Over 14 days you'll visit the ancient capitals of China, walk the historic Great Wall, see the Terracotta Army of Xi'an, plus take a cruise up the longest river in Asia, the Yangtze. It's a luxurious ride that leads to the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric power station in the world. All in all, this itinerary perfectly combines history, culture, and the cradles of Chinese civilization into one adventure.

Highlights

  • Visit China's ancient capitals: Beijing, Zhengzhou, Luoyang, & Xi'an
  • Enjoy a guided tour of the Great Wall of China
  • See the famous Terracotta Army of Xi'an
  • Take a five-star cruise down the Yangtze River
  • Tour modern Shanghai and visit its ancient waterfront neighborhoods

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Beijing Beijing
Day 2 Beijing City Tour Beijing
Day 3 Great Wall Guided Tour Beijing
Day 4 Summer Palace Tour - Train from Beijing to Zhengzhou Zhengzhou
Day 5 Zhengzhou to Luoyang - Shaolin Temple Tour Luoyang
Day 6 Tour Longmen Grottoes - Transfer to Xi'an Xi'an
Day 7 Xi'an Highlights Tour - Optional Cooking Class Xi'an
Day 8 Xi'an to Chongqing - Three Gorges Cruise: Day 1 Yangtze River Cruise - Day 1
Day 9 Three Gorges Cruise: Day 2 Yangtze River Cruise - Day 2
Day 10 Three Gorges' Cruise - Day 3 Yangtze River Cruise - Day 3
Day 11 Three Gorges Cruise: Day 4 - Train to Shanghai Shanghai
Day 12 City Tour of Shanghai Shanghai
Day 13 Zhujiajiao Water Town Shanghai
Day 14 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 known as the Imperial Palace Museum), which was constructed in 1415 during the Ming Dynasty. You'll enter the gate and tour this UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it will surely leave you awestruck. This vast complex is 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 each day. 

In the afternoon, 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 alleys 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, they 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

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

Today you're in for a treat as you'll get to visit one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Wall of China. Because this ancient fortification is indeed so massive, it's separated into various sections tourists can visit. The area you'll be visiting today 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, general for Zhu Yuanzhang, founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

This section of the 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 your hotel. You'll have the remainder of the day free.

Day 4: Summer Palace Tour - Train from Beijing to Zhengzhou

The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace

Today you'll take a high-speed train from Beijing to Zhengzhou but not before visiting one last landmark in China's capital: the Summer Palace. This historic royal retreat is located in the northwest outskirts of Beijing and is the largest imperial garden in China, taking up 1.1 square miles (2.9 square km). It's a mere 15 minutes by car from Beijing, but when you arrive you'll feel like you stepped back in time.  

The Summer Palace isn't one place so much as it's a collection of lakes, gardens, and palace buildings. The most prominent landmarks here are the central Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill, a part of the Yanshan Mountains and upon which sits many palace halls and pavilions. You'll tour this area and see firsthand the manicured gardens and well-preserved buildings that emperors of the Qing Dynasty occupied beginning in the early 18th century.

After the Summer Palace, you'll transfer to the Beijing railway station and hop a bullet train for the 3.5-hour ride west to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province.

Bordering the Yellow River, Zhengzhou is one of the nation's Eight Ancient Capital Cities and one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization. It dates back an incredible 3,600 years and was the capital of various Chinese dynasties beginning with the Shang Dynasty (1766–1050 BCE). Also, just west of Zhengzhou is the UNESCO World Heritage Site Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Shaolin kung fu. 

Like Beijing, Zhengzhou's long history hasn't stood in the way of progress: this city, located in China's geographical center, is a major transport and economic hub. Its railway connects to Europe, and it's also the home of China's first securities exchange, the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange.

Upon arrival at the train station, you'll transfer to your hotel for check-in. You'll then have the remainder of the evening free.

Day 5: Zhengzhou to Luoyang - Shaolin Temple Tour

Shaolin Kung Fu Academy
Shaolin Kung Fu Academy

After breakfast, you'll visit the Henan Museum. Built in 1927, this is one of the oldest and largest museums in China and is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Yellow River Basin. To this end, it houses over 130,000 cultural artifacts that date back centuries.

Among other exhibits, it features an impressive collection of jade artifacts dating from the neolithic age through the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), Han Dynasty (221–206 BCE), and later. Prized items include pendants, ornaments, and even jade clothing found in the tomb of King Liang of the Han Dynasty. The museum also showcases various pottery, porcelain, and bronze relics of many dynasties plus natural history exhibits of dinosaur bones and fossils. 

After visiting the museum, you'll transfer a couple of hours west to Shaolin Temple, which is located at the foot of Shaoshi Mountain, the central peak of the Song Mountains. This historic monastery was built in the year 495 ACE and is famous for being both the birthplace of the Chan school of Buddhism (Shaolin's official religion) and Quan, which is Shaolin Kung Fu. It is the main temple of the Shaolin school of Buddhism and martial arts and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. 

As for kung fu, Shaolin monks first began developing their own fighting style beginning in the late 6th century. This incorporated various elements, including boxing techniques, spears, staffs, and swordsmanship. The monks used these fighting skills to repel bandits and invaders, and by the 16th century martial arts was a daily part of monastic life at the temple. Today, Shaolin Temple is home to the largest kung fu Academy in the country and has been featured in numerous martial arts films.

On a tour of Shaolin Temple, you'll visit the various halls as well as the impressive shanmen (temple gate). If time permits, you can even watch a live Shaolin kung fu performance. You'll also stop at the Pagoda Forest. Located at the west end of Shaolin Temple and spread over about five acres, this is the largest grouping of pagodas (over 230 of them) in China. The area is actually a necropolis, as these historic landmarks are the tombs of eminent monks from different historical periods. 

Afterward, it's a two-hour drive to Luoyang which lies in western Henan Province where the Luo and Yellow River meet. The city is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China (along with Beijing, Nanjing, and Xi'an) and is regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization. It was the capital of 13 ancient dynasties beginning with the Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BCE) and was overseen by 105 emperors total, meaning it was the center of politics, economy, and culture in China for 1,500 years.

Upon arrival in Luoyang, you'll check into your hotel and will have the remainder of the day free.

Day 6: Tour Longmen Grottoes - Transfer to Xi'an

The ancient caves at Longmen Grottoes
The ancient caves at Longmen Grottoes

After breakfast, you'll head about seven miles (12 km) south of Luoyang to one of the most famous religious archeological sites in the country: Longmen Grottoes.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates to 493 ACE and is comprised of 2,300 caves carved out of limestone cliffs along the Yi River. Besides the caves there are 118,000 stone Buddha statues, 2,800 inscriptions on steles, and 60 Buddhist stupas. Creating the Longmen Grottoes was an ongoing process, with the actual carving occurring between the Wei Dynasty of the late fifth century to the Tang Dynasty in the mid-18th century. All in all, the project took 400 years to complete.

After touring the grottoes you'll return to Luoyang and hop on a bullet train for the two-hour ride west to Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province. This city is notable for many things. With over 12 million residents, it's the most populous city in north-central China. It's also the oldest of the country's Four Great Ancient Capitals. It was founded way back in 202 BCE and has served as the capital city of 13 imperial dynasties. 

Xi'an was also the beginning point for the Silk Road. This historic trading route ran thousands of miles west from Xi'an, connecting China with Europe. It was such a vital route that it lasted for around 2,000 years, from the 2nd century BCE to the 18th century ACE.

Perhaps most famously, Xi'an is home to the Terracotta Army. This massive collection of incredibly detailed, life-size clay sculptures depict the armies of Qin Shi Huang. He was the founder of the Qin Dynasty and the first emperor of China, reigning from 221 BCE to 210 BCE. Upon Qin's death, this clay army was buried with him so as to guard him in the afterlife. 

Upon arrival at the train station, you'll transfer to your hotel for check-in. If you have the energy, feel free to head out and explore. You'll see Xi'an' historic legacy throughout the city, particularly in the impressive Xi'an City Walls. These ancient stone fortifications were commissioned in the late 14th century by Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, to protect the city. 

Beyond Xi'an's ancient landmarks, the city offers great shopping and dining. You can browse everything from shopping malls to street vendors and pick up souvenirs like mini hand-crafted terracotta warriors. 

In the evening, head out for dinner. The city's history as a trading hub means it's a melting pot of different food cultures. Here you can sample various styles of Chinese cuisine, including Cantonese and Sichuan. Specific items to try include Xi'an kebabs (chuan'er), mutton dumplings (suantang shuijiao), and Biang Biang noodles, which are hand-stretched noodles often served with spicy chiles. Also not to be missed is roujiamo, a precursor to the hamburger that consists of baked bread filled with braised, shredded meat.

Day 7: Xi'an Highlights Tour - Optional Cooking Class

The Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Army

A car will meet you in the morning at your hotel for the one hour drive east of Xi'an to Mount Li, home to the Terracotta Army Museum and the famous life-size warrior sculptures.

The excavation site where these earthen sculptures 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 famous 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 head to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a well-preserved example of Xi'an's rich history. It's a seven-story Buddhist pagoda made of solid brick and was constructed in 652 ACE.  As for the unique name, it derives from a Buddhist legend of a "giant wild goose" that fell out of the air dead in front of a group of monks. Supposedly this was a sign telling the monks to be more pious, so they built a pagoda on the very spot where they found the goose.  

On a tour, you can head into the pagoda and walk up the twisting stair, stopping at every floor to peer out the windows for prime views overlooking Xi'an. inside, the walls are adorned with 7th-century Buddha statues engraved by Yan Libe, the famed Chinese painter who lived during the Tang Dynasty.

Leading from the pagoda is the Great Tang All Day Mall. Covering 160 acres  (64 hectares), this is one of the longest and widest pedestrian tourist streets and outdoor malls in the world. It's also a comprehensive cultural center done in the style of the Tang Dynasty. Here you'll find plenty of shopping, dining, and entertainment options as well as recreation activities. There are many cultural offerings too, including impressive sculptures. 

After touring the Pagoda and Great Tang All Day Mall, you'll return to your hotel and will have the evening free. If you'd like, you can join a local family for dinner where you'll learn how to make traditional Chinese dumplings. 

Day 8: Xi'an to Chongqing - Three Gorges Cruise: Day 1

Chongqing is a massive river city
Chongqing is a massive river city

In the morning, you'll visit Xi'an's historic Muslim Quarter. Located in the center of the city behind its ancient walls, the historic homes lining narrow streets 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 Xi'an. It was first introduced by Arab merchants during the Tang Dynasty and then flourished during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

One particularly impressive landmark you'll visit here is the Great Mosque, which was built in 742 during the Tang Dynasty and is the largest mosque in China. It survived the Cultural Revolution virtually unscathed and remains an outstanding Chinese re-interpretation of an Islamic place of worship. Indeed, the facade looks more like a Chinese temple than any mosque you'll find in the Arab world. 

Afterward, you'll transfer to Xi'an's railway station and board a high-speed train for the 5-to-7-hour ride south to Chongqing. This immense metropolis is home to 30 million people and sits at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. The waterfront location is important, as it's from Chongqing that you'll embark on a multi-day river cruise downstream, heading east on the Yangtze to the city of Yichang.

The route passes incredible landmarks both natural and man-made. There's the titular three river gorges—Qutang Gorge, Wu Gorge, and Xiling Gorge—plus the Three Gorges Dam. This dam enjoys the distinction of being the world's largest hydroelectric power facility. 

Upon arrival in Chongqing, you'll have dinner at a local restaurant and then boarding the ship. It is a five-star riverboat that's part of the Victoria Cruises fleet of ships. This is an American company (ensuring nothing gets lost in translation) with modern amenities featuring the utmost in comfort. You'll overnight in your cabin and the next morning the ship will get underway.

Day 9: Three Gorges Cruise: Day 2

Cruising the Yangtze River
Cruising the Yangtze River

The riverboat will pull ashore in the morning and you'll get to stretch your legs on a walking excursion to Shibaozhai. This steep, craggy hill on the banks of the Yangtze is known for the Buddhist temple that sits atop it. Access to the temple is via an impressive nine-story wooden pagoda. It's appropriately named The Pearl of the Yangtze because it's one of the largest wooden temples in the region.

You may also embark on an alternate excursion to Fengdu, a rebuilt city now located high on Ming Mountain. The old Fengdu was situated lower on the mountainside and was just one of over 1,500 regional cities, towns, and villages that were deliberately submerged due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in 2003. The around 1.3 million locals who were uprooted during the building of this dam project are a testament to the high human cost of such an ambitious energy project. 

Also left behind during the relocation was the Fengdu "Ghost City." When locals left their homes they also left their temples, shrines, and monasteries dedicated to the Chinese afterlife. It's an impressive complex of ancient buildings that dates back 2,000 years. Time permitting, you'll be able to tour this historic site as well.

Day 10: Three Gorges' Cruise - Day 3

Sunset over Wu Gorge
Sunset over Wu Gorge

After traveling down the scenic Yangtze and hiking around stunning riverside landmarks, today you'll visit the three gorges that are the namesake of this river cruise.

You'll first enter Qutang Gorge. Running five miles/8 km, Qutang is the shortest of the three and also the narrowest at 500 feet/152 meters clearance. Qutang is also the most dramatic. The 1,150-foot (350-meter) high river cliffs at the western entrance form what's called the Kuimen Gate, an image so beautiful it's featured on China's 10 yuan banknote. Beyond that, Qutang is lined with steep mountains whose peaks top out at almost 5,000 feet (1,500 meters). Also here are temples dating to the Ming and Qing dynasties.    

Next up is Wu Gorge. This 25-mile (40-km) ravine is known for its forest-covered mountains and cliffs even steeper than Qutang. Many regard this as the most beautiful of the gorges because of the tributaries here that run from the Yangtze through unspoiled countryside. You'll get to travel these waterways when you transfer to a smaller vessel for an excursion down either the Shennong or Goddess streams. Keep your camera close as you'll travel over tranquil emerald waters and amid virgin forests. 

Finally, you'll enter Xiling Gorge, which at 41 miles/65 km is the longest of the three gorges. It's so big that within Xiling are many smaller gorges that are also scenic and beautiful. Most famously, the eastern end of Xiling Gorge is home to the Three Gorges Dam, which is the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world.

Before the day is over you'll also have the option to embark on a shore excursion to White Emperor City, an ancient city overlooking the western end of Qutang Gorge and dates all the way back to the late Han Dynasty (221–207 BCE).

Day 11: Three Gorges Cruise: Day 4 - Train to Shanghai

The Three Gorges Dam
The Three Gorges Dam

Today, you'll arrive at your final destination, the city of Yichang. Here you'll cap your grand river adventure with a tour of an impressive example of human ingenuity, the Three Gorges Dam. This hydroelectric facility spans the Yangtze River and has been the world's largest power station in terms of installed capacity and electricity production since 2012.

After visiting the dam, you'll arrive at the pier in Yichang. Your guide and driver will then pick you up and transfer you to the Yichang railway station, where you'll catch a high-speed train for the 7.5-hour ride east to Shanghai. Upon arrival in Shanghai, another guide and driver will pick you up for the transfer to your hotel.

Day 12: 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 13: Zhujiajiao Water Town

Zhujiajiao, the Venice of Shanghai
Zhujiajiao, the Venice of Shanghai

In the morning you'll head to the river lands of western Shanghai and tour the beautiful water town of Zhujiajiao by boat. Regarded as the "Venice of China," Zhujiajiao is an ancient city sitting on tranquil canals and whose origins date back over 1,700 years. It's filled with historic courtyard homes and old stone bridges arching over waterways lined with willow trees. Visiting Zhujiajiao is a relaxing and leisurely way to spend a morning.

After touring Zhujiajiao, you'll return to Shanghai and next visit the historic neighborhood of Tianzifang. This newly restored section of the French Concession area of Shanghai has evolved into a modern, trendy, and artistic area. It abounds with cool cafés, bars, restaurants, boutiques, and galleries. Beyond walking the streets and enjoying a coffee or two, you can browse silk shops and even stop in at a traditional silk factory to see how this material is made from silkworm cocoons. 

Later you'll return to your hotel and will have the remainder of the evening free.

Day 14: 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 China's Ancient Capitals & Yangtze River Cruise - 14 Days
Map of China's Ancient Capitals & Yangtze River Cruise - 14 Days
Max
Written by Max Yang, updated Jan 29, 2020