There is a really good chance that this post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission (for which I am deeply grateful) at no additional cost to you.
When you think of the best cities in China, you generally think of the usual suspects. Beijing, with its millennia of history; Shanghai, home to literally hundreds of skyscrapers. In recent years even Chengdu, whose pandas and spicy food were once celebrated only by Chinese tourists, and Xi’an, which was China’s capital before Beijing, have become mainstream as Chinese cities to go. These are now trendy and cool places in China for tourists, but what about the underrated and most unique places to visit in China, can you name them?
The places I’m about to name, conversely, are ones you might never have heard of. You might find them on a China itinerary or guide book, but their names are likely to be as deep into the text as they are difficult to pronounce.
Indeed, in spite of being less than ubiquitous, these are some important cities in China both today and through the ages. I hope you’re ready for this list of lesser known places to visit in China and for a bit of adventure!
Table of Contents (skip directly to the info you're looking for)
The Best Time to Visit China
The list of underrated cities in China I’m about to share is diverse and spans the entire geography of the country, the world’s third-largest. Still, with few exceptions, the best time to visit China is pretty uniform. Most of the country sits in a relatively temperate zone, which means that its weather roughly corresponds to seasons in Europe and North America. Summers are blisteringly hot; winters are cold, and wetter the farther south and closer to the coast you get.
The “sweet spot” of most destinations in China is the shoulder season—months like April and May or September and October. Visiting Zhangye during April, for example, is the best of both worlds. The city center is warm enough to enjoy with only a light jacket, while you can still see snow in the mountains around the city. On the other hand, some of the cities I’ve mentioned are highly seasonal, the most obvious one of these being Harbin, which is somewhat unspectacular outside the very coldest part of winter.
Unique Cities to Visit in China
Although Chongqing is among the top cities in China in terms of population, with between 12-30 million residents depending on how you count them, it maintains a delightfully low profile among foreign visitors. Among locals of Chongqing, sometimes known as the “World’s Largest Village” because of how much smaller and more rural it was just a few years ago, the city as famous for delicious and spicy huo guo (Chongqing-style hot pot) as it is for a cityscape that juxtaposes ancient Hongyadong with a modern skyline that looks like something out of Blade Runner.
Depending on how long you stay here, you can take day trips to some of the most famous places in China from Chongqing. These include not only natural attractions like the Three Gorges Dam (which is admittedly best seen on a multi-day excursion), but the bizarre and haunting Fengdu Ghost City and aforementioned Chengdu, which is as remarkable for its flavorful food and iconic pandas as it is for being perhaps the only genuinely laid-back city on the Chinese mainland.
You might also like: 5 must-see cities to visit in China
If you’ve been on the internet at all the past few years, chances are you’ve come across photos or videos of what appears to be a massive city carved entirely of ice. Chances are also good you haven’t dug much deeper, given the propensity of online content creators to embellish or even fabricate imagery in order to generate clicks. The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival, however, which takes place between December and February every year, is very much the real deal—and also very cold, with temperatures regularly plunging below -40 or 50ºC
I’d be lying if I said the festival isn’t the primarily reason I list Harbin, a city more populous than New York and the main population center of the historical Manchuria reason, among the best cities in China. Then again, it more than lives up to the hype. The festival is divided between an “Ice World,” which sees everything from small sculptures of cartoon character and massive replicas of ancient Chinese buildings carved out of blocks of ice hauled out of the nearby Songhua River, and a “Snow World” whose eclectic cast of characters are nothing short of works of art.
Suggested Reading: NYC in 24 hours!
If you’re curious about visiting Tibet but don’t want to book one of the controversial tours foreigners who wish to visit the beleaguered region are required to take, take a bus from the city of Lanzhou (which is definitely not one of the top cities in China) to Xiahe. The capital of Gannan Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture, Xiahe is home to people who are proudly Tibetan, in spite of the solid metal Chinese flags authorities have soldered to most every light post in the town.
Xiahe is built around Labrang Monastery, a massive sacred complex that dates back to the 18th-century, though its lamas have since suffered at the hands of both Maoist insurgents in the mid-20th century and Muslim ones more recently. You can follow the ring of prayer wheels that encircles the sprawling monastery, or enjoyed a bird’s eye view of its impressive acreage from the “sunning terrace” that sits just to the south of it.
As is the case for many other places on this list, characterizing Yangshuo among the best cities in China based on its urban identity alone would be questionable, at best. Though years of tourism have led to a build up of eateries, bars and even nightclubs that give its a certain color, it is the towering, emerald karst mountains that surround it on all sides, and the crystalline rivers that flow between them, that makes Yangshuo a must-visit destination worthy of this list.
Once you’re finished in Yangshuo, where you can alternatively hike up to the Xianggong Mountain viewpoint, bike through fields of yellow rapeseed flowers (in spring) or watch a decidedly modern actor re-enact the ritual of ancient cormorant fisherman, you can head to nearby Guilin. Though not as beautiful as Yangshuo, Guilin is certainly among the most famous cities in China, with my personal favorite among its many attractions being the resplendent Sun and Moon Pagodas.
Another Favorite: A detailed itinerary for the Pearl River Delta Region in China
Located near the geographical heart of China’s underrated Gansu region, which Lonely Planet named its top destination in Asia for 2018, Zhangye boasts an impressive history. Marco Polo himself, in fact, was charmed enough to have stopped here during his journeys along the ancient Silk Road, when Zhangye’s attractions like the reclining Buddha of Dafosi and Xilai Pagoda are thought to have existed in some form.
Another fact that places Zhangye firmly among the best cities in China is the array of natural attractions that surround it. To the west you’ll find the Zhangye Danxia Landform, more popularly known as the “Rainbow Mountains,” which is wildly popular among domestic Chinese tourists and, increasingly, among international ones. Matisi, meanwhile, is a labyrinthine network of shrines building into the face of a cliff, and sits about an hour to the east of central Zhangye.
You might also like: Visiting the famous and ancient Chinese gardens
How to Build Your China Itinerary
Regardless of whether you focus on the unique places I’ve just mentioned or intersperse them with popular cities in China, planning a China itinerary can be daunting. Thankfully, it’s not impossible—and it becomes easier the more information you acquire.
If you plan to take a comprehensive China trip, which requires a minimum time commitment of around a month, I recommend starting in a major city like Beijing or Shanghai, then using China’s massive and growing high-speed rail network to travel clockwise around the country. Using some of the cities I’ve mentioned here, for example, you might follow a sequence like this: Beijing/Harbin-Shanghai-Guilin/Yangshuo-Chongqing/Chengdu-Xian-Lanzhou/Xiahe-Zhangye-Beijing.
If you have a shorter amount of time and want to travel without thinking too much about China’s geography, you can always use domestic Chinese flights to string together your trip plan—they’re plentiful and affordable, more or less. You should keep in mind, however, that many of the world’s most delayed airports are in mainland China, and that these airport simultaneously (and, probably, not coincidentally) operate under some of the most rigorous (and, for passengers, tedious) security standards in the world.
The Bottom Line
While it’s true that Chongqing and Zhangye aren’t usually places that come to mind when you think of the best cities in China, I hope that reading this post has changed your mind. Experiences like the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival, people like Tibetans and landscapes like the karstic mountains of Yangshuo county are just as essential to the experience of traveling in China as Beijing’s Forbidden City or Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower. You just need to decide where to begin—and to commit to learning a bit of Chinese before you depart!
This is a guest post by Robert from the travel blog Leave Your Daily Hell
About the author: It’s been almost a decade since Robert Schrader moved away from Shanghai, but he’s never stopped exploring China—especially the underrated nooks and crannies this article spotlights! Visit Robert’s blog Leave Your Daily Hell to keep up with his adventures in China and elsewhere, or follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for even more frequent updates.
Enjoyed reading this post? Save it for later on Pinterest!