Vast, ancient and dazzling, China is a country of culture and contrasts. From sprawling modern metropolises like Shanghai and Hong Kong to tranquil mountain valleys and glittering blue lakes, you could spend months here and barely scratch the surface of what this unique country has to offer. Home to the oldest continuous civilisation in the world, China is staggeringly diverse, and if you’re thinking about visiting, it can be hard to know where to start.

To help you out, we’ve put together this guide of everything you need to know before you go – from the most unmissable destinations to must-know travel advice.

Visas

Plan your first trip to China - visas

British citizens normally need to obtain a visa before they arrive in China, so the first thing you should do when planning a trip is to apply for one. It can take two months for your visa to be processed, so this is something that definitely shouldn’t be left until the last minute!

All visa applicants aged between 14 and 70 need to make their visa application in person at a Visa Application Centre – and currently, the centres in London, Manchester and Edinburgh are all open. Full details on visa requirements and documentation can be found on the Chinese Embassy website.

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When to go

Plan your first trip to China - when to go

China is so massive that choosing the best time to visit can be challenging. Home to enormously diverse climates, temperatures, and landscapes, it’s essentially several large countries rolled into one. And the weather in sultry Hong Kong will be vastly different from the weather in the mountain ranges of Western China. 

If you want warm weather, it’s best to plan your trip between April and October. Though, in the summer months, temperatures soar well into the 30s – and if you’re in a city, it can be uncomfortably hot and humid. This is also the busiest time, so expect higher prices and larger crowds then.

Both spring and autumn are nice times to visit, and if you’re planning on doing plenty of exploring and hiking, temperatures are much more pleasant. China gets very cold during winter, so unless you like seriously chilly weather and plenty of snow, you might want to avoid travelling then. However, Hong Kong is still mild in winter.

Where to go

Because China is so huge, it can be helpful to narrow your focus and figure out what you want to see most before you go. You might be drawn to famous historical sites like the Great Wall of China, or you might dream of losing yourself in China’s bustling urban jungles.

To help you decide where to visit, here are some of the country’s most fascinating places.

Hong Kong

Where to go in China - Hong Kong

Hong Kong (located at the Southeastern tip of China) is one of the most densely populated places in the world – and it’s also one of the most exciting. Made up of three main regions (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories) and hundreds of islands, there’s so much to see and do here that it can seem overwhelming.

This is a city of soaring skyscrapers and traditional temples. A place where you can wander through vibrant food markets and through neon-lit streets before strolling along the Tsim Sha Tsui Waterfront and admiring views of the glittering city skyline.

If you’re a foodie, you’re in for a treat. Hong Kong is a food lover’s paradise, and it’s especially known for its dim sum, which is a large range of small dishes that are served in bamboo steamers. There are gourmet spots all around the city, and a visit to Hong Kong isn’t complete without a dim sum lunch! To find out more about the best dim sum in Hong Kong, check out this article by CN Traveller.

In the Sheung Wan District, you can get a feel of old Hong Kong as you browse in small shops and traditional markets. And if you want to experience the Hong Kong nightlife, head to Lan Kwai Fong, where there are a dizzying array of bars and restaurants tucked away along historic narrow streets.

If you want to immerse yourself in nature, the Mai Po Natural Area is a vast stretch of mangrove forest and swampland, and an excellent place to go birdwatching. You can also go jungle trekking outside Hong Kong, or hike the Dragon’s Back, which is a popular trail just outside the city limits. 

If that’s not enough, then you might want to visit the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island. Built in 1924, this magnificent structure will teach you a lot about the local culture and history – and the food here is excellent too! If you like being on the water, why not jump on a junk boat, a traditional Chinese sailboat, and enjoy a cruise around the harbour?

To find out more about getting the most out of Hong Kong, head over to Rough Guide.

Shanghai

Where to go in China - Shanghai

Home to 23 million people, the great metropolis of Shanghai in east-central China is synonymous with excess, glamour, history, and neck-craning skyscrapers. Currently undergoing one of the fastest ever economic expansions, Shanghai is well on its way to becoming one of Asia’s leading business cities.

If you’re into architecture, you’ll be in your element, as this is a city that’s home to an astonishingly diverse array of styles – from art deco buildings to Jesuit cathedrals, and Buddhist temples to shíkùmén (stone gate) houses – not to mention the world’s second-tallest tower.

In spite of its size, the city isn’t packed with obvious tourist attractions, but there’s still plenty to see… Yu Yuan Gardens is unmissable, and a wonderful place to spend a few hours. Packed with waterways, temples, bridges, and rockeries, this botanical garden is a tranquil haven in the middle of the city – and it’s especially gorgeous in spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming.

Shanghai is a city that seems made for aimless wandering, and seeing the juxtaposition of old and new is particularly enjoyable. In The Bund, the city’s modern riverside hotspot, you can admire sensational views from towering skyscrapers, including the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower.

Or you might want to get a sense of history and lose yourself in the city’s old alleys. In Yuyuan Old Street you can browse tiny shops selling traditional Chinese goods, from porcelain to jewellery to rice paper sun hats. Afterwards, be sure to check out the mouthwatering street food carts here.

If you prefer fine dining to street food, you’ll be pleased to know that Shanghai received its own Michelin dining guide in 2017, and the restaurant scene here is exciting and varied. 

For shopping, Shanghai is pretty much unbeatable (shopping is so popular here locals are called “little capitalists” by the rest of China!), and whether you’re into designer boutiques, vintage shops or bustling markets, there’s something for everyone.

To find out more about visiting Shanghai, check out this guide by Travel + Leisure.

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Xi’an

Where to go in China - Xi’an

If you’re interested in learning about Chinese history and digging deep into their culture, then a trip to Xi’an (in the north-central area of the country) should absolutely be on your itinerary. As the Chinese capital during the empire’s golden age (the Tang dynasty, 618-907), Xi’an was a melting pot of cultures and religions, and it’s steeped in Silk Road history.

Back in these glory days, Xi’an was known as Chang’an – “the city of enduring peace” – and though at first glance it may look like a modern city, scratch beneath the surface and much of the ancient city survives. History is the reason most visitors head to Xi’an, and while the city itself is not especially remarkable, its attractions definitely are.

The Army of Terracotta Warriors is arguably Xi’an’s main drawer. First discovered in 1974, this is an astonishing collection of lifesize statues of warriors, chariots, and horses that were built to guard Emperor Qin Shi Huang (260-210 BCE) in the afterlife. Forgotten beneath the ground for almost two millennia, seeing this enormous silent army is something you won’t ever forget.

Another must-visit is the Muslim Quarter. Long ago Arab and Persian merchants settled here, and today their descendants still ply their trade in these historic streets. If you’re a foodie, this district has some of the best food in Xi’an. Local favourites include lamb skewers, dates, dumplings, and the city’s signature dish – paomo, which is a meat broth poured over flatbread.

Xi’an also boasts the best-preserved city walls in China, and though they were built back in 1370, these imposing 12-metre walls still stand proudly today. You can actually walk on top of the walls for their full length – eight and a half miles – though if that’s a bit too long, you may want to hire a bike.

For more on getting the most out of Xi’an, head over to China Discovery.

Beijing

Beijing is a city of contrast

Much like the rest of China, Beijing is a city of contrasts. The Chinese capital can be brash, elegant, loud, peaceful, historic, and modern – but what it never is, is dull. 

Beijing’s immense vastness can seem overwhelming when you first arrive, and unlike other cities that are fun to get lost in, wandering around and seeing where this city takes you isn’t the best way to explore. Instead, to get the best out of Beijing, you should give the city the planning it deserves – and you certainly won’t run out of things to see and do. 

The famous Tiananmen Square is the heart of the city – both geographically and metaphorically – and next to it is the Forbidden City palace complex, which deserves at least a day of exploring. 

Once you leave the centre, the scale of the city seems to become more manageable. The soaring high-rises and chaotic streets give way to narrow alleyways and green parks, and historical sites like Yonghe Temple, the Beijing Ancient Observatory, and the Temple of Heaven provide a welcome sense of peace.

Food is a big deal in Beijing (the traditional greeting “chī le ma?” literally translates to “have you eaten?”) and eating is considered to be the act that brings locals together, no matter how different they may be. From spicy noodles to Peking duck pancakes and glutinous rice balls, the cuisine in Beijing is a serious adventure for foodies.

And of course, you can’t visit Beijing and not visit the country’s number one tourist attraction – and one of the seven wonders of the world. The Great Wall of China is an easy day trip from the city, and following this long, lonely wall as it snakes through the mountains is a once in a lifetime experience.

To discover more about visiting Beijing, head over to China Highlights.

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China travel tips

So now we’ve touched on some of the most popular destinations in China, what are some of the most useful things to know before you go?

Language

While many Chinese people do speak English (especially younger people), there are lots of people who don’t. So, it’s a good idea to learn a few words before you go. If nothing else, it’ll help break the ice!

Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in most of China, and trying to learn a few basic phrases before you arrive can go a long way. 

To learn some basic yet useful Mandarin phrases and words, check out this guide by Travel + Leisure.

Currency and money

The currency in China is the Renminbi, and while in cities you shouldn’t have any issues with using your card, on the whole China is a cash-based economy. Therefore, if you’re travelling outside of the major cities, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have enough cash on you.

Haggling and bargaining are customary in China unless you’re in supermarkets or shopping centres. So if you’re shopping, don’t feel the need to take prices at face value!

Internet

In China, internet censors block many commonly used sites, like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. So people who have wanted to access their Gmail or Google maps while they’re in China, often install a VPN (Virtual Private Network) on their phone or laptop before they arrive.

Installing a VPN only costs a few pounds, and while many are banned, this law only tends to be enforced for corporations and companies who have VPNs without a licence – rather than individuals who are visiting the country. According to multiple sources online, there are no known cases of foreign travellers being punished for using a VPN. Though, it’s generally agreed that they should be used with discretion and that it’s best to do your research before you decide to download one. After all, it’s not unheard of for visitors to be asked by police to delete their VPN should they be found using it.

To find out more about VPNs and how to set one up, have a read of this article by PCMag.

The Great Wall of China

Getting around

China is a massive country and the distances between places are long. The good news is that the vast high-speed railway network is excellent and can get you from A to B very quickly and easily. For example, the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing takes just five hours.

Within cities, buses are the most popular way to get around, though most major cities also have extensive underground systems that are cheap and decent. 

To find out more about getting around in China, have a read of this Rough Guide article.

Accessibility

China can be a challenging destination for travellers with disabilities. The country is currently undergoing huge amounts of building and redevelopment work, and pavements are often crowded and resemble building sites. Few local hotels have much experience assisting disabled travellers, so your best bet is international hotel chains.

Because accessible travel can be challenging, you might want to consider taking an organised tour rather than planning a trip yourself. However, things in Hong Kong are much better than elsewhere in China. Head over to the Hong Kong Tourist Association site to find out more about accessible travel. 

To find out more about disability-friendly travel, you might want to read our article; 8 of the world’s most disability-friendly holiday destinations.

Culture

China’s lifestyle and culture are very different from that in the West, and if it’s your first visit you may experience a real culture shock. Some of the most common complaints from tourists – like unhelpful service or being stared at or laughed at – can almost always be put down to nervousness and language barriers, rather than hostility. 

On the whole, Chinese people have a favourable opinion of Westerners, and are interested and curious when they encounter tourists – especially outside of the main cities. To find out more about Chinese culture and etiquette before you go, have a read of this article by Rough Guide.

Final thoughts…

Extraordinarily diverse in terms of landscape, language, ethnicities, culture, and cuisine, China is a country like no other. Developing at an unprecedented rate, its modern face and vast metropolises can be dazzling, but its history and antiquity is equally impressive.

Boasting stupendous scenery, delicious food, and captivating culture, the list of things to see and do here is truly endless. Whatever type of traveller you are, thanks to China’s diversity, there’s something for everyone here – from museums to markets to mountains.