China has become a top destination for travellers from all corners of the earth over the past few years. This is no surprise since the country has so many exceptional places and sites to offer. Rich in culture, history and food variety, China should be on everybody’s travel bucket list. However, due to its enormous size, you need to choose wisely when planning your first trip. Having lived in China for 1.5 years, I know exactly which places you absolutely must check out when traveling to China and created this perfect China itinerary!
Here is the best first-timer China itinerary for a 20+ day trip:
1. Start in Beijing (2-3 days)
I recommend starting off your journey in Beijing, since most international flights will lead you here (or to Shanghai). If you’re on a tight schedule, 2 days are completely enough to see all the things you absolutely need to see, including the Great Wall. Things to put on your itinerary include: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the oldest Peking duck restaurant, Beihai Park and the Summer Palace.
2. Shanghai (2 days)
You can either take a domestic flight from Beijing to Shanghai (2 hours/$50-$90 one-way) or be a little more adventurous and take the high-speed train (4-5 hours/$80). Shanghai is the financial capital of the country and can be explored very fast due to the reliable transportation system. Make sure to see the following attractions before moving on: The Bund, Jade Buddha Temple, Yuyuan Garden, Jing’An Temple, Nanjing Lu Shopping Street, Shanghai World Financial Center.
For detailed information check out my “Compact Shanghai Itinerary”.
3. Hangzhou (2-3 days)
Take the bullet train from Shanghai into Hangzhou costing you a mere $10 for 50 minutes of travel. Hangzhou used to be the most advanced and sophisticated place on earth centuries ago. Still today, there is a certain feeling you get when you wander through its streets that’s simply magical. Hangzhou is a gem of a city with the majestic West Lake and famous watertown Wenzhou just outside the city.
4. Xi’an (3 days)
Xi’an is one of my favorite cities I have visited and I absolutely had to include it in my China itinerary. However, since it lies a little more central in the country, you are best to take a domestic flight from Hangzhou (2.5 hours/$60 one-way). Xi’an also used to be a strong capital of China and is the place where the famous Emperor Shi Huangdi had built his Terracotta Warriors to protect him in the afterlife. However, this exciting city has much more to offer. Be sure to check out: the Muslim Quarter, the Great Mosque, Xi’an City Wall, Drum & Bell Tower, and the Big Goose Pagoda.
For detailed information check out my “Compact Xi’an Itinerary”.
5. Kunming (4 days)
You might wonder why you should spend more time in this place you’ve probably never even heard of. Let me assure you, you will not be disappointed if you extend your stay in Kunming and the entire Yunnan province! Yunnan is often dubbed the most beautiful province of China and there’s no doubt that’s true. Once you are in Kunming, you are able to take various buses or trains to nearby hidden gems such as the cities of Lijiang, Dali or even Jinghong in Xishuangbanna Autonomous region. Yunnan is a stunning province and you will look back and say that this was your favorite part of your China trip!
Check out this detailed itinerary for Kunming.
6. Guangzhou (2 days)
Being the third largest city in the country, Guangzhou is definitely worth a short stop. Take either an overnight train (16.5 hours/$55) or a short 2.5-hour flight for around $100. Having lived in Guangzhou for 7 months, I came to know this place like no other. What’s so unique about Guangzhou is the Southern Chinese influence with dim sum being served in the afternoons and Cantonese being spoken on the streets rather than standard Mandarin. You find the best markets and nightclubs right here in this city!
Check out why Guangzhou is my favorite Chinese city.
Bonus: Macau and Hong Kong (3 days)
Once you made it to Guangzhou, Macau and Hong Kong are just within reach! You can easily take a train to the border crossing between Mainland China and Macau (a former Portuguese colony and the “Las Vegas of the East”). Here, you only really need to spend 1 day to explore all of the small city and even gamble a little. From Macau, take a ferry over to Hong Kong. Don’t forget that both Macau and Hong Kong are special regions and do not use Renminbi (Chinese Yuan) but their own currencies. After spending around 2 days in Hong Kong, take the international flight back home!
The Trip of Your Life
If you got inspired by this 20-day China itinerary, plan your trip now! China is a great place to visit anytime during the year, but the spring and fall months ensure a milder climate. No matter when you are visiting China, the country will definitely leave its marks on you!
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