Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Southern China
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.
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.
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".)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A UNESCO Scenic and Historic Interest Area, Wulingyuan encompasses more than 100 square miles (260 square kilometers) of Hunan Province. The vast area is most famous for its 3,000 narrow sandstone pillars, some poking more than 650 feet (200 meters) into the sky, as well as serene streams, natural pools, waterfalls, natural bridges, and karst caves.
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.
White Cloud Mountain (Baiyun Shan, Baiyun Mountain, or Mt. Baiyun), located just north of Guangzhou City, gets its name from the wreath of wispy clouds that circle the mountaintop after a heavy rain. A visit to the mountain and the surrounding 17-square-mile (44-square-kilometer) park area is a popular way to stretch your legs, take in some fresh air, and escape the busy city.
China's Chimelong Safari Park—among the largest wild animal parks in the world—is home to some 20,000 animals and is presently the only zoo in the country to be awarded the 5A class tourist attraction level, the highest level attainable. More than 500 species are represented, including giant pandas, black rhinos, and Chinese white tigers.
Part of the massive Chimelong Tourist Resort in Guangzhou, Chimelong Water Park is one of the most popular water parks in the world, welcoming more than two million visitors a year. Spanning 450 acres (182 hectares, the largest water park in Asia offers plenty of opportunities for water play for families and thrill-seekers alike.
Situated in northeast Guilin, beautiful Fubo Hill (Fubo Shan) sits half in and half out of the Li River, causing the passing water to swirl and lending it its other name: “Wave-Subduing Hill.” With a height of 695 feet (213 meters), Fubo Hill offers spectacular views of the city and river views from its summit.
The most convenient beach to Sanya, coconut palm-lined Sanya Bay—one of three major beaches on Hainan Island—enjoys superb views across the water to the Western, Eastern, and Phoenix Islands. Since it’s not as heavily commercialized as Yalong and Haitang Bays, it’s often a much quieter option for enjoying a day of sun, sea, and sand.
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