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Top Attractions in China

China has racked up a total of 43 United Nations World Heritage Sites. Given the country's huge tourism numbers, sites can be overrun at peak travel times, but it doesn't take much to get away from the crowds.

Forbidden City

Sitting at the heart of Beijing across from Tiananmen Square, the nearly 500-year-old Forbidden City is one of the world's most impressive imperial compounds. For the emperors and their courts, this moat-encircled complex was literally their city within a city, featuring 1,000 buildings covering more than 7.8 million square feet. Today the Forbidden City is home to the Palace Museum and its world-class collection of priceless paintings, bronzes, pottery, and documents that once belonged to the Qing imperial collection.

Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven—known in Chinese as the Altar of Heaven—was once where Ming and Qing emperors made sacrifices to heaven. The emperor and his court visited the Temple of Heaven twice each year to perform ceremonies with the hope of ensuring a good harvest—even a minor mistake could spell disaster for China. The complex was built in the early 15th century by the Yongle Emperor, who was also behind the construction of the Forbidden City.

Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is one of the country's most iconic structures, as well as one of the world's most ambitious engineering projects. Originally intended to prevent invasion by nomadic tribes north of China, the wall was an imperial obsession for more than 1,000 years, beginning in the 5th century BC. Built primarily of stone and rammed earth, the wall stretches 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) from its easternmost point on the Bohai Sea to its western terminus at Lop Nur in Xinjiang.

Old Town of Lijiang

The Old Town of Lijiang is renowned for its winding cobblestone streets, charming wooden homes, and clear, fish-filled mountain streams. The area has been home to the Naxi people (with their unique culture and architecture) for eight centuries. One of China's most popular destinations for domestic or international travelers, Lijiang is visited by millions each year. UNESCO has raised concerns that over-commercialization is affecting the site's heritage value, but it is still a must-visit destination for many tourists.

Yunnan Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas

Northwest Yunnan is one of the world's biodiversity hot spots, primarily owing to the steep river valleys through which the upper reaches of the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween rivers flow. These protected areas contain unforgettable scenery, including the awe-inspiring Tiger Leaping Gorge and hundreds of varieties of rhododendrons, and rare animals such as the red panda and snow leopard.

South China Karst

Spread across the southwestern regions of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi, the South China Karst area is recognized for the diversity of its limestone scenery. The Stone Forest, outside of Yunnan's capital Kunming, is the best-known site in this group, featuring stone spires and strangely shaped monoliths that boggle the mind. A stony paradise for shutterbugs, Stone Forest and the other South China Karst sites are very popular, but still large enough to allow you to find your own quiet corner to take photos or just marvel at these improbable wonders.

Updated: 01-2014

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