Beautiful landscapes and natural attractions in China
China's natural attractions are incredibly powerful and hugely diverse. And there's so much of it! You can be certain of finding landscapes that resonate with you, whether your heart's set on rice terraces and river gorges or fantasy-land karst mountains and wild flower meadows.
China destinations that are famous for natural attractions include Guilin, Kunming, Chengdu and Zhangjiajie. Easily accessed by domestic flights or train routes, these amazing places are all to the west of Shanghai, which might be an ideal starting point for your travels. If you're also interested in history, read our story about ancient places in China.
Trekking in Tiger Leaping Gorge is an epic adventure. The trail runs along the northern side of the gorge though villages, forest and farmland, as well as toe-tingling precipice areas.
Guilin is the gateway to Yangshuo County, one of the most beautiful places in China. Classic scenery in this region involves forested limestone mountain outcrops (karsts), steep hillsides of bright-green rice terraces and peaceful meandering rivers. When tourism began in China, this is where visitors were taken. Today, these UNESCO World Heritage sites draw people from all over the world.
Guilin is a three-hour flight from Beijing or two hours and 40 minutes from Shanghai.
Things to do in Guilin:
- Cruise the Li River for 83km from Guilin to the small town of Yangshou. It's the perfect way to experience the serene other-worldly beauty of this region.
- Take a guided bike tour, half a day to seven days, to immerse yourself in natural wonders while getting up close and personal with the local way of life.
- See the stunning Loji rice terraces on a private or small-group tour. Stop at farming villages to learn about their history and culture, then finish with a visit to the vast and colourfully lit Reed Flute limestone caves.
- Catch a performance of the highly-rated Impression Sanjie Liu Show. Set outdoors at night on the banks of the Li River with limestone karsts as a backdrop, this 90-minute sound and light show uses the natural landscape, 600 performers, small fishing boats, hundreds of bamboo rafts and stunning lighting to amaze and entertain on a grand scale.
Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province in southwest China. Located on a high plateau, it's known as Spring City due to the pleasant year-round climate, profusion of flowers and spectacular scenery. Although it's now a relatively modern city, Kunming hasn't lost its relaxed traditional vibe. There’s a lot to explore in or near the city and it’s a hub for travelling northwest towards the Tibet mountain region.
Things to do in Kunming:
- Visit the vast Stone Forest World Geopark with some of the most needle-like limestone karsts in the world. Unleash your photography skills on the Doungchuan Red Land, a famous tapestry of tilled red soil and green crops of every shade. Unwind with locals at the city's Green Lake Park - 21 hectares of lakes, wooded islands, temples and pavilions.
- Devote a day to sightseeing in the well-preserved ancient town of Lijiang, set on a plateau 2,400 km above sea level. It's a 6.5 hour drive or 50-minute flight from Kunming. Once ruled by Emperor Kubla Khan, this fascinating city of ethnic minorities was a hub for trade with hinterland China, Tibet and India.
- Lijiang Old Town is where you'll find Black Dragon Pool Park, a sanctuary for bird life. Surrounding the pool are ancient monuments, including Longshen Temple, Deyue Pavilion, Suocui Bridge and Hanyue Stage.
- See the 15km Tiger Leaping Gorge, with near vertical sides rising 200 metres from the thundering river rapids below. It's about 90 minutes by car from Lijiang. Trekking in the gorge is an epic adventure. The trail runs along the northern side of the gorge though villages, forest and farmland, as well as toe-tingling precipice areas.
- Beyond Tiger Leaping Gorge and a few hours northwest of Lijiang is the alpine town of Shangri-La set in a snowy mountain and grassland paradise. Here you can experience the unique Tibetan culture and visit Songzanlin Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery – one of the top sights in China.
Chengdu is the panda-experience hub for China and capital of Sichuan Province. Dating back to around 400 BC, the city was once the centre of the Shu Kingdom. Despite its size there's a slower, relaxed feel to Chengdu, with riverside walks and ancient areas to explore. It's also a great place to enjoy Sichuan cuisine, known for its full-flavours and peppery spices.
Things to do in Chengdu:
- A visit to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is a must. Around 50 pandas are cared for here. Try to visit in the morning when it's cooler and the pandas are more active. There's also an informative panda museum. From August to September you can see fluffy new-borns in the delivery and nursery houses.
- Wander along the Wide and Narrow Alleys. Dating from the Qing dynasty, this beautifully restored area offers teahouses, crafts and cultural experiences, as well as restaurants and taverns. A third lane in the area, Jing (Well) Alley, is home to pubs and nightclubs. Over on the popular Jinli Old Street you can experience authentic local food, folk music and artisan performances. For fashion shopping head to Chunxi Road or the trendy Imperial Lane.
- Visit the Sanxingdu Museum, 40km northeast of Chengdu. Located on a protected archaeological site, this large modern museum displays fascinating artefacts dating back to the Bronze Age from a previously unknown civilisation. They were discovered at the site in 1986.
- Explore the vast 2000-year-old Dujiangyan Irrigation System, just one hour from Chengdu. Still operating today, this remarkable project controlled flooding and irrigated a nearby arid region, creating abundant food, wealth and power. Today it's a popular scenic area with mountain treks, bridges, temples, monuments and local restaurants to enjoy.
Zhangjiajie is the gateway to the historic Wulingyuan Scenic Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to some of the best mountains in Central China. It's a vast region of rocky vertical peaks, with forest clinging to every crevice, which inspired the Hallelujah Mountains in the movie Avatar. You'll also discover canyon-floor rivers and lush forest walks, as well as temples and breathtaking glass floor walkways.
Things to do in Zhangjiajie:
- Take the 28-minute cable car ride from Zhangjiajie to the top of Tianmen Mountain. Visit the Tianmenshan Temple at the summit and experience the thrill of walking the cliff-face path and glass walkway that circle the mountain at a height of over 1,400 metres. Explore Tianmen Cave and marvel at the road up the mountain, known as 99 Bends.
- Drive 40 minutes north to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area to see the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain, Yellowstone Village and Gold Whip Stream. You can also ride the Bailong glass elevator 335m up the vertical mountainside to take in some of the best natural scenery in China.
- Thirty minutes further north you can walk across the Grand Canyon glass bottomed suspension bridge. It's six metres wide, a huge 430 metres long and 260 metres above the valley floor. Most tours then descend thousands of stairs in a ravine to the canyon floor and walk out through the forest along a stream to a boat ride. Bridge-only walks are available late afternoon. You can also choose to walk only the Canyon floor. Online pre-booked tickets are needed for each option, so use a travel or tour agency.