From palaces to pandas to perfectly pleated soup dumplings, the myriad treasures of the Middle Kingdom are once again within reach. But if you’re thinking nothing much changed during China’s zero-COVID hiatus, think again. Whether you’re a China newbie or a return visitor, here are just a few of the new post-pandemic highlights you can expect.
Discover “new” history in Beijing
The past looms large in China’s capital – and nowhere more so than the Palace Museum, better known as the Forbidden City. Home of 24 emperors over two dynasties, the world’s biggest palace complex turned 600 in 2020. In the run-up to this milestone, restoration work on areas never before open to the public had been underway when COVID hit. Today, the rollout of these newly refurbished areas continues.
For a more intimate experience, the small, beautifully curated Poly Art Museum has started staging regular exhibits of Forbidden City treasures. Other ancient buildings, including Huangshicheng, Beijing’s imperial archive, have also opened to the public for the first time as part of a drive to secure Unesco status for the capital’s historic central axis.
Elsewhere, the gorgeous Wanshou Temple opened in 2022 after five years of renovations, its first major face-lift in over a century. The site was formerly a ceremonial stop-off for the imperial family when they sojourned to the Summer Palace by canal boat.
Visit brand-new, world-class art museums
MAP, aka the Museum of Art Pudong, touched down in 2021 in Shanghai. A showcase of Chinese and global contemporary art, its white-granite-clad building, by French architect Jean Nouvel, makes an artistc statement all by itself. Similarly abbreviated and also opened in 2021, the massive M+ aims to be Hong Kong’s answer to the Tate Modern in London, offering 700,000 sq ft (65,000 sq m) devoted to visual culture. M+ occupies a wedge of reclaimed waterfront development called the West Kowloon Cultural District, home to various other new venues including the Hong Kong Palace Museum, which projects Chinese soft power by exhibiting treasures loaned out from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Up in China’s capital, M Woods Hutong opened just before COVID with an exhibition by renowned British artist David Hockney.
Bring the kids to China’s first Universal Studios theme park
Fans of Harry Potter, Transformers, Minions and other mega-franchises can now get their kicks in China with the opening of Asia’s third Universal Studios in 2021 (behind complexes in Singapore and Japan). Situated on the outskirts of Beijing and served by a dedicated subway stop, it boasts rides like Jurassic World Adventure (complete with a huge animatronic T.rex), an epic broomstick flight with Harry (in a replica of Hogwarts) and the loop-intensive, Transformers-themed Decepticoaster. You’ll also find the Kung Fu Panda Land of Awesomeness, a fully indoor zone of rides and attractions unique to the Chinese park location, as well as a resort area of hotels and a water park coming in the future.
Sip a cocktail at one of Asia’s best bars
Hong Kong has long been a great place for a night out, and despite the pandemic restrictions the city racked up no fewer than eight mentions in Asia’s “50 Best” bars ranking for 2022. Top spot was awarded to Central’s Coa Hong Kong, a cocktail bar crafting smoky concoctions around rare-varietal mezcal from Mexico. During lockdowns, Coa kept going by delivering canned cocktails all over the city.
At number three on the list, Argo uses sustainably sourced staples like coffee and cacao to make delicious cocktails with a side measure of climate change awareness. Other Hong Kong winners include Quinary, inspired by legendary Spanish molecular restaurant El Bulli, and The Old Man, inspired by the life and work of Ernest Hemingway.
Explore the most remote parts of the Great Wall
For almost a quarter of a century, Great Wall expert and author William Lindesay OBE has been running China’s most immersive Great Wall tours out of his own rural farmhouse north of Beijing. These weekend-long escapes explore the wild Jiankou section of the wall, and involve spectacular sunrise hikes and fascinating field lectures. Post-pandemic, his company WildWall is branching out with an intrepid “Frontier” series of week-long jaunts to remote sites along the Great Wall in the provinces of Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Ningxia. Expect sand-covered fortresses, glorious Buddhist art, expert-led history lectures and plenty of Indiana Jones–style adventure.
Enjoy hassle-free train travel at last
High-speed trains are a fantastic way to explore China, covering its vast internal distances quickly, scenically and (relatively) ecologically. It’s now easier than ever to use the world’s biggest HSR network thanks to a ticketless system launched just before the pandemic. You can now book tickets online using international portals like Trip.com, then waltz through station barriers using only your passport as your ticket. This means no more need to queue up at the ticket windows of crowded stations.
Several new high-speed routes started up during COVID, including a line linking Beijing to Datong in a little over two hours, putting the spectacular Yungang Caves and their giant-sized Buddha carvings within easy reach of the capital. Other new lines include Chengdu to Kunming, linking Sichuan’s giant pandas with Yunnan’s alluring landscapes and ethnic-minority villages. International city hoppers can continue from Kunming on a new line direct to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Hit the slopes at China’s Olympic ski resorts
Following its “closed loop” 2022 Winter Olympics, China now boasts a heap of shiny new winter sports infrastructure in and around Beijing. Skiers can hop the new high-speed train from the capital out to Zhangjiakou to try out the Olympic facilities there. Thaiwoo Ski Resort has the best runs for beginners, while Genting Resort Secret Garden has a bit of everything: wild snow trails, intermediate blue runs, technical blacks and, for the pros, the Olympic halfpipe, slopestyle, aerials and mogul courses. If you prefer ice over snow, you can also get your skates on at the Ice Ribbon, Beijing’s speed-skating arena purpose-built for the Olympics.