When most people go to China, they only want to see the Great Wall and Forbidden City in Beijing, walk along the Bund at Shanghai or take in the Terracotta Warriors at Xi’an.
Maybe they’ll throw in a visit to Guangzhou or take a Yangtze River cruise. But there’s much more to China than just these famous sites.
There are plenty of amazing tourist attractions in China, from ancient cities to forests to temples to rice fields that look like they’ve been designed by artists to sacred mountains and stunning waterfalls.
This desire to explore off the beaten path where Chinese tourists outnumber foreign tourists isn’t just confined to 20-something backpackers.
1. Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is one of man’s greatest engineering feats and longest outdoor museum, stretching from Gansu Province in the west to Shanhaiguan on the Bohai Sea in the east.
It was built, rebuilt, and maintained between the 5th century BC and the 16th century to protect the northern borders of the Chinese Empire from the attacks of nomadic tribes from the north.
Most people will visit the wall somewhere in the Beijing area, where it is more easily accessible and where it snakes impressively over the mountain peaks. It is China’s No. 1 tourist attraction.
2. Forbidden City
Built in the early 15th century, the Forbidden City served as the home for emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties until Puyi, the last Emperor of China abdicated in 1912.
It is a walled complex, surrounded by a moat, that is the world’s largest palatial complex. Legend has it that its 980 buildings contain 9,999 rooms, though the actual number is about a thousand lower.
It is unarguably the most popular tourist attraction in Beijing, with the crowds to prove it.
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3. Terracotta Army
This mighty army of terracotta warriors and horses, found in three vaults, is one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Xi’an and one of the most popular in all of China.
The 8,000 lifelike terracotta warriors and 130 or so chariots have silently stood guard over the soul of China’s first unifier for more than two millennia.
Although the weapons were stolen and the coloring has faded greatly, their existence and the fact that no two soldier’s faces are alike serves as a testament to the amount of labor and skill involved in their construction.
4. Potala Palace
As the winter palace of the Dalai Lama from the 7th century the Potala Palace in Lhasa symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet.
With over 1,000 rooms, the Potala contained the living quarters of the Dalai Lamas while they lived, and their sumptuous golden tombs when they died.
It remained the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India, after the Chinese invasion in 1959.
The palace also houses great amounts of rare cultural relics including gold hand-written Buddhist scriptures and gifts from Chinese emperors.
The palace is 14 stories tall and any visit involves climbing a lot of stairs up & down so make sure you are fully acclimated before visiting.
5. Victoria Harbour
Victoria Harbour is one of the deepest container ports in the world. The bay offers stunning views of the skyscrapers of Hong Kong island on one side, and the Tsim Sha Tsui shoreline on the other.
It is also one of the busiest harbors in the world with hundreds of ferries, junks and speedboats darting up and down the shore.
Every night, many skyscrapers on both sides of Victoria Harbour light up in a synchronized show, known as one of the largest permanent light and sound festival in the world.
One of the best ways to see the harbor is a trip on the Star Ferry.
6. Li River Cruise
A Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo is the highlight of any trip to northeastern Guangxi Province.
With its breathtaking scenery and taste of a life far removed from the concrete metropolis, the scenery along the Li River is one of the top tourist attractions in China.
Mist-covered karst mountains dot the landscape adding to the aura of serenity. Traditional fishing boats ply the river, using cormorants to catch their fish.
The best way to enjoy the scenery is to take a boat ride between Guilin and Yangshuo; since the terrain is flat, many travelers like to bicycle back.
7. Leshan Giant Buddha
Mt. Emei is home to the first Buddhist temple in China, built in the first century. But the most remarkable of the Emeishan Buddhas is the Leshan Great Buddha that was carved out of a hillside in the eighth century.
The statue stands about 71 meters (233 feet) high and has three-meter (11 feet) long fingers on each of its enormous resting hands.
The Giant Buddha ended up making the raging rivers below more navigable as stone remnants from the statue were dropped into the water.
8. Mount Huang
One of China’s major tourist destinations, Mount Huang is a mountain range in eastern China also known as Huangshan (“Yellow Mountain”).
The area is well known for its scenery, sunsets, peculiarly shaped granite peaks and views of the clouds from above.
Frequently shrouded in mist, the many peaks appear to float on clouds and have very fanciful names such as 18 Arhats Worshipping the South Sea, Lotus Flower Peak, Celestial Capital and Paint Brush.
In ancient times almost 60,000 stone steps were carved into the side of the mountain range. Today there are also cable cars that tourists can use to ride directly from the base to one of the summits.
9. Pudong Skyline
Pudong is a district in Shanghai on the eastern side of the Huangpu River that has emerged as China’s financial and commercial hub. A skyline of gleaming skyscrapers rises out of what was mere farmland only 20 years ago.
Skyscrapers includes the symbolic Oriental Pearl Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, the Jin Mao Building and the Shanghai Tower that was finished in 2014.
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10. Hani Terraces
The Hani Rice Terraces are located on the southern slopes of Ailao Mountain in Yuanyang, and have been cultivated for over 1,000 years.
Carved by hand by the Hani people, these rice terraces have turned a barren hillside into a lush sub-tropical paradise. Water is saved in the hilltop forests, and channeled down to the terraces for irrigation.
The rice terraces are flooded from December to March, presenting a spectacular view to travelers.
Located in southwestern China, Jiuzhaigou is a nature reserve officially known as Jiuzhai Valley in English.
The national park has been described as a fairyland because of its many waterfalls; snow-covered karst mountains, and its 108 blue, turquoise and green colored lakes that are so crystal clear one can see the bottoms.
It is also the habitat of giant pandas, though the chances of seeing them are slim due to the park’s size and the number of tourists.
12. Reed Flute Cave
Reed Flute Cave known as “the Palace of Natural Arts” is located in the northwest of Guilin in southern China.
According to a legend, Reed Flute Cave got its name because people believed that the reed by the cave’s mouth could be made into flutes.
The limestone cave offers a majestic fairyland of stalactites, stalagmites, stone pillars, stone curtains, birds, plants and animals in fantastic shapes and colors.
13. Longmen Grottoes
The Longmen Grottoes are densely dotted along the Xiangshan and Longmenshan mountains in the eastern central part of China. Construction of the grottoes began in 493 AD.
There are over 2100 niches, more than 100,000 Buddhist statues, some 40 pagodas and 3600 tablets and steles in the caves. The 17 meter (56 foot) high statue of Vairocana in Fengxian Temple is the most representative of the trove.
14. West Lake
One of the main reasons to visit Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province, is to see West Lake, a large freshwater lake that is the symbol of this East China city.
Forested man-made islands with temples and pagodas dot the lake, which is rarely deeper than five feet. West Lake, considered one of the most beautiful lakes in China, is divided into smaller lakes. It was once an imperial retreat.
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15. Yungang Grottoes
The Yungang Caves or Grottoes at Datong is one of the great examples of early Buddhist cave art. Here, monks carved more than 51,000 statues, ranging in size from several inches to tens of feet high into the hillside.
Work on the carvings in the 252 grottoes took place in the fifth and sixth centuries. If possible, visitors recommend coming here in off-season when it is less crowded.