China has been my second home for the past six years. I lived in two cities and traveled to many others. From its megacities to its countryside, China has an incredible amount of opportunities for you to explore and get a taste of its local culture.
Technological progress is omnipresent in various sectors of the country. This has also been a major influence for the development of the country’s modern transportation system. Airplanes, high speed railway, long distance buses, metro, taxis and shared bikes across the country has made traveling in China such a convenient experience! I traveled to Beijing in the north from Suzhou, a city near Shanghai in the south-east in five hours only!
After numerous trips around the country, here are some tips to get off the beaten path and travel to epic gems in China.
4 Tips to Get Off The Beaten Path in China
1. Learn the local language
Language barrier in China is the main challenge faced by many expats. It might seem unbelievable nowadays, but most Chinese people can’t speak English, even in megacities.
When I went to Beijing with parents four years ago, they struggled to buy soap in the nearest convenience store as the storekeeper didn’t speak English. They came back to the hotel without it, feeling hopeless and frustrated. You consider yourself lucky if the restaurant you want to eat at has an English menu and if not, hopefully some pictures that can help you to order.
A translator? Yes, you can whip out that translator on your phone (and hope for the best), BUT it’s such a hassle in the long run.
Investing in Chinese language classes is an investment for hassle-free travel experiences! During my trips, I made small talks with taxi drivers, random people on the metro and locals whilst wandering around. You’ll be grateful for the tips and recommendations these people have to offer!
Moreover, knowledge of Chinese language saves you from tourist scams like getting ripped off at midnight from dodgy taxi drivers who don’t use their meters at the exit of railway stations (China newbie experience, NEVER AGAIN!).
I’ve been living in China for six years already and speaking the local language has been my salvation.
2. Research in depth...
Planning is an undeniable part of traveling, but researching in depth is even better! That’s how you can spot places that aren’t suggested by your basic internet search. In China, there are lots of apps that allow you to add non-mainstream places to your travel bucket list. Some of these
Best Travel Apps in China
- Dianping: Recommendations for attractions, restaurants, nearby shops, and activities with reviews from locals.
- XiaoHongShu: Chinese version of Instagram with pictures and comments by locals.
- Gaode Maps & Baidu Maps: These online maps are commonly used in China. I love to zoom on the city/place I’m going to find attractions. Some of them have pictures. I found an epic water museum with a temple-like architecture made of glass I had no clue about in my city. It was in the middle of nowhere, but it was impressive!
- Trip.Com: Luckily, this one also has an English version. There’s a big travel community of expat creators sharing their travel experiences and epic gems. You can get tips and see pictures from my trips on my Trip.com profile. You can also use it to book your flights, train tickets or hotels. Extra travel tip: Whilst doing so, you accumulate Trip Coins/ Rewards which enable you to have the best deals for your future trips!
Otherwise, I love a quick search with IG hashtags. People are constantly posting on IG with hashtags related to their posts. Take advantage of this simple tool to find off the beaten path places and epic gems. I found places I never expected to see on the 'gram.
Imagine how wonderful it is to visit a temple without a single soul around to photobomb you or walk in the rice fields you never suspected to see on the outskirts of the city you live in! A blessing!
3. ...But be flexible and spontaneous with your travel plans!
It’s always good to research, plan your trip, and have a great itinerary for China, but you don’t have to stick to it.
If you’ve got the travel bug, you lose self-control as your feet get itchy and take over your mind. You forget your plan as you stumble upon places. You’re so absorbed in the moment that nothing else matters.
That’s how you get off the beaten path and travel to epic gems. Don’t stress over a travel plan, be flexible and spontaneous. That’s how the best memories are made.
No one looks back on their life and remembers how they religiously achieved their travel plans!
4. Explore by bus or by bike whenever possible
I personally prefer traveling by bus or riding a bike whenever I’m exploring.
Bus rides are a fun way to explore bustling cities in China as the urban architecture and lifestyle of locals unfold themselves in front of your rambling eyes.
Bike rides are also exciting! Megacities in China have various bike sharing apps that you can use. Those bikes are everywhere, thus making it a convenient and fun way to explore. Grab a bike and get lost in the streets of the city. It’s such a gratifying experience!
I swear you’ll come across hidden gems along the way. I’ve spotted beautiful parks, temples, cafes, and graffiti walls on bus and bike rides.
Now that you're ready to travel like a local in China, you're going to need to start showing your skills by exploring some of the best, lesser known places in China. Add these into your travel itinerary that I'm sure will include beautiful, yet popular tourist destinations like The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Yangtze River, and seeing giant pandas.
After years of exploring this diverse, beautiful country, here are a few of my favorite spots that I doubt you'll see on other travel guides.
5 Unique Places to Go in China
1. Archaeological Ruins of Liangzhu City, Hangzhou
This site provides riveting evidence that Chinese civilization started 5000 years ago. It was added to the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2019.
The site is HUGE! Each corner offers an amazing view of mountains, pampas grass fields, rice fields, and relics of the ancient civilization. It’s best to visit at the end of October or beginning of November when the rice fields turn yellow.
I arrived in the late afternoon and being there at sunset was magical!
2. Guanyin of Nanshan, Sanya, Hainan Island
Hainan Island is known as “The Hawaii of China” with Sanya, in the south being its popular holiday destination with its tropical climate, beautiful beaches and exquisite choice of seafood.
I spent a wonderful week in Sanya during the summer break. I fell in love with the island vibe there as it reminded me of home. Nevertheless, Sanya has more to offer than just beaches!
Guanyin of Nanshan is an epic gem with stunning views and a peaceful atmosphere. It’s part of a big park with several other attractions, gift shops and a small food court with delicious food. When I told my dad that I was heading to Sanya, he was the one who recommended me to visit “the goddess on the sea”. I was startled as I’ve never heard of it and neither saw people recommending it as a place to visit!
Guanyin of Nanshan is known as the Goddess of Mercy who gazes down on the world. It offers blessings and protection to China and the world. It’s also the 12th tallest statue in the world.
3. Feng Xiaogang Movie Theme Town, Haikou, Hainan island
My trip to Sanya astoundingly initiated my curiosity about what’s up in the north of the island.
Two months later, I landed in Haikou city. Among all the places I visited, the movie theme town was my favourite. I’ve never been to one before and didn’t expect to find such a place on the outskirts of the city. It integrates the beauty of films, architecture and retail into a unique tourist attraction.
You can also rent a Qipao (traditional Chinese silk dress) and accessories if you fancy a photo shoot by one of the photographers available on the spot. I studied Chinese cinema in university and wandering in the streets of the movie town felt like I was part of a movie set by the film director, Feng Xiaogang.
It's truly an amazing time travel experience in ancient China times!
4. Thousand Islands, Chun’an County, Zhejiang Province
I’ve never heard of this place until I moved to Hangzhou city three years ago. Thousand Islands is the perfect place for a weekend getaway if you want to escape your buzzing city lifestyle! It’s a two hour drive away from Hangzhou city and is home to Nongfu Spring, the best drinkable water available locally.
Thousand Islands is the result of a failed reservoir project which turned into a big lake with scattered islands. The lake is surrounded by hotels offering an abundance of water activities and stunning views! You can travel to some of those islands by boat.
I was lucky to be there with some locals who took me to a restaurant with delicious specials of the area.
5. Xixing Old Town, Hangzhou
China has a plethora of old towns. While some argue that they’re pretty much the same, I believe that each of them has their own soul and are somehow unique. I found Xixing Old Town whilst zooming over the map of the city.
I love the roughness and authentic vibe of this place. It’s a living area with several alleys connecting houses, each presenting a glimpse of the slow-paced traditional Chinese lifestyle: grandpas listening to the radio, grandmas hanging the laundry, some playing Mahjong (Chinese form of dominoes), and others feeding their chickens.
Most times, old towns tend to be super commercialised, but Xixing preserved its authenticity and contrasts with the big city lifestyle despite of being located in one.
I urge you on your next time traveling in China you skip some of tourist hotspots and instead head to these hidden gems that I know you'll love exploring.