There is only one country in the world where I experienced a culture shock: China. With a special culture, enormous bustle but beautiful nature with limestone in Zhangjiajie, rice fields and rivers, panda bears and rich history, China is a unique country to travel through. In this 3-4 week itinerary through China, you will travel through the most important cities and highlights of Central China.
We’ll refer to Trip.com, where you can easily arrange your train journey and tickets online without having to learn Chinese. We booked all our train journeys in China with Trip.com and totally recommend it!
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China travel route 3 – 4 weeks
China is an ideal country to travel through by train. The country is enormous and distances are therefore mainly covered by train, which is a good and affordable option. 3 weeks should be more than enough to cover this route, but we did the route in 4 weeks because we like to travel slowly. You could spend longer in for example Zhangiajie for hiking. Or extend the route with options we’ll mention later on in this article. Are you more of a city person? Then you can spend longer in the cities Chengdu, Shanghai or Beijing.
Day 1-3-: Arrival in Shanghai
On your first day, you can start booking train tickets for the coming days and acclimatize. We found the Trip.com website to be an indispensable website for ordering train tickets. Here you can order your tickets in advance and pick them up at the stations in China.
You can book your tickets through Trip.com and collect them in advance (preferably a day earlier) at the Shanghai station on the same day. Want to pick up ticket on your departure date? Make sure you arrive at the station way in time, as there may be a long waiting line. Also keep in mind if there are no holidays or Chinese holidays, then it can be even busier.
Tip: there are many hostels and hotels to choose from in China. We slept in the cozy Shanghai Rock & Wood International Youth Hostel (private room). Here you can eat in the “restaurant”, meet other people, play pool and chill out with your laptop. Traveling with a backpack? The hostel is an acceptable walking distance from ‘Zhongshan Park’ or ‘Yan’ An West Road ‘metro stops. I know the feeling of walking too long with the backpack on the back.
Day 2 and 3 Shanghai: Discover the city of skyscrapers
After acclimatization, you have time to discover Shanghai. Shanghai is slightly less popular with travelers and backpackers than, for example, Beijing. As backpackers, we didn’t find it very exciting here.
In Shanghai, you will find many large malls and expensive restaurants. Nice if you can spend a lot of money (If only we could ;-)) Walk along the Bund in Shanghai, which is a long and wide boulevard along the Huangpu River. A wonderful place to see locals practice tai-chi. And of course, this is the spot to view the skyline of Shanghai.
More of a shopper? Then don’t miss Nanjing Lu, one of the most famous and busiest shopping streets in the world. Also take a look at the DJI store if you are into drones, here you can try drones.
Crazy about Disney? In Shanghai, you have the opportunity to visit Shanghai Disney Resort.
Tip: An affordable way to see the sunset skyline from the Bund is the roof terrace of the Captain Bar, which is open from 5 p.m. Or just walk along the Bund, it costs you nothing ;-)
Day 4 Hangzhou: temples and parks
A 1 hour train ride from Shanghai – Tip: take the train as late in the afternoon as possible, tomorrow you have enough time as we are going to take the night train to Zhangjiajie.
After Shanghai, Hangzhou feels like you can breathe again. It is a lot quieter over here than in Shanghai. And there is a great vibe.
Hangzhou is a great destination for an afternoon. Visit Qinghe Lane, a street in a part of the city that has been well preserved from Ancient Hangzhou.
Spend the night in Hangzhou
Tip: consider spending the night around Qinghe Lane. Personally we found this part the best part, where you get a very different picture of Hangzhou than for example the street where we stayed: Kaiyuan Road in Hanting Express.
A hostel that seemed nice to us in the old part of town is Ho Fang International Youth Hostel.
Let us know what you thought about it, should you spend the night there!
Today you also shop at the Carrefour on Kaiyuan Road for your overnight stay on the train to Zhangjiajie tomorrow night. There is hot water on the train, so you could buy some noodle soup. You can also buy enough on the train if you don’t have the time to shop up front.
Day 5 arrival Wulingyuan & Zhangjiajie
18 hours by train from Shanghai
The Zhangjiajie National Park is part of the Wulingyuan area and this is the place where you will spend the night. If you arrive by train in Zhangjiajie after 6 pm, take the bus to Wulingyuan. Just another 45 minutes, you’re almost there.
Make sure you have some change with you, on the bus you pay around CNY 12-20 p.p (approx. € 2.50) to the seller who gets on the bus halfway and gives you a ticket.
Have a good rest, tomorrow we’ll go hiking. Oh and buy some groceries for the next day.
Travel tip: in most hostels, they have a free map of Zhangjiajie National Park. Ask for beautiful walking routes, you’ll see more of the parc and you’ll miss the crowds.
Day 6 walk through Zhangjiajie
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is a beautifully protected piece of nature with limestone peaks that protrude meters. Zhangjiajie has been used since Avatar’s peaks as inspiration for the floating mountains frequented by local and international tourists.
Get up as early as possible, the park will open at 7 a.m. (always check this at an official point, as this may vary per season).
In Zhangjiajie you can go hiking or take the cable car. We did a hike to the terraces by ourselves and on the way, we had the parc to ourselves (apart from some cleaners and soup vendors).
Various viewpoints were also very quiet, meaning we had the place to ourselves. When we arrived at the famous terrace with the best view of Zhangjiajie around 9/10, it was so busy that it was no longer fun to be at. The speakers of tour guides honk in you eares from every possible angle.
A ticket for the Zhangjiajie National Park costs you CNY 258 (around € 32) and gives you 3 days’ access including the bus in the park. You have to pay separately for the cable cars. So hiking isn’t only better, but also cheaper.
Day 7: Tianmen mountains in Zhangjiajie
In the early morning, you leave for Zhangjiajie with the same local bus you came from. Today we are going to Tianmen Mountain. After we check in our luggage, we take the longest cable car in the world (7 kilometers!). The highlight of Tianmen mountain is the glass skywalk.
We have not been here ourselves but we heard it’s beautiful. We had a cloudy day and we heard it’s not worth to pay for if there’s no view. It also rained all day, which also didn’t really help. The entrance to the park is CNY 258 (approx. € 32), which is a one-way ticket with the cable car up, the shuttle bus and the upper lift between Tianmen Cave and the top.
Tip: you can find information about Tianmen on ChinaTravel.com
Hotel tip Wulingyuan
The affordable Zhangjiajie Mini Inn hotel is not too far from Wulingyuan station and has a nice design. Handy if you are travel by backpack and don’t want to walk too far. The Niuguanjia Modern Guest House is also within walking distance (behind the bus station) and is a cute little guest house with pretty modern rooms.
Day 8 night train to Chengdu
4 hours to Huaihua and 14 hours night train to Chengdu East.
In the morning we do some quick shopping for our next night train to Chengdu. Because there is no direct train to Chengdu from Zhangjiajie we book a ticket from Zhangjiajie to Huaihua. And after a short transfer, we leave from Huaihua to Chengdu East.
Day 9: Arrival in Chengdu
In Chengdu, we take the metro to Flip Flop Hostel, close to the shopping area. Without a doubt the best hostel we stayed at in China. They have private rooms and dorms and fun free and paid activities are offered such as the famous face-changing act, hotpot (the dish from Chengdu) evenings and Chinese calligraphy lessons (also free). Take the time to recover from the long train journey. You can also book a panda tour directly through the hostel.
Tip: also check the hostel price on Agoda, sometimes they have an offer
Day 10: visit the panda bears in Chengdu
Chengdu is known for the panda bears in the Chengdu panda reserve or Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. In this research center panda bears are also bred, but unfortunately not all panda bears can go back to the wild. We really wanted to hold a panda baby, but after some research, because we had doubts, we decided not to do it.
The tour started early in the morning and thanks to the two guides we arrived at each panda garden. As magnets, other Chinese visitors followed quickly and the selfie sticks were quickly put in front of us.
Day 11: Shop for souvenirs and go to a craft beer cafe
We found Chengdu to have a nice vibe. We mainly went to tourist spots and did the typical Chengdu things, but they were good. Today you can go to> Jinli Street where you can eat good snacks and there is a nice place where they sell craft beer. In addition, there are numerous souvenirs for sale. Would you rather spend your day hiking?
Take a day trip to Leshan Giant Buddha instead.
Day 12: arrival in Xi’an
4 hours by train from Chengdu East
Upon arrival, you can rent a bike and cycle across the city wall, eat good food in the Muslim Quarter, shop, visit museums and chill in the park.
We personally thought Xi’an was not such a great city, but of course, a must-see is the Terracotta army. More into museums? Go to the Shaanxi History Museum. Prefer to see pagodas? Then go to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda or the Small Wild Goose Pagoda.
Day 13: visit the Terracotta Army
In Xi’an you must, of course, go to visit the museum of the Terracotta army. The army can be found outside the city of Xi’an and can be reached with a tour (often overpriced) or with the local bus. Unfortunately, the army was disappointing, it was incredibly busy (and that while we were there punctually around opening time) and it was not as impressive as I always thought.
In The Netherlands, I have been working at a museum where they showed a few of the military, so I have seen them before. Nevertheless, it’s pretty impressive to see the army in real life.
Day 14: arrival in Pingyao
3/4 hour by train from Xi’an
Pingyao is the best-preserved walled city in China. The ancient temples and houses give you a look at how it used to be in China. Although the city center is aimed at tourists, you can quickly take a side street and disappear from the crowds. We really loved it here.
No taxis and buses are allowed inside the city walls of Pingyao, only residents’ cars and golf carts for the hordes of Chinese tourists. Within the city, you really feel as if you just got off the Transmongolia Express and ended up in a remote Mongolian city, or at least that’s how I imagine it to be.
Tip: buy a combi pass for Pingyao that allows you to visit all the museums and the wall. The combination ticket is valid for three days, but you can only visit each attraction once during the validity of this ticket. If you just walk through the city and don’t want to go inside musea, a ticket is not required.
A combination ticket costs CNY 125 and you can buy it at the counters of the ticket service at the West and North Gate of the Ancient City. You can also buy tickets in the ecological park in the old city.
Also a good tip; walk across the city wall for a nice view of the contrast of dilapidated buildings inside the walls and the modern ugly apartment buildings outside the wall. I love the contrast!
Ultimate travel tip – make sure you know in advance which station you will arrive at. There are 2 of them and we thought that we would be closer than we finally arrived :) Luckily the small tourist stall near the station called our hostel and we were picked up by the hostel for a small contribution.
Day 15: visit museums in Pingyao
Even if you are not a museum type, but you like temples, you must purchase a multi-day pass to view beautiful buildings all day long.
Staying in Pingyao
Check in at Guesthouse Hongyuyuan Pingyao; here they know how to run a hotel. Best service in our year-round travel!
Day 16: arrival in Beijing (Peking)
About 3 hours by train to Beijing North
You can stay in Beijing for a week and you still haven’t seen it all. Our first day in Beijing we check-in at hostel Happy Dragon. If you want to see some modern buildings and shop then you can go to the Sanlitun area. Moka Bros is a hip place where you can drink a smoothie or a Happy Hour with a Mojito.
Are you looking for a nice place for craft beer? Then visit Legend Beer. I could not find the exact location anymore because we just ran into it, but in the photo, Google indicated that the shop must be on this street.
Day 17: visit the Great Wall of China
You can visit the Great Wall in different ways and in different places. The best known and busiest places of the Great Wall are Badaling and Juyongguan. These were strongly discouraged and we decided to go for and Jinshanling (and Simatai).
You can also visit Mutianyu, which is slightly less touristy than Badaling and Juyongguan. Simatai is largely unrestored and I found that very special.
Travel to the Great Wall or book a tour? Both are possible depending on what you like. We often do individual activities, but this time we thought it would be nice to be brought by bus and to be assigned to the places. Hearing the story behind pieces of the wall on the spot is of course special. We also really liked our tour guide.
Want to travel to Jinshanling wall by bus? Take the bus at the Sìhuì bus station to Chéngdé and get off at Jinshanling and walk for another 1 kilometer.
Day 18/19: Discover Beijing, museums, temples and more
There are plenty of things to do in Beijing. Think of the Forbidden City, the former emperor’s home when China was still ruled by the emperor. This is nowadays a museum of almost a kilometer. Take a whole afternoon or even a day for this. You can see temples, artifacts and other details here.
If you have time left, you can visit the Imperial Garden in the adjacent garden. A park that was a rest home for emperor women and daughters in the Ming Dynasty. In the spring the park is pink with cherry blossoms, beautiful!
Tip: avoid the weekend before the huge crowds. Depending on where you fly back you can stay longer in Beijing, travel to Qingdao or continue to Shanghai. We flew from Qingdao and below you will find some tips for this city with European influences.
Day 20 & 21: Qingdao, city of the Tsingtao beer
About 8/9 hours by train from Beijing
Qingdao is a totally different city than we’ve been in China. Qingdao is an old fishing town with influences from Germany and Japan because of the occupation. Qingdao is known as one of the cleanest and most livable cities in China and is known for the Tsingtao beer.
Because of the German occupation, you will find much of Germany in Qingdao in the buildings, such as the Protestant church in the older part of the city. This part is also the nicest part of the city full of hidden coffee bars and vintage clothing.
Tip: grab a pink latte macchiato in the cat cafe.
Also take a look at the Zhan Qiao pier, the inspiration for the beer label of the Tsingtao beer. At the end of the beer, you will find the octagonal Huilan pavilion (shown in the abstract on the beer label).
Of course, your visit is not complete without a visit to the Tsingtao beer museum – in “Beer Street”. If you have not seen the brewing process in a brewery before, it is definitely worth it. Have you ever seen this then I would walk into the cafe through the back. It is not possible to order a beer without a ticket unless you kindly ask. Unfortunately, they no longer had a craft beer in stock so we left because we tried Tsingtao beer already.
Are you visiting Qingdao in August? Lucky you, the annual beer festival is then celebrated with ceremonies and of course lots of beer.
Cost of traveling in China
China is slightly more expensive to travel through than Southeast Asian countries, but certainly not expensive. In 29 days of travel, we spent around € 1,000 per person excluding airline tickets.
China travel tips
A number of tricks to travel through China without problems:
- Buy your SIM card at a China Unicom point of sale; the only provider of 3G that works with telephones from outside of China.
- Book your train journey in time, on some routes and especially on weekends, the trains can become full quickly.
- Use the train as much as possible instead of flying for a more sustainable journey. Plus: you get a really good impression of how the Chinese travel, special!
- Download a number of useful travel apps for in China such as a folder with Chinese characters, VPN, CTrip and a translate and dictionary app.
- Use a VPN while traveling so that your laptop and smartphone in China can handle Google, Facebook, etc. We used NordVPN ourselves
The best travel time for China
Best places in China per month:
April to June: April and June are great months to visit China. You can go anywhere, except in the far north such as Heilongjiang and Xinjiang, because it is still very cold there. In the south, it is the rainy season, but according to TravelChinaCheaper, Guilin and Yunnan are nice places to see the morning mist.
July and August: is the high season and can, therefore, be too busy, especially since it is also warm, larger cities are not very pleasant.
September to October: according to TravelChinaCheaper, this is a pleasant period for China. The inland countries, in particular, are ideal to visit around this time. Especially the larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai or a place such as Xinjiang (not mentioned in this travel route) is not too hot and certainly not too cold.
Winter: the winter in China is very cold. And the Chinese wall, in particular, does not seem very nice to visit when it is very slippery. If you are in China from November to March, visit the south, such as Hong Kong, Macau, Hainan & Yunnan.
- Sleeping in China? Book your accommodation through booking, Airbnb or Agoda. You will receive a 10% discount on Booking.com if you book through our link.
- Don’t forget to pack anything: view our packing list
- Make sure you learn the language a bit so that you are well prepared for your trip to China. In any case, download the Translate app from Google and take a language guide with you.
- A pointing book can also be very useful! I have Point it myself.
- You can book most of the highlights of China in the hostel where you spend the night. Would you rather do that online? This is also possible in advance via Get Your Guide, which we recommend because they have easy cancellation, mobile vouchers for offline use, a wide range of tours and activities for every type of traveler and last-minute availability
- For China, it is recommended that you vaccinate against DTP and Hepatitis A.
There is no one size fits all travel advice for China because it is such a large country. Every season has its advantages and disadvantages, so it really depends on what you like. April, May, September and October are good months to visit China because the weather is nice and there is little rain. Check out the best places per season.