Backpacking China: Itinerary for First Timers

Posted by on Feb 18, 2017 in Asia, China | 4 Comments

less explored city in china

China is a pretty daunting country to travel in. Whether you’re travelling solo through China or exploring the country with a group, it’s a good idea to thoroughly research and plan your trip there. I spent seven weeks exploring the Asian country last summer, and it’s fair to say that I was a teensy bit unprepared. I landed in Beijing with no guidebook, no phrasebook and only knowing how to say ‘this is my foot’, ‘you are very beautiful’ and ‘make me a cup of tea’ in Mandarin. These phrases are probably only useful to a flirty shoe model with a caffeine addiction, and didn’t help me at all when I was navigating the airport, buying a subway ticket and finding my way to my hostel using what may as well have been a map of the moon.

It’s difficult to navigate around China knowing such a pitiful amount of their language, and while I quite enjoyed wandering around like a blundering fool trying to make sense of the country around me (I weirdly get a great pleasure with travelling in difficult places and being in tricky situations), there were lots of times when a bit more planning would have been useful. So, if you’re planning a first time trip to China, don’t do what I did and do plan your travels. BUT luckily for you, I’ve done all the hard work! Here’s a month’s itinerary of my China highlights, with tips on how to make the most of your first trip to China!


Note: this includes every place that I visited in the country except for Liaoyuan, a non-touristy city in China. I spent a week here visiting family. I loved visiting and would recommend that anyone add a trip to a non-touristy city to their China itinerary, but because this post discusses the highlights, I haven’t included it. But read this post to learn about why I think everyone should visit a non touristy city in China!

Day 1: Beijing


Start your China trip in its lively and chaotic capital. Beijing is perfect for China first timers because it has all the conveniences of any large city but is still bursting with culture and history. From Beijing airport, you can take a metro all the way to the city centre, where a lot of hostels and hotels are located. For backpackers, Leo Hostel is perfect; it’s in a lively area, is popular with travellers from all over the world, has a fun bar and common area and friendly staff. There’s lots of restaurants around the local area too, so you will be sure to find some delicious Chinese food for dinner.

Day 2: Beijing


Spend your first full day in China visiting two of its most famous attractions: Tiannamen Square and the Forbidden City. Be amazed at the vastness of Tiannamen Square, and snap a photo of the famous gates which are looked over by a portrait of Mao Zedong. You can even visit his Mausoleum if you arrive early enough! Then walk through to the Forbidden City, an area filled with magnificent architecture and grandeur. Spend your afternoon wandering around the National Museum of China, which will definitely inspire you to learn more about this compelling country!

Day 3: Beijing


If you thought the Forbidden City was grand, the Summer Palace will blow your mind away. Wander around this royal park and be amazed at both the enchanting pagodas and the stunning gardens. After a morning here, be transported to the equally compelling Temple of Heaven, a medieval religious site used by historic emperors.

Day 4: The Great Wall of China


Visiting the Great Wall of China is a must on anyone’s Chinese wish list. But camping on the Great Wall is even more compelling, right? Take an overnight camping tour with China Hiking to Jiankou, a completely unrestored section of the Great Wall. Relish in the serenity that comes with being at such a quiet area of this wall, and enjoy the architectural marvel that so many people associate with this Asian country.


Day 5: Beijing

You will camp overnight on the Great Wall, and a transfer back to Beijing will be organized in the morning. Spend the rest of your day in Beijing exploring the gorgeous Buddhist Lama Temple.

Overnight train Beijing – Xidan

Day 6: Xi’an


Once upon a time all cities in China were walled. Xi’an is one of few cities whose walls have not been abolished, and can be explored at your own leisure. Spend the morning on top of these walls, before descending into the city’s Muslim Quarter. Here you can enjoy the delicious and cheap street food and walk around Xi’an’s Great Mosque.


Day 7: Xi’an


Take a transfer to the Terracotta Warriors, an ancient selection of soldiers that were made with the intention to protect an emperor after his death. The ensemble of figures is an amazing feat – be sure to snap lots of pictures before leaving! Spend the afternoon wandering around the Wild Goose Pagoda, an ancient building from the Tang Dynasty.

Day 8: Huashan Mountain


Take a transfer to Huashan Mountain, a sacred Daoist mountain (and thought by some to be the most dangerous mountain in China!). The path around it can be easily navigated and it offers some spectacular views. But be sure to descend to catch the last bus back to Xi’an that night at 7pm!

Overnight train from Xi’an to Chengdu

Day 9: Chengdu


Take a bus to the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre and learn about how the national animal of China is being kept away from extinction. Even though I had some doubts about this place, I strongly believe that everyone should visit it to make their own minds up. Read about whether the Chengdu Panda Centre is ethical or not here.

Day 10: Chengdu


Two hours away from Chengdu is the world’s largest Buddha at Leshan. Spend the day exploring the scenic area and the many Buddhas it contains, as well as marvelling at the Big Buddha itself.

Day 11: Bus to Jiuzhaigou

DSC_1756A 10 hour bus will take you to Jiuzhaigou, an enchanting town on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

Day 12: Jiuzhaigou National Park


Spend the day exploring Jiuzhaigou National Park. With gorgeous waterfalls and outstandingly blue lakes, this park shows off the very best of China’s nature.

Day 13: Around Jiuzhaigou


Jiuzhaigou isn’t technically in Tibet, but it’s culturally as close as you can get without a separate visa. Spend the day exploring the surroundings of Jiuzhaigou and enjoying the sub-Himalayan culture of this area of Asia.

Day 14: Bus to Chengdu

Take the bus back from Jiuzhaigou to Chengdu. Once you’re off the bus, transfer to the train for an overnight journey from Chengdu to Shanghai. 

Day 15: Shanghai


Start your time in Shanghai by enjoying the intriguing skyline of The Bund. A stark contrast to the ancient temples of Beijing, The Bund showcases the futuristic China. After taking some snaps of this modern marvel, take a walk down East Nanjing Road, the busiest road in Shanghai. And if you want some serenity after the chaos, take a stroll down to Yuyuan Garden which is a calm oasis in the middle of the mad city.

Day 16: Shanghai


In the morning, learn all about China’s modern city at the Shanghai Museum. Afterwards, take a walk around the French Concession and visit the alleyways brimming with shops and restaurants of Tian Zi Fang. If you have a bit of extra time in the day, explore one of the city’s most unusual museums – the propaganda poster museum!

Day 17: Zhujiajiao


Explore the water village of Zhujaijio, which is home to a network of scenic canals. A whole day can be spent wandering around the village and enjoying a bit of serenity after the madness of Shanghai!

Day 18: Nanjing

Train from Shanghai-Nanjing


Take an early morning train to Nanjing and go straight to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. This is a difficult place to visit but a very important one. Here you will learn all about one of the most gruesome genocides of the Second World War, and the story of the war in Asia.

Overnight train Nanjing – Guilin

Day 19: Guilin


Arrive in Guilin and spend the first day exploring the city. Visit the famous elephant trunk hill and walk around the varied and interesting food markets, enjoying some street food for dinner.

Day 20: Guilin


Get a transfer to the River Li and take a cruise around the river. Afterwards, spend some time enjoying the natural scenery around Yangshuo. Take a transfer back to Guilin for the evening.

Day 21: Longsheng


Take a bus to the Longji Rice Terraces and spend the day walking around the stunning area. Enjoy both the scenery and the rustic village atmosphere. Return to Guilin in the evening.

Day 22: Hong Kong


Take a train from Guilin to Shenzhen in the morning, and then cross the border into Hong Kong. Spend the first afternoon in the Kowloon area, visiting the Temple Markets as they open at night.

Day 23: Hong Kong


Take the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak and enjoy the impressive cityscape of Hong Kong laid out in front of you. In the afternoon, take a trip to the Hong Kong museum to learn more about the city. And be sure to catch the Symphony of Lights at 8pm.

Day 24: Hong Kong

14686555_10153845368341976_1434324681_nTake the cable car up to the Hong Kong Buddha and visit the Po Lin Monastery. Spend your last afternoon in Hong Kong exploring the Tsim Sha Tsui area of the city.

Day 25: End of the trip!

Your first time China trip ends today! Hong Kong has a very well connected airport that can take you to global destinations. Alternatively, cross back over into China (if you have a multiple entry visa) to explore more of the country, or have an overland adventure to South East Asia! 

I hope you found this China backpacking itinerary useful. I’ve got loads of deeper resources on each destination mentioned – click on the hyperlinks for more information! And please do not hesitate to contact me, either in the comments box below or over on Facebook if you have any China related questions!

And don’t forget to take a peek at my China video, which features every destination mentioned in this first time in China itinerary!

Have you ever been to China? What were your highlights if so? If not, what is the #1 thing you want to do in the country?

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Visiting China for the first time and not sure where to begin planning? Take a peek at this first time in China itinerary which contains a lot of China highlights and takes just a month!

Visiting China for the first time and not sure where to begin planning? Take a peek at this first time in China itinerary which contains a lot of China highlights and takes just a. month!


  1. Travellingdany
    February 18, 2017

    So many friends are packing to go on a China trip… and I still feel lost because I don’t know this beautiful country enough. Your article was such an interesting read, thank you for posting it!

  2. Ellis
    February 18, 2017

    China is quite high on the bucketlist, but there is so much to see. Hard to make a choice. This post is very useful.

  3. Nate
    March 27, 2017

    China is on my bucket list as well! It has so many beautiful places to visit, but I also heard a lot about the communication and navigation problems. Your article gave me motivation to try it though! Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Claire
    April 24, 2017

    China’s an amazing country to visit and it’s really not as tough as I thought it was going to be!

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