The United Nations has put China's most impressive and amazing sights on its list of don't-miss world attractions.
China is remarkable in the sheer number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites it contains. There are 53 in total, ranging from ancient ruins, walls, and cave drawings to stunning landscapes and sculpted gardens. China also has a whopping 57 sites on UNESCO’s Tentative List and though they haven’t yet been accepted, they’re impressive and worth checking out just the same. Here are some of the most popular sites plus a few off-the-beaten-track spots that are worth adding to your China bucket list.
The Great Wall of China
WHERE: Near Beijing
Great Wall of China on the outskirts of Beijing is hands down the most famous site in the country. This man-made feat of engineering dates back more than 2,000 years and was built for both defense purposes and as a way to collect taxes on goods traveling along the Silk Road. Over 3,500 miles long, three dynasties are largely responsible for building the wall, the Qin, Han, and Ming dynasties.
The Great Wall at Badaling is just an hour outside of Beijing, so even though the crowds are dense, it still a bucket-list experience to explore the Ming Dynasty section. The mountain-lined section called Mutianyu is also not far from the capital and there are far fewer people. Contrary to popular legend, the Great Wall cannot be seen from the moon. But aerial views from the cable cars at each section are entertaining.
INSIDER TIPAvoid group tours as they often waste time at tourist-trap shops where the company gets a cut.
Once the Ming and Qing Dynasty’s palace complex, the Forbidden City is the hub around which the modern city of Beijing grew around. According to UNESCO, it’s the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures on the planet. The Palace Museum, which has a massive collection of Ming and Qing Dynasty art pieces and jewelry, is housed here. The gardens are magical, with their colorful pavilions surrounded by flowers, rock gardens, sculptures, and blossoming trees.
INSIDER TIPClimb the Gate of Heavenly Peace near the main entrance for sweeping views of Tiananmen Square.
Temple of Heaven
Long considered a symbol of Beijing, this ancient complex has also had a significant influence on other architectural masterpieces across the region. The Temple of Heaven is spread across a large park and has three distinct sections. The three-tiered Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the most iconic and recognizable.
INSIDER TIPVisit the Temple of Heaven before sunrise and join the people practicing tai chi or exercising in the park. It’s an extremely photogenic introduction to local life.
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (Terracotta Warriors)
In 1974, Shaanxi farmers digging a well accidentally unearthed one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century—the Terracotta Soldiers of Qin Shihuang. Armed with real weapons and accompanied by horses and chariots, the more than 8,000 soldiers buried in Qin’s tomb were to be his garrison in the afterlife.
The construction of Qin Shihuang’s gargantuan tomb complex—which includes the Terracotta Soldiers—was completed by more than 700,000 workers over a period of nearly 40 years. The warriors themselves are believed to have been created in an assembly line process in which sets of legs and torsos were fired separately and later combined with individually sculpted heads.
There are about 6,000 warriors, including cavalry riders and life-size terracotta horses, but only 1,000 have been painstakingly pieced together by archaeologists. The warriors stand in their original pits and can only be seen from the walkways erected around the digs. Those in the front ranks are well-shaped and fully outfitted except for their weapons, whose wooden handles have decayed over the centuries (the chrome-plated bronze blades were still sharp upon excavation).
INSIDER TIPHold off on buying souvenirs until after you’ve seen the pits. You want both hands free for taking photos in the jostling crowd.
Fortifications of Xi’an (Old City Wall)
This defensive barrier wraps around the old city for nearly nine miles and marks the original city center, which was one of the ending points of the Silk Road. Thirteen gates lead through Xi’an’s 39-foot-high city walls and Yongning Gate is the most impressive. This was the original site of Tang Dynasty fortifications; the walls there today were built at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, and they include the country’s only remaining example of a complete wall dating to this dynasty. You can circumnavigate the city from the top of the wall in four hours, or just pop up to watch the sunset.
INSIDER TIPRent a bike in the early morning and evening when it is not too hot, and cycle the entire 8.5-mile route atop the wall. It takes about 90 minutes
WHERE: Tai’an, Shandong Province
Mount Tai is the most venerated of the five sacred mountains of China. It’s 5,067 feet above sea level and, with 7,000 hand-hewn steps from base to summit, supposedly the most climbed peak on earth. Ancient and not-so-ancient calligraphy has been etched into boulders and cliffs like graffiti, and temples of various faiths line the route, making a climb here a fascinating jaunt through Chinese history.
It’s possible to follow the steps to the summit and back down in a day (a cinch if you use the cable car), but spending the night on the peak is also an option. The classic photo—sunrise over the cloud-hugged peaks—is actually a rare sight because of the mist.
Also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, the hand-carved Mogao Grottoes are on the outskirts of a small oasis town called Dunhang, which was once the most important hub along the famed Silk Road. The Mogao Grottoes are part of a larger system of Buddhist temples that were painstakingly carved into caves and high onto the sides mountains all along the Silk Route by monks traveling from India.
These stunning caves span centuries, from the Northern Wei Dynasty in the 4th century AD to the Five Dynasties in the 10th century AD. Especially impressive is the giant seated Buddha, the Tang Dynasty sleeping Buddha, and the famous library, where 45,000 religious and political documents were uncovered at the turn of the 20th century. Interestingly, many of the depictions and documents represent a melding of the belief systems that interacted along the trade route. Documents were found in many languages including Chinese and Sanskrit, and some referenced Christian and Daoist beliefs.
INSIDER TIPVisit the British Library’s International Dunhuang Project to learn more about the caves.
Dazu Rock Carvings
Dazu Rock Carvings is the general name of some 70 locations of cliffside sculptures and rock carvings in Dazu County. Hands down, the most impressive of these, and perhaps the best example of this type of art in China, are the Baoding Shan Rock Carvings, just outside Chongqing. A mile and a half of carvings numbering over 6000 in total, the magnificent Buddhist caves of Baoding Shan were awarded a World Heritage designation in 1999. This place is exceptional in that where the three major religions of China—Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism—come together in beautiful aesthetic rock art. Unlike many other similar sites, this one followed a plan. It was designed by Zhao Zhifeng and carved under his supervision for more than 70 years. There are beautiful but torturous visions of hell reminiscent to similar scenes from medieval Europe, like the Wheel of life and a gold statue of the 1000 armed Goddess of Mercy.
This is one of the largest Buddhist temples in China and contains a working monastery with numerous grottoes and gardens dotted with statues and pagodas. At the Peak Flown From Afar (Feilai Feng) scenic area and grottoes, monks and artists labored for more than 400 years to carve more than 300 statues in and around the grottos. There are expansive rock reliefs depicting various scenes of Buddha that line the pathway to the temple. Inside the main cave try to spot the One Thread of Heaven—a tiny ray of sunshine that peeks through an opening in the cave’s ceiling.
With its traditional double-eaved architecture, intricately painted ceiling, and the welcoming Laughing Buddha statue inside, the Hall of Heavenly Kings is the main entrance to the temple.
Old Town of Lijiang
Long a popular destination on the tourist track, visiting the Lijiang’s old town is like traveling back a thousand years in time…with a bunch of other people. Since the town was awarded UNESCO status, tourism has increased to the tipping point and drained some of the charm from the place.
That said, it’s still a very scenic and intriguing little village, with cobblestone lanes wind through the village, next to canals and over arched bridges. Arrive early before tour groups show up to get a real sense of the history and place. Various cultures call Lijiang home, which is evident in the architectural style of the town.
Giant Buddha Temple
Another ancient Silk Road treasure and the supposed birthplace of Kublai Khan, the Great Buddha Temple is home to an enormous sleeping Buddha that’s the largest in China and one of the biggest in Asia.
Around the 12th century, a monk named Sineng Weimie saw divine lights and heard heavenly songs, so he built the temple to honor the visions. With 10 disciples standing behind him, the massive clay and wooden statue depicts the Gautama Buddha’s reaching nirvana.
Leshan Giant Buddha
Leshan is famous for massive, 1,200-year-old Great Buddha that’s been intricately carved into the mountainside at the confluence of the Dadu, Qingyi, and Min rivers. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the brainchild of a monk named Haitong, who hoped the statue would calm the waters. At 233 feet high, Giant Buddha is the tallest stone Buddha and among the tallest sculptures in the world.
WHERE: Shanxi province
One of China’s four sacred mountains, Mount Wutai, or five-terraced mountain, is actually a cluster of flat-topped mountains that long ago became the northernmost sacred peak of Buddhism and home to over 50 monasteries. Buddhist lore has it that Mount Wutai is the earthly home of bodhisattva Manjusri, who embodies the perfection of wisdom and most often depicted riding a lion.
Come here for fresh air, superb scenery, some fascinating temple architecture. Many of Wutai Shan’s temples have survived the centuries intact and remain functioning and full of resident clergy.
Mount Huangshan (Yellow Mountain)
WHERE: Anhui province
Above a sea of clouds is Huangshan in eastern China. Also known as the Yellow Mountain, it’s one of the most popular hiking spots in the country, in addition to being a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The vistas of Huangshan are reminiscent of classic Chinese landscape paintings and have inspired poets and artists for centuries. The unique-looking granite peaks date back to the Mesozoic era and the mountain’s particular pine trees, named Huangshan pine, have survived by growing directly out of these spectacular rock formations—it’s a wonderful example of nature’s strength and agility. Huangshan is known for being one of the best places in the country for green tea farming. Be sure to pick up some to bring back home.
INSIDER TIPGiven the high terrain and constantly changing weather, be sure to bring a poncho and a bag to store any wet clothes from the drizzle.
WHERE: Shanzhi province
Billed as the last fortress city in China and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, the dusty old town of Pingyao offers a good sampling of Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasty architecture. A visit here is best spent strolling or bicycling through old sections of town viewing wonderfully carved and painted eaves. The top of the city wall affords views of the street layout within and the plains beyond.
The city has existed since at least 800 BC but it became an important financial hub in the 16th and 19th centuries, when the better part of half of all of China’s financial institutions were located here.
WHERE: Hubei province
One of the most sacred mountains ranges for Taoist is also the possible birthplace of tai chi. Wudang Shan is a range of 72 peaks stretching across 248 miles. Many of the slopes are dotted with Taoist temples, some dating as far back as the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The Ming emperor Zhen Whu, who became a Taoist deity, lived here during the 15th century.
Tai chi is said to be based on a style of boxing developed by Zhang Sanfeng, a Taoist monk who lived in the 14th century and created a martial art from his observations of birds and animals in Wudang Shan. Monks still live here and practice martial arts at what is considered to be the highest level of the world. This area is also where some of the scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed.
INSIDER TIPThese mountains are especially known for martial arts and the practice of tai chi. Come here to find your true Zen and practice your balancing skills at one of its temples.
Classical Gardens of Suzhou
Suzhou famous gardens were originally commissioned by wealthy retired officials or unaffiliated literati as places to read and write poetry and philosophy or to just sip tea and stroll. The stunningly designed landscapes are a pinnacle of artistic design and respect for the beauty of the natural forms of small trees and strangely gnarled rocks—they were a source of great inspiration for starchitect I.M. Pei. The most notable include the Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Master of the Nets Garden.
Each garden is meant to be enjoyed for its overall atmosphere, as well as for its unique style and layout. Every plant, rock, bit of water, piece of furniture, wall, and even fish has been carefully created or chosen for its individual shape, color, shadow, and other characteristics and for the way each blends with the whole at different times of the day and year. Spring is considered prime viewing time, but each season works its own magic.
INSIDER TIPArrive early to avoid the crowds, especially if you want to take photos.
The pristine water in West Lake is clearer and cleaner than it’s been in centuries and the lovingly maintained gardens around the Lake, which lend Hangzhou so much of its romantic beauty, are tranquil and inviting.
The lake was originally a not-so-clean lagoon, cut off from the nearby river, until the local government began taking steps to clear the lake’s waters. For years they’ve been pumping water from the nearby Qiantang River into the lake, periodically dredging the lakebed, and skimming the surface daily. West Lake is crossed by two pedestrian causeways: the Baidi (named for the famed Tang Dynasty poet, Bai Juyi) and the Sudi (named for the Song poet, Su Dongpo). Both walkways are lined with willow and peach trees, flowers, and benches, and car-free so they’re perfect for strolling or biking.
INSIDER TIPThe Banyan Tree Spa Hangzhou is located within the Xixi Wetlands Nature Reserve on one side of the lake, giving unrivaled access to the rare flora and fauna in the park.
WHERE: Beijing to Hangzhou
The longest and oldest artificial waterway in the world, the Grand Canal extends from Beijing to Hangzhou and cuts through the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, linking the Yellow River and Yangtze River.
The best place to visit the Grand Canal is in Suzhou, a picturesque town in the Jiangsu Province that has such a dense network of narrow canals that it’s sometimes called the Venice of the East. The canals were once the main arteries of the city (and the surrounding countryside) and choked with countless small boats ferrying goods. Though today the canals have been superseded by roads, they still weave through the city’s traditional neighborhoods, lined with trees and stone walkways where locals dry laundry, wash clothes, and while away the evening hours.