One Month in China Itinerary for First Timers

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If you’re reading this China itinerary, I’m guessing you’re planning a trip to the country.

China is one of my favourite countries to travel in. It’s brimming with history and culture, from the Terrcotta Warriors to its many, many temples, but it has the most dynamic modern scene in cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou. It has desert, beaches and mountains (lots of the latter!), as well as some of the most impressive megacities you’ll likely ever see.

I’ve been to China four times now, so I know a thing or two about planning a China itinerary.

Planning Your China Itinerary

First up, don’t feel overwhelmed.

On my first time in China, I landed in Beijing with no guidebook, no phrasebook and I only knew 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.

But I still made it, not only to my hostel but travelling around for two whole months.

I am lucky to have family from China – my stepmum was born here, and I did spend some of my first two months in China with her and her family (although I arrived alone).

So I have had some help in that regard, but I’m going to pass on all that I’ve learnt about travel in China from my family in this post and others.

You don’t have to know Mandarin to spend 1 month in China, but I do recommend some forward planning.

First thing first – get your Chinese visa sorted. It’s a bit of a complicated process, but you can check out this handy guide on how to get a Chinese visa for some great pointers.

The second step is to think about the best places to visit in China and work out exactly where you want to go. Luckily for you, I’ve done all the hard work! Here’s a month’s China itinerary to see the main highlights of the country, including tips for travelling to each destination.

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Travelling in China Essentials

You’d be daft to visit China without guidebook and phrasebook (that was me, umm…).

Other things I wouldn’t forget for China would be my water to go bottle, collapsible tupperware (perfect to store delicious leftover Chinese food in!), my kindle (there’s a lot of long bus rides), a rain mac (it can rain at any time of year!), a good first aid kit, a bumbag to keep all of my valuables in and a good smartphone to download some useful apps for China.

One Month in China Itinerary

This one month in China itinerary includes every place that I visited in the country on my first trip, when I was keen on seeing all of China’s highlights. I have returned and visited other places since.

On my first trip I also spent a week in Liaoyuan, a non-touristy city in China, 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!

This China itinerary covers the following cities:

  • Beijing (and the Great Wall of China)
  • Xi’an (and Huashan Mountain)
  • Shanghai
  • Nanjing
  • Chengdu
  • Jiuzhaigou
  • Guilin (and the rice terraces of Longsheng)
  • Hong Kong

It’s a very packed one-month itinerary for China, but it is feasible.

If you have more time in China, I’d also recommend the following places that I have since visited: 

  • Kunming: this is a city close to the Vietnamese border, so is a good jumping point from or into Vietnam and South East Asia. The city itself is ok, with a few attractions to pass a day or two, but it’s nestled in the Yunnan province with lots of opportunities to see some spectacular nature.
  • Dali: a night train from Kunming, Dali is nestled in the mountains, with some great hikes and temples, and the old city is a popular UNESCO world-heritage site with a fun backpacking scene unlike many other places in China.
  • Chongqing: a popular layover destination, Chongqing has some attractions within the city, like the old quarter and various temples, and is also the gateway to the Yangtze River.
  • Guangzhou: one of China’s crazy megacities, Guangzhou has modern architecture twinned with a compelling and multicultural history.
  • Hangzhou: one of China’s most beautiful cities, Hangzhou has various scenic areas arranged around a beautiful lake.
  • Nanning: again, a good jumping place if you’re travelling into/ out of South East Asia (you can take a direct train from Hanoi to Nanning), Nanning is a modern city with not all that much in the way of attractions – but it’s still quite interesting to check out local life.
  • Erlian: right at the border of Mongolia in the Gobi Desert, Erlian is famed for prehistoric dinosaur history and is a great place to enjoy Mongolian culture without actually crossing over. If you are crossing into Mongolia, check out my guide to Ulaanbaatar, its capital.
  • Zhangjiajie: famed for being the inspiration to Avatar, Zhangjiajie has beautiful mountains and some great hiking opportunities. You can check out my YouTube video below:

One Month in China Itinerary

Beijing and the Great Wall – 5 days

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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 the sake of this one month in China itinerary I’m recommending you spend three days in Beijing to see the highlights – but you could easily spend much longer. If you want to take your time to soak in the Chinese capital, 5 days in Beijing is perfect – if you want to take a more leisurely pace (which is a bit of an oxymoron in Beijing, but we’ll go with it), you could spend over a week here. 

Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

Spend your first full day in China visiting two of its most famous attractions: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Be amazed at the vastness of Tiananmen 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!

The Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven

On day number 2 in Beijing, I’d recommend visiting the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven.

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 – one of the most instagrammable places in Beijing – a medieval religious site used by historic emperors.

Where to Stay in Beijing

For backpackers, Leo Hostel is a perfect place to stay; 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. Click here for rates and more details.

Nostalgia Hotel is located in the Dongcheng district and has comfortable rooms and friendly staff considering the low price per night. The hotel is located within walking distance to the Temple of Heaven (about 20 minutes). The hotel also has retro vibes with old stuff in the lobby and some retro games.

There are also metro stations and many local restaurants nearby. The restaurant which is the second door to the left when facing the hotel entrance is very local and has some of the best tofu and chinese food I’ve ever eaten, and it’s cheap too. The hotel WiFi works very well. Click here for rates and to book. By Alex from Swedish Nomad.

The Great Wall of China

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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.

Don’t have time for an overnight camping tour, or don’t fancy sleeping on the Great Wall? Check out these fantastic day tours to the Great Wall of China – click through for more details and to book.

Jiankou Private Day Hike
Mutianyu Great Wall of China Full-Day Bus Tour
Badaling Great Wall of China & Summer Palace Coach Tour

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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.

Take an overnight train from Beijing – Xi’an. I’d definitely advise booking trains in advance for your first time in China – it is very daunting to try to negotiate buying tickets with no Chinese and they often sell out. Use this link to see the latest deals

Xi’an – 3 days

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.

night market in Xi'an

Muslim Quarter Street Food in Xi’an

Spend the morning on top of these walls, either walking along them or exploring the walls by bike (they can be rented from the top of the 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.

The Terracotta Warriors

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On day two, 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.

Huashan Mountain

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For you last day in Xi’an, take an early 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!

Read my full guide on a day trip to Huashan Mountain and my thoughts on its safety here.

Where to Stay in Xi’an

Travelling With Hostel is a great base to explore all of Xi’an’s charms. It’s a spacious place with hot showers, clean dorms (and each bed had their own light and socket, so ideal!), and a big bar and social area. Best of all, they’re one of the few hostels in China making a real effort to be more eco-friendly. They’re a 10 minute walk from Xi’an train station and a great option for China backpackers. Click here for more details and to book.

The Grand Noble Hotel is rated 3 stars and has an amazing location. Its right in the middle of Xi’an on East St and only a few hundred metres from the Xi’an Bell Tower. East St is full of shops and food stores and has an undeniable buzz, halfway between the hotel and the Xi’an Bell Tower, there is a small laneway with various street food vendors which leads through to the Xian Night Market.

The rooms are clean and the bathrooms functional, the buffet breakfast has both western and local options. It is a great location at a very reasonable price. Click here for rates and to reserve your room. By Sally from Our 3 Kids vs the World

Overnight train from Xi’an to Shanghai – use this link to see the latest deals

Luxury Hotel: The Howard Johnson Hotel is located a stone’s throw from Xi’an’s south gate, making it the perfect place to stay for easy access to the Bell Tower, Muslim Quarter and other attractions within the walled part of the city. The spacious and modern rooms overlook the ramparts below, and as night falls the views become even more impressive. Click here for rates and to book. By Steve from The Trip Goes On

Shanghai – 3 days

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Start your time in Shanghai by enjoying the intriguing skyline of The Bund. Even if you only have one day in Shanghai, this should be your first stop.

A stark contrast to the ancient temples of Beijing, The Bund showcases 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.

TV tower Shanghai

The next day, take a walk around the French Concession and visit the alleyways brimming with shops and restaurants of Tian Zi Fang. Then head out and explore one of the city’s most unusual museums – the Propaganda Poster Museum!

Afterwards, learn all about China’s modern city at the Shanghai Museum. You can also ascend the TV tower for a great view over the city – this is best done at sunset, but do be aware that there are sometimes queues of an hour or more to reach the top of the TV tower.

Zhujiajio Floating Village

On your last day in Shanghai, consider getting out of the city and exploring the water village of Zhujaijio, which is home to a network of scenic canals, as well as cute cafes and bars and authentic culture.

Then head back to the city for an evening bullet train to Nanjing! You can check out my YouTube video to see what to expect from the bullet trains below and use this link to find some awesome deals.

Where to Stay in Shanghai

On my first trip to Shanghai, I stayed at City Central Hostel, one of expensive Shanghai’s cheapest accomodation options. It wasn’t actually in the city centre – I needed to get a subway to get to any attractions – but apart from that, it was a great hostel, complete with a bar/ restaurant, comfy beds with their own light and power adapter, big lockers and free wifi. For rates and to book, click here.

Another great hostel option in the centre of Shanghai is the centrally-located Phoenix Hostel – I stayed here on my second trip to the city. This is a fantastic hostel with fun activities so you can make travel friends easily, a restaurant, super clean and well-facilitated dorms and helpful staff. Click here for rates and to book.

Mid-Range Hotel: San Want Hotel Shanghai is located in the Xujiahui commercial center close to metro line no. 9 (Guilin Road subway station)  to easily roam around Shanghai. From standard to superior to suites, it has options for all type of budget travelers.

Complimentary mini-bar snacks and drinks, free broadband Internet, In – House Spa, 2 Authentic Chinese Dining places, Banquet hall to accommodate up to 600 people for conference or Marriage purpose. Grand Lobby, a separate tea room,  special festival celebration keeps the guest engaged throughout the day. Being part of a Taiwanese Hotel Chain, the facilities and hospitality is uniform across the places of stay. Click here for rates and to book. By Chandresh from Family on the Wheels

Luxury Hotel: If world-class accommodation, unmatched hospitality, and luxury in the heart of the city is what you’re after, The Peninsula Shanghai is your best bet. This classic, beautifully maintained property located about a block from the city’s iconic riverfront promenade offers spacious, elegant rooms. Don’t miss the panorama from the rooftop bar. By Rai from A Rai of Light

Nanjing – 1 day

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During your one day in Nanjing, 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.

The attached museum is fantastic and gives a real insight to WW2 in this part of the world, which is very important to learn about, especially if you only studied European WW2 history in school like most schools in Britain.

Take an overnight train from Nanjing – Guilin. Use this link to purchase tickets

Where to stay in Nanjing

Mid-Range Hotel: Nanjing is a huge city, so choosing a hotel with a convenient location is an absolute must.  The Holiday Inn Aqua City is a quick walk in one direction to Fuzimiao and other things to do in Nanjing with the metro just a few minutes away in the opposite direction.

Despite being a mid-range hotel, service is exemplary and the hotel has high-end bedding, an on-site spa open late, and direct access to the Aqua City mall for shopping and dining. Click here for rates and to book. By Becky from Sight Doing

Luxury Hotel: Grand Mansion is part of the Luxury Collection Hotels in Nanjing.  The 5-star hotel is a fusion of traditionalChinese architecture fitted out with high-end décor and amenities.  Ask for a room with the stunning cityscape view.  The pièce de résistance is a small pool for the exclusive use of hotel’s two resident black swans. Click here for rates and to book. By Patti from Luggage and Lipstick

Chengdu – 2 days

chengdu panda base

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 – but I would strongly advise against holding pandas for photo opportunities. Read about whether the Chengdu Panda Centre is ethical or not here.

Leshan Giant Buddha

The next day, you could visit the world’s largest Buddha at Leshan, which is 2 hours away. Spend the day exploring the scenic area and the many Buddhas it contains, as well as marvelling at the Big Buddha itself.

Where to Stay in Chengdu

Lazybones Hostel is recommended highly by many travellers who have been to Chengdu. It’s got tons of facilities, a great restaurant and cafe, free and strong wifi and is really social. What more could you want? Click here for more information and to book.

A mid-range hotel option is the clean and contemporary Ibis Hotel, which I stayed at in Chengdu. Click here for more information and rates.

Luxury Hotel: Niccolo Chengdu is in the heart of the city, the perfect destination in China for those who travel for food. Niccolo is a luxury brand from Marco Polo Hotels with a contemporary design and views over the city. It is close to the shopping and dining area of IFS but also includes a contemporary Chinese, Yue Hin. Click here for more information and rates. By Amber from Food Drink Destinations.

Bus to Jiuzhaigou – 1 day

Jiuzhaigou national park

A 10-hour bus will take you to Jiuzhaigou, an enchanting town on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The bus journey is very long and it’s likely that you’ll be the only non-Chinese person on it, but it does make a lot of (maybe too many!) food/ toilet stops and the scenery is spectacular. There will be a post about how to get this bus very soon. 🙂 

Jiuzhaigou – 2 days

beautiful lakes in Jiuzhaigou

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.

Around Jiuzhaigou

temple in 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.

You can do so by hiring a driver (you’re unlikely to get an English-speaking driver, but if you ask your hotel/ hostel for someone to show you some local spots they will be happy to oblige and recommend places).

Where to Stay in Jiuzhaigou

Again, I was with my family when I visited Jiuzhaigou. We stayed in the lovely Caiyun Hotel, which was luxury at an affordable price; the rooms were spacious, clean and comfy with en-suite bathrooms, and each room had its own WiFi router (!!). Obviously you’re going to want to be spending more time outside when you’re in Jiuzhaigou, but this was such a novel touch I couldn’t not mention it! Click here for more information and to book.

Bus Back to Chengdu – 1 day

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 Guilin. Use this link to find the best deals

Guilin – 2 days

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

The next day, get a transfer to the River Li and take a cruise around the river. Afterward, spend some time enjoying the natural scenery around Yangshuo. If you have some spare time on your China itinerary, consider staying here ofr a night to enjoy the scenery. Or if you’re in a rush, take a transfer back to Guilin for the evening.

Longsheng – 2 days

rice terraces in Lonsheng

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, and spend the night there for a sunrise over the picturesque rice terraces. Here are some reasons why you should favour staying in Yangshuo and Longsheng over Guilin!

Where to Stay in Longsheng

If you want to stay longer than a day, Longji International Youth Hostel is the most adorable place. It’s a rustic cabin nestled into rolling green hills and is a perfect base for exploring the rice terraces. The terraces were my favourite place in China so I’d really recommend staying longer if you can. For more information and to book, click here.

Hong Kong – 3 days

walking across the Hong Kong border!

Take a train from Guilin to Shenzhen in the morning – book tickets by clicking here – and then cross the border into Hong Kong (I personally couldn’t stand Shenzhen, but some travellers do spend time here).

Spend the first afternoon in the Kowloon area, visiting the Temple Markets as they open at night.

view from Victoria Peak

The next day, 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.

big buddha hong kong

On your next day in Hong Kong, take 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.

If you have a bit more time in Hong Kong and the surrounding areas, check out this detailed itinerary for Hong Kong and Macau.

Where to Stay in Hong Kong

I stayed in Budget Hostel Hong Kong while in the city, in the notorious Chungking Mansions. Now, obviously with a name ‘Budget Hostel’ it’s not going to be the Ritz.

I found the hostel fine for my needs but I appreciate that it might not be for everyone (if you like space or a bathroom door that closes, you might want to look elsewhere!). But this hostel was by far the most cost-effective choice and did the job fine for me.

If budget overrides comfort for you as well, before booking into the above hostel I’d recommend reading my blog post is Chunking Mansions safe? and making up your mind from that. If you’re up for the challenge, click here for more information and to book.

If you are looking for somewhere that is dripping in class then the Ritz-Carlton takes luxury to new heights…literally. It is the highest hotel in the world which means that everyone room, from floors 102-118, has a stunning view. If you can’t afford a room, pop into the Ozone Bar on the 118th floor for a drink. Click here for rates and to book. By Rosie from Flying Fluskey

Where to go from Hong Kong

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!

Still have questions? Check out my other China posts…

  • Solo Travel in China – tips on how to navigate the country if you’re travelling alone (also useful if you’re not!)
  • Train Travel in China – taking the trains through China? Be sure to read this article to learn about everything you’ll need to know

I hope you found this China travel 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!

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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10 responses to “One Month in China Itinerary for First Timers”

  1. 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 says:

    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 says:

    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. My Putonghua says:

    This post is brilliant. I am currently learning Mandarin with the dream of traveling to China and speaking with the locals. This was just the motivation boost I needed just now! I’ve set up a new blog, your welcome to check it out http://www.myputonghua.com Thanks

  5. Nicely written Claire! I haven’t made it into China yet (as you said, it’s daunting) but this itinerary seems to lay everything out in a way that isn’t too rushed but still see’s a lot of a large country in a (relatively) short timeframe! Keep it up!!

    • Claire says:

      Hopefully you’ll make it someday it’s an amazing country! Be sure to check back with this itinerary if you do! 🙂

  6. Oh your camping on The Great Wall looks so interesting and strange. It might be the memory that we can’t forget in the lifetime. It seems that you miss a very beautiful part of China in this trip such as Yunnan. Or you want to combine it with the expedition to Vietnam & Laos? Anyways, thanks so much for the great post!

  7. darren says:

    This was extremely helpful, thanks fro your advice !!
    Thanks

  8. Amanda says:

    China has been one of most most favorite backpacking trips!! And a month definitely wasn’t long enough. And second trip is on top of my list!! Next time round I would organize a VPN for both my phone and iPad. And install wechat.

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