The Classic First Trip to China

Beijing, the Silk Road, Sichuan, and Shanghai, 12 days

This journey covers many of China’s most iconic destinations. Begin in Beijing, exploring the former glory of Beijing's imperial palaces and climb the Great Wall before embarking westward to Xi'an, once the capital of the Tang Dynasty and home to China’s famous Terracotta Warriors. Head southwest to Chengdu to see the world’s largest Buddha before ending your visit in the bustling megacity of Shanghai, once dubbed the “Paris of the East.”

Day 1: Beijing

Beijing is the cultural heart of China and the nation's top travel destination. Stay at The Orchid, a snug boutique hotel tucked away in one of the few remaining hutong areas (alleyways) of Beijing near the Drum Tower. It’s a short taxi ride to the Forbidden City. It’s also close to Tiananmen Square, where you can watch the daily flag-raising ceremony at dawn. After the flag raising, take a stroll around the square and soak in the atmosphere. And of course, a tour of the Forbidden City is an essential Beijing experience. Finish your day with a traditional feast at the Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant, Beijing's most popular spot for Peking duck.

Day 2: The Great Wall

(Excursion will take approximately 8 hours, either by private car or tour bus)

China’s greatest monument is still a must-see. Avoid the more commercial Badaling and head farther afield to the less-crowded sections of the Great Wall at Mutianyu, Simatai, or Jinshaling. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the spectacular views from the top. Tour buses leaving for the Great Wall congregate around Tiananmen Square, or you could book a private tour or hire a car and driver.

Day 3: Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven

(Summer Palace is 45 minutes by car from Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven is 12 minutes by car from Tiananmen Square)

Beijing is dotted with numerous imperial palaces and pleasure gardens. Take a taxi to the city's northwestern reaches to visit the lovely Summer Palace, which has come to symbolize the decadence that brought about the fall of the Qing Dynasty. The Temple of Heaven is considered to be the perfect example of Ming Dynasty architecture, and is a great place to take a break from the frenetic pace of the capital. For dinner, try a savory bowl of traditional hand-pulled noodles at Old Beijing Noodle King, a short walk from the Temple of Heaven. Later in the evening, take in the colorful theatrics at the nearby Tianqiao Acrobatic Theatre.

Day 4: Shopping and Art

Beijing teems with cultural performances, fabulous restaurants, and sprawling outdoor markets. Spend the morning hunting for souvenirs at Beijing Curio City or the Silk Alley Market in the Chaoyang District. In the afternoon explore the 798 Art District, a popular place to see Chinese contemporary art. For dinner, tuck into a bowl of steaming pork or vegetable dumplings at Baoyuan Dumpling.

Days 5–7: Xi'an, China's Ancient Capital

(2 hours by plane from Beijing; 4½ hours by high-speed train from Beijing's West Rail Station)

Xi'an was the most important city in China until the 9th century AD. Once the eastern gateway to the Silk Road, the region is a gold mine of historical treasures, most of which can be covered in just a few days. For convenience, head to Xi'an's Old City and check yourself into the Ibis Xi'an, which has clean and comfortable rooms. Your first day should be spent visiting Xi'an's most popular attractions, including the Bell Tower in the city center and the impressive Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Make sure to attend the Tang Dynasty dinner theater, which serves imperial cuisine and acrobatic shows every evening.

Devote your next day to visiting the Terracotta Warriors Museum, east of Xi'an. The life-size warriors and horses, built to protect China's first emperor in the afterlife, are part of a huge necropolis that stretches for miles. If you have the time, we also recommend a day trip to the spectacular peaks of Hua Shan. To get to either of these sites, book a tour or catch a public bus.

Days 8–10: Chengdu

(1½ hours by plane from Xi'an; 4½ hours by high-speed train from Xi'an)

See days 15–18 of the Southern China itinerary.

Days 10–12: Shanghai

(2½ hours by plane from Chengdu; 14 hours by train from Chengdu)

See days 1–2 of the Shanghai and the Chinese Heartland itinerary.

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