As mentioned in my post about planning a trip to China, we decided to travel independently rather than as part of an organised tour. This way we could really tailor our China itinerary to our specific needs.
We had only two weeks in China and wanted to see and experience as much as possible. But, considering the reality of travelling with a toddler, decided to focus on a handful of must-see major sights. Having a little time to kick back and relax was also important to us and reflected in our itinerary.
So, here is our tried and tested two week itinerary for an adventure family holiday in China.
Part 1: The Highlights of Beijing
Arriving at Beijing’s Airport, we start our journey in China’s capital. It’s hard to believe that despite a population of nearly 22 million people, Beijing is only China’s second largest city (after Shanghai, which has 24 million). For comparison, London has 8 million… Read here about other interesting facts about Beijing.
Day 1: Confucious Temple and Olympic Park
After checking into our hotel in a traditional hutong in central Beijing, we start exploring the busy Dongcheng neighbourhood. We wander up Dongsi Da Jie all the way to the Confucious Temple. Still a little blurry-eyed from the overnight flight, we admittedly don’t take it all in completely, but it is a nice starting point to our visit. Encouraged by our little excursion we feel brave and hit the subway towards the Olympic Park. By the time we emerge it is dark and the park beautifully lit up. We wander from one end of the park to the other, taking in the unique architecture of the Beijing 2008 Olympic venues.
Day 2: Mutianyu Great Wall of China and Temple of Heaven
For the next couple of days, I have pre-booked a guide and driver, to take us around some of the top sights of Beijing. May, our guide from China Highlights, meets us at the hotel and we hit the road northwards to the Mutianyu Great Wall of China. The drive takes only 1 hour 10 minutes, record time we are told. The Great Wall of China is obviously a major tourist magnet, and visitors at Mutianyu are led past a mile of shops and restaurants before reaching the chairlift to the top.
Despite the crowds, Mutianyu is still one of the quieter areas of the restored wall and more popular among non-Chinese tourists. Chinese tourists, May explains, prefer the Badaling section of the wall as this is the place Mao Zedong, referred to as “Chairman Mao” by the Chinese, chose for his visit. Apparently, he once said “He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man”. For families, Mutianyu is certainly ideal: there’s a chair lift, a cable car and a tobogganing ride. All is possible to do with a toddler, and, while slightly scary, great fun!
Afterwards we head back into town to leafy Tiantan Park, popular with residents for games, sports and courting. At the centre of the park sits the Temple of Heaven. The focal and most iconic building of the temple complex is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a beautiful circular structure made entirely of wood, without a single nail.
Day 3: Summer Palace, Tian-anmen Square and Forbidden City
The next morning, we jump on the subway to the Summer Palace, a huge imperial complex of palace buildings, gardens, canals and a large lake. We only have a couple of hours to explore the vast grounds, but you could easily spend a whole day here.
After lunch we once again meet with May and our driver and head towards Tian’anmen Square. May has received a message from a friend informing her that the police have inexplicably closed Tian’anmen Square to the public. She can’t be sure whether it will re-open by the time we arrive. No official information is ever shared with tourist guides, May explains. They have to rely on their own network to know what’s going on in the city. We hope to still get a glimpse of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and this historically significant place, at least from the street. But as we make our way along the pavement a long line of soldiers appears out of nowhere and clears everyone out. Someone mentions about an imminent visit by the president, but no one really knows what’s going on. The atmosphere is tense and all guides swiftly retreat with their groups.
Fortunately, May is able to confirm that the Forbidden City is still open, so we head straight there. What we find most astonishing about the Imperial Palace is its size. Encased by a moat, the Forbidden City encompasses more than 800 buildings within its walls, the earliest dating back to the 15th century and Emperor Yongle. The three main ceremonial buildings of the complex are the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Towards the north end of the complex are the imperial living quarters, which lead to the imperial garden.
To finish our tour of Beijing we try a skewer of táng húlu, toffee haws, a popular sweet and sour street food snack sold all over the capital.
Overnight train Beijing to Xi’an
The next stop on our itinerary is Xi’an, the ancient imperial capital of China and home to the breath-taking Terracotta Army. To save time (and money) we chose to travel to Xi’an on the overnight train from Beijing.
Taking the train in China is a much more serious affair than I’m used to. Security at Beijing train station is similar to that at international airports and only passengers with tickets are allowed to enter the building. Passengers wait in designated waiting areas before the boarding process commences. This tends to lead to a bit of a bottle neck, as everyone storms on the platform at the same time with only minutes to board the train. Trying to get all of us and our luggage safely on the train is probably the most stressful moment of our trip.
Having had pre-arranged our tickets, we have a soft sleeper compartment to ourselves. The train is on time and clean, and the compartment neat and comfortable. We are hoping for a catering service and a cool beer, but either there isn’t one or we’ve missed it.
Part 2: Xi’an and the Terracotta Army
Central Xi’an is surrounded by the ancient city walls, forming a 12-metre-high rectangle with a perimeter of nearly 14km length. Although the old town is just about small enough to be explored on foot, the two central subway lines are helpful to get swiftly across town.
Our hotel is located just inside the city walls, near the huge South Gate. The JuSu Jade Boutique Hotel turns out to be a hidden gem, cosy, quirky, decorated with natural materials and colours. Our room is spacious and immaculate, and we particularly enjoy the Chinese chess provided in the seating area, a nice touch.
The Terracotta Army
With only one night in Xi’an, we waste no time and head straight to the Terracotta Warriors, 28km east of Xi’an. Public buses leave from the east side of the station square, #914 and #915, and take approx. 1.5 hours.
Only discovered in 1974, the Terracotta Army was set to guard the tomb of emperor Qin Shi Huang over two thousand years ago. The vast excavation site is divided into three vaults, with vault 1 being the largest and certainly most impressive. So far around 1,000 warriors have been discovered, of an estimated 8,000. Vault 2 is still being excavated and is expected to hold even more figures than vault 1. There is also a museum where visitors can see some of the statues close up as well as a couple of incredibly well-preserved horse-drawn chariots.
It’s one of the most incredible and memorable sites I have ever visited – the magnitude of it is almost too much to comprehend.
Sichuan Hot Pot
Having played it quite safe so far, we dare ourselves to visit a restaurant around the corner of our hotel, specialising in Sichuan Hot Pot. With no clue what is going on or what we are supposed to do, the staff try their hardest to accommodate us, communicating with hands, feet and translation apps. Observing fellow diners, we soon learn that we are supposed to help ourselves at the buffet of skewers, which we are then to cook in the humongous pot of two types of broth placed on our table. Some of the stuff on skewers we recognise (thank heavens for broccoli), but mostly we have no idea what we are eating. It’s a fun, and very hot, affair, although perhaps not the most enjoyable meal I’ve ever had.
On route to Chengdu
We spend the next morning, wandering the streets around Shyuanmen, a quirky neighbourhood of souvenir shops, art galleries and antique stores. There is a nicely relaxed, fun vibe to Xi’an, it has character and style. We are sad to leave so soon, as we head back to Xi’an station in the afternoon and battle our way onto the bullet train to our next destination, Chengdu.
Part 3: One day in Chengdu and Leshan
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is a medium sized city for China, with a measly 14 million citizens. For us, it is huge and, like so many other places, struggles with heavy pollution and traffic.
Pandas close up at the Giant Panda Research Base
For our visit to Chengdu I have arranged a local guide through toursbylocals.com. Victor, who turns out to also run his own tour company, picks us up early in the morning and we head straight to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. This zoo (although it is much more than that) is wonderful to visit, laid out in a vast, green park area with plenty of space for both the Giant and Red Pandas housed here as well as the crowds of visitors. Most visitors arrive early in the morning, when Pandas are most active and feed on truckloads of fresh bamboo. Stuffed with breakfast, the pandas then lie around dozing for most of the day after 10am.
Giant Pandas, and their red cousins, are among the cutest creatures on earth and it is wonderful watching them enjoy themselves. With babies being born regularly at the centre, thanks to artificial insemination, there is a good chance visitors get a glimpse of one of the panda newborns. But the toddlers / teenagers, still living with their mum, are the most fun to watch, as they play happily together in their enclosures.
The world’s largest Buddha at Leshan
After a delightful morning at the Panda Base we set off on the two-hour drive to Leshan, the home of the Big Buddha. The Big Buddha at Leshan is the largest Buddha sculpture in the world, 71 metres tall. It was carved into the red sandstone of the riverside cliff in 713 AD, a project that took ninety years to complete. Set back into the cliffs, the Buddha is a sight to remember. Unfortunately, most of the sculpture is covered in scaffolding at the time of our visit, but we get a sense of its grandeur nonetheless. Due to the restoration work going on we decide against the hike up to the Buddha’s shoulders and choose to enjoy the view from the river boat instead.
On Victor’s recommendation we finish the day at a restaurant close to the hotel, enjoying the delicious Chinese speciality of duck with pancakes. Once again, the staff bend over backwards to make our dinner as special as possible, despite the considerable language barrier.
The next morning, we catch a 1.5-hour domestic flight from Chengdu, apparently the world’s busiest airport, to Guilin in the Guanxi province.
Part 4: The beauty of Yangshuo
After a hectic and packed first week, we reach the slower half of our China itinerary. Yangshou, a small-ish town an hour’s drive from Guilin, is best known for its landscape. Surrounded by unusual, karst mountain scenery, reaching into the clouds, the area around the Li and Yulong rivers is the kind of place I expect dragons and hobbits to hang out in.
Mingling with Chinese tourists
Yangshuo itself is a real tourist town, its pedestrianised centre packed with souvenir shops, bars, hotels and restaurants. It’s very popular among Chinese tourists who come here for recreational, outdoor activities, to hike, swim and relax. And to enjoy Western food as it turns out. Despite the partying crowds, there’s a real charm about the place. Little bridges over river offshoots, narrow alleyways, cosy bars, the mountains looming above – it’s a fun place to spend a couple of days.
At night time, Yangshuo really comes to life. Street vendors popping up everywhere, filling the streets with delicious smells of garlic and fried goods. Pop music blaring in the shops and live performers in every bar and restaurant.
Soaking up the scenery and atmosphere
During a break in the incessant rain, we take a taxi to Moon Hill, named after a crescent shaped whole in the rock. Around 800 steps lead to the top, a steep trek rewarded with magnificent views.
On our second day we wander north towards the Yulong River Scenic Area, a most picturesque national park with a 12 km long walk or cycle along the river. For Chinese standards, this area is virtually deserted and we thoroughly enjoy a few hours of peace and quiet, while ambling along the river bank. Serene river cruises on bamboo rafts are one of the main tourist attractions here, one which however isn’t suitable for a family with a toddler.
I need to mention the hot tub
We spend three nights at the Bamboo House Resort just at the edge of the pedestrianised centre of town. Perfectly located with spacious, clean rooms and a restaurant downstairs. Bamboo’s unique selling point however is that each room is equipped with a hot top the size of a small house. Weird perhaps, quirky for sure, we chuckle at first – especially given the extraordinary layout of the room, which clearly came second in consideration following the installation of the gigantic hot top. But, since it’s there one might as well try it, and it is amazing! After traipsing around in the rain all day, coming home to a family jacuzzi is just pure luxury, we love it.
Heading south to Macau
From Yangshuo we catch another bullet train to Zhuhai, to reach the final stop on our itinerary, Macau. Yangshuo train station is not actually in Yangshuo, but an hour’s bus ride away.
Zhuhai is the final stop in China, before crossing the border into the Special Administrative Region of Macau. The border is right next to the train station, and can simply be crossed on foot before catching a taxi on the other side.
Part 5: Portuguese tarts, casino and beach in Macau
Macau, now most famous as the Chinese answer to Las Vegas, was in Portuguese hands until 20 years ago, a heritage that is still visible in its old town and surrounding villages. Architecture, cobbled streets, street names and food still reflect the Portuguese past of the peninsula. But don’t be fooled, Macau city is still a crowded, hectic, smoggy place like any other Chinese city.
The different faces of Macau
Macau stretches out over three parts: Central Macau, with the old town, ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral and some major hotels and casinos such as the Grand Lisboa. Moving south, the island of Taipa is now connected to its former sister island of Coloane by the artificial strip of Cotai, draw for gambling enthusiasts from all over the globe housing the world’s largest casino at the eccentric Venitian Hotel.
Looking for a bit of peace and relaxation after our hectic trip, we stay at the Grand Coloane Resort, steps from sandy Hac Sa beach and a short bus ride from quiet and pleasant Coloane village. From there, it is an easy bus ride to the bonkers Cotai strip as well as Macau’s city centre.
At a similar level to northern Vietnam, the climate in Macau is mild even in winter and therefor a lovely place to chill out for a few days. We spend four nights here, on the beach, wandering the villages, soaking up the madness of the various hotels and shopping malls on the strip and exploring this old town.
Lunch overlooking Macau
As our visit coincides with Steve’s birthday, we treat ourselves to an afternoon lunch buffet at the revolving 360 café at the top of Macau tower. We have a fantastic afternoon enjoying the vast selection of delicious food and the birds’ eye views over the region. Every so often, we hear a gasp going through the restaurant, each time a daredevil on an elastic rope falls past the window, braving the world’s highest bungee jump from the top of the tower.
Return to the UK from Hong Kong
For our return flight to the UK we head to the neighbouring special administrative region of Hong Kong. Instead of the ferry we decide to cross the brand-new Hong Kong – Zhuhai – Macau Bridge – a 55km long bridge and tunnel system linking the two Special Administrative Regions. The bridge is not currently open to the public, but served by frequent shuttle busses. Cheap and efficient, the journey takes approx. 40 minutes. Having dropped our luggage off at Hong Kong airport, we decide to pop into Hong Kong for a quick visit. We enjoy sunset views of the harbour from the Star Ferry, before boarding our late-night flight back to London.
There you go, a two-week itinerary for a family holiday adventure in China. Packed with all the main sites, and a little time for rest and relaxation.