This exciting 12-day itinerary includes some of China's best cultural and natural wonders. Kick off the trip in cosmopolitan Shanghai where you'll explore its modern waterfront, peaceful gardens, and artsy neighborhoods. Next is Zhangjiajie for a dose of dramatic mountain vistas before you continue to Xi'an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. Finish with a bullet train to Beijing to experience the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and—on your last full day—the Great Wall of China.

Highlights

  • Take a nighttime cruise on Huangpu River to see Shanghai's skyline up close
  • Explore the city's dining and speakeasy scene, plus an area popular with expats 
  • Get up close to the terra cotta warriors and the biggest fountain in China
  • Spend two days surrounded by forested mountains in Zhangjiajie
  • See China's largest preserved collection of ancient buildings (Forbidden City)

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Shanghai Shanghai
Day 2 Shanghai City Tour Shanghai
Day 3 Free Day in Shanghai Shanghai
Day 4 Zhujiajiao Water Town - Fly to Zhangjiajie Zhangjiajie
Day 5 Visit Zhangjiajie National Forest Park Zhangjiajie
Day 6 Tianmen Mountain - Fly to Xi'an Xi'an
Day 7 Explore Xi'an Xi'an
Day 8 Ancient City Wall - Train to Beijing Beijing
Day 9 Beijing City Tour Beijing
Day 10 Free Day in Beijing Beijing
Day 11 Visit the Great Wall of China Beijing
Day 12 Depart Beijing  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Shanghai

Shanghai's colorful skyline

Welcome to Shanghai! Upon arrival at the airport, you'll be picked up and transferred to the hotel for check-in. From here, you'll have time to rest after the long journey.

If you're feeling energized in the evening, a good place to start exploring Shanghai is the Yuyuan Garden. Dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the site was owned by a government officer named Pan Yunduan who built the garden for his parents as a tranquil place for them in their old age. Present day, this picturesque area attracts visitors and locals alike who come for the manicured gardens, handcrafts and souvenirs, and restaurants serving traditional items like Shanghai-style fried noodles, dumplings, and steam buns. 

Day 2: Shanghai City Tour

Jade Buddha Temple

Today, after breakfast, you'll embark on a full-day excursion with a local guide starting with the Shanghai Museum. This is a place known for ancient Chinese art, situated on the People's Square in the Huangpu district. Rebuilt in 1996, the site is considered one of China's first world-class modern museums.

Next, if you haven't experienced it yet, this is your chance to visit Yuyuan Garden's charming walkways, bazaars, and eateries. You'll also visit the Jade Buddha Temple—the most famous Buddhist temple in Shanghai, built between 1911 and 1918, housing 70 resident monks. Its exterior is a sight to behold, while inside, the centerpiece is a 6.5-foot-high (2 m) white jade sitting Buddha encrusted with jewels. 

Finish the day with a visit to the Bund, a waterfront area in central Shanghai, as well as the Former French Concession—an area that is popular with expats. Here you can walk along the gorgeous tree-lined avenues and check out a huge variety of trendy cafes and restaurants, bars and breweries, clothing boutiques, art galleries, and antique stores.

Day 3: Free Day in Shanghai

Stroll through the district of Tianzifang

Today, you'll have ample free time to experience Shanghai however you see fit! Options include taking a boat ride at night along the Huangpu River where you can witness the iconic Pudong district skyline lit up in all its glory. You can also spend more time exploring the varied and imposing colonial architecture of the Bund waterfront. 

Also, don't miss the redesigned traditional alleyways and shikumen housing of the Xintiandi and Tianzifang districts, now home to cafés, innovative galleries, and interesting shops. Tianzifang, in particular, has certain traditional charm, with various families still in residence among its disorientating hutong alleyways.

You will find numerous options for sampling the city's growing restaurant and art scene. After dinner, consider grabbing a cocktail at one of the many speakeasy-styled bars around town.

Day 4: Zhujiajiao Water Town - Fly to Zhangjiajie

Paddle around the Zhujiajiao Water Town

Before leaving Shanghai today, you'll have time for one more unique excursion in Zhujiajiao, an ancient water city south of the Yangtze River with nearly 1,700 years of history. In fact, it is known as the best-preserved ancient water town among the four ancient towns in Shanghai. Take a spin on one of the traditional paddle boats for a fun way to finish the Shanghai portion of the trip.

In the afternoon, you'll transfer to the airport for your domestic flight to Zhangjiajie, a city in the northwest of China's Hunan Province, and home to the famed Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Upon arrival at Zhangjiajie airport, you'll transfer to your hotel for check-in. 

Day 5: Visit Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

Look for monkeys in Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve

After breakfast, it's time to explore the area's gorgeous natural surroundings. In fact, the protected zone of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park encompasses thousands of jagged quartzite sandstone columns, many of which rise over 650 feet (200 m), as well as caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites. If that's not enough, the park encompasses forests, rivers, waterfalls, and two large natural land bridges, as well as endangered plant and animal species.

Your full-day tour of the park includes visits to the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, Avatar Hallelujah Mountain, and Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve. At the end of the day, you'll return to your hotel back in Zhangjiajie where you'll have free time in the evening.

Day 6: Tianmen Mountain - Fly to Xi'an

Get some exercise at Tianmen Mountain

Today, you'll take another exciting adventure in nature—this time to Tianmen Mountain, the highest mountain in Zhangjiajie, with a height of 4982 feet (1519 m). This peak not only attracts attention because of its miraculous geographic landscape but also its cultural connotations. Make sure to check out the Tianmen Cave (doorway to heaven), which, coupled with the surrounding forest and natural bonsai, makes for an unforgettable setting. 

In the afternoon, you'll transfer to the airport for your flight to Xi'an. Upon arrival, you'll be met at the airport and transferred to your hotel. 

Day 7: Explore Xi'an

Experience the terra cotta warriors

Today, you'll take a guided tour of Xi'an with visits to the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Big Wild Goose Pagoda Park, and Muslim Quarter.

First, you will be driven to the outskirts of Xi'an to marvel at the Qin Terra Cotta Warriors. This collection contains thousands of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE whose sole purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. Notice how the sculptures have unique facial expressions and are positioned according to rank. Though the warriors and their weapons are mostly gray tones, look for patches of paint that hint at once brightly colored clothes. On this morning excursion, you'll also see skilled artisans at work at a terracotta factory. 

From here, you'll see the fountain show at Big Goose Pagoda Park. The square holds the largest fountain in Asia, and the nightly show combines music, water, and lighting for a spectacular event.

Finish the day exploring the Muslim Quarter, a historic area turned foodie haven with various restaurants and food stalls. Though Muslim Street is regarded as a tourist spot by travelers, it's also an ideal place for locals to kill time during a hot summer day. 

Day 8: Ancient City Wall - Train to Beijing

Sample some local cuisine on Wangfujing Street

Before departing Xi'an, you'll kick off the day with a visit to the Ancient City Wall—a long, historic wall ideal for walking and bicycling with scenic views of the city. You'll also see the Hanyangling Tomb—the joint tomb of the fourth Emperor Jing (Liu Qi) and his queen in Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD). It is the most intact royal mausoleum and important discovery in the research of burial customs and civilization from this dynasty.

Later in the day, you'll transfer to Xi'an's railway station where you'll take a high-speed train to Beijing. Once you arrive, you'll be met at the rail station and transferred to your hotel.

Time and energy permitting, you can take a guided evening visit to Wangfujing Street, a vibrant shopping area and home to one of Beijing's famous night markets for a wide variety of shops, eateries, and boutiques, some of which are of world-famous brands. Despite its modernity and buzz—it is said that 600,000 people pass through here every day—there is also a slew of traditional stores which have been here for hundreds of years.

Day 9: Beijing City Tour

The enormous Forbidden City

Today, you'll take a full-day Beijing tour with a local guide The excursion starts at the Temple of Heaven, an imperial complex of religious buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing, where you'll have time to walk around and explore the sites.

From here, head to the impressive Tiananmen Square where most of China's national ceremonies are held. From the square, you can walk to the splendid Forbidden City. This UNESCO-listed site is not only China's largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings but also the largest palace complex in the world. Prepare to be wowed by the sheer number of buildings with red walls and golden roofs. 

Finish the tour with a visit to the Jingshan (Coal Hill), an imperial park covering 57 acres immediately north of the Forbidden City. Formerly a private garden, the grounds were opened to the public in 1928. Climb the hill and enjoy the overlook of the Forbidden City and other famous attractions in Beijing. To the north, you can get a clear view of the ancient Drum and Bell Towers, a classical feature of Chinese cities. To the west, you can see Beihai Park and its hill-top White Pagoda. 

Day 10: Free Day in Beijing

The Summer Palace—a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens, and palaces

Today you'll have a free day to explore the city! This is your chance to see anything you may have missed in previous days. 

Consider a morning trip to the Summer Palace with lakes, gardens, and palaces dating back to the Qing Dynasty. This was the royal family’s formal residence during the hot summer months, and you'll quickly see why they chose this beautiful area outside of Beijing to escape the heat.

In the afternoon, you could take a trip to Beijing's Olympic Park to see a number of modern masterpieces built for the 2008 Summer Olympics, including the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube.

For dinner, head to Gulou, a hip neighborhood around the Drum and Bell Towers that has retained its original Beijing charm. The narrow alleyways are lined with shops and an array of bars, restaurants, and live-music venues.

Day 11: Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Today is an especially exciting day for those who have dreamed of walking along a section of the Great Wall of China! At the designated time, you'll be picked up from your hotel to drive 1.5 hours to the Mutianyu Great Wall. This is a section of the wall that's located in the Huairou District within the city limits of Beijing. Stretching over 5,500 miles long, the wall dates back to the 5th century when construction first started. These fortifications were built to protect the Chinese empire from invaders, and it remains an unmissable part of the overall China experience.

When you arrive at Mutianyu, you can ride the cable car up and then walk back down along the wall for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

At the end of the excursion, you'll transfer back to Beijing in the afternoon and take a Hutong tour near Houhai Lake. This is arguably the best activity in which to learn about local Beijinger's lifestyle and traditional culture. 

Day 12: Depart Beijing

Goodbye, Beijing!

It's time to say goodbye to Beijing! Depending on your departure flight, you could potentially squeeze in a visit to Xiushui (Silk) Market—an international shopping hub where you can snag some souvenirs. At the designated time, you'll be picked up from your hotel and transferred to the airport for your departure home. Safe travels!

Map

Map of Highlights from Shanghai to Beijing - 12 Days
Map of Highlights from Shanghai to Beijing - 12 Days
Max
Written by Max Yang, updated May 10, 2019