When I told people my first trip to China is only for week, they all asked the same thing. Is one week really enough to see China? So let me tell you first of all, China cannot be seen in a week. But you can make a pretty good start, and see some of the biggest attractions it has to offer.
The itinerary below is based on a 7 day trip we did covering Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, but it’s an “improved” version, with a few tweaks based on our experience, and a few things we wished we had done differently. After the itinerary, I also look at How to Get Around and Where to Stay.
Day 1: Arrive in Beijing.
Depending on your time of arrival (and how good you are on Jet lag), you can visit the Lama temple in the North of the city and the Wangfujing shopping street. Read more about it here.
Day 2: Visit Tiananmen square, Mao Mausoleum and the Forbidden City
All of three are right next to each other, so it’s easy to visit them all on the same day. I would recommend visiting the square first, followed by the Mao Mausoleum. When we visited, we didn’t go to the Mao mausoleum, but wish we had done, as it is a key attraction for many local tourists. After the Mao Mausoleum, you can enter the forbidden city via the South gate, which is the only entrance to the forbidden city for visitors. (It is supposedly a popular scam to tell people you can enter from other gates, so watch out for anyone promising shorter queues at a different entrance). Allow half a day to explore the forbidden city. There are many grand pavilions to look at, but also take the time go to the smaller buildings in the East and West Palaces and explore the living spaces. You can read about our forbidden city experience here.
Day 3: Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace
Head to the temple of heaven first thing in the morning, and then head out of the city to the summer palace. The temple of heaven is beautiful complex, with the main temple in the middle, a number of squares and parks. It’s a popular hangout for many locals who come there to play cards or games.
The summer palace is about 30 minutes outside of the main city. It served as the emperor’s palace during the summer when the forbidden city was too hot to live in. It’s a beautiful park with many pavilions, sculptures and walk ways. The main feature of the park is the Kunming lake. You can buy a basic ticket that allows you entry to the grounds, but I would recommend going for a slightly more expensive comprehensive ticket that allows entrance to several of the features of the park, such as the three-tier Chinese Opera Theatre. You can read about our summer palace experience here.
Day 4: Visit the Great Wall and travel to Xian
Head out of the city to visit the great wall. Click here to read more about our great wall experience here and to decide which part of it to visit.
In the afternoon you can either catch the bullet train to Xian (taking ~5.5 hours), or you can spend a bit more time in Beijing , visit the Olympic Park and take the sleeper train to Xian (taking ~12 hours).
If you want to spend more time in Beijing: I would suggest visiting the Ancient Hutongs, Jinghshang Park behind the forbidden city, the great hall of the people (on to Tiananmen Square), The 798 art district or the many museums the city has to offer covering history, art, natural history, military. We didn’t have time to do any of this, but if I returned to Beijing, these will be at the top of my list.
Day 5: Visit the Terracotta Warriors and the Qin Shihuang mausoleum
In Xian, most people (including us) only visit the Terracotta warriors, which I think is mistake. The Mausoleum of Emperor Qin (for whom the terracotta army was built) is currently a large park and the centre piece is a mound which is the Emperor’s tomb. Legends say that the tomb contains unimaginable riches, including rivers of gold and silver. It is still undergoing excavations, but you can see the mound from the outside.
In the afternoon, take a walk (or bicycle ride) along the Xian city walls. In the evening, head to the muslin quarter to sample the delights in Huimin street. You can also see the brightly lit Bell Tower and Drum Tower. Read about our day in Xian here.
Day 6: Further explore Xian and travel to Shanghai
In the morning explore the Muslim Quarter for shopping and perhaps the Grand Mosque. Alternatively, you can visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
In the afternoon you can take either the bullet train to Shanghai (taking between 6 to 7.5 hours, depending on the train), or the sleeper train (taking ~16 to 18 hours). I would recommend the bullet train, as this gives you an extra night to spend in Shanghai. Plus, Shanghai is one city on earth where you should arrive in the dark. If you do arrive in Shanghai this evening, head straight to the Bund to be amazed by its vibrant colours. Read about our trip on the bullet train and the lights of Shanghai here.
If you want to spend more time in Xian, you can visit Mount Huashan, one of China’s five great mountains , the Huaqing Hot Spring or the Lishan Forest park.
Day 7: Visit the Yu garden and Skyscrapers of Shanghai
In the morning, visit the Yu garden. This an extensive and classical Chinese garden in the middle of Shanghai. It is an oasis in the middle of the city, and there are many waterways, bridges, rockers and pavilion to explore. Allow 3-4 hours to walk around and relax in the garden. In the afternoon, if you are one for shopping, you can explore the bazaar around the Yu garden (be prepared to haggle) and Nanjing road east. I personally preferred Nanjing road east, as it had more day-to-day Chinese items (e.g. Green Tea and Sweets), whereas the bazaar almost exclusively consisted of tourist souvenirs. Read about our time in the garden here.
In the afternoon, cross the Huangpau river (either take the subway, or the ferry) to Puxi, where all the skyscrapers are. You can climb a couple of the skyscrapers here (the Jin Mao tower and the Oriental Pearl TV tower). I would recommend climbing the Oriental Pearl TV Tower as (I think) it is a more interesting building and the price of the ticket also includes entry to the Shanghai museum at the basement of the tower. If at all possible, go up the tower at dusk, so that you get views in daylight and night-time. Read about our time at the Oriental Pearl Tower here.
Then head to the airport for a late night departure out of Shanghai.
If you have more time to spend in Shanghai, you can visit one of the nearby water town (e.g. Zhujiajiao). You can also take a river cruise by night (best done on clear days), or attend an acrobatic show.
How to get around:
- Subway: Best way to get around Beijing, Xian and Shanghai is the subway. All three cities have a very good subway system that is as good as any major city in the World. There are self-service ticket machines (in English) and all the station signs are in English and Chinese both, so it is easy to navigate.
- Taxi: Taxis are also available, and not expensive. However, finding a licensed taxi could be tricky and often the drivers may not speak English. We found that taxis were best when your starting point is the hotel. The hotel porters are able to order you a taxi, tell you how much it would cost, and tell the driver where to take you.
- Guided tour: Depending where you are going it might be a good option to book a guide tour for the day, or half a day. I would specially recommend this for days where you are heading out of the city. We booked private guided tours for visiting the forbidden city and Tiananmen square (day 2), Great Wall (day 3) and Terracotta Warriors (day 4). We found that this really enhanced our experience, as the guides were able to help us navigate the ticketing and entry at the big attraction and it would have been tricky use public transport to get far from the city. We booked our guided tours in the UK with The China Travel Company, but it is also possible to book the trips once you are there, through your hotel.
Inter-City: You can fly, but I would recommend the train. Between Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, you can either take the sleeper train or the bullet train. Both are very good value for money and relatively comfortable (bullet train more so than the sleeper train).
Where to Stay:
Obviously the cities will have many hundreds of places to stay, the following are based on our experience. One thing to know about hotels in China is that most request a deposit (~500 RMB in cash or card) on check-in. It will be returned to you on check-out.
Beijing: Penta Hotel, Beijing.
Penta hotel Beijing is centrally located, close to the Chongwenmen Subway station. The hotel is modern and comfortable and the staff are helpful and friendly. The hotel breakfast is comprehensive, and the hotel cafe also have a simple dinner menu (in English) incase you don’t feel like braving one of the Chinese restaurants around.
Xian: Citadine Central Apart hotel.
In addition to a bedroom and bathroom, you also get a living room (with a sofa bed) and a small (but fully equipped) kitchen. This is a great of option for Xian, especially as the Huimin food street is only 5 minutes on foot. It is also a 10 minute walk to the nearest subway, under the Bell Tower. And there are great views at night.
Shanghai: Astor House hotel
Dating back to 1846, it is one of the oldest hotels in Shanghai. Built in a colonial style, in its hey day Astor House hosted many celebrities visiting Shanghai. It is somewhat dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers, but it is still a very good location, and still carries much of the old school glamour. Another hotel with a very good breakfast (served in the magnificent peacock ball room). Astor House hotel is good value for money, but of your budget stretches further you can book one of the high-rise hotels on the bund, for better views.
If you are thinking about booking your first trip to China, be sure to read my first post about what type of tour to take.
Have you been to China/Thinking of going? What sort of itinerary would you like? Have I missed anything? Leave a comment above and let me know.
Next week in my last post about planning a visiting to China, I will be looking at some handy tips and tricks that I learnt during our time there.