The Most Astonishing Cities in China

| © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Rachel Deason

With the average Chinese city having well over several million residents, traveling to the country’s cities as a foreigner can be a daunting adventure. But they are not all just people and skyscrapers. Each of them has something unique to boast, and others are brimming with astonishing features.

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China Mingsha Gansu Province Dunhuang

With just 200,000 residents, Dunhuang is hardly a major city by today’s standards. However, the city lies at the historic juncture of two major Silk Road routes and contains two of western China’s most incredible, underrated tourist attractions: Yueyaquan and the Mogao Caves. Yueyaquan, or Crescent Moon Lake, is a small oasis in the desert, and a sight unlike any other. The Mogao Caves, also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, lie about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from Dunhuang proper and are famous for their significant Buddhist art and Christian artifacts still being discovered within.


Many Chinese people say that if you want to fall in love, go to Lijiang. Perhaps this is because of its attractive locals, or more likely, because the small city is so romantic that it makes even the most cynical find love among the mountains and limestone travertines. Since its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, many of the local Nakhi people have moved away from the old town and rented their houses to shops and cafés. However, the town is still a special place that preserves the charm of old southern China.


Chongqing is much more than just a city. In Chinese terms, it is classified as a municipality, joining more well-known east-coasters Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin. Chongqing shares many similarities with its neighboring province of Sichuan, namely its mouth-numbing cuisine, which Chongqing prefers in its signature form of hot pot. Practically a province unto itself, Chongqing is brimming with beauty and culture. It sits on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and has ancient rock carvings, preserved witchcraft culture, a legendary fortress, and a pure-white cave all within its borders.


Li river, Guilin, China

In a country filled with identical cities made up of skyscrapers and convenience stores as far as the eye can see, Guilin stands out. Even though it has an urban area, its location among the mountains gives visitors the impression of being out in nature. The city also has plenty of natural sites, including the 180-million-year-old, artificially lit Reed Flute Cave. Guilin, which means “Forest of Sweet Osmanthus,” lies on the banks of the Li River, which connects the city to the town of Yangshuo, another popular destination.



Urumqi, also spelled Wulumuqi, is the provincial capital of Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province. Once a major hub on the Silk Road, Urumqi has become a hot pot of cultures. Though originally the home of the Uyghur people, Urumqi is now a mecca for the Han Chinese majority, who were incentivized by the government to move there starting in the 1980s. Tensions between the native Uyghurs and the Han are high, and the city has been the site of several terror attacks throughout the years. As such, security in the city is incredibly stringent, with police checkpoints located all over. Many tourists see Urumqi just as the gateway to the more beautiful side of Xinjiang, but those willing to carry their passports on them at all times will be treated to an unparalleled peek into the cultural melting pot of the country’s far west.


An aerial view of the old city of Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang region.

Kashgar, also located in Xinjiang province, is one of the westernmost cities in China; it borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. While a large portion of the city has been modernized according to Chinese standards, it still retains a vibrant old town with well-preserved traditional mud houses. The city forces visitors to expand their opinions of what China can be and to think outside of the Han majority. Top sights in the city include the vibrantly yellow Id Kah Mosque, a weekly livestock market, and several historically significant tombs.


For some people, the name Qingdao brings to mind nights of drinking a few too many Tsingtao beers, and from others, memories of days spent lying on the beach under a clear sky. Seen as one of China’s most livable cities, Qingdao is more than just a place to visit a brewery. From 1898 to 1914, Germany controlled Qingdao after taking it by naval force. The city grew exponentially during that time and remains a living museum of this short-lived colonial experiment. Qingdao is also dotted with plenty of parks and green spaces, not to mention the handful of wonderful beaches and museums.


While most visitors rarely venture beyond Harbin’s world-famous Ice and Snow Festival, the northeastern Chinese city has much more to offer. Beautiful Saint Sophia Cathedral is a visual reminder of the city’s Russian past. Zhongyang Street, just behind the cathedral, is Asia’s longest pedestrian street and home to many Baroque and Byzantine buildings. And what is that music you hear? Harbin is the birthplace of China’s oldest symphony orchestra as well as the country’s first music school.


Yiwu is home to one million people, a small city by Chinese standards. However, the city is famous across the country as a commodities center and hub for Chinese exports. Indeed, in 2013, over 60% of all Christmas decorations originated in Yiwu. As an export hub, the city has drawn in a significant Muslim refugee population, who work primarily in the business sector. While Yiwu is certainly not China’s most tourist-friendly town, it is the place to go if you want cheap goods straight from the source.


Yes, Tibet requires some extra effort to travel to, but its capital, Lhasa, is worth it. The eastern half of the city is filled with extremely well-preserved Tibetan culture, with locals frequently engaged in the traditional act of kora, a clockwise walk around a sacred site. It is also the location of the Potala Palace, the 1,300-year-old Tibetan Buddhism heritage site and one of the region’s most iconic places. The rest of the city is nearly indistinguishable from any other Chinese city. However, with plenty of Tibetan handicrafts on sale on Barkhor Street (as well as some touristy junk to avoid) and several significant temples and monasteries, Lhasa is still a unique destination that will amaze the most worldly of tourists.

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