There are a number of best times to go to China depending on your answers to these questions:
The No. 1 time to go to China is early autumn (October). It is best to miss the first week of October (Chinese National Day Holiday) when attractions, transport, and hotels are packed with Chinese tourists and prices go up considerably.
In October the weather is optimal: most of China has warm/mild temperatures, and the summer rains have stopped (apart from around Hong Kong and Sanya) so it’s relatively dry. The major Chinese attractions in Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Guilin, Hong Kong, Chengdu, etc. are all at a comfortable time to visit.
Festivals and events include Chinese National Day (October 1 – a good time to see patriotic entertainment and fireworks), the Shaolin Kungfu Festival, the Canton Fair (from the 15th), Qiang Minority New Year (Jiuzhaigou), and in about 15% of years the Mid-Autumn Festival. In late October you could also see fall foliage vistas. However, it is the high season, so tour prices are highest.
The No. 2 time to go to China is probably late spring when flowers are in bloom, and temperatures are warming up, but not yet too hot. The Labor Day holiday week (May 1 – 7) should be avoided as attractions, transport, and hotels are packed with Chinese tourists and prices go up considerably.
In late spring temperatures are optimal with all of China getting into the 20s centigrade (the 70s Fahrenheit). While the North of China (Beijing, Xi’an) is still dry, the summer rains have already began in the South, though not yet at their peak, with dampness guaranteed and storms possible. This could actually enhance the view in the form of mountain mists in mountainous areas like Guilin and the Yellow Mountains.
September is probably the No. 3 time to go to China. It has many of the benefits of October, but with more heat and rain. Some still find this month a little too hot. In September you are likely to be able to experience China’s Mid-Autumn Festival (85% of years have a September Mid-Autumn), China’s second largest festival with lots of tradition and customs associated with it.
There is little to choose between China’s summer months, but the August school holiday is likely to be the busiest time. Sunshine and warmth certainly make for good holiday weather, though some might find it too hot. Most places experience temperatures over 30°C (86°F).
It is best to visit China’s remote areas (Tibet, the Northwest, Inner Mongolia, and mountainous areas) in the summer (or late spring/ early autumn) when the weather is not bitterly cold and possibly dangerous.
The summer rains are also a factor that may affect your trip. Cruises may be halted if the Li River or the Yangtze is in flood, and any outdoor activity may be rendered less enjoyable by a downpour. The monsoon is generally greater in intensity the further southeast you go. Hong Kong has the most rainfall, and in Xi’an, near the dry northwest, the summer rains are hardly worth mentioning.
The rainiest month also changes with location in China. The monsoon comes early in Guilin, peaking in early June. In Shanghai the rains peak in late June, but with high amounts in July and August, as it is also typhoon season for the east coast. In Xi’an the rains (still only moderate) peak in July. The rains peak in late July in Beijing and are largely confined to July and August (Chengdu is similar, but with more rain). The Hong Kong monsoon peaks in August and, coupled with typhoons, gives Hong Kong very high rainfall from May through to September. In tropical Sanya the rains peak in September and continue for longest, from May to October, but only about half the quantity of Hong Kong’s.
This time is favored for visiting North China over late autumn as it is warmer and rainfall isn’t really a factor. However, in southern China spring can be uncomfortably damp. This is the time for seeing spring flowers in North China; flowers often come earlier in the warmer south. See China Spring Travel. It is the low season so travel is cheaper.
November is the best time to see fall colors across China. See China in Fall. For travelling to the south of China late autumn is better than early spring as it is drier, and there are still some warm days. It is also the low season so you can travel cheaper.
Apart from if you love winter weather or winter sports there is not much to draw you to China in winter, apart from the cheapest low season prices and lack of tourist crowds. Generally the best times to visit China’s top attractions are in line with the above ranking, with the exception of winter attractions like Harbin’s Ice and Snow Festival and China’s ski resorts.
Winter is bitterly cold in North China, and gloomy and cold in the South, though if the wind changes direction there can be some warm spells. The exceptions are Hainan Island and its beach resorts like Sanya, and other places that just fall within the tropics like Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, etc., which enjoy mild winters. Kunming, the Spring City, maintains mild weather all year round, so Yunnan’s capital and the tropical rainforest of southernmost Yunnan could be comfortably visited.
The exception to winter low season quietness and cheapness is Chinese New Year, when the Chinese transport network is stressed to the limit and hotel prices go up by two or three times. Chinese New Year celebrations last for about 2 weeks in the period from late January to early March, and train tickets may be sold out up to 10 days before. If you don’t mind the extra cost and crowding this is the time to see China at its most traditional, relaxed, and festive.
China has many attractions with a special time of year when people generally visit them. Several are linked above, but these deserved a special mention.
China also has many festivals and events that could be the highlight and focus of a China trip, for example Chinese New Year (late January or February), or the Dragon Boat Festival (late May or June), or the many ethnic minority festivals.
Tourist seasons are usually defined as follows:
High seasons: April 1 to May 31, and September 1 to November 15.
Shoulder season (not quite as high as the high seasons): June 1 to August 31.
Low season: November 16 to March 31.
Domestic air fares are affected by China’s tourist seasons (above). The peak price period for international airfares, late July and August, coincides with the school summer holidays (northern hemisphere). The low price period for air fares, November to February, corresponds with winter. It could almost be said that the warmer the weather is the more expensive the air fare.
Hotel Prices generally follows the tourist seasons above, with the highest prices in the high season, medium prices in the shoulder season and lowest prices in the low season. However, hotel prices are more strongly influenced by China’s three big national holidays than anything else: Chinese New Year (late January or February), Labor Day (May 1 – 7) and National Day (October 1 – 7), when prices can be two or three times the norm.
The cost to enter some of China’s attractions will also vary with the tourist season. This is particularly true for cruises of the Li River and Yangtze cruises.