With natural landscapes that have inspired fantasy worlds, ultra-modern cities, impressive heritage sites, and one of the most famous wild animal species in the world, China has become a popular travel destination and a second home for many expats. There are endless superlatives available to describe China, so every trip to the "Middle Kingdom" is equal parts overwhelming and extremely rewarding.
Home to the oldest permanent civilization, China is the biggest country in East Asia and the most populated country in the world. Local cuisine is as vast as the country’s different ethnicities, and a large part of the Chinese culture revolves around food and cooking. Whether or not you’re a foodie, there are hundreds of tastes to discover at family restaurants and street food stalls.
Whether you go for two days or two weeks, prefer to explore the local cuisine or want to observe pandas in the wild, any organized tour in the country is a guaranteed feast for the senses.
Culture & History Tours
China’s civilization is one of the oldest in the world, first appearing in written records circa 1250 BC. To have the possibility to tap into a centuries-old culture is, for many, the best reason to visit. Top historical and cultural attractions include two of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the three-mile-long Great Wall, and the 8,000 life-size statues known as the Terracotta Army.
For first-time visitors or travelers just looking to see the cultural highlights, a typical tour includes Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai. A trip through what it’s known as the Golden Triangle of China covers all of the most popular destinations in the country.
The Giant Panda quickly became China’s most-known animal symbol, as this is the only place in the world where this famous bear lives outside captivity. Observing these bamboo-eating animals in their natural habitat is a unique experience -- and best done with a knowledgeable guide.
But pandas aren’t the only natural attraction in China. The country is also known for impressive natural landscapes that include the Yellow Mountains, the Amazing Yangtze River (the biggest in the country), top ski resorts, and the Hallelujah Mountains at Zhangjiajie, which inspired the Hollywood-famous Pandora from Avatar. Tours that focus on China's nature and wildlife won't miss these spots.
Even if you’re used to feasting on Pecking duck, dumplings, and dim sum back home, be ready to forget all you thought you knew about Chinese cuisine. The local culinary culture is as vast as the country’s 23 provinces and 56 ethnic groups.
Plenty of tours focus on helping you understand and sample China's complex culinary offering. Experiences can range from learning how to make homemade dumplings to local restaurant hopping and street food tastings. Bourdain-type foodies will rave about Shanghai’s xiao long bao (soup dumplings), freshly made tofu, and Sichuan cuisine, the most popular in China.
Kung Fu Tours
Despite the impressive on-screen fighting scenes starring Bruce Lee in the 1960s, Kung Fu in China is more complicated than that. It’s about developing skills, practice, discipline, and a lot of hard work. Known as the country’s national sport, the Chinese practice it for health reasons, self-defense, and physical exercise.
Kung Fu tours in China will have you learning more about its history, watching sports demonstrations, or enrolling in training courses with Shaolin Masters.
Even if you’d only had the time to tour Beijing, your travel experience wouldn’t feel incomplete. The capital city for over 700 years is a mix of iconic must-sees, like the Forbidden City and well-preserved portions of the Great Wall, and modern buildings like the 2012 Galaxy SOHO Beijing or the 2007 National Center of Performing Arts.
Shanghai is also a famous destination for urban explorers. The biggest city in China isn’t known for famous landmarks, but for the contemporary buildings that make up its skyline. At the home of the tallest building in China, the Shanghai Tower, you can also ride the fastest train in the world, the Maglev. Lots of superlatives, remember?
Planning Your Trip
Exploring a country as big as China, with as many cultural layers as you can imagine, doesn’t happen without dedicating some serious time to planning. To a few, embarking on the adventure of independent travel is a must, but for most travelers, booking a tour is a far better option.
Best Time to Visit China
If you want to avoid the crowds of local and foreign tourists, don’t travel between June and August. Other dates that attract large numbers of Chinese travelers are the Labor Day holiday in early May, Chinese National Day in early October, and Chinese New Year between late January and mid-February (make sure you check the New Year calendar).
Spring (April-May) and autumn (September-October) are the best options for travelers looking for the perfect weather. If you don’t mind the cold and love great travel deals, the low season from November to March is your best option.
What to Look for in a Tour to China
Independent traveling in China is possible, but it requires a lot of planning (not to mention courage to get off the beaten path!). This East Asian country doesn’t offer visa on arrival -- you must apply for one in advance and include detailed information about the trip (detailed itinerary, return flights, and confirmed hotel bookings) -- another reason going through a recognized provider is much easier for a first-time trip to China.
As useful as a translator app may be, remember that all Chinese languages are tonal. This means that tone changes the meaning of a word. And, although locals might forgive your loss in translation, if you want to make the best of your trip, you’re better off choosing an English-speaking arranged tour.
Make sure your trip to China is both responsible and sustainable. Choose a tour provider that employs local people or supports local businesses, especially in the countryside. When choosing a tour that focuses on nature and wildlife, make sure neither the local fauna and flora is put at risk by your presence.
Typical Tour Cost
An all-included package tour with local guides can cost from $1700 to $3400 per person. Prices vary based on duration, time of year, and types of activities included. For example, a China highlights tour for one week in low season with a well-known company can be priced around $1600 per person.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
Pack comfortable and waterproof shoes that can quickly adapt to city walking or hiking. Although most of the bigger cities follow the same fashion trends as their Western counterparts, make sure you pack more conservative options if you’re traveling to rural parts of China. If you prefer to buy clothes as you go, please remember that sizes are different -- if you’re a size S back home, in China, you’re probably a size L or XL.
To reduce unwanted roaming fees, purchase a local pre-paid SIM card at the airport or visit any of the country’s major mobile carriers (China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom) to get connected. Make sure your phone is unlocked and beware that, when traveling outside the province your SIM card is locked to, the carrier will charge roaming fees for texting, calling, and data.
China blocks most of the large western sites like Facebook, Google, and Instagram. To have access and stay in touch with friends and family back home, you must buy a VPN or Virtual Private Network before you depart. Before buying one, make sure the package covers China. To connect with locals or expats living in China, download the messaging app everyone uses in the country called Weixin (WeChat in English).
Other Tips for Travel in China
The most common power sockets in China are type A (the same as in the U.S.) and type I, with a power voltage of 220V. Although you can buy adaptors and converters once you reach the country, it’s recommended that you bring yours from home.
Cash is preferred over card payments, although some businesses may accept Visa and Mastercard. The only accepted currency in China is the yuan, also referred to as kuai by locals. To exchange money, look for large chain banks or international ATMs as exchange rates are often better here than at dedicated services. Use an offline currency converter app to double check rates.
Language can sometimes be a barrier, so make sure you download a few translator mobile apps that you can use offline as well as a phrasebook to get by with essential communication. The national language is Standard Mandarin Chinese. Cantonese, Portuguese (in Macau), and English (in Hong Kong) are the other official languages spoken in China.
Health & Safety
You don’t need any special vaccinations to travel to China, and there aren’t major health concerns besides watching out for extreme levels of air pollution in larger cities, including the capital. Although locals will tell you that wearing a mask is more than enough, the best precaution is to say indoors on high pollution days if you’re visiting any of the major cities, especially if you have breathing problems.
Drinking water from the tap is off limits in China, so stick to bottled water. Pharmacies offer a mix of western and eastern over-the-counter medicine at reasonable prices. In the event you need medical assistance, it shouldn’t be hard to find an English-speaking doctor or seek one out at a specialized hospital that caters to the foreign expat community.
As an extra health precaution, consider investing in travel insurance. Most of the insurance companies that target digital nomads and expats will have affordable, time-restricted packages.
China isn’t a dangerous or violent country, but foreigners should look out for pickpocketers and scammers. Pickpocketing often happens at public transportation stations, city and sleeper buses, and train cars. Popular scams include local con artists trying to lure you into buying them something and overpaying for it and taxi drivers overcharging passengers for the ride (always ask them to run the meter).
Avoid exchanging currency or buying tickets on the black market, no matter how great the price sounds. Doublecheck all restaurant bills for extra charges or hidden taxes before paying.