Every discerning traveler should walk along the Great Wall of China – but it is only one of China's many cultural and natural treasures. Whether your idea of adventure is exploring the past, taking a slow cruise on a long river or sampling food based on years of culinary experience, here are some of our favorite must-do experiences.
The Silk Road
Stretching back more than 2,000 years and across some 2,500 miles, the Silk Road was the main trade route between China and the West. Beginning in Chang'an (now Xi'an), the ancient road stretched across three provinces and the autonomous regions of Hui and Xingjiang Uygur, over the Pamir Mountains into Central and West Asia, eventually ending in Rome.
Named for coveted Chinese silks, the route saw caravans carrying all sorts of commodities – those heading into China would bring gold, precious stones, ivory and glass, while ceramics, jade, bronze and lacquer items would be transported to the West. Yet this artery carried much more than goods to be traded. The Silk Road was the major form of cultural exchange between East and West and introduced outside influences and ideas to Chinese society.
Trade along the Silk Road reached its height during the 13th century, but later, it would be in decline due to new sea routes. Renewed interest in the Silk Road emerged during the late 1800s, in great part due to the many historical sites found along the way. Notable stops include Xi'an, considered one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization and the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, which house thousands of Buddhist images and statues. Also, don't miss ethereal Heavenly Lake and the Cave Dwellings of Luoyang dating back 200 thousand years in which local residents still inhabit.
Terra Cotta Warriors
It was a simple twist of fate that led to one of history's greatest archaeological finds. In 1974 while digging a well, local farmers just outside of ancient Xi'an uncovered an army of more than 8,000 life-sized soldiers and horses. These Terra Cotta Warriors – lined in perfect formation, carrying weapons and accompanied by chariots – were crafted more than 2,200 years ago to guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China. Amazingly, each soldier displays its own distinctive, individual features.
Yangtze River and The Three Gorges
Flowing nearly 4,000 miles from the glacier-fed Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea, the Yangtze River is the longest in Asia and the very backbone of China. This "Golden Waterway" offers a wealth of both natural and man-made attractions, none more glorious than the dramatic Three Gorges. Comprising the Qutang, Wu and Xiling gorges – the largest in the world – this 120-mile-long expanse of the Yangtze is one of the most spellbinding routes on Earth.
Each of these stunning canyons is noted for its own characteristics: the grand Qutang is surrounded by sheer, majestic cliffs, while the Wu's banks are lined by the enchanting Twelve Peaks. And the dramatic and most scenic – Xiling – is noted for its steep bluffs, renowned streams, springs and karst caves.
The Three Gorges region also claims some of China's greatest cultural riches – from the more than 50,000 stone sculptures in the Dazhu county of Chongqing to Fendu, the "City of Ghosts," and Shibaozhai's 184-foot-high, vibrantly painted pavilion – the tallest wooden structure in China and an outstanding example of ancient architecture. The region is home to the Han and Tujia people, who maintain their unique, ancient customs and lifestyle displayed in their arts, food, fashion and religion.
China's capital and cultural center, Beijing beckons with some of the world's greatest wonders – beginning with one of the most intact stretches of the Great Wall. Pass through massive Tiananmen Square – often filled with kite-flying children – to reach the Forbidden City, now called the Palace Museum. The world's largest palace complex is one of the most visited of all UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites. Other must-sees include the enchanting Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven (one of China's most sacred sites) and modern architectural marvels such as the National Stadium built for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, and lovingly dubbed the "Bird’s Nest."
Long an international hub, Shanghai and its famous waterfront, The Bund, stand as emblems of China's economic prowess. Over the past 20 years, the country's largest city has grown like no other in Asia, its skyline soaring with skyscrapers; the 2,073-foot-tall Shanghai Tower, due to be completed in 2014, will be China's tallest and second highest in the world. Yet Shanghai's rich past is still evident along its narrow alleyways, at ancient sites like the Jade Buddha Temple and in the sycamore-lined French Concession, known as the "Paris of the Orient."
Pearl River Delta
Located in Southern China with close proximity to Hong Kong and Macau, the Pearl River Delta is one of China's fastest growing regions and is expected to grow into an even greater powerhouse when its nine largest urban centers are merged into the world's biggest mega-city – some 16,000 square miles with 42 million people. Major attractions include historically important Guangzhou, also the main manufacturing hub of the Pearl River Delta; vibrant Shenzhen, China's first Special Economic Zone and the scenic Lotus Mountain area, home to the One-hundred-Fu Gallery, a wall engraved with one hundred Chinese characters.
Hong Kong has a pulse all its own. This chic and sophisticated city balances a kaleidoscope of cultures in perfect feng shui, with a host of world-class diversions ranging from Victoria Harbour and bustling Stanley Market, to the Aberdeen fishing village and golden-roofed Wong Tai Sin Temple.
Yet when it comes to cuisine, no place else compares to "Asia's world city." Within Hong Kong, foodies can find more than 11,000 restaurants grouped in unique food districts like old-world Lei Yue Mun, the fashionable Starstreet District, trendy Gough Street and Kau U Fong. Noted for serving the world's finest Cantonese food and as the birthplace of Dim Sum, Hong Kong's array of international restaurants feature delicacies from across China, Asia and the rest of the world.
The 2012 Michelin Guide helped establish Hong Kong as Asia's Culinary Capital, granting its coveted stars to more than 60 of the city's restaurants, including four that boast the ultimate three-star status. Many are designated as "small shops," local eateries like noodle stands and food stalls that are affordable for every budget. Of course, the city attracts plenty of celebrity chefs: Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon, Nobu Matsuhisa and Mario Batali all have world-class restaurants here.
Cocktail hour is a long-standing Hong Kong tradition, and there's nothing quite like sipping a refreshing drink while taking in 360-degree views from a chic rooftop lounge. Recent years have seen a proliferation of rooftop bars offering sweeping vistas of the impressive Hong Kong skyline. Try the Terrace at Sevva, located in the Prince's Building and offering a stylish setting, signature cocktails and panoramic city views. Or unwind at Sugar's rooftop bar and deck overlooking Victoria Harbour. For an exotic selection of Asian tapas and drinks, try OZONE – the highest bar in the world.
China's second administrative region, Macau was another important trading port and major stop along the Silk Road. The Portuguese first settled here in the mid-16th century and maintained rule until 1999, making it the world's longest-standing colony. For more than 400 years, it cultivated a unique, symbiotic heritage that blends multiple cultures, as evidenced in its thriving Historic Centre.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Macau's Historic Centre intertwines European and Asian culture, customs and religions in a truly fascinating fashion. Around its many piazzas such as St. Augustine's Square and Lilau Square, one finds the best-preserved Western buildings in China standing next to Buddhist temples and traditional Chinese buildings; oftentimes the European architects would incorporate Asian and Indian features in their structures.
Old Macau boasts more than 20 major monuments, including the 15th-century A-Ma Temple; the Moorish Barracks, built to house an Indian military regiment; Dom Pedro V Theatre, the first western-style theatre in China; and St. Dominic's Church, founded in 1587 by Spanish Dominican priests from Mexico. All that remains of the first western university in the Far East is a magnificent, intricately carved stone façade; yet these ruins of St. Paul's stand as testament to Macau’s historic significance.
This consummate multicultural destination has also created the ultimate fusion food. A combination of Portuguese, Chinese, Indian and Malay influences, Macanese cuisine is one of the world's best-kept secrets. Sample such delectable dishes as Galinha à Africana (chicken baked with chilies and coconut milk), curried crab and Minchi, made with minced beef and pork cooked with potatoes, onion, soy sauce and egg.
Ready to enjoy the treasures of China, Hong Kong and Macau for yourself? Let us help you arrange your journey to these must-do experiences.