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:

the best first-timer china itinerary

 

Best First-Time China Itinerary | Linda Goes East


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.

Beijing
Beijing

The Great Wall of China | Linda Goes East


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”.

 

Shanghai | Linda Goes East

Jing An Temple
Jing An Temple

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.

Hangzhou | Linda Goes East

Sunset at West Lake (Xi Hu), Hangzhou by Peter Dowley
Sunset at West Lake (Xi Hu), Hangzhou by Peter Dowley

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”.

Xi'an Drum Tower | Linda Goes East

Big Goose Pagoda
Big Goose Pagoda

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.

Kunming Stone Forest | Linda Goes East

Xishuangbanna Autonomous Region, Yunnan
Xishuangbanna Autonomous Region, Yunnan

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.

Yuexiu Park
Yuexiu Park
Guangzhou, China
Guangzhou, China

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!

Hong Kong Victoria Peak
Hong Kong Victoria Peak
Macau St. Paul's Ruins | Linda Goes East
Macau St. Paul’s Ruins

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!

Pin it and save for later.

These are must-see places when visiting China for the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Thanks! I’ve been to Hong Kong a couple of times but not China yet, I’ll keep this in mind.

    • Nice! HK is so different from China! You should definitely go!

  • Aditi Chauhan

    Just got back from a Chinese vacation. Couldnt agree more with you on the first time itinerary options 🙂

    • Awesome! Where did you travel?

  • Jennifer Morrow

    Great photos and descriptions for each of the stops. I prefer to linger a bit longer and travel at a slower pace, but this gives a good structure.

  • Christine M Leger

    I have always wanted to go East. Thank you so much for the itinerary.

  • This i a really useful article, I love itineraries as they are the hardest thing to create, if you’ve never been to a county. I have been to Hong Kong and Macau, but only seen a small art of the rest of China (around Guilin) and your itinerary makes me want to go back and explore more

  • Oh this is so useful! I have no plans to visit China in the next year but it’s on my bucket list. I’ve pinned this for later 🙂

    • yay that’s awesome! thanks for pinning 🙂

  • Interesting – I’ve never been to China so really don’t know anything about it. I wonder what’s in the whole western side of the country.

    • The west is super interesting, too! The country is so huge and mostly populated in the eastern part of it. I haven’t gone very West yet either. It’s definitely cool, lots of Arab influence over there and Tibet also 🙂

  • Divya Rai

    Hey Linda,
    What a beautifully detailed post you have there! I intend to visit China soon, and will visit the places recommended by you.

  • Sheri

    Kunming really looks like a place worth visiting and yes, I had not heard about it or seen pictures of it before. I lived in Shanghaii for a year and there is so much to see and do in China.

  • Honestly, after reading your post, I really want to fly to China. HK is on my bucket list and I hope I could visit China and those places you mentionned soon enough! x

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  • Vyjay Rao

    We were in Hong Kong and Macau last December and realized we were so close to China but due to time constraints could not make it there. Your article is indeed a great reference for planning a trip to China, will keep it archived for future reference, thanks for sharing.

  • Tamshuk Saha

    I haven’t made it to China yet so this post is gonna help me big time in planning for my trip – whenever that is. I love your pictures, they are beautiful

  • My friend is now in China and since I have seen beautiful landscapes he post on Instagram, I want to go there too. It’s nice to read what is a must-see from the insiders point of view. I’d definitly would like to visit Hangzhou and Macau + Shanghai – never seen such a great and modern city before.

  • Rashmi&Chalukya

    Thanks for this post, you have captured China beautifully and made visiting China so much more easy. We have also observed we rarely get to see itineraries for China so this is definitely gonna help. Bookmarked 🙂

  • Jona | Backpacking with a Book

    For our upcoming long-term trip, we are going to stay in China for a month or so. We have this itinerary in mind. Thank you, Linda!

    • Great! I hope you have a blast when you go to China!

  • Thank you for these suggestions. I already know that the first time I go to China, I will want to spend a month there. So now I will know exactly where to go! And I’m sure I will want to include Hong Kong.

    • Awesome! I’m glad I could help! 1 month sounds like just the right time for the first visit to China! It’s such a big country!

  • You are right, I have never heard of Kunming before. Judging from your pictures I think I would be most interested in seeing Kunming and Hangzhou!

    • right? Kunming is mostly unknown but it’s truly one of the most beautiful areas in the country! Hangzhou is awesome as well, rich in culture and beautiful scenery! great choices!

  • Jessica Friend

    Linda I’m so pleased that I found your blog through Veronica’s travel blogger group. You have definitely given me the confidence to head East. I’ve travelled as far as Sri Lanka (living their for 4 months) and have road tripped quite a lot in the Westerly direction – but now its definitely time to head to China. 🙂

    • Thank you so much Jessica! I’m glad my blog can help you! Where are you headed in China?

  • Steven Kreimendahl

    This looks like such an amazing tour through China. If only I had 20+ days to spend traveling through there and other Asian countries!

    • You could definitely split it up and go a week here, another there!