China. Just utter the word at a party and you’ll get an avalanche of responses, each one different according to that person’s perspective. But there is one common thread…it’s one of the most intriguing places on the planet, and there are nine famous cities in China you must see.
Claiming 5,000 years of history and culture, the discoveries of tea, silk, papermaking, printing, the compass, and gunpowder, Confucianism, through dynastic rule, and on to Communism, Chinese culture has made an impact on the world. The last few decades have seen not just an increase in tourism abroad, but with its own citizens as the middle class continues to see economic growth.
The third largest country in the world, China is overflowing with interesting facts and places to see. Here are twelve famous cities in China not to be missed.
Beijing is definitely one of the best cities in China. Dating back to more than 3,000 years, Beijing is a city full of wonders. Originally known as Peking and origin of China’s most famous dish, Peking Duck, it is the capital of the People’s Republic of China. The city is located in northern China and is a contrast of modern urban architecture juxtaposed against the ancient hutong neighborhoods which still employ rickshaws to ride through the quiet warrens.
At 100 acres, Tiananmen Square is the largest public square, accommodating one million people. I can attest to the enormity of the space and throngs of people…it’s the only time in China that I was separated from my group and “lost” for around an hour. With the help of locals (all of whom insisted on having a photo with the blonde American!) and another tour guide, I was reunited with my group at the far end of the square – the “front door” to the Forbidden City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is the world’s largest palace complex, with 980 buildings, complete with a wall and moat for protection. The Forbidden City hosted the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It’s a virtual treasure trove of alleys and buildings to explore.
Of course, no trip to China would be complete without a visit to the imposing Great Wall, and no better entry than at Badaling in Beijing, the highest point of the Guanagou Gorge. The wall is wide enough for ten people to walk alongside each other, and depending on when you visit, that will be the case. However, if you get to the wall at the opening time and you take the more difficult passage by turning left at the entrance instead of going right with the throngs, your efforts will be rewarded with phenomenal, unobstructed views of the mighty serpentine structure. In case you ever wondered why the wall was constructed in such a winding manner, it’s because Chinese mythology states that demons can only travel in a straight line!
Here’s a complete guide for visiting Beijing.
Originally called Chang’an (“eternal city”), Xi’an it is the oldest of China’s four great ancient capitals, serving as the capital of 12 imperial dynasties dating from 221 BC. It rivals Egypt and Greece as the birthplace of civilization and is the eastern terminal of the Silk Road. The highlight of Xi’an is the opportunity to view the Terracotta Warriors, the most significant archeological excavations of the 20th century. Discovered in 1974, the UNESCO excavation site is a mausoleum of 8,000 life-sized ancient sculptures.
Here’s a complete planning guide for visiting Xi’an.
Chongqing is the most populous Chinese municipality. It is a mountainside city in southwest China with sprawling urban high-rise architecture and served as the country’s capital during World War II. Experiencing over 100 days of fog per year, the city is also known as the “Fog City.” One of the main advantages of Chongqing is its strategic location at the joining of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers making it the perfect start or stop point for cruising the scenic Three Gorges. Overlooking the city is Ci Qi Kou Old Town dating back to the Ming Dynasty, and the Yangtze River cable car is also a great way to get a bird’s eye view of the expansive city.
On the banks of the Yangtze River, Shibaozhai isn’t really a city, but a landing point to see the spectacular Buddhist temple of the same name, considered a national treasure. Perched on a craggy hill, the temple, known as “Precious Stone Fortress,” seems almost inaccessible. At times challenging, I did climb the 12-story spiral of rickety, aged wooden stairs to get to the red pavilion at the top. At the top of this sheer cliff, I was rewarded for my efforts with a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the Yangtze River and the surrounding countryside. The walk to get to the temple will take you through the local town and market where I found the best variety and price of local handicrafts and antiques in the country.
Wushan sits at the western entrance to the Wu Gorge of the famed Three Gorges. The highlight is taking a sampan boat for a leisurely cruise up the Goddess Stream, a narrow sparkling green tributary of the Yangtze enfolded by vertical rock walls. The stream only became accessible after the construction of the recent Three Gorges Dam, so it has retained its unspoiled beauty and splendor and offers jaw-dropping views of the towering craggy cliffs and dramatic scenery that you will not see anywhere else in China.
Sandouping is the ending point of the Xiling Gorge and is the hopping off point to see the Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. The dam, built in 2011, was designed to control the destructive flooding of the Yangtze River. As an added bonus, the dam contributes around one-ninth of China’s electricity. Unfortunately, it was very foggy the day I was there, but even so, what I could see of the massive undertaking was impressive.
Jingzhou would be unremarkable if not for its location as a transportation hub. Inside the city walls, there is an elementary school supported by Viking River Cruises which welcomes visitors. I, however, was very fortunate to get a unique opportunity to visit the local markets with head chef Danny Tang from Viking. I was the only non-Chinese person in the markets and it was an exciting and memorable time to learn about authentic Chinese ingredients and culture and to sample the traditional street food.
Wuhan is the capital city of Hubei Province and the financial, cultural, political and educational hub of central China, and is also the other gateway to the Yangtze Gorges. There are two main attractions here; one is the Hubei Provincial Museum which houses artifacts dating back to 433 BC. There are also musical bell performances at the museum, given for free to the public at various intervals during the day. The other attraction is the Yellow Crane Tower, inscribed with poems and a panorama of the river from the tower window.
I have to confess, before visiting, I hadn’t heard of Nanjing. Lying on the south bank of the Yangtze River, the city is the capital of China’s Jiangsu Province. Nanjing literally means “Southern Capital” and the city has a rich cultural heritage. It has alternated with Beijing as the capital of China across history and remains one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, along with Beijing, Xi’an, and Luoyang.
During the Ming Empire, Nanjing was the largest city in China. Evidence of the Ming Dynasty can be found throughout the city, including the massive Ming City Wall that encompasses the city. I loved walking on top of this wall, which was once one of the longest city walls in the world and still contains the Zhonghua Gate (Gate of China). At the scenic Purple Mountain (Zijinshan) area are the Ming Tombs of the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming dynasty, as well as the more recent Mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen – the father of the Republic of China probably the most important political figure and revolutionary in China.
A must-do is the night cruise along the Qinhuai River. You’ll glide by colorfully-lit views of some of the city’s most beautiful sites including the Bailu Zhou Garden, the Confucius Temple, the Zhanyuan Garden, and the Zhonghua Gate. Boats leave from the Qunhuai Scenic Area, a popular pedestrian area with lots of shops, gardens, restaurants.
Christened “the Venice of the East” by Marco Polo (who would know better than him?) and ranked the #1 Most Livable City in Mainland China by the Economist, Suzhou is one of my favorite places in China.
Suzhou (苏州 Sūzhōu /soo-joh/) is said to be the most affluent of China’s cities, known for its high culture and academic excellence. The city produces more laptop computers than any other place in the world and 80% of the world’s wedding dresses are created here. It’s cleaner and less polluted. Viewing the light show at SIP (Suzhou Industrial Park) from the rooftop bar at W is a must-do attraction.
But the soul of Suzhou is its 2,500-year-old Old Town. Dating as far back as 514 B.C., it’s known for its canals, bridges and classical gardens. There are over 60 preserved gardens, nine of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Hop on a boat to view Suzhou from one of its many sized canals around Old Town and beyond. Explore Tiger Hill with its leaning Yunyuan Temple and expansive bonsai garden. Take in a Chinese Kun Opera performance, observe how silk is made (Suzhou is considered China’s silk capital), take a tai chi class, or try the delicate, sweet local cuisine. You’ll run out of time before you run out of things to do and see in Suzhou.
You can see UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tongli, in one marvelous day, but make sure you don’t miss it if you’re in the area. The ancient water town is half an hour away from Suzhou city and about two hours from Shanghai by bus. Founded in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), Tongli is a network of narrow, scenic canals and ancient stone bridges. For centuries, the gondolas acted as water taxis traversing the labyrinth of canals. You simply must settle yourself into an old fashioned gondola to appreciate its antique beauty.
Arguably, the most picturesque view is where the three most famous bridges among the 49 stone bridges in Tongli bridges meet, Taiping Bridge (built in 1913), Jili Bridge (built in 1987), and Changqing Bridge (built in 1470 and rebuilt in 1704), each of which represents specific blessings to the locals. You can see the bridges from a gondola, but since Tongli is also a pedestrian town, it’s easy to find the spot by foot. In fact, I really enjoyed exploring the cobblestone paths – enticing smells leading me to an entire road of street food, the distinct Kun Opera voices luring me to the festive opera house, the visually-stunning Retreat and Reflection Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, souvenir shops, and tea houses.
I love to channel my inner five-year-old, so I could not pass up the (yes, touristy, so what?) opportunity to be photographed in a traditional Chinese formal dress of my choosing.
Ah, Shanghai, I saved the best for last. What once began as a tiny fishing village is now the largest city in China and the third largest in the world. The heart of Shanghai is the Bund, an upscale riverside boardwalk with colonial-era buildings on one side that have a distinctly European flavor. Lined on the other side of the Huangpu River is just the opposite – a sci-fi looking skyline. Your eye will be drawn to the pink spheres of the Oriental Pearl Tower and the lofty Shanghai. During the day, I loved walking and people-watching on the Bund, then taking refreshment in a tiny third-floor balcony of a mom-and-pop café overlooking the busy boardwalk. But nighttime is the best time on the Bund. The fluorescent, glittering cityscape across the river is spectacular! But do get there before 10 pm, because that’s when the lights go out, to the minute!
Just a short walk from the Bund and you’ll be in Shanghai’s old quarter, where you’ll find the charms of past China. Narrow alleys, markets selling all kinds of old and new treasures, and street food vendors all play their part. In the center of it all is the rambling Yuyan Garden, with its traditional pavilions, winding paths, towers, grottoes and ponds dating to the Ming Dynasty.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Viking River Cruises, Suzhou Tourism, Nanjing Tourism, and Historic Hotels Worldwide during her stay in China, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.