When planning your first trip to China, it can be hard to know where to start. It’s such a vast country with so much to offer. Unless you have years to spare, there’s no way you can see it all… Really, you probably need a lifetime. To make the decision easier, we, at Slightly Off The Beaten Track, have compiled a list of five famous cities in China you won’t want to miss.  

Chinese Cities as a Base for Wider China Travel

Each of the places mentioned below are not only fantastic to visit in their own right, but also great spots to act as a base while you explore the outlying area. Wider travel is something we really recommend when in a Chinese city for at least a few days.

If you travel smart, it’s perfectly possible to make the most of your time in China and really get a feel for your surrounding towns and cities.

We have visited each of these places at least once and each has left us wanting to go back.  We hope that this list can inspire you to take the plunge to go and discover China. 

1. Xi’an 

Xi’an is one of our favourite cities in China, located in the Central-North -West of the country. Packed full of history; Xi’an is China’s oldest official capital city and a great destination.

Famous terracotta warriors lines up in a museum in Xian, one of the most famous cities in China.

You may know Xi’an for the world famous Terracotta Warriors (the ancient tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor). But, there is so much more to this place.

The heart of Xi’an is the ancient city, surrounded by a moat and a giant wall (which is great to cycle around). Inside hides many of Xi’an’s treasures, not least the ancient bell and drum towers. 

The Famous Silk Road

Xi’an is the starting point of the Silk Road, and thus has always had a connection to the Middle East. This connection can still be seen now in the Muslim Quarter within the city walls. This is the place to feast your senses and eat incredible street food. Wander down its narrow alleys till the tourists lessen and you find out what locals get up to.

Outside the ancient walls, Xi’an is a modern and vibrant place that hasn’t forgotten its roots. Choose to spend a day in a giant arcade. Visit the 7thcentury Buddhist Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. Or, just get lost for a day.   

When (if) you tire of the city, there are mountains surrounding you on all sides. These offer beautiful hikes, hidden lakes and some fresh air. There is a lot to choose from; among them Cui Hua, Mount Hua (Hua Shan).

2. Chengdu

Chengdu is another of our favourite Chinese cities. It’s a giant city, famous amongst the Chinese as ‘China’s happiest city’; and it’s easy to see why! Despite its vast size, there is something relaxing about the atmosphere. That might be thanks to the strong culture of tea drinking with friends or game playing in the park.

Most people’s main reason for coming here is to visit the Research Base of Giant Pandas. This is a really lovely and educational day out, but there is a lot else to do here too. 

2 baby giant Chinese pandas lay down on a wooden platform in the forrest in Chengdu.

Bustling Streets Full of Art and Entertainment

The historic and artsy ‘Wide and Narrow Alley’ offers souvenir shopping and art. There’s also live street performances as well as beautiful architecture. Dufu’s thatched cottage offers a glimpse into the life of an ancient poets world, and offers a lovely and reasonably priced tea house.

There are also temples and nunneries where you can really immerse yourself in local culture. Join the locals and monks in a humble but tasty meal. 

Just outside of Chengdu, a short train ride away, is the Leshan Buddha. This is possibly one of the most incredible stone depictions of Buddha, and certainly the biggest, you will ever see. Nearby is Mount Emei, one of China’s Four Holy Buddhist mountains. This is faced by the LeShan Buddha, just waiting for you to hike and explore.

Here is a 5 day itinerary for Chengdu, Leshan City, and Mount Emai.

3. Kunming

Kunming is the capital city of Yunnan Province, right in the South West corner of China.  It borders Tibet, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar and is a gateway to South East Asia.

Comparisons can be seen throughout; from the food (first time we’d eaten mint in China for example!), to the more typically tropical plants and even some of the architecture.  

Chinese lady dressed in perforce clothing of red and black feather clothing with tassels, dancing in a square in Kunming one of the most famous cities in china.

Yunnan province has many groups of ethnic minorities, who also live in some of these other countries. It’s a great hub for people to use as a wider entrance to Yunnan Province. The city itself is not to be missed. It’s known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’, and when we visited in November, we could clearly see why. Bright flowers and sunshine greeted us round every corner.

Distant view of natural rock formations surrounded by trees and bushes.

A Famous Chinese City for Ethnic Minorities

Kunming itself is a really lovely city, with a cool vibe and lots of great places to eat. It also has some of China’s not to be missed city parks.  The Village of Ethnic Minorities is a really interesting day out. Also, witness some of the hallmarks of 26 of China’s ethnic minorities and their traditions. 

Further out is beautiful Dali Ancient Town, which is worth at least a 3 day visit. The town sits at the foot of amazing mountains and next to the massive ErHai Lake. Here you can choose to hike, or rent a bike to visit Bai Minority villages that are dotted around the lake. Or, just relax in one of it’s many cool café’s. 

From Kunming you can also visit Lijiang town, recommended to us by many Chinese and tourists. Unfortunately we didn’t get to visit this time round, but it’s on our list.

4. Hefei

To many, Hefei may seem like an unusual place for me to mention, as it’s not famed for its tourism. However, I’m going to make a case for it even if it isn’t one of the most famous cities in China.  

Two people walking up to a stone, tall, pointed building surrounded by concrete paths leading up to it and beautiful trees.

Hefei is the capital of Anhui province and a short train ride away from Shanghai. Often overlooked by tourists, it has a lot to offer. The highlights are the historic Lord Bao park and pagoda, several museums and LiHong Zhang’s former residence, as well as a busy city centre.  

A Peaceful and Relaxing Overlooked City

On the outskirts of the city is the mammoth Lake of Chaohu, the biggest lake we have ever seen. It is a popular weekend hang-out spot for locals with kites and tents.  Right on one side are some lovely wetlands, with fun wibbly-wobbly bridges, old style buildings with calligraphers, and a ‘Rabbit Island’.  

Also close by is pretty Sanhe Ancient Town. This is definitely worth a visit due to it’s interesting history and mix of small and large temples.

Still lake in the centre of Hefai, surrounded by green and orange trees and skyscrapers reflecting on lake water.

A Short Ride Away from China’s Old Capital

What makes Hefei really great, however, is how well connected it is. With great ease you can visit China’s old capital Nanjing, the iconic Yellow Mountains (seriously not to be missed!), and many historic, smaller towns.  

Like tea? There are tea villages a-plenty. If you prefer, you can head to Bozhou. Here you’ll find the characteristic Anhui Opera and underground city walls. You can also learn about Chinese traditional medicine, as it’s the top producing medicine town.

Wuhu is known for unique geographical features, typical Anhui cuisine and long history. All of these places can be easily reached from understated Hefei city.

5. Beijing

Beijing almost didn’t make it to the list, as I thought it an almost too obvious choice. But honestly, it really is one of the best places to start for people wishing to travel China. And of course, one of the most famous cities in China.

The great wall of chine pictured from above on top mountain peaks.

It doesn’t really need an introduction; everybody knows to visit Tianmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall.

Side note: The Great Wall of China, isn’t actually one continuous wall. Instead, it’s a series of different walls dotted around the whole country; all in various states of preservation. Some are no more than rubble on the ground, others look like the pictures you’ve seen. Even in Beijing there is a choice of places you can visit; chose the one that’s right for you, especially if you want to avoid the masses of tourists. 

The Most Well-Connected City

To get out of the city, take a 2 hour bus ride to Hanshiqiao Wetlands. Known for great bird watching and for a spot of pampering at Chun Hui Yuan Hot springs. Something highly recommended. 

As the capital, Beijing is incredibly well connected by train, plane and bus. Take advantage of that! Want to visit Shanghai, no problem. Trying to get to the Harbin in the North East for its amazing winter wonderland; just hop on a train.

From Beijing – China is your oyster!

chinese men on a boat on still water surrounded by mist and fog with mountains in the background
Roxanna Kennedy

Roxanna and Danny recently made the decision to quit their jobs and start travelling. "People always tell us there's never a right time to do the things you want.. Whether it's have a child, change your career or travel the world. Well, we found the right time, so we've dropped everything and left. Let's see what happens!" Check out all their latest posts via their blog, Slightly Off the Beaten Track.

Author Roxanna Kennedy

Roxanna and Danny recently made the decision to quit their jobs and start travelling. "People always tell us there's never a right time to do the things you want.. Whether it's have a child, change your career or travel the world. Well, we found the right time, so we've dropped everything and left. Let's see what happens!" Check out all their latest posts via their blog, Slightly Off the Beaten Track.

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