So you’re planning a trip to China, or you may already live here. We’ve all heard of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, but where else is there to go in China? China is much more than its biggest cities. China is s a huge country with different cultures, languages, foods and customs. From bustling cities to lush countrysides, I’ve created a list of recommendations to suit any kind of traveler.
Here’s my list of the 10 Best off the Beaten Path Places to Visit in China!
1. Xi’an and Shaanxi Province
Best for: Adventurous types, thrill seekers, history buffs, foodies, culture
Time: 2-3 days
Trust me: I studied abroad here for 3 months summer 2012, and headed back for 10 days in the fall of 2016!
The Terracotta Warriors
China’s ancient capital Xi’an is home to the famous Terracotta Warriors! Commissioned by the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, the massive pit of reconstructed terracotta soldiers and horses is awe-inspiring and a must-see for anyone visiting China. These soldiers are life-size and every single one is individually different from the others.
Explore the City
However, Xi’an has much more to offer than just the UNESCO World Heritage site; it also contains one of the only ancient city walls still left standing in China. Rent a bike and ride around the city wall where you can get great views of the whole downtown area.
Xi’an is also home to a thriving Hui Muslim population. Check out the city mosque and Muslim Market (Huimin Jie) where you can snack on noodles and lamb kabobs while souvenir shopping. If you love food, Xi’an is the place to be. While Xi’an is famous for its many different types of noodle dishes, my favorite Xiannese cuisine is rou jiamo, the Chinese version of a pulled pork sandwich!
Hua Shan and the Plank Walk
If you’re a thrill seeker and adventure lover make sure you tack on an extra day or two to visit Hua Shan, the most dangerous hike in the world. While most of the climb consists of stone steps, there are a few sections where hikers must walk along faint-inducing wooden platforms while harnessed to a rope line drilled into the mountain. For those that would rather not risk their lives, Xi’an has a few more mountains in the area suitable for basic hikers and families.
Best for: Families, cruises, spicy food lovers, history buffs
Time: 3 days or more
Trust me: I spent 4 days here the summer of 2012 and returned again in May 2015
Spicy Chinese Food
A haven for spicy food lovers, Chongqing is the birthplace of hot pot: order any sort of meat or vegetable imaginable and cook it in a boiling spicy broth. Trust me, you’ll leave with a full belly, a numb mouth and a giant smile on your face. Keep in mind, most places also offer a non-spicy version, but if you order spicy make sure to order “wei la” (medium) or you may not be able to taste anything for a few days.
Ciqikou and the Yangtze
In addition to one of my favorite Chinese cuisines, Chongqing has a great “old town” street called Ciqikou where you can wander, buy souvenirs and eat traditional snacks. If you visit Chongqing be sure to book a day tour through your hostel or hotel to the Dazu caves. Dazu is a UNESCO heritage site for good reason. Built into the stone walls are ancient Tang dynasty Buddhist carvings. While a lot of the color has worn off due to exposure, the carvings are extremely detailed and intricate.
Finally, if you have a few days to spare, book a cruise down the Yangtze river. While western tours can be a bit out of budget for backpackers, Chinese cruises are much cheaper (but lack in amenities and cleanliness).
3. Sichuan Province
Best for: Backpackers, panda lovers, spicy food, adventurous types, families
Time: 5 days-1.5 weeks (depending on if you go to northern Sichuan)
Trust me: I spent a week and a half backpacking through Sichuan in June 2012, and three days in Chengdu in May 2015
The Giant Panda Reserve
Sichuan is one of my favorite provinces in China. The capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, is home to the Giant Panda Reserve. Here you can watch baby giant pandas playing with each other while adults scarf down bamboo with surprising voracious speed. The reserve also has red pandas, which are just as cute as their larger cousins.
If you like spicy food, be sure to try out Sichuan’s famous fish dishes as well as my personal favorite, mapuo dofu (soft tofu in a spicy sauce).
Day trips to Leshan and Emei Shan
Just south of the capital are two of the most famous sites in China: the Leshan Buddha and Mt. Emei. The Leshan Buddha is the largest carved stone buddha in the world! The average person is about the size of this giant’s pinkie toe. Not too far away is Mt. Emei, known for its monkeys and the golden statue at its peak. Extreme hikers can try to hike the mountain over the course of two days, while most people want to consider the bus pass which will take you most of the way to the top.
Note to travelers: don’t try to hike 10 hours down the entire mountain in one day. Trust me, your legs will never forgive you.
The Tibetan Plateau
Finally, if you have some time to spare, head up to northern Sichuan located on the Tibetan plateau. Budget travelers can take a seven-hour bus up to Songpan, while those with a bit more cash can opt to fly. Songpan is a great starting point for 1-3 day horse treks in the mountains of the Tibetan plateau where you will be greeted by cute, fluffy yaks. There is also a lot of great hiking in the area. Don’t let Lonely Planet fool you, the city of Songpan itself deserves a day of exploring.
In addition to Songpan, the must-see destination of the north is Jiuzhaigou. A world-famous UNESCO heritage site, Jiuzhaigou is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Mountain snow melts down into a valley of rivers and pools where the water is crystal clear. So clear, in fact, that you can see all the way down to the bottom of these deep pools. Since the pools act as mirrors, the mountains and clouds are perfectly reflected into the water. While you may google Jiuzhaigou and think the images are photoshopped, just know from a fellow traveler that it really is that beautiful. My digital camera photos don’t do it justice.
*Chongqing is a two-hour train ride from Chengdu, making it convenient to visit these two places together.
Best for: Adventurous types, hikers, Avatar fans
Time: 2-3 days
Trust me: I visited for four days in summer 2014!
Zhangjiajie, otherwise known as the “Hallelujah Mountains”, is the inspiration for the floating mountains in the movie Avatar. Visitors can purchase a three-day pass where they can hike through these beautiful mountain peaks. One look at these mountains on a cloudy day and you’ll know where the inspiration came from. Adventure lovers can also choose to river raft through the mountains at an additional cost. The inspiration of many travel Pinterest Boards and bucket lists, Zhangjiajie is a must-see.
Zhangjiajie also hosts the Tianmen mountains where one can take a hair-raising 30-minute cable car through the mountains to witness shockingly vertical cliffs and wander out onto a glass platform floor! Visitors can also hike up hundreds of stairs to the “Heavenly Gate”, a hole in the side of the mountain with stunning views. Just note that the Tianmen mountains boast an additional entrance fee (but it’s worth it!)
Best for: Winter China trips, festival lovers, people who can handle extreme cold, culture buffs, art lovers
Time: 2-3 days
Trust me: I went there for 4 days this winter (February 2014)
The Harbin Ice Festival
Harbin is most famous for its Ice Festival that lasts all winter until the snow melts. The Ice Festival is a winter wonderland of buildings, statues, and interactive exhibits all made of ice. The ice is even lit up with colored lights placed inside the ice blocks, so it is best viewed at night. During the day, visitors can walk across the frozen lake to Sun Island where giant snow carvings await. Both the ice and snow exhibits are works of art that are worth braving the cold to see.
Located in China’s Heilongjiang province, Harbin was once a part of Russia and still contains a vast amount of Russian culture, architecture, and food. Spend an afternoon wandering Zhongshan street, and make a quick trip to the St. Sophia church to appreciate the Russian historical architecture. Be sure to also try the local sausage and homemade bread, as well as the large, cheap bars of chocolate. Finally, Harbin is home to the Siberian Tiger Park, where visitors are the ones in cages! You can wander above the park on elevated walkways and ride a jeep through the park within a few feet of these giant tigers. The park even has a Liger!
It’s a bit chilly in Harbin
Winter is by far the best time to visit Harbin, but keep the temperature in mind: Harbin is FREEZING COLD. I wore three pairs of pants and my legs would still get numb from the cold. I also got teeth freezes just from breathing. Be prepared for your electronics to randomly loose battery as well. Never fear, though! You can take out the batteries, warm them up and put them back in to restore the charge. While Harbin is the coldest place I have ever been in my life, it still doesn’t stop tourists from enjoying the local ice cream; I still don’t understand.
Best for: Culture buffs, gamblers, those already planning a trip to Hong Kong
Time: Day trip
Trust me: I visited spring 2012
For those of you planning a trip to Hong Kong, be sure to reserve an extra day for Macau. Most known for its casinos, Macau is a great day trip from Hong Kong. A quick two-hour ferry ride will take you to the island of Macau, another autonomous region of China, with its own currency and distinct culture.
While Hong Kong was a British colony, Macau belonged to the Portuguese. Spend the day admiring Macau’s Portuguese architecture and European influence. In the evening, check out Macau’s famous casinos, especially the Venetian, the largest casino in the world. Staying in Macau is pretty pricy, but the ferry runs late, so it is entirely possible to return to the mainland in the evening. Just be sure to buy the ticket home in advance so you’re not stuck on the island!
6. Guilin and Yangshuo
Best for: outdoor adventures, hiking, rice terraces
Time: 4 days- 1 week
Trust me: I visited for 10 days in fall 2013
Guilin and Yangshuo are some of the most beautiful places in China. An hour apart by bus, these two cities are perfect for exploring China’s outdoors and enjoying the warm southern weather. Spend a day or two wandering the city of Guilin and explore its famous rock formations. Venture out of the city by bus to visit Guilin’s rice terraces, which are golden in the fall. Stay overnight in a village and hike around the terraces if you have time.
While Guilin is a bustling city, Yangshuo is a smaller city popular with tourists. Littered with hostels, international restaurants, and bars, you can spend many afternoons and evenings walking around Yangshuo’s West Street. Yangshuo is also a great starting point for outdoor activities like biking, hiking and enjoying the river on a bamboo raft. I would personally recommend taking a trip to the mud caves and hot springs!
8. Yunnan Province
Best for: hiking, backpackers, culture buffs, outdoors, Chinese minority culture
Time: 10 days
Trust me: I traveled through Yunnan spring 2012
Yunnan is another one of my favorite provinces in China. With so much to do and so many places to see, it’s hard to know where to start when it comes to this vast province. The capital Kunming, otherwise known as “Spring City”, is the only large city in Yunnan. Many of the places worth seeing in Yunnan can only be reached by bus or private car (if you have the cash).
Dali and Lijiang
The first must-see place in Yunnan is Dali. Situated in the mountains near a beautiful lake, Dali is one of the most picturesque cities in China. It’s also home to many western hippies and locals who may or may not offer to sell you marijuana.
The next stop in Yunnan is Lijiang, home of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which can be reached by cable car. Be sure to check out the Chinese minority dance performance at the base of the mountain; it’s absolutely spectacular. Lijiang is also home to an “old town” with many shops and food stalls. Locals may perform choreographed dances at night and encourage you to join in!
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Far to the north is Tiger Leaping Gorge, an awe-inspiring canyon surrounded by terrace farms, guest houses, and villages. It’s possible to hike the best parts in a full day, but many enjoy hiking along the gorge for a few days, staying at guest houses along the way. Tiger Leaping gorge is one of the most incredible places I have ever been and by far the most amazing hike I have ever done. Finally, Xishuangbana to the south is a beautiful, tropical oasis near Vietnam. Rent bikes and ride through plantations while enjoying the humid weather.
9. Xinjiang Province
Best for: Culture buffs, Muslim culture, Chinese minorities, foodies, history lovers
Time: 10 days
Trust me: I traveled here summer 2012
Uighur Muslim Culture
Most famous for its separatist political strife, Xinjiang is a mecca of Uighur Muslim culture. Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, has been slowly becoming more and more “Chinese” as the government encourages Han Chinese to move to the city. While Urumqi may not seem so different from the rest of China, it’s a great place to see the famous Caucasian mummies!
The Caucasian Mummies!
In the distant past, Xinjiang was populated by a group of people known as Proto-Indo-Europeans. These people had blonde and red hair and wore Celtic patterned wool cloth. While these mummies are technically “petrified corpses”, the Proto-Indo-Europeans purposely buried their dead to preserve their bodies. The Chinese government intentionally designs the museum to make it seem like ethnic Chinese and Proto-Indo-Europeans inhabited Xinjiang at the same time, so make sure to read up on the history beforehand.
Urumqi also has a very large bazaar that sells beautiful Xinjiang cloth, saffron and tea among many other things. Finally, head out to the Tianshan “Heavenly” mountains to see yurts and rocky red cliffs.
Kashgar and Yarkent
After Urumqi, take a two-hour flight to Kashgar where you can see the “real Xinjiang”. Kashgar is almost entirely inhabited by Uighurs and Hui minority peoples. Many Uighurs look Kazakh, while a rare few have “Western” features like blonde hair and blue eyes. People in Western Xinjiang speak Uighur, a Turkic language, and almost everyone is Muslim. While ladies do not need to cover their heads outside of mosques, it is respectful to dress conservatively and not wear anything low-cut or above the knee.
Kashgar is famous for having the largest mosque in China. It’s also a great starting point for a quick trip to Yarkent, a small city that most Westerners have never been to. Yarkent was a very prominent city in the Uighur kingdom and has many beautiful historical sites worth visiting. There is also a large local outdoor market that sells everything from donkeys to fresh honey and even severed goat heads!
Finally, Xinjiang is a great place for amazing food. Famous for its lamb kabobs, naan bread, and fruit, Xinjiang is a great place to sample the local fare. Be sure to buy the fresh local honey. Some vendors even grind nuts in with the honey, which you can eat as a healthy snack.
Best for: adventure, culture, historic sites, hiking, social justice knowledge, scenery
Time: 8-15 days
Trust me: I took an 8-day tour from Lhasa to Kathmandu this summer 2013
Last but not least, Tibet is one of the most revered “off the beaten path” places to visit. Let me preface by saying that visiting Tibet is extremely difficult, but it can be done. There were definitely times I wanted to pull my hair out or give up, but I am so incredibly glad I persevered.
How to Find a Tour
Firstly, to visit Tibet you need to book a tour; you will not be allowed into Tibet without a tour guide. Most Tibetan tours are extremely expensive for a young person, and some of the tour groups are very large. Through the advice of a friend, I found Tibetan Shaman Tours*, which I highly recommend. These tours are run by a Tibetan man named Lumbum, and a few fellow Tibetan guides.
My tour guide Denzin was extremely knowledgeable, adventurous, and hilarious. He is also Buddhist and gave us great insight into all of the temples we visited. Lumbum also allows custom-designed tours, and all accommodation, food and temple fees are paid for separately, meaning you can make your trip as cheap or expensive as you want!
*Lumbum’s website isn’t working right now, but you can still book a trip to Tibet with him! Contact me for more details.
Booking the Right Tour
Most tour companies will do short Lhasa tours, week-long trips to Kathmandu, 10-15 day trips to Everest and back, and multi-week long treks through the Tibetan countryside. Obviously, it’s important to pick the tour that is right for you, but I would definitely recommend seeing more than just Lhasa. Tibet is such a difficult country to enter; make the most of your trip! I did the
I did the 8-day tour from Lhasa to Kathmandu, and it was incredible! We stayed in a different place every night, and I took so many amazing photos. The tour even allowed me to spend a few days in Nepal, a country I never imagined I would visit! I highly recommend trying to enter Tibet while you can. Save up the money, it’s a trip of a lifetime!
If you travel to Tibet, make sure you acclimate yourself to the Tibetan altitude. This means no caffeine or alcohol a week before your trip (I know, it’s hard for us coffee lovers) and lots of water. Be sure to take Dayquil and Advil: Trust me, I caught a cold in Tibet and it was horrible!
While most sites recommend taking the train, the train itself isn’t always enough. Spend a few days in Xining, Qinghai (another “off the beaten path” place), enjoy Qinghai lake and acclimate to the altitude. You may experience some altitude sickness in Qinghai (especially if you go to the lake), so take it easy, enjoy Qinghai and take the train to Lhasa from there.
There’s So Much More to China!
If China wasn’t already on your list, I hope it is now! China is so much more than the polluted, dirty, crowded images of Beijing or the giant cosmopolitan skyscrapers of Shanghai. I’ve spent years exploring China and I still haven’t seen it all! Take my advice and check out some of these gems. You may just have the trip of a lifetime.
Your ULTIMATE Guide to China
I get it, China is an intimidating destination. From the sheer size to the language barrier, the strange food, and the internet censorship, China isn’t the easiest country to plan a trip.
For the last few years, I’ve been answering question after question about travel in China. Where to go. What to eat. How to get around the internet censorship.
But now I’ve compiled all of the answers into a detailed 6,000+ word guide that contains everything you need to know for your trip. Help me help you by grabbing your FREE Ultimate Guide to China below!