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.
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.
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.
The Pearl River (Zhujiang) stretches for 1,376 miles (2,214 kilometers) from Xi Jiang to the Pearl River Delta where it pours into the South China Sea. It’s the third longest river in China and the second largest by volume. According to local legend, the river got its name from a huge boulder in the middle of the river, smoothed by water erosion to resemble a round pearl in the middle of the river.
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, White Goose Pool and the behemoth Canton Tower among them.
One of the most popular ways to enjoy the Pearl River in Guangzhou is by cruise. While boats ply the waters throughout the day, the best time to experience the sights of the river are at night, when the Guangzhou skyline is colorfully lit up. No matter when you cruise, you’ll likely pass beneath the 10 bridges that span the river within the city.
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.
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.
If you’ve ever wanted to see the world in an hour or two, you can do it at Window of the World in Shenzhen. This theme park features 130 miniature replicas of the planet’s most famous cultural and natural landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Pyramids of Giza, Sydney Opera House, Niagara Falls, Matterhorn Mountain, and more.
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.
Built in 1988 to commemorate two thousand years of Buddhist history in China, Nanshan Temple (Nanshan Si)and the surrounding Buddhism Cultural Zone serve as a window into China’s rich Buddhist heritage. Nanshan is also the largest Buddhist temple established since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Situated at the foot of Nanshan Mountain, the temple architecture was heavily influenced by the Tang Dynasty. Visitors enter the grounds through The Mountain Gate, where two figures of the Buddha stand guard. Several more statues of the Buddha in his various forms live within the two main halls of the temple. A terrace in front of the temple looks out over the South China Sea, affording stunning views of the nearby 354-foot (108-meter) copper statue of the Buddhist goddess Guan Yin.
Come hungry, as the vegetarian food served at the temple restaurant is famously tasty.
Wuzhizhou Island, a former fisherfolk isle, is now one of Sanya’s most scenic beach destinations. The tiny butterfly-shaped island a few miles off the coast of Hainan gets its name from the colorful coral reefs just of the beach, where divers and snorkelers head to spot conches, sea urchins and a host of tropical fish.
Back on shore, the island is ringed with soft, white sand beaches, ideal for sunbathing. Other points of interest on the island include a temple dedicated to Matsu, the Buddhist goddess of the sea, and aptly named Sunrise Rock, where visitors come in the early hours to watch the sun peek up from the watery horizon. Several bars and restaurants cater to island visitors, and there’s a small guest house for those who prefer to stay the night.
More Things to Do in Southern China
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.
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.
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.
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.
Learn about more than 5,000 years of local history and culture at the Guangzhou Museum, located inside Zhenhai Tower in Yuexiu Park. Built in 1380, the 5-story Zhenhai Tower is a historic landmark of old Guangzhou. Today, it houses nearly 1,000 exhibits illustrating the city’s development and offers spectacular views over the city.
The Yanoda Rainforest Cultural Tourism Zone, an eco-theme park for adventure enthusiasts, is set amid the lush greenery of Hainan Island, nicknamed the Hawaii of China. Park guests can hike along shaded paths through the dense forest, over bridges and past waterfalls, or for a thrill, zip line through the canopy or cool off with a waterfall climb.
A small village area has a cafe and some souvenir shops. While a guide through the park isn’t really necessary (and the official park guides speak limited English), it is possible to rent an audio guide inside with information on rainforest conservation and local Chinese legends about Hainan Island.
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.
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.
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".)
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. A popular place to commune with Mother Nature for the day, the park is also home to one of the biggest trail networks in Hainan Province. A small pagoda at the top of the highest peak affords superb views of Hainan Island.
While hiking is a popular option, it’s not the only way to navigate the park. A tourist bus shuttles visitors between scenic spots (included in the entrance fee), and there’s also a rope bridge and a zip line where visitors can catch a glimpse of the forest from the canopy level. Between activities, it’s possible to lie down on a tranquil beach, dine at a mountaintop restaurant or even go for a swim in a clifftop pool.
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.
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.
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.
- Things to do in Yangshuo
- Things to do in Guilin
- Things to do in Guangzhou
- Things to do in Shenzhen
- Things to do in Zhangjiajie
- Things to do in Sanya
- Things to do in Xiamen
- Things to do in Changsha
- Things to do in Guangxi
- Things to do in Northern Vietnam
- Things to do in Okinawa
- Things to do in Nanning
- Things to do in Macau SAR
- Things to do in Southwest China
- Things to do in Eastern China