11 Best Cities to Visit in China

October 02, 2023

China is a vast and diverse country that beckons travellers with a rich tapestry of history, culture, and natural beauty. Whether you have chosen to see the awe-inspiring Great Wall or the futuristic skyline of Shanghai, China offers a range of experiences for those seeking to explore its "best cities".

Whether you're drawn to ancient traditions, modern innovation, or breathtaking landscapes, China has a city to captivate your senses and leave you with unforgettable memories.

Here's a look at the 11 Best Cities to Visit in China.

Beijing (北京)

It's no surprise that Beijing is the obvious starting point for this article as it is the starting point for many first-time travellers to the country. The city and neighbouring areas provide many attractions and landmarks to enjoy.

Starting in Beijing allows visitors to see many of the most famous locations in China, such as the Great Wall of China (长城), Forbidden City (紫禁城), and Summer Palace (颐和园) etc.


The Forbidden City in Beijing, China-Photo by Mehmet

Shanghai (上海)

A "China's must visit" list would not be complete without the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai. Shanghai has everything you could ever want from a city. With thousands of restaurants to eat at and plenty of sights scattered around the city, Shanghai is arguably the liveliest of all cities in China.

Make sure to visit the French Concessions (上海法租界), the Bund (外滩), Jingan Temple (静安寺), Tianzifang (田子坊) art district, Yu Gardens (豫园) and take a photo of the renowned Shanghai skyline. For those who want to enjoy the "Venice of China" can take a bus to the Qingpu District (青浦区) and visit Zhujiajiao (朱家角镇).

If at any point you want to get away from the most populated city in China, you can take the fast train (高铁) to several nearby places, such as Hangzhou and Suzhou, which are within a couple of hours or so.


Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai-Photo by Mehmet

Shenzhen (深圳)

Shenzhen offers the perfect example of how China has changed over the last few decades. The port city has seen plenty of skyscrapers and malls erected, which has given the place a different feel from other major cities.

Shenzhen has plenty of beautiful parks that you can visit, but the nightlife is more of a pull. COCO Park is the perfect location to enjoy an entire day of eating, drinking, and having fun.

The city is the perfect gateway to Hong Kong (香港) and Macau (澳门), locations that have more to offer in terms of sights and shopping opportunities. This factor alone makes Shenzhen an excellent place to stay as it is much cheaper for accommodation.


Xi'an (西安)

Xi'an, located in Jiangsu Province, is one of China's ancient capitals, and the city where the Silk Road started over two millenniums ago.

Xi'an is a beautiful city that gives a feel of what Ancient China must have been like. The city has a wall built around the central area for people to walk or cycle around, giving visitors a view of the entire city.

Just a short ride away is the world-renowned Terracotta Army (兵马俑), created by China's first Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) to protect him in the afterlife. The history and designs behind the sculptures are fascinating.

For food lovers, the Muslim quarter will satisfy your needs. Lousy with restaurants, there's enough food for you and an entire army of friends and family. Make sure to get yourself a "Roujiamo" (肉夹馍) - a type of bun with meat in it.

The Drum and Bell Tower (鼓楼) and the Great Mosque of Xi'an (西安大清真寺) are in the same area of the city. The latter ranks among the oldest, largest, and most well-preserved Mosques in China.

Zhangjiajie (Hunan Province)

Located in Hunan Province, Zhangjiajie is a must-visit for any traveller. Wulingyuan (武陵源), which lies to the north of Zhangjiajie, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, and when you see the scenic area, you will understand the inclusion.

With the karst formations, beautiful parks, mountains, and serene lakes, Zhangjiajie provides an exceptional feeling of nature. For those who do not want to do too much climbing, a cable car - highly advised - is available to access the highest point of the park.

Plus, you get to see the location where some of the highest-grossing movies in history, Avatar and Journey to the West, were made.


Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province, China-Photo by Mehmet

Chengdu (Sichuan Province)

Sichuan Province (四川省), home of the panda, has plenty to see and do for all, from hiking adventures to eating hot pot.

Chengdu (成都) is a great place to start. The capital city of Sichuan Province has the feel of a calmer big city, with lots more natural greenery than many other major cities in China.

Make sure to visit the Giant Panda Research and Conservation Centre (成都大熊猫繁育研究基地) to get a glimpse of the cute bears in something close to their natural habitat. You can also enjoy a walk around this beautiful city and visit the Wenshu Yuan Monastery (文殊院).

Just a short train ride from Chengdu are Emei (峨眉) and Leshan (乐山). Emei Mountain has cultural importance in China as it is the place where Buddhism is said to have first made its appearance in the country. For people who trust their hiking ability, you can start a two-day hike from the foot of the mountain. Just be aware that once you make the decision to go on, there's no going back. Going back is as tough as continuing. Alternatively, you can travel to a spot 2km from the summit via bus or car, then either walk the rest or go on a cable car.

To view the Giant Buddha at Leshan will require much less walking, but make sure to get there early. A short walk away is the Oriental Buddha Park (东方佛都) opened in 1994. Albeit not as impressive as the Giant Buddha carved into the rock face, the carvings at the Oriental Park will leave you with a lasting impression.

Giant Buddha-Leshan, Sichuan

The Giant Buddha in Leshan, Sichuan, China-Photo by Mehmet

Zhangye (Gansu Province)

Not as popular as some of the other provinces of China, yet equally beautiful is Gansu. The capital city of Lanzhou, famous for the beef noodles named after it (兰州拉面), has a relaxed feel to it. Although not too different from what most Chinese cities offer, a nicely situated place to reach some of the most unique sites China has to offer.

Make sure to visit Zhangye (张掖市), where you can hire a local taxi for the day to take you to see the Rainbow Mountains at the foot of Qilian Mountain (祁连山) and Mati Temple (马蹄寺) - a temple built into the mountain.

People who seek spiritual calmness can head to Labrang Monastery (拉卜楞寺) in Xiahe County (夏河县), but others who prefer adventure must go to Dunhuang (敦煌市).


Zhangye in Gansu, China-Photo by Mehmet

Shangri La, Dali, Kunming, and Lijiang (Yunnan Province)

Shangri La, Dali (大理), Kunming (昆明市), and Lijiang (丽江县) take the final spot on our list of best cities to visit in China. They are located in Yunnan, which is arguably the most beautiful of all Chinese provinces.

Talking of beauty, it only makes sense to start with Shangri La, a place given the name immortalized in James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizon". Dali (大理), Kunming (昆明市), and Lijang (丽江县) are the other major towns and cities that offer plenty for visitors. Lijiang in particular is a great example of what ancient Chinese towns looked like. A Unesco World Heritage site, Lijiang Old Town is full of Naxi culture.

However, the two places that provide incredible views are the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces (紅河ハニ棚田) in Yuanyang County (元阳县) and the Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡). The latter is a scenic canyon, which visitors can hike through at their own risk. Make sure to research when the rainy season is due to happen, as hiking the canyon is extremely dangerous (and more likely to be fatal) when the path is slippery.


People who visit China leave with an experience they can talk about for years. Centuries of history, natural development, and a few modern tweaks along the way have created a country that can satisfy the needs of any tourist. Ultimately, wherever you go in China or whatever you plan to do, you will be left in awe.

About the Author

Mehmet has been a struggler, learner, and maybe one day a solid grasper of the Chinese language and country thanks to his decade-plus spent in the Middle Kingdom.