History of China - historical landmarks and attractions
With more than 3,000 years of civilisation, China has a history that's as vast as its land area. And while contemporary life has changed the shape of many cities, there are ancient towns and significant sites that have hardly changed at all. To appreciate the history of China and learn about traditional Chinese culture, we recommend you visit Xian, Yunnan, Xiamen and Harbin. These destinations are compatible with an arrival in Beijing, which is brimming with UNESCO sites and historical landmarks. If you're also interested in natural wonders, read our story about China's awe-inspiring landscapes.
Once the starting point of the Silk Road, the city of Xian is an ancient and powerful meeting point of cultures.
Home to the legendary Terracotta Army, Xian (pronounced see-an) is the capital of Shaanxi province and the oldest of China's four great ancient capitals. It was once the beginning of the Silk Road, creating an ancient and powerful meeting point of cultures. As well as historic treasures, the city offers visitors all kinds of shopping from huge high-end fashion malls to fascinating local street stalls.
Things to do in Xian:
- The Terracotta Army is a cultural and archaeological marvel. Discovered by chance in 1974 and painstakingly unearthed, it's a force of thousands of life-size terracotta warriors created in 210 B.C. The vast army is part of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, believed to be the oldest building in China.
- Walk or bike around the ancient city wall for great views of Xian. It's a fascinating 14km journey with gates, towers and archer stations along the way. The sheer size of the old city within demonstrates just how grand and powerful it once was.
- Explore the narrow streets, shopping bazaars and food stalls of the Muslim Quarter. Here you'll also find the Great Mosque, a beautiful combination of Islamic and Chinese architecture from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
- Visit the modern Shaanxi Museum to see priceless artefacts and detailed insights of the Shaanxi province's extraordinary past. Beginning with prehistoric times, the collection covers each dynasty era to 1840.
Yunnan has a generous share of China's historic treasures, which frequently come with a backdrop of glorious natural scenery. In this province of many stories, many of the best ancient sights were created during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), however there's archaeological evidence of human habitation on the shores of Lake Dian dating back to the 6th century BC. What's more, remnants of Yuanmou Man were discovered at an archaeological site in Yunnan – a human ancestor who was alive about 1.7 million years ago.
Things to do in Yunnan:
- On the shores of Erhai Lake, Dali Ancient City is the home of the Bai ethnic minority. In the oldest areas of the city, you'll find narrow cobbled streets and traditional stone architecture from the Ming Dynasty.
- Lijiang Old town has a fascinating fusion of Bai, Tibetan and Han architecture. It was first built in the late Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) and was the seat of power for Kubla Khan. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Jade Spring Park in the northern edge of Lijiang Old Town has multiple ancient attractions, including the bridge over the Black Dragon Pool, Dragon God Temple (once a place to pray for rain) and Jade Emperor Attic.
- Located at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Baisha Village was a political, economic and cultural centre long before the Ming Dynasty. It's home to the Naxi people, who number about half a million in China. You can easily bike to Baisha from Lijiang.
- North of Lijiang, the Songzanlin Monastery at the foot of Foping Mountain has a gilded copper roof and is packed full of ancient treasures. It's the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan and built in the style of Potala Palace in Lhasa. This monastery is 3,300 metres above sea level, so walking up the 146 steps to the main prayer hall is quite breath-taking.
Located on China's southeast coast, the island city of Xiamen was one of the first zones opened to international trade and finance in the 1980s. With long beaches, beautiful scenery and a pleasant climate, this thoroughly modern city is a popular visitor destination.
Things to do in and near Xiamen:
- Head to the western waterfront and the old part of town with its winding streets, colonial buildings and relaxing parks. Don't miss the restored shops on the pedestrian-only section of Zhongshan Road.
- Catch a ferry to Gulangyu Island. Once set aside for foreign settlement, this highlight of Xiamen features streets of colonial villas, public gardens and rustic cafes serving European-style refreshments. Only electric-powered vehicles are allowed on the island.
- Visit the famous Nanputuo Buddhist temple, set gracefully between the sea and a forested mountain range. Covering 30,000 square metres, the temple includes four ornate main buildings, many smaller rooms for monks and a popular vegetarian restaurant.
- Explore the Hulishan Battery scenic area. The actual battery (fort) covers 17 acres with barracks, a tunnel displaying cannon balls, a magazine, 50 iron cannons from the Ming and Qing dynasties and a 13-metre canon from 1886. There's also a museum displaying firecrackers, swords, guns and remarkable stones from around the globe.
- Another historical high-point in Fujian province is Chengqi Lou, a 17th-century circular earth dwelling (tulou) that used to house more than 600 people. An entire clan once lived here, sharing 400 rooms that open onto a vast central courtyard. There are hundreds of these round houses in Fujian province, some dating back to the 15th century, and many are still used as homes.
A winter wonderland set in northeast China, Harbin was founded in 1897 as a camp for Russian engineers building the Trans-Siberian Railway. Today the local food and old-city architecture show Russian and European influences. While this city of 10 million people is best known for turning on the world's largest snow and ice sculpture festival, it's also a popular summer retreat.
Things to do in Harbin:
- Bring your winter fairyland dreams to life at the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, which has been running every year since 1962. Operating outdoors in the sub-zero temperatures, it's open from January to early March and attracts visitors from China and around the world. Based on an annual theme, life-size buildings, monuments, sculptures and lanterns are created using ice from the frozen river and illuminated at night with multi-coloured lights. The scale of this event is huge, with several different areas to see, as well as countless smaller creations throughout the city.
- In the old-city area, check out the Russian Orthodox Church of St Sophia (now a history museum) with its gold spires and onion domes. Then explore Central Street, a 1.5km pedestrian-only walkway lined with shops and restaurants in historic buildings of largely European-style architecture.
- Hit the slopes at Yabuli Ski Resort. It's China's largest ski area and only 200km east of Harbin. There's an internationally-designed competitive skiing section for experienced and professional skiers, as well as large areas of terrain for recreational skiers. The best time to ski Yabuli is November to late March.
- In summer, the average temperature is a pleasant 21° You can walk the river promenade, stopping for a bite to eat or a local beer, before catching the cable car or ferry to visit Sun Island Scenic Area. Here you'll find the Ice and Snow Culture Exhibition Hall, which throughout the year features some of the finest carved snow and ice works from the Harbin International Snow Sculpture Art Expo.