#5 Site of first Communist Party Congress, "zhōng gòng yì dà" huì zhǐ (“中共一大”会址)
It may not look like much, but I’m a sucker for non-descript sites where important stuff happened.
Tucked away in a busy but otherwise not-notable Shanghai
neighborhood, this building essentially gave birth to the Chinese
Communist Party in 1921 and changed the course of history.
Inside they’ve restored the building to it’s 1920’s glory
and included a small museum of Party history. Really interesting if
you’re a modern Chinese history enthusiast.
The Congress site gets bonus points for convenience, as it hardly requires the pilgrimage that Mao’s Shaoshan birthplace does.
I also love the irony of the fact that it’s about half a block from Xintiandi, a swanky complex of high-end restaurants, nightclubs and apartments that is about as un-Communist as it gets.
#4 Terracotta Army, bīng mǎ yǒng (兵马俑)
Not far from the large, modern city of Xi’an (very much
worth visiting in its own right), the underground Terracotta Army (also
often called “The Terracotta Warriors”) is actually the Mausoleum of the
First Qin Emperor, who was buried with over 8,000 full-size terracota
figurines some 2,200 years ago.
It’s an amazing site to see in part because of the pure scale of it all:
the tomb is almost a mile and a half long and contains hundreds of
chariots and horses to go along with thousands of the warriors
The more recent history is also interesting: the tomb lay undiscovered for millennia until the unimaginably futuristic year of 1974, when a group of farmers digging a well stumbled upon it.
I also love how, because Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) was the first real
emperor of China, the Terracota Army set an exceptional precedent for
leadership afterlife decadence (“just bury me with 8,000
intricately-made terracotta soldiers, IS THAT SO HARD?!”), and
subsequent emperors and prime ministers have basically been playing
catch-up ever since.
#3 Lijiang’s Old Town, lì jiāng gǔ chéng (丽江古城)
Not as visually impressive as other sites, the Old Town
section of Lijiang is high on the list because it’s so well-preserved
and has a really unique vibe about it.
It’s packed full of small waterways and bridges around
them. Unlike a lot of historical sites in China that have been
“restored”, it actually maintains its old, thousand-year old charm while
still being a place you can walk around and enjoy.
As with most of Yunnan, Lijiang’s Old Town is home to a
rare confluence of cultures, and feels equal parts Chinese and Southeast
The Old Town holds a special place in my heart because it was the
first place I experienced true “foreign celebrity” status in China:
though there are a small number of foreign travelers there, most of the
people you’ll encounter are tourists from elsewhere in China.
As such, I ended up spending over two hours taking pictures with
excited/confused/terrified kids and parents, and even signed a few
This era of foreigners being so noteworthy in China is coming to an
end, but a few years ago it was still in full swing down in Lijiang.
Head there yourself and see if foreignness still connotes celebrity!
#2 Potala Palace in Lhasa, bù dá lā gōng (布达拉宫)
I’ll confess off the bat that I’ve never actually been to
Potala – Tibet can be a tricky place to get into, and access is pretty
much dependent on how often the area is in the headlines.
Potala is such a sought-after tourist destination, however, because of the amazing spirituality and history behind the place.
Construction dates to the 1640’s, but the site’s importance
goes back much further: it’s named after the mythical Mount Potalaka,
home of the central Buddhist figure Avalokiteśvara (say that ten times
fast…or at all), and holds an important place in Buddhist history and
The Potala Palace has also been restored in a much more subtle,
respectful and accurate way than most other historical landmarks in
Though it began in 2002, Tibetan authorities were careful to use only
traditional building methods and materials to preserve the Palace’s
look but still allow access and ensure it survives the harsh,
Some of the appeal is also the exclusivity: there is a daily quota of
visitors (depends on the season, I believe), and it often gets reached
by lunchtime, which means if you want in, you have to get there bright
#1 Great Wall (the real parts), cháng chéng (长城)
It may be China’s best-known tourist attraction, but it’s for a good reason – the Wall is truly a spectacular site.
Situated an hour or so outside of Beijing, the Wall isn’t
really just one site – there are about a half dozen well-known sites
with good tourist infrastructure in place, but obviously the Wall itself
runs for thousands of miles.
The best way to experience it is to wander away from the
tourist-heavy, restored areas and find the quiet, run-down parts of the
Wall – these are the original sections that have seen little
restoration, and will give you the best idea of what the Wall was really
like back in the days when stopping Mongol invaders was a top priority.
My favorite section of the Wall is probably Mutianyu (慕田峪). It
receives its fair share of tourist traffic in the summer, but in the
winter it is all but abandoned, and features a harrowing-but-gorgeous
cable car ride through the area’s gorges.
Honestly though, just about anywhere on the Wall will do; the pure
architectural scale is always on full display, and it’s so impressive
that they were able to build something this big so long ago.
Anywhere you go, there are plenty of chances to climb to the top of
the guard towers and look out over the surrounding hills and mountains
and think about what it must have been like hundreds and hundreds of
years ago to keep watch.
Now that you know about my favorite places in China, are there any on
that list that you've visited? Or maybe there are some unmentioned
places that you think deserve a spot in the top 10. I've love to
hear about it in the comments section below!