This may be a once in a lifetime experience, so you will want to make it count. China is a huge country. The question is: "How can I experience the essence of this vast country in just a few days of traveling?"
Most would advise not to be too adventurous on a first trip, especially if you see the possibility of a more in-depth visit to explore the country in the future.
Just being in a new country can be exhausting with a bombardment of the senses: new sights and sounds, a new language to process, new customs and ways of doing things, different food, and a different time zone and climate. So don't make your itinerary too hectic.
Over-extending yourself will detract from your visit, so our recommendation is to explore only the absolute best of easily-accessible China first time, and spend the rest of your trip relaxing and taking in the ambience.
On a first trip to China you will probably want to see all the main attractions of the country. You won't want to go home and have somebody say "If you didn't see … then you haven't really experienced China".
On their first trip to China most travelers focus on the cultural and historical aspects of China and stay in the big cities, though China's natural scenery and minority culture are also some of the highlights. See our customers' Top China Tour Destinations in 2016.
For a first trip to China, most tourists visit Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai, as these three destinations show travelers an overall view of the nation of China, from its history and culture to its development and prosperity today.
Beijing — a vibrant mix of history and modernity
If you only go to one city, go to Beijing.The capital has it all: history, culture, prestige, and even some decent scenery to the north around the Great Wall.
Xi'an — gateway to China's history
Next you should discover where the nation of China really began. Visit Xi'an, where First Emperor Qin (pronounced Chin, hence China) ruled from the first capital of a united China. See his grand Terracotta Army.
Xi'an is an excellent place to experience life in the pre-Beijing dynasties. Enjoy a Tang Dynasty banquet and show, and see temples, a mosque, pagodas, and towers that are more than 1,000 years old.
Shanghai — China's largest and richest city
Shanghai is China's largest city, and some would say must be visited for its significance. There aren't many world-class tourist sights, and it could be toured in a day. Make sure you see the colonial and sky-rise architecture of the Bund, and take the Maglev to/from the airport. Shanghai is a convenient city to arrive at or depart from.
If you have more than 8 days for your first trip, you may consider the following cities:
Hong Kong: Hong Kong airport also provides a great gateway to China, and Hong Kong should at least be counted equal to Shanghai among China's top tourist cities. It in no way comes behind Shanghai for modern and colonial history, and surpasses Shanghai with its food, beaches, hills, and island parks.
Chengdu's pandas are perhaps the icing on the cake on the China must-do list. If you could just touch China's "national treasure" no-one could deny you've toured China completely. Chengdu is also famous for its spicy food.
The Yellow Mountains (Huangshan) are the epitome of Chinese mountain artwork. The curiously-shaped rocks and twisted pines in swirling clouds are the stuff of Chinese legends. If you don't mind a lot of steps and likely tourist crowds, you won't be disappointed. A two-day visit to see the sunrise is recommended.
You may have seen the highlights of China on brochures: the magnificent Imperial Palace, stunning Great Wall, and spectacular Terracotta Warriors. As a first timer, you are suggested to plan at least 8 days to see the "must-sees" of China in Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai.
To discover more of China — colorful minority culture and magical natural landscapes — you will need a few more days.
China's west and extreme north could almost be considered as different countries for visiting separately. The Muslim northwest, and Inner Mongolia are not recommended for a first visit, as they are not representative of China, and travel, climatic, and other conditions are harsher than places recommended above.
A first trip to China should be all about seeing the highlights, and perhaps testing the water, deciding what you would like to see more of in the future. Whether it's the culture, the architecture, the landscapes, or something else, China offers an unparalleled depth to be charted. Therefore we recommend saving the discovery of the less-accessible things you are interested in for another trip.
See The top 12 China Holiday Wreckers for things to avoid.
Avoid China's major holidays (unless you want to take part in the celebrations), as transport and tourist areas are packed and prices for hotels double or more. These are the two weeks either side of Chinese New Year (7 February-14 February in 2015), Labor Day week (May 1–7), and National Day week (October 1–7). For more see Dates to Avoid When Planning a China Tour.
Seasons: All of the above suggestions are suitable for travel all year round if the correct clothing is prepared. Scenery of course varies with the seasons. The choice is yours: flowers blooming, hot sunshine, autumn hues, or snow-scenes.
Winter low season: All but Hong Kong above can feel quite cold in the winter. Whether to come in winter is a trade off between cheaper rates and warmth.
If you are interested in traditional Chinese festival culture, consider arranging your China tour for Chinese New Year (the Spring Festival — January 28, 2017). It’s the most important traditional festival in China. You are likely to encounter big crowds in streets, trains, and restaurants. The nation is on the move around CNY, so book early!
Traveling alone is for the adventurous with plenty of time to plan and arrange their trip... or to adjust if things don't work out. Independent travelers in a developing country like China should be prepared for a steep learning curve, and many hassles along the way. Patience, initiative, and flexibility (or a big budget) are a must. You won't necessarily see the best of China, but the life experience gained is priceless.
Group package tours offer the easiest and cheapest way to see China's major sights. You can rest in the security that you're doing things a tried and tested way. However, group tours lack flexibility, and are typically low-value, rushed affairs, herding you from place to place. You will just scratch the surface of Chinese life and culture.
Private tours are the high-value option for customers who want to get more out of their China tour. With a China-based operator like China Highlights you can have an authentic, high-quality China experience, designed to your requirements. See Why Us.
Private transport and guides with good English offer comfort, flexibility, hassle elimination, and insights that you don't get alone or in a group. Continue to read How to Make the Most of Your Tour Guide.
Use a credit/debit card: Some star-rated hotels and department stores accept major credit cards such as Master Card, Visa, JCB, and American Express. But foreign credit cards are accepted comparatively rarely in China.
Carry Chinese cash: Most establishments in small cities and the countryside don’t accept foreign bank cards. So you must carry sufficient yuan for any shopping/eating/transport and non-pre-paid activities you want to do.
Obtain Chinese currency by withdrawing directly from an ATM using a major card brand, or exchanging major foreign currency (USD, EUR, GBP…) in large denominations at the airport, branches of the Bank of China, and large hotels in China. (Traveler’s checks are seldom used now). See more on Chinese Currency for how to exchange foreign currency for yuan.
Chinese Yuan Denominations:
See our Chinese currency converter for more accurate exchange rates, and our policy on currency fluctuation.
We hope these suggestions and recommendations have been helpful, but when it comes to tourism "the customer is always right". Our slogan is "Discovery your way", and your first trip to China should only ever be all that you want it to be.
China Highlights is your China tour tailor-making expert. As an alternative to customizing the recommended tours linked above to meet your individual requirements, we can help you tailor-make a first time tour from scratch, doing the things you want in the order you want. Our consultancy and tour design service is FREE!
Get your travel documents ready well in advance, before you book flights or accommodation.
Pay special attention to any medicines you might need, and money. See our China travel checklist.
If planning to take your children, don't overpack, as you can get many things in China. Include some fun activities, so they won't be bored. See Traveling with Kids in China.