Overlooking the Central district on Hong Kong Island, Victoria Peak (Tai Ping Shan) is one of the best vantage points for stupendous views of the harbor and high-rises. Rising 1,810 feet (552 meters), Victoria Peak is topped with the touristy Peak Tower complex of shops, restaurants and 360-degree Sky Terrace viewing platform.
Go for a stroll through the Victoria Peak Garden, follow one of the many nature walks on the mountain, and stay on for nightfall to see Hong Kong's spectacular nightly light show.
Anyone who’s experienced either of the Disney Magic Kingdom resorts in the United States will feel a sense of déjà vu when walking in to Hong Kong Disneyland. The Disney franchise has stayed true to form with a topnotch amusement park experience combining a few classic attractions, like Space Mountain and the Jungle Cruise with some new offerings, like the Toy Soldier Parachute Drop in the newly opened Toy Story Land. The park is split into six themed areas: Main Street USA, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Toy Story Land, Grizzly Gulch and Adventureland.
Weekdays have the lightest crowds, but no matter when you visit, remember to pick up a Fast Pass for the big attractions.
Xin Tian Di (Xintiandi) is a sleekly restored area of Shanghai, where the more successful of the city's young come to play. It's also a popular strolling area for tourists, who like to check out the 19th century architecture.
The district abounds in shikumen, stone houses that were a popular residential form in the late 19th century and early 20th century city. When the districts that contained these houses were being razed, developers stepped in to save and restore this area. Today the shikumen house galleries, bookshops, antique stores, upmarket boutiques, bars and restaurants. It's particularly ironic that this Westernized playground should be cheek-by-jowl with the Site of the First Conference of the Communist Party of China.
Located in the heart of Shanghai, People’s Square (Renmin Guang Chang) is the home to the city’s municipal government headquarters and, more importantly, serves as a major landmark and meeting point in Shanghai.
What was once an elite horse racing venue before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 is today a hotspot of cultural attractions. Within People’s Square, you’ll find some of the best museums in Shanghai, including the excellent collection of Chinese art housed within the Shanghai Museum and the impressive Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, where visitors are treated to a look at Shanghai’s past, present and future. The Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai Art Museum and the all-glass Shanghai Grand Theater are also worth a look. The park within People’s Square offers cultural insights of its own, especially early in the mornings and on weekends when locals come out to practice tai chi, exercise or play card games.
The 1974 discovery of thousands of life-sized Terracotta Warriors near Xian was one of the archaeological sensations of the 20th century. The figures date from 210 BC and were meant to guard the first emperor of China in the afterlife.
A huge statue of the emperor now guards the entrance to the Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, undeniable high point of any trip to Xian. To avoid disturbing these priceless treasures, they were left in situ with enormous structures now shielding them from the elements.
Three enormous pits are filled with row upon row of these remarkable effigies, with the first pit alone holding some 6,000 examples in excellent condition. There is a fourth exhibition space which holds other pieces found here, including bronze horses and chariots.
The Big Buddha (Tian Tan Buddha), located on Lantau Island, has the very specific distinction of being the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha on earth. Including its podium and lotus flower, the entire statue stands 112 feet (34 meters) tall. The stature was erected in 1993 and faces north toward Mainland China.
When you make the climb the 268 steps to the Big Buddha’s base, you’ll have panoramic views over the surrounding mountains and South China Sea. Just opposite the statue sits the Po Lin Monastery, one of the most important in Hong Kong. Come hungry and eat at the highly rated vegetarian restaurant run by the monastery.
Saturdays and Sundays are always busy at the Big Buddha, as this is when locals and many mainland tourists come. While you can ride a bus to the top of the mountain, the best and most scenic way to go is on the Ngong Ping Cable Car from the Tung Chung MTR station.
Lantau Island is twice the size of Hong Kong Island, but only a fraction of the population live here, leaving its beaches, hills and national parks to visitors to enjoy.
The highlight is the Po Lin monastery and temple, reached by the Ngong Ping 360 cable car on the western side of the island. The temple’s amazing seated bronze Giant Buddha is the world’s largest.
Hong Kong Disneyland offers more familiar entertainment, and the island’s fishing villages, walking trails, beaches and seafood restaurants are also popular.
Po Lin (Precious Lotus) Monastery, is one of the city’s most important Buddhist sites. It was established in 1906, long before the Big Buddha was erected, by three monks traveling from China. The three men discovered a flat stretch of land amid the verdant mountains and though it would be a perfect place for meditative religious practice. The monastery didn’t gain a spot on the global tourist map until 1993 when the Buddha statue was completed, and today it welcomes thousands of tourists who ride the cable car to see the statue and gaze out over the South China Sea.
The monastery itself is easy to overlook but is well worth a visit, particularly for the excellent vegetarian restaurant run by the monks. Dishes vary season to season and are made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients thought to help cleanse the body and spirit.
The Ming Dynasty Tombs, or Ming Shisan Ling, are located outside of central Beijing and are home to the tombs and mausoleums of the Yongle Emperor. Currently, these tombs are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are listed as part of the World Heritage object, Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The Emperor, who built the Forbidden City, also chose the site for these Ming Tombs mausoleums according to the art of Feng Shui. Back in the Ming era, this secluded valley north of Beijing was closed to visitors and heavily guarded. The ground was considered so sacred that not even an emperor could ride a horse there. Three tombs are open to the public; only one, the Dingling, has been excavated (sadly, with artifacts being badly damaged). The other two tombs are more atmospheric. The highlight of the experience is probably the Spirit Way, the long approach to the mausoleums.
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Riding a Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island is a signature Hong Kong experience.
The low-slung, double-decker, green and cream ferries are a Hong Kong emblem, dating back to 1888. Until the cross-harbor road tunnel and underground train link were built, the only way to cross between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island was by ferry.
Take a trip by day to experience the harbor and see the buildings on both sides, then take another trip at night to see the buildings light up and enjoy the nightly Symphony of Lights.
You can also cruise Victoria Harbour aboard a circular Star Ferry harbor tour, or book yourself onto an evening dinner cruise to sit back and drink in those twinkling views.
Few bucket lists are complete without a walk along the Great Wall of China, famously one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988, and undoubtedly the most visited section is the Great Wall at Badaling. Often visited on a day trip from Beijing, Badaling was the first part of the wall to open to tourists back in 1958 and now draws up to 10 million annual visitors. Built in 1502 during the Ming Dynasty, the wall at Badaling runs for 2.3 miles around the Jundu mountain, reaching an altitude of over 1,000 meters and spanning almost 6 meters at its widest point – wide enough for 5 horses to gallop abreast. The popularity of Badaling means that it is often overrun with tour groups, but there are still many good reasons to visit - not only is Badaling the most thoroughly restored section of the wall and offers magnificent views, but it’s the most accessible, with a cable car and pulley train available for those who don’t want to walk to the top.
Have you ever wondered what's so forbidden about the Forbidden City? It's called that because it was closed to the outside world for 500 years. This was the seat of the Ming and the Qing emperors, and no one could enter - or leave - the imperial domain without their permission. These days, the Chinese mainly call it Gu Gong, or Former Palace.
The Forbidden City, or Beijing Imperial Palace, is BIG - you'll need to allow at least one day for your visit. UNESCO have listed it as the largest collection of ancient wooden structures in the world. There are nearly 1,000 rooms in over 800 buildings. However, because it's been ransacked by invaders and gutted by fire several times (wooden buildings, lanterns, you do the math) most of the structures date from the 18th century on.
The Summer Palace - also known as Yiheyuan - was built in 1750. In those days, it was called the Garden of Clear Ripples, and was a lakeside oasis where the royal court could escape the dust and heat of the Forbidden City in summer.
It was razed twice by foreign armies and completely rebuilt, most extensively by Empress Dowager Cixi in the 19th century. To fund her projects, she's said to have diverted a bunch of money destined for the Chinese navy. Ironically, one of her grand schemes was a marble boat that sits at the edge of the lake.
The grounds were declared a public park in 1924. These days, the 290 hectares (716 acres) of the 'Gardens of Nurtured Harmony' are madly popular with both tourists and locals.
The gardens are liberally scattered with temples, covered walkways, pavilions and bridges. Longevity Hill, one of the garden's main features, was constructed from the earth excavated when the lake was extended.
A Ming temple, Temple of Heaven or Tian tan was built by the Yongle Emperor, who also built the Forbidden City, as a stage for the important rituals performed by the emperor, or Son of Heaven. Chief among these were the supplication to the heavens for a good harvest and the Winter Solstice ceremony, which was supposed to ensure a favorable year for the entire kingdom.
In those days it was believed that heaven was round and earth was square, so the architecture of the buildings (round, set on square bases) and the layout of the park (squared off at the Temple of the Earth end, rounded at the Temple of Heaven end) reflect this belief. The buildings are rich in symbolic detail - variations on the number nine, which represented the emperor; coloured glazes which represent heaven and earth; and pillars which represent the months of the year, the seasons and time. There are also echo stones where you can stand to hear your voice reverberate.
The Bund (or Waitan) is the grand center of Colonial architecture in Shanghai. The former International Settlement runs along the waterfront of the Huangpu River, facing the Pudong district ('Bund' is a word of Indian derivation meaning 'embankment'). Loosely known as the "museum of international architecture," the Bund attracts visitors who are interested in the artsy side of Shanghai.
When foreign powers entered Shanghai after the Opium Wars of the 19th century, the Bund existed as a towpath. It quickly became the center of Shanghai as Western traders built banks, trading houses and consulates along its length, and has been synonymous with Shanghai's east-meets-west glamor ever since. Today the Bund faces the new wave of trading development - the vast towers of Jin Mao, the World Finance Center and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in the financial district of Pudong.
There are few images more iconic to southwestern China than that of the giant panda. Unfortunately, despite its status as a Chinese national treasure, the giant panda population has been whittled down to just 1,000 pandas due to mass human development over the last century.
As a response to this ecological crisis the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was opened in 1987 and began caring for six pandas rescued from the wild. During the 25 years since its founding the Chengdu Panda Base has employed some of the world’s leading giant panda researchers to manage an open air sanctuary where giant pandas can be bred and raised in an effort to eventually be reintroduced into wild populations.
Located only seven miles from downtown Chengdu, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is inarguably one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of southern China.
While the Big Wild Goose Pagoda - or Dayanta - follows the familiar pagoda format of successive levels diminishing in size the higher they get, this solid stone tower is largely free of the frills associated with such buildings. One of Xian’s oldest structures, it was built in 652 and originally had 10 levels, though the top 3 were later lost in an earthquake.
The pagoda played an important role in the spread of Buddhism in China. Relics, figurines and writings associated with the Buddha were brought here from India along the Silk Road which ends in Xian. You can still see statues of the Buddha and other religious figures inside.
Yufo Si is a working Buddhist community - one of the few in China - but the star attractions of the Jade Buddha Temple are two figures brought to Shanghai by a Burmese monk in the 19th century.
The most impressive is the sitting Buddha, a 1.9 m (6.5 ft) giant encrusted with semi-precious stones. This Buddha is sitting in the pose which captures the moment of his enlightenment by meditation. The other Buddha is smaller and in the attitude of 'happy repose', as he goes peacefully to death. Both Buddhas are carved from white jade. Facing the reclining Buddha is a large copy in stone, brought to the monastery from Singapore. These are the main points of a visit to the temple, but take a look at the halls while you're there, particularly the Grand Hall with its golden 'Gods of the Twenty Heavens'. There's also a restaurant that serves the public, with a simple downstairs and a swankier upstairs.
Beijing has modernized so rapidly that it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in decades past. One neighborhood in Beijing has managed to hold on to its old-style hutong architecture, the Back Lakes (Hou Hai). Named after the three lakes in the area, the Back Lakes neighborhood is one of the last remaining places in Beijing where you can see traditional courtyard-style houses.
While wandering the hutongs lets you see Beijing as it once was, the streets surrounding the lakes, particularly Hou Hai -- the largest of the three -- shows you a modern, hip and international side of Beijing. The banks are lined with cafes, restaurants, bars and hookah dens catering to tourists, locals and the city’s sizable expatriate population alike. The best way to enjoy the Back Lakes area is to take a pedicab tour of the old hutong neighborhoods in the afternoon.
Nanjing Lu (Nanjing Road) is a shopping street with a history. When the British began trading in Shanghai after the Opium Wars of the 19th century, this was one of their commercial centers. In those days it was called Nanking Road, the 'k' being a more popular form of Anglicization.
Today it's not only the hectic heart of Shangai's shopping and tourism scene, but the longest shopping district in the world (6 km/3.5 mi of go-go-go). Even back in its earliest days when it served the International Settlement, it quickly became dominated by big department stores. The chains have well and truly moved in here, but really it's for the experience as much as anything that you should come. The street is divided into two lengths, east and west. The eastern section is pedestrianized. Avoid the Western generic stuff and concentrate on what are still the Shanghai specialties - silk, jade, clocks.
Jingshan Park (Yingshan Gongyuan), a green space in the heart of Beijing and home to one of the city’s few hills, was made from the earth dug out to make the Forbidden City’s moat. Covering about 57 acres (230,000 square meters), Jingshan Park once served as an imperial garden during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
In the early morning hours, the park fills up with elderly locals who gather in groups to since or practice tai chi. Come early and climb to the top of the park’s central peak -- once Beijing’s highest point -- for views of the Forbidden City to the south, Drum and Bell Towers to the north and Beihai Park to the west. Each spring, the park’s flowers put on a colorful display, particularly in May when the 200 varieties of peonies begin to bloom. With around 20,000 peony plants, Jingshan Park is home to the largest peony garden in Beijing.
Niaochao, more commonly referred to as the Beijing National Stadium or the Bird’s Nest, was designed and constructed for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and has since become a major landmark in China’s capital. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei consulted on the Swiss-designed project, and the result cost $423 million to complete.
Since the Olympics ended, the stadium has served as a tourist attraction and a venue for both international and domestic sporting competitions, including the Supercoppa Italiana and the China Cup. The stadium is set to host the 2015 World Championships in Athletics as well. Niaochao is most impressive from the outside, where it’s bird’s nest shape is apparent. Situated on the Beijing Olympic Green, Niaochao is free to enjoy from the outside, but you’ll have to pay a fee if you want to enter the stadium. The Water Cube, the second prominent structure from the 2008 Olympics, sits adjacent to Niaochao and is also worth a visit.
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