China Travel Guide: What to See, Do, Costs, & Ways to Save

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the Great Wall of China
There are few countries in the world with a culture as distinct as China. A country of contrasts, China offers thriving Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, but also extremely rural and underdeveloped areas in the western part of the country. This is a country stuck between the developed and developing world. Rapid change has attracted curious people from around the globe, so it’s a great time to dip your toes into this amazing culture and explore the country. Each day creates a new China. While I dislike the pollution of many of the big cities, the countryside and food are incredible. This travel guide to China can help you get the most from you visit!

Top 5 Things to See and Do in China

1. Visit Hong Kong

Hong Kong effortlessly blends East and West. This bustling metropolis combines high rise buildings with traditional street markets and religious temples. Throw in a large expat population, good shopping, fantastic nightlife, and delicious food, and you’ll why everyone loves it so much.

2. Explore Shanghai

One of China’s largest, busiest, and most visited cities, Shanghai is like the future — fast trains, lights everywhere, organized, and cosmopolitan. I love Shanghai. To get a sense of historical China, head to the Old City and see the YuYuan Gardens.

3. Wander Beijing

Visit Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, countless shopping malls, the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and of course, the Great Wall. There’s nothing like Beijing in the world, and though horribly polluted and with awful air quality, it’s still a city you have to visit in order to understand modern China and its dynamism.

4. The Great Wall of China

No trip would be complete without visiting the Great Wall. There are plenty of tours to different parts of the Wall, so pick according to your budget. You can also take the public bus to the busiest part of the wall (Badaling). The bus is 12 CNY each way.

5. See Xi’An

Xian is one of the ancient capitals of China and home to the famed Terracotta Army, the City Wall, and the amazing architecture of the Muslim quarters. Those three things are pretty much why everyone comes here but there’s also an incredible hike on Mount Hua not worth skipping.

Other Things to See and Do

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1. Tian’anmen Square

You’ve no doubt seen it in films and on TV, but it is hard to get an idea of the sheer size of this square until you’re standing square in the middle of it. There’s plenty to see here including the Tiananmen Tower, the Great Hall of the People, the People’s Heroes Monument, the National Museum and Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. While you are allowed to take photos in the square itself, you cannot use your camera in the mausoleum.

2. Gorge on food

China is a food lover’s paradise. Eating here will certainly put your take-away back home into perspective. In such a huge country, it’s no surprise that different areas have different culinary delights. It’s entirely possible to enjoy the four styles of Chinese cooking (Cantonese, Beijing, Shanghai and Szechuan) while on your trip.

3. Cruise the Li River

For a true sense of natural beauty, head on a cruise down the Li River. This place has been listed as one of the top ten “watery wonders” by National Geographic. The river is 272 miles long and has dozens of places to explore along the way, such as Zhujiang Pier, Yangdi, and Guilin.

4. Visit the Forbidden City

This famous attraction in Beijing was the imperial palace from the time of the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. Now the Palace Museum holds artifacts from both dynasties and is a great place to learn about China’s history.

5. Travel (part of) the Silk Road

With a history of over 2,000 years old, this is a must-see for visitors. There are many locations to check out along the road, as it originally spanned from Chang’an to Rome and Italy. Its total length was over 2400 miles, half of which was within Chinese territory.

6. Explore Tibet

Also known as “the Roof of the World”, this area is perfect for adventurous travelers that are looking for unique attraction. Explore the snow mountains, exotic customs, and Buddhism. Tibet has had tumultuous past, so during your visit it’s wise not to bring up the Dali Lama. You’ll need to a special permit to visit the region.

7. Potala Palace

If you’re in Tibet, this is a must. Now a museum, this Tibetan palace was home to the Dalai Lamas up until 1959. The many halls, temples, and courtyards have been constructed from wood and stone. It’s an interesting and historic building to see and gives you a sense of just how important the Dalai Lamas are to Tibetan culture.

8. Take in the Karst mountains

Illustrated on the back of the 20 yuan banknote, these mountains are a stunning sight to see in person. They’re huge! You can take a boat trip down the Li river, and enjoy the breathtaking views of the mountains. You can also rent a bicycle to explore the quieter backroads and take in the picturesque landscape. Prices begin around 20 CNY for a half day.

9. The Mogao Grottos of Dunhuang

Also known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, these grottos are home to the largest, best-preserved, and richest Buddhist art in the world—the first cave was carved here in 366 AD.

10. Take a walking tour

All of the major cities offer various types of walking tours, many of which are free and last a few hours. If you want learn about the history of China’s major cities, this is a great way to start!

Typical Costs

Accommodation – Prices start at around 25 CNY for a dorm in many of the smaller cities. Expect to pay closer to 90 CNY in Hong Kong and Beijing. For a private room, prices begin around 125 CNY though expect to pay almost double that in the larger cities. Budget hotels begin around 75 CNY per night for basic accommodations, with higher prices in Hong Kong. Airbnb is plentiful in China, and can be found in all the major cities though it’s much less common in rural areas. Prices range from 260-780 CNY depending on the city. For anyone traveling with a tent, there are plenty of campgrounds around the country. Expect to pay around 20 CNY per night for a basic plot. My suggested places are:
  • Hong Kong Hostel (Hong Kong)
  • Yesinn (Hong Kong)

Food – Food in China is cheap. A meal from a street vendor usually goes for around 7-14 CNY. For this you might get noodles, rice, pork buns, or a soup. A full meal in a sit down restaurant will cost between 15-54 CNY plus the fee for a bowl of rice and clean bowls (yes, these cost extra!), which is often around 4 CNY. If you stick to the local food, you’ll find it hard to go broke. You could spend less than 68 CNY for an entire day’s worth of food. In western China, southwestern China and the interior, food is much cheaper than in the big cities and you can eat for under 27 CNY per day — about half the costs of the big cities.

For Western food, you can expect to pay much higher prices for food that will be a disappointment compared to home, if you’re outside of the more Westernized cities like Hong Kong. A western style sandwich can run about 40 CNY and a cup of coffee can be similarly-priced to back home.

Since food is so cheap, there’s no need to self-cater or cook your own meals. You are better off eating the streets food and at the restaurants. Moreover, many hostels don’t have kitchen facilities for you to use even if you did go grocery shopping. Therefore, self-catering is not something I recommend. If you will be buying your own groceries, expect to spend between 300-400 CNY.

Transportation – China may be a huge country, but it’s easy and cheap to get from one place to another. Buses are the most popular way to travel and usually cost between 1.50-3 CNY in a city. Major cities also have extensive underground systems that are less than 6 CNY per ride. Taxi fares start at about 6 CNY. On a high-speed train, the ticket from Beijing to Shanghai is around 545 CNY for 2nd class, around 930 CNY for 1st class, and around 1,800 CNY for a VIP seat. For the longer, full day train, a 2nd class seat is around 445 CNY and a 1st class seat is around 540 CNY. For overnight trains, keep in mind that the lower bunk is usually cheaper as it is closer to the noise. Top bunks will be more expensive, though they occasionally have very little space to offer (even though you pay more); it is not uncommon to be unable to sit all the way up. Buses are generally cheaper than trains. For example, the 9 hour to Beijing to Anshan is 190 CNY while the train is between 230 and 965 CNY. The two hours bus from Beijing to Tianjin is 27-41 CNY while the high speed train is around 65 CNY. The trip to Shanghai to Hanghzou is 2.5 hours by bus and 75 CNY, while train is 95 CNY. There are plenty of regional carriers in China when it comes to flights, including Air China, and China Eastern, Southern, and Southwest Airlines. Just keep in mind that many flights rarely leave on time, so be mindful of your connections when booking!

Activities – In general, sights are affordable in China — even popular attractions such as the Great Wall or the Forbidden City are under 68 CNY. While the Great Wall never kept out invaders, it’s beautiful and is only 48 CNY, the Forbidden City is 68 CNY. Smaller temples, activities and sights are much more reasonable priced and cost around 14 CNY.

While attractions and temples are less than 70 CNY, prices for hikes and outdoor activities tend to be around 205 CNY. For example, a trip to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain costs 175 CNY, a visit to the Jiuzhai Valley is a whopping 405 CNY and a three day pass to the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian province is 270 CNY while the Yellow Mountains in Anhui province are 250 CNY.

Suggested daily budget

210-280 CNY / 30-40 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)

Money Saving Tips

China is already very cheap but doing these three things can lower your prices even more:

  1. Use sleeper trains – Use sleeper trains (doorless compartments with bunks) to travel overnight since distances between cities can be quite large. Spending a night on the train will save you paying an extra night of accommodation. Lower bunks are less expensive, so purchase a few days in advance to take advantage of these savings. Some stations have ticket offices for foreigners if you need help navigating your options.
  2. Ask for Xiao Pan – If eating alone, ask for “xiao pan”. These are small portions and work out at 70% of the size and price of a normal dish.
  3. Hard Seats – Travel on the “hard seats” on trains or buses. These are the cheapest and most basic seats but are not “hard” as the name would lead you to believe.
  4. Take a walking tour – Free walking tours are available in most Chinese cities. Most last a couple hours and are a great way to get the lay of the land and learn some of the local history.

GO DEEPER: Nomadic Matt’s In-Depth Budget Guide to Hong Kong!

Nomadic Matt's Guide to Hong KongWant to plan the perfect trip to Hong Kong? Check out my comprehensive guide to Hong Kong written for budget travelers like yourself! It cuts out the fluff found in other guides and gets straight to the practical information you need to travel and save money in one of the most beautiful, and exciting in the world. You’ll find suggested itineraries tips budgets, ways to save money, on and off the beaten path things to see and do, and my favorite non-touristy restaurants, markets, and bars, and much more!! Click here to learn more and get started.

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