Exclude Short Breaks Travel

Where to stay and play in China

Planning a trip over to China and wondering where to stay and what to see? Get some handy recommendations from EL staff and readers!

Visiting Shanghai

The city is often seen as a business hub for China, but there are some cool things to do as a tourist too. Take an evening cruise on the Huangpu River to check out The Bund, a strip of colonial era buildings that are beautifully lit at night. The iconic Oriental Pearl Tower – China’s tallest building for many years but now overshadowed by other Shanghai skyscrapers – is a cool place to go to get a view of the city during the day.

Shanghai temple

My favourites, however, were the sites that felt more Chinese. The Yu Garden is smack dab in the middle of the city. There you are in the hustle and bustle of modern China, then you walk through the gate and – bam! – you’ve travelled back more than 400 years to one of the most beautiful and serene places. I half expected the Chinese version of a samurai to walk out from behind the trees!

I also loved Zhujiajiao Water Town in one of Shanghai’s suburbs. Think of it as China’s Venice, only it’s 1,700 years old! Take a boat ride under the 36 bridges or wander the main thoroughfare, North Street. Our kids were small at the time and had a blast running around with the locals taking photos of their blond locks and blue eyes. Forget Disneyland; this place was all the fun they needed.

Shanghai boat


Visiting Chengdu

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province and is sometimes referred to as the “Land of Abundance”, owing to its fertile plains. We only spent one day there on our way to Tibet, but it was truly a day well spent. We arrived late in the evening and stayed at Buddha Zen Hotel. True to its name, the place has a calm and a spiritual vibe to it. We did only two things – the two most famous things to do in the city: visited the giant pandas and ate Sichuan hotpot!

As its name suggests, Sichuan hotpot is hot! Tip: Order the split hotpot with both the spicy and milder broth – you’ll thank us later. Every spoon (or rather chopstick) of our meal was a riot of flavours. This should be a mandatory part of a culinary tour of Chengdu.


Our next stop was the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. It has over 100 giant pandas, which are native only to Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces. Early in the morning is the best time to visit to avoid the crowds, and it’s also when the pandas are most active. Watch the cute bears cuddle, chew on bamboo during their breakfast, stroll and climb trees. Before we headed off, we saw three pandas cuddling and playing with one other. So much love and such an adorable sight!

Besides these, Chengdu has much to offer, be it the colourful nightlife, archaeological treasures at Jinsha, or the spiritual vibes of the Qingyin Temple and the Leshan Giant Buddha.



Visiting Beijing

During our trip to Beijing, we stayed at The Peninsula, and it was fabulous all-round. While there, a must-visit is the Forbidden City and, of course, the Great Wall. We hired a tour guide and driver to take us to the Mutianyu section of the wall (around 65km from Beijing), but there are other sections you can choose to visit. We also loved exploring the city’s hutongs (neighbourhoods formed by alleyways of courtyard residences), particularly Shijia Hutong.

Great wall of china

Seeing the Great Wall in person was unreal and definitely unforgettable. We were surprised at how physically taxing it was to hike the structure. Instead of taking the chairlift or gondola down, we chose to descend via toboggan, which was so much fun!


Visiting Gongga Shan

My travelling companions and I were in Western Sichuan, trying to get to the base camp of mighty Gongga Shan (at 7,556 metres, one of the world’s highest mountains beyond the Himalayas). But the narrow, potholed paths became too much for our minivan. Hiking wasn’t an option due to time constraints; we needed some alternative transport to cover the final 10km.

Salvation arrived in the form of a rumbling dust cloud looming over the crest of a nearby hill. It was a cavalry of leather-clad locals approaching on motorbikes, sending yaks and piglets scrambling into the fields. They’d heard through the village network that we were looking for a way up the mountain, and they’d done their best Valentino Rossi impressions to find us.

Mountain in China

After haggling over a price, each member of our twelve-person team was assigned to a rider and a bike. The bikes were uniquely decorated with everything from Buddhist charms dangling from side mirrors, to magazine pictures of pretty ladies sticky-taped to the mud flap.

I jumped on the back of my bike and before I could say “guess who forgot travel insurance,” the tyres spun violently in the dirt and we were off.

This was an “out there” travel moment: churning up the side of a towering peak, clutching on to a dusty farmer, his jacket reeking of wet yak fur and smoke, my ears assaulted by a lethal pink box – a makeshift stereo – which had been roped to the back of the bike and was blasting out distorted techno (doof! doof! doof! doof!) all the way up the mountain pass. During the one-hour ascent, I was treated to a 160-beat-per-minute version of “Auld Lang Syne”, among other clubbing favourites.


How was the mountain? Spectacular! But I was equally happy to get back on the bike for the descent. And, before you knew it, the valleys were echoing with the buzzing of engines and a club-style rendition of “Axel F”, the theme song from Beverly Hills Cop.



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