In just a week you'll manage to cover many of the highlight cities of China, from ancient Xi'an to modern Shanghai. This "golden triangle" tour begins in the nation's capital of Beijing, where you'll visit the most incredible landmarks like the Imperial City and the Great Wall of  China. Then you're off to Xi'an to see the famous Terracotta Army before finishing the trip in the metropolitan playground of Shanghai.

Highlights

  • Tour Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing
  • Take a stroll along the Great Wall of China
  • See the Terracotta Army of Xi'an
  • Visit the historic gardens and temples of Shanghai

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Beijing Beijing
Day 2 Beijing City Tour Beijing
Day 3 Great Wall Guided Tour - Overnight Train to Xi'an Beijing
Day 4 Arrival in Xi'an - Terracotta Army & Muslim Quarter Xi'an
Day 5 Tour the Fortifications of Xi'an - Fly to Shanghai Chengdu
Day 6 City Tour of Shanghai Shanghai
Day 7 Departure from Shanghai  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Beijing

The Forbidden City, Beijing
The Forbidden City, Beijing

Welcome to China!

With a population of over 21 million people, Beijing is the most densely populated capital city in the world. As one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, this metropolis has been the seat of power in the country for eight centuries. It's home to expansive historic landmarks like the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, which date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Also here is the Summer Palace, a lakeside royal retreat and imperial garden during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911).

However, Beijing is also a shining example of modernity. Some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world exist here. Also, new developments, high-rise apartments, and shopping malls all but engulf historic hutong alleyways and ancient courtyard houses. This city is a megalopolis hurtling towards the future while keeping one foot firmly in the past, and you'll discover its highlights. 

Upon arrival at Beijing Capital International Airport, you'll meet your guide at the terminal and transfer to your hotel in downtown Beijing. After check-in, you'll have the remainder of the day free to head out and explore. Or, if you're a bit jet-lagged, you can stay in, relax, and enjoy the hotel amenities.

Day 2: Beijing City Tour

Forbidden City
Forbidden City

In the morning, you'll meet your guide and driver in the hotel lobby and embark on a grand tour of Beijing. It begins in the heart of the city at Tiananmen Square, the world's largest city square. Built in 1651 and progressively enlarged over the centuries, this massive public space is surrounded by government buildings. These include the Great Hall of the People, National Museum of China, and the mausoleum of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. 

You'll see an enormous portrait of Chairman Mao on the square's north end at Tiananmen Gate. This is the entrance to the Forbidden City (officially the Imperial Palace Museum), which was constructed in 1415 during the Ming Dynasty. You'll enter and tour this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which will surely leave you awestruck. It's a vast complex as big as a neighborhood and has a long history: it served as the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty in 1420 through the Qing Dynasty in 1912.  

A walking tour of the Forbidden City takes at least a couple hours. This ensures you see the majority of its some 980 buildings spread across 180 acres (72 hectares). Among other things, you'll see the 32-foot (10-meter) high city walls, the Imperial Garden, ceremonial rooms, emperor's living quarters, and galleries featuring ancient imperial artifacts. You can expect crowds, too, as the Imperial City hosts a staggering 80,000 visitors per day. 

In the afternoon, you'll give your legs a rest with a 30-minute pedicab tour through the hutongs of Beijing. Hutongs are narrow alleyways that crisscross through old neighborhoods in the city. Some of these are so ancient that they go as far back as 800 years to the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. There's a traditional Chinese folk culture here, and many people still live in the old houses that line the hutongs. Sadly, the hutongs are a fast disappearing sight as city developers move in to modernize these areas.

After the hutong tour, you'll return to the hotel and will have the rest of the day free. In the evening, head out for a special dinner of authentic Peking duck.

Day 3: Great Wall Guided Tour - Overnight Train to Xi'an

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

You're in for a treat as today you'll visit one of the New Seven Wonders of the World: the Great Wall of China. Because this ancient fortification is so massive, it's separated into various sections open to visitors. The area you'll be visiting is Mutianyu, one of the best-preserved portions of the Great Wall. Located 40 miles (64 km) north of Beijing, it was built in 1368 ACE by Xu Da, a general in the army of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

This section of wall stretches for 13 miles (22 km) and is comprised of 22 stone watchtowers. Sitting atop steep hills blanketed in rich green pines and cypress trees, the views from here on a clear day are nothing short of breathtaking. Walking these ramparts you'll easily understand how this landmark became a prominent symbol of China's history and heritage.

After visiting the Great Wall, you'll return to Beijing and embark on a pedicab tour of the city's hutongs. These are narrow alleyways that run through traditional neighborhoods home to ancient buildings. After the tour, you'll transfer to the train station where you'll board an overnight train west to the city of Xi'an.

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Day 4: Arrival in Xi'an - Terracotta Army & Muslim Quarter

The Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Army

In the morning a driver will meet you at the train station and transfer you to your hotel for check-in. After a hearty breakfast, you'll head right back out for a tour to Mount Li, home to the Terracotta Army Museum and the famous life-size warrior sculptures.

The excavation site where these earthen statues were found is part of a larger necropolis: the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. He was the founder of the Qin Dynasty and died in 210 BCE. This enormous site covers approximately 38 square miles (98 square km), and its discovery in 1974 represents one of the most important archeological finds of the 20th century. 

The terracotta warrior sculptures were created to be symbolic guardians of Qin's burial tomb and thus protect his spirit in the afterlife. And the hundreds of thousands of artisans and government workers tasked with building them spared no expense. They created thousands of figures, all incredibly detailed and distinct according to their roles within the army.
 
Touring the massive excavation pits, you'll see various warriors, chariots, and cavalry figures. Originally, they were positioned around the burial mound as if on guard and standing at attention in a military formation. There are also non-military figures in certain excavation pits that represent musicians and even acrobats. 

You'll break for lunch then drive back to Xi'an and visit the city's historic Muslim Quarter. Located behind the ancient walls, the historic homes lining narrow streets here are home to Xi'an's Muslim, or Hui, community. It might come as a surprise, but Islam has been the most enduring of all faiths in this city. It was first introduced by Arab merchants during the Tang Dynasty and flourished during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

Day 5: Tour the Fortifications of Xi'an - Fly to Shanghai

The Fortifications of Xi'an
The Fortifications of Xi'an

After breakfast, you'll head out and visit Xi'an's city center and the famous Fortifications of Xi'an. These stone walls were commissioned in the late 14th century by Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, to protect the city. They run a length of 8.7 miles (14 km) in a rectangular pattern and are the most well-preserved ancient walls in all of China. The best way to experience tour these ramparts is on a bicycle ride, which you can do if weather permits. 

Lunch will be particularly special today as you'll have the option to visit a local family in their home. Upon arrival, they'll teach you how to make traditional Chinese dumplings from scratch. Then everyone will sit down for a delicious meal.

After eating, you'll bid farewell to your new friends and transfer to the airport in Xi'an for the two-hour flight to Shanghai, a global economic powerhouse and historic port city on the Yangtze Delta. A guide will meet you upon arrival at the airport and transfer you to your hotel for check-in. After unpacking, you can head out and explore. Shanghai is a modern, dynamic city that offers great food, historic sights, and plenty of high-end shopping.

If you can't wait to discover the city's culture and entertainment options, you could visit an art gallery, take in an evening opera or acrobatic show, or revel in the diverse nightlife options that run the gamut from intimate lounge bars to thumping nightclubs. Or, if you're too jet-lagged, just enjoy dinner at one of the city's Michelin-starred restaurants before having a quiet night in the hotel and resting up for the day ahead.

Day 6: City Tour of Shanghai

Yu Garden, Shanghai
Yu Garden, Shanghai

After breakfast, you'll head out into the city and discover its culture and historic landmarks. It begins with a visit to the Shanghai Museum, located in the upscale Huangpu District at People's Square. This new, modern building houses China's foremost collection of ancient artworks and exhibits dating from Neolithic times. There are over 120,000 artifacts that include bronzes, ceramics, calligraphy, and jade items. Also here are paintings, sculptures, and even furniture dating to the Ming and Qing dynasty.  

Next, you'll visit the nearby Yu Garden. "Yu" translates to "pleasing and satisfying," and the five acres that comprise this historic green space embody those traits perfectly. Dating back over 400 years to the Ming Dynasty, the landscaping features exotic flora like spring bamboo and a ginkgo tree as old as the garden itself. Other impressive design elements include pavilions, ponds, tea houses, rockeries, cloisters, and covered bridges.

The tour ends at the Bund, a waterfront area in central Shanghai and one of the most impressive promenades in Asia. The Bund has a long and storied history, as it was here that the British, Americans, and French set up trading settlements in the 19th century. By the 1940s the Bund was home to China's main banks and thus was a major financial center in Asia. There are dozens of historic buildings here, including the 1920s landmark Shanghai Bank Building and Customs House

After touring the Bund, you'll have the remainder of the day free. Should you choose, you can head out to the theater and witness a performance by one of Shanghai's famous acrobatic troupes. These shows are filled with high-flying spectacle, and some even feature awe-inspiring feats like motorcycle stunts.

Day 7: Departure from Shanghai

Farewell, China
Farewell, China

At the scheduled time, your guide and driver will transfer you to the airport, where you'll catch your flight home. This concludes your grand China adventure. See you soon!

Map

Map of Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai Tour - 7 days
Map of Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai Tour - 7 days
Max
Written by Max Yang, updated Feb 10, 2020