Although it gets more press for its huge population, China also boast a massive land area, coming in third after Russia and Canada. But in spite of this, you don’t need months and months to get a thorough introduction to the so-called “Middle Kingdom.”
In fact, you can cover the basics of China travel in between 2-3 weeks. From exciting cities like Beijing and Shanghai, to iconic attractions like The Great Wall of China and the Giant Pandas, introducing yourself to the best that China has to offer takes surprisingly little time.
This China travel itinerary is by no means the only way to go about a two- or three-week trip to China, but it does provide you with a travel template I have personally tested and enjoyed.
Unless you’re already in Asia, your inbound flight will likely arrive sometime in the late afternoon or evening. Use this opportunity to relax, although I don’t recommend you sleep until as close to your normal bedtime as possible — otherwise, you’ll prolong your jet lag!
Shanghai is most famous for its futuristic architecture, so take Line 2 of the Shanghai metro to “Lujiazui” station and spend the day exploring Pudong, including the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, skyscrapers like the World Financial Center and Jin Mao Tower. If you feel like relaxing, hit up massive Century Park. Take the metro over the river to Puxi and disembark at “East Nanjing Road” station for an evening stroll along Shanghai’s iconic “Bund,” which was built up in the 1920s.
Pick up on the historical note you left off and make Yuyuan Gardens, which dates back to the 16th century, your first stop of the day. After relaxing amid its koi ponds and pagodas, take line 10 of the Shanghai Metro to “Qipu Road,” which is home to one of the best fake markets in town. Have a nice dinner in swanky Xintiandi, which is also located on Line 10.
Visit Shanghai Museum, which is located at the People’s Square station of Shanghai Metro Lines 1, 2 and 8. Walk up and down East Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s most famous shopping street. Take a night train to Beijing from Shanghai Central Railway Station or…
Take Line 3 of the Shanghai Metro to Shanghai South Railway Station and board a bus to Zhujiajiao, a “water town” located west of Shanghai, which dates back 1,700 years.
Take Line 3 of the Shanghai Metro to Shanghai South Railway Station and board a bus to Anji Bamboo Forest where the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed.
You’ll probably be tired from your journey to Shanghai, so I recommend not doing much today. Perhaps an afternoon of fake shopping at Silk Street Market, if you didn’t get your fill in Shanghai. Or you could explore not-so-famous Beijing tourist attractions, such as Lama Temple.
Today’s a major sightseeing day. Take Beijing Metro Line 1 to either the “Tian’anmen East” or “Tian’anmen West” stops, and spend the first half of your day exploring the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square. Take Line 4 of the Beijing Metro to Beigongmen Station, and enjoy sunset at the Summer Palace, which dates back to the Jin Dynasty of the 11th century.
Ready to see the Great Wall? Great (ha!), but I have two recommendations. First, decide where you want to go. Although Badaling is more famous (and accessible by train), I recommend visiting Simatai, which is slightly further away, but much less touristy. Arrange a taxi with your hotel or hostel a day in advance, if possible, to lock in a fixed rate.
Take Line 8 of the Beijing Metro to the “Olympic Green” stop, and explore the now-deserted site of the 2008 Summer Olympic Green. Rest up, then take a night train to Xi’an from Beijing West Railway Station or…
Take a short trip to the coastal port city of Tianjin. Tianjin can be reached by high-speed trains from Beijing South Railway Station, which depart every hour — no reservation is necessary.
Spend the morning relaxing or, if you feel up to it, walking the length of Xi’an’s ancient city wall. Head to the so-called “Muslim Quarter” around 5 p.m. to enjoy a deliciously spicy dinner, and walk through the district after sunset for a treat that’s sure to delight all your senses.
Travel to the Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an’s most famous tourist attraction, which are located about an hour outside the city. Hop on one of the buses that depart from Xi’an central station hourly, or book a taxi at your hotel or hostel.
Hop a flight to Chengdu from Xi’an International Airport.
If you arrive in Chengdu early enough, take a taxi to Jin Li Street, which is a great spot for sampling the iconic Sichuan cuisine that has its roots here. Afterward, visit Wu Hou Ci (Temple), built in the 6th Century in the memory of Emperor Liu Bei. Or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, head on over to Yu’s Family Kitchen for a 33-course meal.
Today’s panda day! Visit the Chengdu Panda Base, which is located a short ride from the city center. Plan to get there early if you want to see the adorable pandas being fed. If you didn’t get a chance to hit up Jin Li Street or Wu Hou Temple your first day in town, now would be a great opportunity.
Hop a flight back to Shanghai from Chengdu International Airport or…
Go on an excursion into rural Sichuan province. Do like I did and visit Qingcheng Mountain.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.