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Essential China

VISIT THE MUST-SEE SPOTS

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If this is your first China travel experience, there are some iconic cities, sites and destinations located throughout the country that are simply a must-see for first-time travel to China, which include Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdue, Xi'an and Kashgar. If this is your second trip to China or you prefer to get off the beaten path, explore our Extended China travel page.

Beijing

The broad boulevards and narrow alleys of this capital city are filled with Imperial legend, communist history and fledgling capitalist dreams. The entire country marches to Beijing's drum, and sets their watch to its clock.

Travel Beijing for a few days and gain great insight into Chinese culture.

The Forbidden City, a vast imperial complex in the center of the capital, is so named because commoners entered upon pain of death. Built during the early 15th century, it covers over 2 million square feet and has over 9,000 rooms. Each of the great courtyards was used for different occasions, such as audiences with provincial officials or imperial examinations. Today, the palace holds many museums full of imperial artifacts.

Sprawling Tiananmen Square is the heart of modern Beijing and the now world-famous venue of the pro-democracy movement of 1989. Mao Zedong's Mausoleum and the Monument to the People's Heroes stand at the center of the square. Flanking its sides are the Qian Men (Front Gate), the Great Hall of the People, the Museum of the History of the Revolution and Tiananmen Gate, adorned with a huge portrait of Mao Zedong.

A Beijing tour will quickly reveal to the traveler that this is a vast city with a dense population. Find a measure of tranquility at the Summer Palace, with its beautiful gardens, halls, pavilions and the great Marble Boat, built with funds pilfered from the Chinese Navy in 1888; or at Yonghe Gong, Beijing's most magnificent active temple, home to Tibetan and Mongolian monks, tapestries and brilliant frescoes. See the Confucius Temple and the Temple of Heaven, with its extraordinary masterpiece of Ming architecture, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

Take a bicycle-rickshaw tour of Beijing and its many hutongs (small lanes in the old downtown), a great way to catch a glimpse of the daily lives of the locals. And whether you consider it cliché or classic, don't leave the capital without sampling Beijing duck and seeing a Chinese opera.

Shanghai

Shanghai is booming. Once China's den of iniquity, this seductive city was established by Europeans in the mid-19th century to facilitate their trade in opium, silk and tea. Shanghai's indigenous masses were exploited and starved, providing fertile ground for radical politics-it was here that communism first took root in China.

After decades of isolation and torpor, the city has now set its sights on replacing Hong Kong as the economic powerhouse and financial center of China. It's full steam ahead as Shanghai robustly reclaims her position on the international scene.

The Bund, lining the western shore of the Pearl River, is home to several dozen ornate 19th century banking buildings and hotels, and was considered China's Wall Street prior to the founding of the People's Republic of China. Its intersection with Nanjing Road is the hot spot when the sun goes down.

Wander through the Yu Yuan Bazaar, originally built as a private estate and garden for a wealthy Ming Dynasty family. Within the maze of traditional architecture, temples and picturesque gardens you can find almost any souvenir and see what seems like half the population of Shanghai.

The Shanghai Museum embodies the aspirations of the city itself: it's new, expensive and impressive, and gloriously showcases Chinese treasures from four millennia. Don't miss it.

Visit the Jade Buddha Temple to view its jewel-encrusted namesake then stroll through Nanjing Lu, the city's huge pedestrian shopping quarter, to find the perfect keepsake to remember your trip to China by and round out your stay in Shanghai.

The Great Wall

An absolute must on any trip to China, you've simply got to take a walk along the Great Wall, the greatest public works project in the history of the Middle Kingdom. It stretches from the Gobi Desert to the ocean and a section of China's most famous structure is easily accessed on a half-day trip from Beijing. Invest a few more hours and find yourself exploring a truly remote section of the Wall.

Xi'an

Xi'an was, at several points in history, the greatest city in the world. Its location at the Chinese end of the Silk Road has consistently made it one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan areas of China.

The numerous mosques and archaeological sites in the city and its environs stand as a testament to the greatness of a city that exercised a power and influence in the East on a par with Rome's in the Western world.

In 1974, a farmer digging a well came across a few terracotta statues in the ground. What archeologists later discovered was that he had unearthed part of the first Qin emperor's massive 2,000-year-old tomb. One section of the tomb has been unearthed, revealing over 8,000 warriors, horses and chariots, no two of which are identical. Today the Army of Terracotta Warriors rivals the Great Wall for China's most renowned historical sight.

Enjoy walking or biking along Xi'an's ancient city wall and enjoy sweeping views of the old city below. Stroll through the city's western Muslim quarter, and pass narrow streets lined with mud brick houses and home to traditional restaurants, shops and mosques.

Visit the Banpo Neolithic Village to see well-preserved relics of the cultures present in this area of China circa 4,000 BC. Remains include a residential enclosure, a cemetery and an interesting pottery-manufacturing area with six kilns. The museum houses pottery, farming and hunting tools, personal ornaments and funerary objects.

The Forest of Steles is one of the world's largest and heaviest collections of stone-inscribed books, some of which are nearly 2,500 years old. The books cover a wide range of topics, from classical texts to depictions of historical incidents to funerary memorials.

Be sure to visit the Shaanxi History Museum, one of China's best. It houses a wide variety of artifacts from both prehistoric and dynastic periods. Visit the Big Goose Pagoda and the Great Mosque, and have a hotpot lunch (we like the one at Wan Nian Hotel) for a quintessential Xi'an experience.

Guilin/Yangshuo

Like a work of art, Guilin is a study in form and line, composed both by nature and the human hand. One of the country's iconic landscapes and a must see for first-time travel to China, great limestone towers, swathed in veils of mist, jut skyward from the silver Li River, which holds their rippling reflection.

Terraced rice paddies sculpt the nearby hills into wavy green steps, which when flooded mirror the bright gold of the setting sun. Take a bicycle to Seven Star Park, with its seven peaks and numerous caves, or walk to the top of Wave-Subduing Hill for a panoramic view of the surroundings.

For pure scenic beauty, look no further than quaint and casual Yangshuo. Dramatic karst towers blanketed in verdant vegetation stud the Li River, and the surrounding countryside is a riot of green. Walk or bike to a nearby village and spend a night or two for a relaxing glimpse of rural life. Yangshuo is a great place to take a local cooking class to learn the secrets of one of the world's great cuisines. Or perhaps enjoy a hot air balloon ride over the stunning landscape.

Yangshuo also hosts a stunning live performance called Impressions, a fascinating spectacle with over 500 cast members, based on a Chinese musical movie made in 1961. The story is about a legendary woman named Liu Sanjie who worked in the fields and was famous for the magical quality of her singing voice. The epic performance was designed and directed by Zhang Yimou, director of the film Hero and of the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies. It takes place on the water, an unusual and stunning set design, where the towers of Yangshuo provide the backdrop.

Yangzi River Cruise

(1- to 4-night cruises) The Yangzi (Yangtze) flows from the Himalayas to the China Sea, slicing China in two. It is as central to Chinese civilization as the Nile is to Egypt.

Although the Three Gorges Dam has submerged many ancient villages and displaced 2 million people, there is still fantastic scenery to behold: cruising the Yangzi you can see modern cities that seem to have sprung up overnight, small rural villages at shore stops and wonderful scenes of traditional life. Take a four-day cruise downriver from Chongqing to Wuhan, or keep going all the way to Shanghai for an unforgettable China travel experience.