Home China Guide  First Trip to China

How to Plan a First Trip to China — Step by Step

Planning a first trip to China may seem daunting. You may be concerned about where to go, how long to stay, when to visit, the cost, the language barrier, and many other things. Don’t worry! Sit back and relax for a few minutes as we share our experience from designing over 100,000 China tours.

1. Take It Easy — Plan Less, Enjoy More!

Ethnic People, China

We 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. See more on Coping with Culture Shock in China.

So don't make your itinerary too hectic. Over-extending yourself will detract from your visit. 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 ambiance.

2a. Where to Go — Most first timers visit 3 cities.

temple of heavenThe Temple of Heaven, Beijing

On their first trip to China most travelers focus on the cultural and historical aspects of China and stay in the big cities.

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. (Recommended stays are given in brackets.)

1) Beijing (3 days) — a vibrant mix of history and modernity

the Great Wall of China The Great Wall of China, Beijing

If you only go to one city, go to Beijing. The capital has it all: history, culture, prestige, and even some decent natural scenery to the north around the Great Wall.

If you only have one day make sure you set foot on the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square, and eat roast duck at one of the famous restaurants.

With a bit more time the Temple of Heaven and its park will transport you deeper into the culture of China, along with a tour of the Hutongs and the Summer Palace.

The Terracotta ArmyThe Terracotta Army, Xi'an

2) Xi'an (2 days) — Discover China's ancient 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 something of 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.

3) Shanghai (1 day) — China's largest and richest city

shanghai Shanghai's skyline from the Bund

Shanghai is China's largest city, and many would say must be visited for its significance.

There aren't so 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.

The record-speed Maglev to/from the airport is recommended. Shanghai is a convenient city to arrive at or depart from.

Don't let the planning stress you out! Tell us your travel ideas and we will work with you to create your very own unique China trip! Create Your Trip Now or keep reading on for more planning guides.

2b. 5 More Recommendations — if you have over a week

If you have more than a week, you can discover more of the culture and the magical natural landscapes of China. Here are our seven top recommendations (with suggested stays):

hong kong, Chengdu, Yunnan, Huangshan

1) Hong Kong (2 days) — the perfect city for adjusting to China

Most citizens in Hong Kong can speak English, and while Chinese, it’s also quite Western. Hong Kong should at least be counted equal to Shanghai for modern and colonial history. Also enjoy real Cantonese food, tropical beaches, amazing mountain views, and theme parks.

2) Chengdu (3 days) — the hometown of giant pandas!

Chengdu's giant pandas are perhaps the icing on the cake on the China must-do list. In this laid back cultural city, you can take part in giant panda volunteer program, and try spicy Chinese hotpot.

3) Guilin (2 days) — Picturesque natural scenery and minority culture

Guilin has some of China's most famous scenery: karst peaks combine sublimely with the Li River. Also visit Longsheng to see the rice terraces and long-haired Yao minority women.

4) The Yellow Mountains (3 days) — Hike on the gorgeous Yellow Mountains

The Yellow Mountains are the epitome of Chinese mountain artwork. It’s the most famous and beautiful mountainous area in China. Picturesque ancient villages will bring you back to China hundreds of years ago.

The Grand Canal, SuzhouThe Grand Canal runs through Hangzhou and Suzhou's quaint watertowns.

5) Hangzhou and Suzhou (2 days) — Classic Chinese elegance

See Hangzhou’s West Lake area and Suzhou’s classic Chinese gardens. They are near to Shanghai — only 1 hour by bullet train. You can also extend your Shanghai stay to see the elegant water towns in this area.

3. When to Travel — Choose comfortable weather

Longji Terraced Rice Fields in Fall Longji's terraced fields in fall, Guilin

Each season has its attractions...

  • You can see fresh green hues and flowers in cool and showery spring.
  • Enjoy a more comfortable trip to Tibet in summer.
  • Experience optimal weather for outdoor activities and autumn colors in fall.
  • See icy wonders in Harbin and take advantage of lower prices and less crowding in winter.

For more help choosing a time of year, you could start by seeing a summary of China’s climate by season.

For the average customer, fall is the best season for a first trip to China as it has cool/warm and drier weather, with more clear days. It’s the most comfortable season for being outdoors. Fall is earlier in North China (September/October) and up to a month later in south China.

Avoid China's National Day week though (October 1–7), as transport and tourist areas are packed and prices for hotels at least double.

4. How to Travel: Alone, As a Group, or Private Tour?

A) Independent Travel — a challenging option

Chinese foreigner conversationA first trip to China alone requires resourcefulness.

Traveling alone in China is for the adventurous. Patience, initiative, and flexibility are a must. You won't necessarily see the best of China, but the life experience is priceless.

B) Group Tours — usually not recommended

Group package tours offer the easiest and cheapest way to see China. They're a safe bet, but lack flexibility, and are typically low-value, rushed affairs. Herded around, you will just scratch China's surface.

C) Private Tours — the best option for first-time travel

private tour

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. It's good to know: How to Make the Most of Your Tour Guide.

5. Tailor-Making a First China Tour

discovery your way

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. 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!

Our Most Popular First China Trip Plans

  • THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE — 8-Day Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai Tour
    — the most popular destinations for a first trip
  • CLASSIC WONDERS — 11-Day Beijing, Xi'an, Guilin, and Shanghai Tour
    — the major tourist cities in China
  • A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH PANDAS — Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu, the Yangtze, and Shanghai in 13 days — top experiences, including pandas, and a relaxing cruise

Starting to Plan Your China Trip in 2018?

See our latest ideas, suggestions, and tips on how to plan your China trip in 2018.

Further Reading for Planning Your China Tour