incredible Hall of the Ten Thousand Buddhas, built in 963 AD (Northern Han dynasty), is one of the oldest wooden halls in the land. Housed within its time-worn timbers is a collection of 11 10th-century painted sculptures and frescoes.

  • Sights in Shanxi

    Bianjing Drum Tower

    Smack in the centre of Daixian old town, this 14th-century drum tower will make up for all the times you felt let down by faux ancient towers or authentic ones you could only admire from afar. The majestic wooden structure, preluded by a dramatic stone staircase, has retained many of its Ming dynasty features. Ascend to the upper floors for a closer look at the simple but beautiful beams and brackets, and a bird's eye view of the town.

  • Sights in Jincheng

    Jincheng Museum

    This remarkable museum gives fascinating context to the fort-like settlements, ancient temples, and vernacular housing around Jincheng. Using fine replicas, ‘Ancient Architecture Art of Jincheng’ (top floor) illuminates the raison d'etre of important structures like Old Qinglian Temple. Don't miss the exceptional 28 Lunar Mansions of the Jade Emperor Temple – get your fill of information here as explanations are brief and photos are not allowed in the temple.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Datong

    Datong Museum

    Housed in a contemporary building inspired by a dragon totem, this wonderful museum is chock-full of relics – religious, funereal, military, imperial and quotidian – dating from when Datong was a frontier known as Ping Cheng (平成), between the Chinese and the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, all the way through to the Ming and Qing dynasties. What came before all that? Check out the prehistoric gallery with its animatronic dinosaurs and egg fossils.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Datong

    Yong‘an Temple

    Yong‘an Temple at the foothills of Heng Shan (恆山) only unlocks its halls when there are visitors and for a good reason – this poised and serene 13th-century temple is the home of some of the most precious Yuan dynasty coloured frescoes in China. You don't have to be an expert to appreciate the 200m of paintings on the interior walls of the main hall: gorgeous, fragile and surprisingly vivid, quietly telling their religious and secular stories in the half-light.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Pingyao

    Pingyao City Walls

    A good place to start your Pingyao experience is the magnificent city walls; they date from 1370 and are among the most complete in the nation. At 10m high and more than 6km in circumference, they are punctuated by 72 watchtowers, each containing a paragraph from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. You can wander around the walls gazing down into the old town.

  • Sights in Datong

    Huayan Temple

    Built by the Khitan during the Liao dynasty (AD 907–1125), this 66,000-sq-metre temple faces east, not south (it’s said the Khitan were sun worshippers) and is divided into two separate complexes. One of these is an active monastery (upper temple), while the other is a museum (lower temple). Dating from 1140, the impressive main hall of the Upper Temple (上华严寺, Shàng Huáyán Sì) is one of the largest Buddhist halls in China, with Ming murals and Qing statues within.

  • Sights in Wutai Shan

    Nanchan Temple

    This very quiet temple near Dongye (东冶) contains a strikingly beautiful Great Buddha Hall that dates to 782, making it the most ancient surviving timber-frame building in China. The temple was built in the Tang dynasty, in a clean, graceful style exemplifying the aesthetics of that period, and somehow had the good fortune to elude the 9th-century Buddhist persecution that destroyed many temples. The statues inside the hall are also fine examples of Tang religious sculpture.

  • Sights in Wutai Shan

    Nanshan Temple

    For extraordinary views, walk 2.5km south of Dailuo Peak to the isolated, maze-like Nanshan Temple. The six-hectare complex is built on a hillside 1700m above sea level, and has three tiers of 300 structures: the lowest Jile Temple (極樂寺, Jílè Sì), then Shande Hall (善德堂, Shàndé Táng), then Youguo Temple (佑國寺, Yòuguó Sì) at the top. The temple is known for its beautiful stone carvings, which are sublimated visually by a background of shapely pines and receding mountains.

  • Sights in Datong

    Nine Dragon Screen

    Emblazoned with nine coiling dragons picked out in coloured glazed tiles, this is one of the finest yǐngbì (影壁) spirit walls in China (it has two counterparts in Beijing). It's also the largest, at 45.5m long, 8m high and 2m thick. Built in the Ming dynasty in 1392, the palace it once protected belonged to the 13th son of a Ming emperor and burnt down in 1644. Amazingly, the palace is being rebuilt in its entirety, covering a vast area of town.

  • Sights in Pingyao

    City God Temple

    Within the venerable halls of this astonishing temple, first raised in the Song dynasty, are some intriguing frescoes, including the hall at the very rear of the temple, the Qǐn Gōng (寝宫). Also look out for the two-faced fertility goddess in the Songsheng Dian (送生殿) – she is the (ferocious-faced) reincarnation mother, responsible for sending out babies to the world. And don't forget to look up at the roofs of the halls, gorgeously decked out in blue-and-green tiles and roof-ridge ornaments.

  • Sights in Qikou

    Lijia Shan

    This supremely peaceful 550-year-old village, hugging a hillside with terraces of crops running up it, has hundreds of cave dwellings (窑洞, yáodòng) scaling 11 levels. Once home to more than 600 families, most with the family name Li, today’s population is much depleted at around 45. Some stone paths and stairways that twist up the hill date from Ming times; note the rings on some walls that horses were tied to and the ornate stone, brick and wood carvings.