China is the ultimate travel destination to experience a mix of rich culture, exotic nature and mega-cities with impressive architecture. We were warmly welcomed by locals who were excited to add to our experience and it was rare to see Westerners as we travelled through the country.
Since China is the third largest country in the world geographically, it took a lot of planning and research to pick the best spots and to figure out transportation. We were surprised that the transportation system is excellent and taxis are metered. It was stress free and efficient to get around!
Our biggest difficulty was doing prior research on alternative activities to do outside of the traditional sites. We believe this is a result of the Great Firewall blocking many western websites such as Facebook and Google. Ultimately this limits the ability to access good Chinese recommendations and content, especially when there is barely anything marked on Google Maps!
We are excited to share with you our unique and fun activities we discovered. We travelled to China for 20 days and have created a shorter version of our itinerary with the top spots you don't want to miss. This itinerary was made in mind for those who want to see the highlights of the country in a shorter amount of time. Your 10 days in China will be full of adventure!
Our 10 Day China itinerary will take you to the iconic city of Beijing to visit the Great Wall of China, the historical capital of Xi'an including the Terracotta Army, to a unique area of nature that inspired the movie Avatar and lastly to Shanghai, the modern metropolis with impressive futuristic architecture.
10 Days in China
Days 1-2: Beijing - explore the iconic city of Beijing and visit the Great Wall of China
Days 3-5: Xi'an - explore the historic capital city and visit the Terracotta Army
Days 6-8: Zhangjiajie - Explore the outer-worldly floating mountains of China
Days 9-10: Shanghai - explore the modern metroplois filled with futuristic skyscrapers
10 Day China Itinerary
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Days 1-2: Beijing & the Great Wall of China
Beijing, China's old money capital, is known for its iconic historic sites such as Tiananmen Square and The Great Wall. These are activities you won't want to miss, but there is much more to this city than the historical sites. Allocate one day for The Great Wall and the other to explore the rest of the city. The vibe here is certainly more traditional and controlled.
Best place to stay in Beijing
🥔✨ Fully Loaded Experience: The PeninsulaStay at the 5 star luxury hotel, The Peninsula, a lavish hotel that welcomes you through a traditional Chinese gate. Once inside you will be blown away by the Chinese artistry, contemporary art and marble staircase. The excellent location gives you easy access to explore shops, restaurants, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
Fun things to do in Beijing
Best afternoon activity: get dressed up and go for afternoon tea at The Peninsula, a great spot for people watching.
Best foodie experience: Try Beijing's famous dish the Peking Duck, which has been eaten since the Imperial Era. The duck is crispy on the outside and succulent and tender on the inside. It is often served with Chinese pancakes (like a thin flour tortilla), cucumber and a satisfying dark sauce.
Best restaurant with a view: Eat tapas and drink cocktails at Migas Mercado, which overlooks the architecturally impressive CCTV building.
Best alternative experience: Have a cocktail in a DaVinci themed apartment bar (literally a converted apartment unit into a bar). An enterprising bartender named David owns the place. The cocktails were exceptional!
Address: Room 1116 in Tower 1 of the Yongli International Building
The Great Wall
It's no doubt the longest structure ever built by mankind is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. We booked a private half-day tour of the Great Wall with Tour-Beijing-Day-Tour. We picked this tour company because of their 5-star rating on TripAdvisor and reasonable prices. Our tour included hotel pick-up/drop-off and a friendly guide who spoke very good English. Once at the top of the wall, our guide let us have some alone time to explore on our own and take pictures.
There are different locations of the wall you can choose to visit. We chose the Mutianyu section and were very happy with our choice. It's only an hour drive away from Beijing and is less busy than the Badaling section of the wall. We loved this section, because it's one of the best preserved areas and it's almost completely surrounded by cypress and pine trees. If you hike to the end you will also be able to see the non-restored stretch of the wall. It's also the only section where you can toboggan back down to the bottom. It's almost a reason in itself to pick this section of the wall!
Days 3-5: Xi'an & the Terracotta Army
Xi'an, one of the most prominent cities of the ancient world, was our favourite city we visited in China. It's home to the famous Terracotta Army, but there are many unique things to do in addition to this activity. This is where we got into tea culture, listened to jazz and tasted the famous Chinese hamburger.
See our list of 6 Fun Things to do in Xi'an that aren't historical sites.
Getting to Xi'an from Beijing
You can travel to Xi'an from Beijing by air or high speed train. Direct one-way flights are around $110 USD and economy train tickets around $75 USD.
Where to stay in Xi'an
The best area to stay in Xi'an is inside the historic city wall. Restaurants, shops and markets are all walking distance in this happening area. It's the best place to explore the city.
We stayed at PuSu Jade Boutique hotel, which has the perfect location inside the historic walls, but their service was the worst we experienced on our trip. We were first assigned an occupied room, then a smelly room with a window into the communal kitchen area and lastly, a room under construction! The value was very good (once you get the correct room), but you will likely find something better around the same location.Try the Eastern House Boutique Hotel , which has an excellent rating and location.
Visiting the Terracotta Army
The top attraction in Xi'an is no doubt the Terracotta Army. The estimated 6,000 terracotta sculptures are said to represent the armies of the first emperor of China. Each one is unique down to their facial expression!
Since it's so famous, it wasn't a surprise that private tours were going for $260 USD for two people. We didn't want to go on a group tour, so we figured out how to have our own private tour for a third of the price. See our tips on how to take a private tour of the Terracotta Army for a third of the price.
Days 6-8 : Zhangjiajie Mountains
If you've seen Avatar, you may remember the famous floating "Hallelujah Mountains" of Pandora. Turns out they are't just a fantasy after all. The quartzite sandstone pillars of Zhangjiajie are what inspired James Cameron to create the floating mountains in the movie. You can see them with your own eyes - minus the floating part of course ;).
Zhangjiajie is home to thousands of towers where erosion by ice and water has left the strongest standing. This park is one of the most spectacular sights we've ever seen! Allocate three days to this attraction, so you have two full days to explore the park. The name of the park is actually Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Area, so make sure you stay in the town of Wulingyuan instead of mistakenly staying in the city of Zhangjiajie, which is an hour drive away.
Getting from Xi'an to Zhangjiajie
The easiest way to get from Xi'an to Zhangjiajie is by air. A one-way flight costs around $100 USD.
Where to stay in WulingyuanWe stayed at Destination Youth Hostel , which is located only a 7-minute walk to the bus station that takes you into the park. A private room with washroom cost us $27 USD per night. The hostel gave us a handy map, which was very helpful for our exploration of the park. In Wulingyuan there are no western food options, but there is a McDonalds and KFC located inside the park if you're craving some burgers or fried chicken. Yes!
There are many different routes you can take once in the park. See our comprehensive two-day Zhangjiajie guide for exploring the park.
Days 9-10: Shanghai
Shanghai felt like the complete opposite of Beijing. This modern metropolis stands out with its amazing and wacky skyscrapers that make you feel like you're in a sci-fi movie. The city is open to Western influence and has a foodie scene leagues apart from Beijing. 34 Michelin-starred restaurants, in fact!
Getting to Shanghai from Zhangjiajie
The best way to get from Zhangjiajie to Shanghai is by air. A direct one-way flight costs around $115 USD.
Best place to stay in Shanghai
🥔✨ Fully Loaded Experience: The PeninsulaStay at the 5 star luxury hotel, The Peninsula , and take in amazing views of The Bund. The rooms have been made in a beautiful art deco style.
Fun things to do in Shanghai
Best afternoon activity: Sample Pu'erh tea in a 1930s mansion at Da Ke Tang. This glamorous location tucked away in the back streets has historically been a hangout spot for Shanghai's elite and intellectuals. While you can purchase Pu-erh tea here for around $20, watch out for the expensive stuff that will set you back a few thousand dollars!
Best fine-dining foodie experience: There are a ton of Michelin star restaurants to choose from. We took a break from Chinese cuisine at the 2 star Michelin Italian restaurant, 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo, and it was delicious!
If you feel like pulling out all the stops, Shanghai has a 3-star Michelin restaurant called Ultraviolet. The immersive 20-course dinner will set you back $600 USD! The 6th Best Restaurant in Asia shouldn't disappoint.
Best rooftop bar: Take in one of the best skylines in the world from Sir Elly's Terrace. It's best at night, but catch it before all the lights go out at 11PM.
Burnt Potato 🥔💨: Shanghai Disneyland. It was a huge letdown to say the least. The worst part is that it took away from our time exploring the city. Read about our Disneyland experience in our article: 10 Things to Avoid when Travelling to China.
Trip Extension Options
If you are able to add a few days onto your itinerary, we highly recommend adding an additional day to Shanghai and an additional day to Beijing. They are huge cities with a lot to explore.
If you have even more time to spare, consider adding a Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo. This off the beaten path location offers new scenery and smaller happening cities to explore.
Tips for Visiting China
It may take a lot of planning and extra steps, such as obtaining a tourist VISA and setting up VPN and WeChat, however travelling to China is a rewarding adventure. See our tips below to help make your travels as smooth as possible.
Make sure to allocate enough time to get your tourist visa before your trip! Getting a China VISA is a pain since you have to send your passport into the China Embassy. There are long forms to fill out and you need to have flights booked and your itinerary set out beforehand. They also will not accept photos for your application with your ears covered! In Canada we received our passports within one week.
Make sure you buy SIM cards from China Unicom. Other networks like China Telecom or China Mobile will not work for foreign devices.
Cash, credit cards, or WeChat/AliPay?
Make sure you arrive in China with cash on hand. The best way to pay for ANYTHING in China is with WeChat Pay. Read our guide on How to set up a WeChat Pay Wallet for Foreigners.
We had issues with several ATMs and banks when we arrived in China. Bank of China was the most reliable ATM for us. You'll need cash for most of your purchases including taxis. Many stores won't accept credit cards, since everyone in China uses WeChat Pay or AliPay.
Great Fire Wall & Blocked Websites
With the Great Fire Wall blocking many Western websites including Google owned sites, China doesn't have much influence from Western applications. Blocked websites include Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Google search, YouTube, Gmail... the list goes on! It's imperative you set up a VPN prior to travelling to China, because we've heard you won't be able to download it through your app store once you've arrived. Download a couple just in case one does work. Check out our article with information on setting up a VPN.
Enjoy your adventure!
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