A Guide to China for the Time-Strapped Traveller


Home to over 1.3 billion people, China is the world’s most populated country. When planning an itinerary, remember that it’s almost as big as the United States. Don’t be too ambitious with ticking off the sights – try to see a few areas well, rather than squeezing in too much. Here are a few destination ideas to get you started.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is the most iconic sight to see when travelling to China. The 8000 + kilometre-long bastion against nomadic invaders took shape from the 7th century onwards. Some sections have fallen into disrepair while others are beautifully restored. The most visited chunk is the easily accessible Ming Dynasty-era section at Badaling, about 80 kilometres from Beijing (catch a train from Beijing North railway station to Badaling station). Considered the wall’s best-preserved and most picturesque section, it features 16 restored watchtowers along almost four undulating kilometres.



The Forbidden City is the world’s largest palace complex. Encircled by a moat in central Beijing, the palace museum will be a full day's worth of exploring in any itinerary. If you don’t have much time to spare, see the Three Great Halls and the majestic Imperial Garden. Beijing is also home to the world’s largest public square: security is tight around Tiananmen Square but most travellers want to see the vast space that made headlines in 1989 when pro-democracy demonstrators occupied the square. Go at night when the square is impressively illuminated.


Cosmopolitan Shanghai effortlessly blends east and west. Stroll along The Bund, once home to international banks and trading houses, but now a dazzling high-end shopping and dining precinct. Lost Heaven on The Bund serves memorable “mountain Mekong” cuisine that emphasises the best Tibetan dishes: try wild vegetable cakes or stir-fried lily bulbs with snow peas. Wherever you are in Shanghai, you’ll spot the elegant twist of Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest building (at least for this year, a taller building will open in Shenzhen near Guangzhou in 2016). Shanghai’s mega-tall skyscraper is set to open to the public in mid-2015.


Travellers can easily spend a few days exploring China’s third-largest city, Guangzhou. Shamian Island, with its lush trees, grand thoroughfares and pastel colonial mansions, is one of the city’s most photogenic spots: brides and grooms flock here to have wedding photographs taken. Ascend Canton Tower to ride the slow-moving Bubble Tram or head to Redtory Art & Design Factory – a Soviet-style canned-food factory transformed into an arts hub with sculptures, studios, galleries, cafes and markets.Local scoop: Guangzhou is one of several major Chinese cities that allow Australians in transit a 72-hour visa-free stay. Double check with the authorities before you go as this could change.


Got a thing for giant pandas? Chengdu, in far-flung Sichuan province, is the centre of the giant panda universe. The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, north of the city, is home to giant pandas of all ages (including cute cubs clambering around their playground) as well as red pandas. Visit early in the morning when the giant pandas are most active. 


Once the end of the Silk Road, Xian now draws history buffs keen to see its famed army of Terracotta Warriors that were unearthed in 1974 by farmers digging for a well.

It’s also worth walking around the city’s imposing 14th century walls – an expedition that will take about four hours.


Known as the 'Venice of the East' because of the pretty flower-lined canals criss-crossing historic Old Town, this World Heritage-listed city in Yunnan province is where young China goes to party. Wobble across a timber bridge into one of Bar Street’s raucous drinking holes and join the drinking games. Before long, you might find yourself dancing on tables with new friends. 60 kilometres from Lijiang is Tiger Leaping Gorge – a scenic canyon on a tributary to the upper Yangtze.

Local scoop: If tackling the 500 stairs leading to and from the gorge viewing platform is too much, hire a porter to carry you on a sedan chair.

Chinese New Year

Many Chinese reunite with family during Chinese New Year celebrations, also known as Spring Festival. If visiting during the annual migration known as the Spring Festival travel rush, it may be difficult to secure train tickets. Make plans well in advance and get a better understanding of the Chinese New Year traditions before you go.

Food and Drink

Track down the best street snacks, lunch spots and multi-course feasts by asking locals for their favourite eateries. Many cities and provinces have their own specialties. Guangzhou’s Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street, for example, is a snack street famous for a dish called double-skin milk with ginger. If you're sitting down to a meal in a restaurant, chopsticks are used for everything expect the soup. We suggest practicing your chopstick skills before departure. Tea accompanies meals but beer and rice wine are also widely available. The Chinese favour red wine over white; the country is also developing its own wine-making industry, with much of the wine produced in north-eastern Shandong province.

Useful Phrases

Learning a few basic phrases will help you to better connect with people as you travel around:

  • Ni hao : Hello

  • Ni hao ma: How are you?

  • Xie xie: Thank you

  • Zai jian: Goodbye.

China is an amazing place in the world for an authentic experience. Wondering through the cities and countrysides, eating dumplings and amazing street food and marvelling at the ancient architecture, makes this travel destination a must-see on your bucket list!

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Have you travelled to China? What was the best part of your experience? Share in the comments below...