I remember my first trip to China. After 15 hours in flight, my jelly legs wobbled off the plane and I found myself smack-dab in the middle of Shanghai. I stood amid Pudong, Shanghai’s high-end financial district, in an endless sea of businessmen marching through the city’s metallic skyscrapers. The scene put New York to shame, and motivated me to uncover more about a nation seemingly plucked from the future.
As I ventured beyond the “Paris of the East,” I discovered the true diversity of the world’s most populous country. I journeyed to the water town of Zhujiajiao, glimpsed the barren Karst Mountains, and strolled among the gardens of the Forbidden City. My explorations helped me develop a truer understanding of the country — one beyond the metropolis of Shanghai. China is a dynamic nation, one rooted in the dynasties of the past while integral to our world’s future. It’s a nation composed of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and one of my favorite destinations.
In a country spanning nearly four million square miles, it’s impossible to view all of China’s wonders. For that reason, I developed my list of top five things to see and do in China to help travelers navigate this fascinating land.
1. Hike the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is an obvious must-see for any first-time visitor, but the best way to experience the Great Wall is by hiking it, instead of just visiting and snapping a couple of pictures. The wall, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty, stretches more than 13,170 miles in length and is the largest man-made structure in the world. Obviously, no one can hike the entire length. Instead, try the three-hour walk from Jinshanling to Simatai, where hikers can experience the vast ruggedness of China’s wilderness and its lush farmlands.
2. Sail on West Lake in Hangzhou
Hangzhou, known as “Heaven on Earth,” is a tranquil city renowned for its natural beauty. To uncover the true romanticism of the town, visit West Lake. The lake is cradled by hills on three sides, and surrounded by numerous biking and running trails lined by blossoming willow and peach trees. My favorite way to experience the lake is to charter a ferry or gondola and sail across the water to view the Mid-Lake Pavilion.
3. Join the Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Army is one of the most important archeological discoveries of the modern age. The more than 8,000 life-sized ceramic soldiers, chariots, and horses stand in rigid lines, forever protecting the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Observe the unique individuality of each sculpture, as every soldier was crafted in the likeness of a real person, and gain a true understanding of the power of ancient China.
4. Meet some of the world’s last giant pandas
Giant pandas are one of China’s national treasures, yet due to deforestation, only around 1,000 currently live in the wild. For your best chance to meet one of these majestic, endangered creatures up close, travel to the Giant Panda Research Center in Chengdu. The center recreates the panda’s ideal natural habitat to encourage breeding and save the species from extinction. You’ll be able to watch, interact with, and even hold some of the world’s last pandas and learn the benefits of conservation.
5. People watch in a People’s Park
People’s Parks serve as public meeting places for Chinese natives who use the space to play card games, practice tai chi, ballroom dance, and more. Stroll among the greenery at a People’s Park in any Chinese city and watch art teachers give painting classes, listen to musicians instruct students young and old in the traditional pipa, and marvel at candy makers as they pull sugar to create decorative lollipops. Finally, be sure to wander through the marriage market, where parents post personal ads to arrange dates for their single children. Spending an afternoon at a People’s Park gives visitors a true glimpse into Chinese culture.
China is a massive nation in size, population, and geopolitical importance, with an ancient history and a dynamic, modern culture. To truly experience everything China has to offer would take a lifetime, but this short list of my favorites will give you a good taste of what makes China so special.