Between the culture, natural wonders, architecture, and food, there's no shortage of fascinating experiences for visitors to China. Let's take a look at our top 11!
1. Morning Tai Chi With The Locals
Tai chi and qi gong are very popular forms of exercise with roots in Chinese culture, and it's common to see groups of men and women exercising together in public parks and even on residential streets.
The ancient exercise is said to improve stamina and balance while helping practitioners to better control their bodies. The only thing you need to do to join in is ask politely! There are formal classes as well if you prefer a more instructive approach.
We recommend getting to one of these sessions before 8AM because that's when they start to get a little crowded. Most of these classes end around 9AM.
2. You Can't Skip The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City, located in the heart of Beijing near Tiananmen Square, is one of the primary tourist destinations in Beijing. But it's still can't-miss .
The Forbidden city was once the home of emperors, as its immense size attests. At a surprisingly spacious 7.8 million square feet, there's definitely room for a pool table.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site has plenty of things to check out once you're on the premise. Here you'll find the Palace Museum, one of the biggest in the world.
A note: don't be alarmed by the large police presence here and elsewhere. China still isn't a free country in the sense that westerners understand it, and "enhanced security" is just part of the price you have to pay to visit.
3. The Only Way To Tour Beijing
Forget tour buses and bicycle tours --- the traditional conveyances for exploring a city have nothing on a uniquely Chinese mode of transport: motorcycle sidecars.
Riding through one of the greatest capital cities in the world in an open-air sidecar is a truly one-of-a-kind way to appreciate your surroundings firsthand.
There are many official sidecar tours, so while you're admiring the seamless way those looming skyscrapers blend into ancient streets and alleys, your guides can give you a taste of Chinese history as well.
One highlight of most sidecar tours is the Siheyuan courtyards, compounds that used to house old Chinese family clans, with walls surrounding the houses. Families still share these courtyards today!
These sidecar tours are an excellent way to start a vacation because it gives travelers an opportunity to see a lot in a brief time, thus allowing you to plan lengthier activities for the remainder of your trip.
4. Gondola Ride
It turns out that China and Venice actually have some things in common. Venice is famous for gondola rides down its arterial canals, but China actually has bigger canals in some areas.
In Shanghai (Zhouzhuang area) and Hangzhou, canals dart between buildings and under timeless bridges that have been well-preserved.
The canals in Shanghai are on the outskirts of town, and a full day could be spent touring the Zhujiajiao Water Town and the surrounding scenery. Roughly a thousand years ago, Zhujiajiao was a village on the Grand Canal; its ancient bridges, estates, and gardens are still there, waiting to be explored.
This is a great place to elope from the noise and stress of Shanghai, and it's only an hour away!
5. The Finest Peking Duck
Looking for food that's been described as crispy, golden, and mouthwateringly delicious? Order up some Peking duck, a signature Beijing dish dating back to the Imperial era.
The most authentic renditions are more skin than meat, and they usually get sliced in front of diners by the cook, a very intimate experience. The general opinion in China is that the best Peking duck is served at Quanjude, which serves up over 2 million roasted ducks every year!
6. The #1 Camping Location In China
The Great Wall of China is one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country, and there's a reason it's been rated as the "top must-see attraction in the entire country." As one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it's hard to justify skipping this phenomenal spectacle if you're in the neighborhood.
There are a multitude of walking tours to choose from, but one of the most unique ways to experience the Great Wall is to spend a night on it!
You can purchase special camping packages that actually allow you to camp out inside a guard tower on the Wall; some visitors have actually detailed how to DIY a camping trip on the Wall.
One thing is for sure: it's a memory you won't soon forget!
7. Supreme Relaxation In A Hot Spring
Traveling can be exhausting, and with so much to see in China, it's important to carve out some R&R time to recharge. Perhaps the best way to do that is at an authentic Chinese hot spring.
China has a number of hot spring spas to choose from, but one of the most noteworthy is the Beijing Jinyu Fengshan Spa Resort which is just north of the capital. It has outdoor and indoor springs with varying temperatures, and landscapes that can afford a more private experience as desired.
If you're not in the Beijing area, you might want to check out the Dezong Hot Spring in Lhasa, Xiangcheng Ranwu Hot Springs in Sichuan, or Tianyi Hot Spring Resort in Suzhou.
8. Appreciate The Unique Local Cuisine
Sichuan cuisine is a must-have when you're in China, and a hotpot is a classic Sichuan dish to start with. It's quite spicy, so consider yourself warned! It's hard to avoid the heat when you're sampling Sichuan food, since it's predicated on the use of hundreds of seasonings to create one-of-a-kind hybrid flavors.
One of the most noteworthy Sichuan dishes is the "pockmarked granny" bean curd mapo tofu, a chili and bean dish with minced meat and water chestnut seasoning.
Of course, you can't leave China without trying the Kung Pao Chicken, which reads as 'Gongbao Jiding.' With fried and diced chicken and golden peanuts, the meal has become popular in North America as well. While it might be popular in the States, the buffer version doesn't hold a candle next to the real stuff!
Chengdu and Chongqing have some of the best Sichuan restaurants in all of China, and there are even tours that will take visitors to a string of the best eateries in the area!
9. A Hidden Gem In The Dunes
The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Beijing, and Shanghai are some of the biggest names in terms of Chinese travel destinations, but many lesser-known destinations have earned rave reviews recently.
Dunhuang Dunes, or the "City of Sands" as it's also known, is firmly entrenched in Chinese history as a resting stop on the Silk Road. Located near the border of Xinjiang, the city is surrounded by desert. While that might not sound exciting, it also has some really unusual activities!
The Mogao Caves have some ancient carvings and artwork and are definitely worth checking out, and the Buddhist caves will also give visitors some interesting historical information on the Silk Road. There are hundreds of caves, so don't count on seeing them all.
The greatest way to traverse the dunes and see the sights is on top of a camel, and camel rides are readily available from local guides.
10. One Of The Most Exciting New Year Celebrations In The World
New Years celebrations in capital cities such as New York are usually elaborate affairs, and China's celebration is no different --- except that it doesn't take place on December 31st.
China's New Year celebration is held in late January (sometimes into February) and the date is established by use of the Lunar calendar.
One of the highlights of Chinese New Year celebrations are fireworks like none other. The government always plans an elaborate fireworks show which lights up the sky, but the public joins in as well with their own fireworks display.
Many locals find their way to a rooftop so that they can appreciate the display for themselves, but the streets are always abuzz with people and activities as well.
If you're planning a China trip around January or February, try to plan it around one of the New Year celebration dates. Upcoming dates include: February 5, 2019; January 25, 2020; February 12, 2021.
11. Learn About Chinese Medicine
Herbs are a huge part of Chinese history, and are still used much more prevalently than in North America.
What better place to learn about the role of herbs in Chinese wellness than the Museum of Chinese Medicine, located at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine?
The museum holds a massive collection including 200 ancient medicinal books and over 1,000 medicinal objects.
The Museum is open to visitors and even offers free introductions on Saturdays.