Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Southern China
Along the banks of the Li River (Li Jiang) as it winds south from Guilin, dramatic karst peaks, dense vegetation, and the winding river itself create magical vistas that loom large in the Chinese imagination, having inspired art and verse for centuries. From Guilin to Yangshuo, there’s never a dull stretch along China’s most beautiful river.
If you’ve seen the James Cameron filmAvatar, the scenery at China’s majestic Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (Zhangjiajie Guojia Senlin Gongyuan) might look familiar. Yuanjiajie, the most popular spot in the park, is where you’ll find the Avatar Hallelujah Mountains, while the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon area is home to one of the highest and longest glass bridges in the world.
Guangzhou’s loftiest and most impressive skyscraper, the vertiginous Canton Tower is one of the tallest buildings on Earth and Guangzhou’s most notable structure. Unveiled in time for the 2010 Asian Games, the freestanding structure is known for its slim shape, its outdoor observation decks, and the rainbow lights it sports after dark.
The Pearl River stretches for 1,376 miles (2,214 km from Xi Jiang to the South China Sea. It’s the third-longest river in China and the second-largest by volume. The most famous portion of the Pearl River flows through the heart of Guangzhou, and the waterfront is home to many of the city’s top attractions.
Built in 1988 to commemorate two thousand years of Buddhist history in China, Nanshan Temple and the surrounding Buddhism Cultural Zone serve as a window into China’s rich Buddhist heritage. Situated at the foot of Nanshan Mountain, the temple architecture was heavily influenced by the Tang Dynasty.
Considered one of the most beautiful mountains on Earth, Tianmen Mountain (Tianmen Shan) is a highlight of a visit to Zhangjiajie. The mountain summits at 4,983 feet (1,519 meters), with plenty of spectacular sights on the way up, including near vertical cliffs, a winding walkway appropriately named the 99 Bends, and a rock arch called Heaven’s Gate. (Tianmen Mountain literally means "Heaven's Gate Mountain".)
The Yulong River, also known as the Little Li River, is the largest tributary of the Li River, and it runs 26 miles (43 kilometers) across Yangshuo county. The river flows past limestone karsts, bamboo forests, rice paddies, ancient villages, and stone bridges. Floating down the river, or hiking or biking next to it, provides up-close views.
Nearly a kilometer long, lively West Street (Xi Jie) is the most famous street in Yangshuo, and often referred to as the town’s heart. It’s also Yangshuo’s oldest street, lined with restored buildings from the Qing Dynasty that today house a vibrant mix of cafés, restaurants, bars, hostels, hotels, and shops selling a vast array of goods.
Located on Hainan island, the Yanoda Rainforest Cultural Tourism Zone is a popular eco theme park. Spanning 17.4 square miles (45 square kilometers, and surrounded by a 47.5 square miles (123 square kilometers protected forest, Yanoda allows visitors to experience Hainan’s five tropical rainforests and offers numerous outdoor activities.
Located 3 miles (5 kilometers) from downtown Guilin, this famous limestone cave is one of the top attractions in Guilin. It’s named for the reeds that grow outside the cave, which are used to make flutes. The cave stretches for 787 feet (240 meters), and is colorfully lit inside to highlight the interesting collection of stone pillars, stalactites, and stalagmites found within.
More Things to Do in Southern China
One of Guangzhou’s most significant historical attractions, the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall (also known as the Chen Clan Academy) dates to the late 19th century. The large campus comprises 19 buildings, and was initially built as an academic temple complex. Today, the striking landmark is home to the Guangdong Folk Art Museum.
Beyond Guangzhou’s soaring skyscrapers, discover another, older side of the city when you visit Shamian Island. A sandbank island in the heart of the city that once served as a busy port, Shamian Island was divided between British and French concessions in the 19th century. Today, it’s known for its heritage architecture and ample charm.
Formerly a sleepy fishing village along the Li River, Xingping town (or Xingping village) is now a popular visitor destination for its rural landscape and well-preserved ancient architecture. Hiking and biking are popular ways to soak in the scenery, and Xingping is also the starting point of many river cruises as it’s on an especially beautiful stretch of the Li River.
For the farmers who reside in Southern China’s Longji region, rice terraces are simply a way of life. Yet for the thousands of annual visitors who make the 2-hour journey from the city of Guilin, the Longji Rice Terraces—nicknamed the Dragon’s Backbone—are an iconic symbol of Chinese agriculture and one of the most photographed sites in the country.
Wuzhizhou Coral Island, a former fishing village, ranks among Sanya’s most scenic beach destinations. The tiny butterfly-shaped island, ringed by soft, white sand beaches, gets its name from the colorful coral reefs just off the beach, where divers and snorkelers head to spot conch, sea urchins, and a host of tropical fish.
Impression Sanjie Liu is a unique outdoor night show directed by renowned filmmaker Zhang Yimou and staged at the Li River in Yangshuo. In the world’s largest natural theater, Yimou uses the river as a stage and the mist-shrouded karsts as a backdrop for a spectacle of light, sound, and intricate choreography.
Covered by lush tropical evergreen rainforest, Yalong Bay Tropical Paradise Forest Park protects a huge swath of coastal land, home to more than 130 plant and 190 animal species. The park is also home to one of the biggest trail networks in the province. A small pagoda at the top of the highest peak affords superb views of Hainan Island.
One of the most popular attractions in Yangshuo, Moon Hill (Yueliang Shan) is easily recognizable by its crescent-moon-shaped natural arch, the remnants of what was once a limestone cave (Moon Palace). Rising 750 feet (230 meters), Moon Hill offers stunning panoramic views of the countryside, which is dotted with unique karst formations.
Ping’an Village is one of three main villages that comprise the Longji Terraced Fields Scenic Area northwest of Guilin. The terraced rice paddies here rank among the region’s most spectacular as they spill down the mountainside toward a river. The village itself is home to a few hundred people living much as they did centuries ago.
Situated on a hill above the seashore just south of Sanya, Luhuitou Park is a favorite place on the island to watch the sunset, especially from the observation station atop Luhuitou Mountain. Several walking paths crisscross the park, shaded by red coconut trees where monkeys can sometimes be spotted. Kiosks throughout sell red coconut, a local specialty.
A statue of a deer looking back over its shoulder stands at the top of the park — a tribute to the local legend that gave the park its name. As the story goes, a tyrannical emperor asked a young man to bring him back a pair of deer antlers. While the young man was hunting, he spotted a deer being chased by a panther, but instead of taking aim at the deer, he shot the panther with his arrow. After chasing the deer for nine days and nine nights, they arrived at a cliff’s edge (the current location of the park), and as the boy took aim at the deer, it turned its head and transformed into a young woman. The pair fell in love and were married, and the young woman’s family helped defeat the tyrant.
A landmark in Guilin since the Tang Dynasty, and considered by many to be a symbol of the city, Elephant Trunk (Xiangbishan) Hill got its name because it’s said to resemble a giant elephant drinking water from the Li River. Towering more than 180 feet (55 meters) above the water, it’s one of the top attractions in Guilin.
The Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King houses the contents of the royal tombs of the Nanyue ruler Zhao Mo. The skeletons of Zhao Mo, along with 15 of his courtiers, who were buried alive to serve him in death, and several thousand objects from the empire are on display.
Perched on the southern slope of Guangzhou’s Yuexiu Hill, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall (Sun Zhongshan Ji Nian Tang) is a monument built in 1931 in honor of the Chinese revolutionary. A bronze statue of Sun Yat-sen was erected in front of the hall in 1956, and the octagonal structure houses a collection of photos and letters from his life.
Among Guangzhou’s most significant religious landmarks, the Buddhist Temple of the Six Banyan Trees dates back to AD 537 and is still active today, with a community of monks. Visitors marvel at the vibrantly painted exterior of the temple’s Flower Pagoda, which soars some 187 feet (57 meters) high.