Accelerating at breakneck speed, China’s swelling cities sprout new skyscrapers overnight, while locals relax in the teahouses and giant pandas munch lazily on bamboo. Expect ancient temples and imperial palaces, terraced fields and twisting backstreets, sacred mountains and plates piled high with steamed buns and sticky duck, hand-cut noodles and deep-fried chicken feet.
China’s capital is graced by imperial relics but it’s becoming harder to find them beneath the growing skyline of glass and steel. Shopping malls and gridlocked roads can get exhausting but hidden within them you’ll find elderly residents playing chess, ancient hutongs full of life, and family-run dumpling bars billowing with steam.
Take a walk through China’s history when you enter Ming Dynasty courts in the Forbidden City, reflect on Mao’s rule and the massacre in Tiananmen Square, and see the Bird’s Nest stadium at the Olympic Village. The Great Wall is a daytrip away, so you can catch a bus there in the morning, stop at the Ming Tombs on the way back and still have time for Peking Duck and a Beijing Opera.
The country’s imperial capital for more than 1,000 years, Xian gives a window to ancient China. The main attraction is just outside the city – an army of 8,000 terracotta warriors, standing in their battle tunics by the tomb of China’s first emperor. But there’s plenty more to see back in the city, from crumbling temples to modern museums.
Start by riding a tandem around the Ming Dynasty walls, stopping off for panoramic photos by the Drum Tower. Great Wild Goose Pagoda has the best views and, as you navigate the alleys of the Muslim Quarter, try handmade noodles and mutton rolls. You can’t ignore the other side of Xian – the shopping malls, office blocks and traffic jams – but this unique city has the balance of old and new just about right.
A 24-hour city of rural migrants and well-heeled Chinese, old-hat expats and international businessmen, Shanghai is where mainland China meets the rest of the world. Explore on foot to get your bearings, starting with the waterside walkway and colonial banks at the Bund. Next, wander towards the pawnshops, print houses and food markets of the Old Town – an exciting place for lunch if you can stomach the fermented tofu.
When you’re all noodled-out, visit the French Concession and wander along its café-lined streets, or try the car-free art district and browse the galleries. Finish your day with rooftop cocktails by the Huangpu River, where you can gaze across to Pudong’s futuristic skyline, watching the lights of the Pearl Tower change from pink to blue.
Giant Pandas are the big draw of this southwest city, which has an out of town breeding centre that’s home to more than a hundred black and white bears. Visit them in the morning then return to Chengdu to mingle with the locals in traditional teahouses or challenge them to a game of chess in People’s Park.
As with most Chinese cities, shiny skyscrapers are a firm feature but duck down a side street and you’ll find Taoist temples, bustling markets and mouth-watering street snacks – capital of spicy Sichuan province, Chengdu is famous for its tongue-numbing hotpots and kung pao chicken. Beyond the city is the sacred peak of Emei Shan, which promises jaw-dropping views, whether you hike to the top or cheat and take the cable-car.
A two-hour train ride from Hong Kong, business is booming in this vast South China city. Addicted to shopping and obsessed with eating out, Guangzhou is the cradle of Cantonese cuisine, so you can look forward to authentic dim sum and wonton soup before walking it off in the colourful parks or choosing a lake to stroll beside.
Beyond the skyscrapers and shopping streets are narrow alleyways, ancestral temples and antique markets, and the former foreign concession of Shamian Island is lined with elegant churches and colonial villas. Escape for the afternoon to hike on Baiyun Mountain before diving back into the city to cruise along the Pearl River or spend a night in the clubs and cocktail bars.