This 14-day itinerary covers the highlights of China and more, beginning in Shanghai before flying to Sichuan province to visit the largest Giant Panda breeding center in the world. After stopping in Tibet's capital of Lhasa for a cultural tour, you'll head to the ancient capital of China, Xi'an and see its historic Terracotta Army. The trip culminates in Beijing with a visit to the Forbidden City and a walk around the most iconic landmark in the country: the Great Wall of China.

Highlights

  • Tour the historic gardens and temples of Shanghai
  • Visit a breeding center for giant pandas in Chengdu
  • Enter the palaces of Lhasa, spiritual capital of Tibet
  • Marvel at the incredibe Terracotta Army of Xi'an
  • See the highlights of Beijing and stroll the Great Wall of China

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Shanghai Shanghai
Day 2 Shanghai City Tour Shanghai
Day 3 Fly from Shanghai to Chengdu Chengdu
Day 4 Chengdu Panda Base & City Tour Chengdu
Day 5 Flight from Chengdu to Lhasa Lhasa
Day 6 Lhasa Walking Tour Lhasa
Day 7 Tour of Lhasa's Religious Sites Lhasa
Day 8 Day Trip to Yamdrok Lake Lhasa
Day 9 Fly from Lhasa to Xi'an Xi'an
Day 10 Xi'an Highlights Tour Xi'an
Day 11 History & Culture Tour of Xi'an - Train to Beijing Beijing
Day 12 Beijing City Tour Beijing
Day 13 Great Wall Guided Tour Beijing
Day 14 Departure from Beijing  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Shanghai

Welcome to Shanghai
Welcome to Shanghai

Welcome to China!

Upon arrival in Shanghai, you'll meet a private guide in the terminal and take a bullet train from the airport to the Longyang Road Station. Here you'll transfer to your hotel in central Shanghai. After unpacking and shaking off the long flight, you can head out and explore. Shanghai is a global economic powerhouse and historic port city on the Yangtze River delta 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 2: Shanghai City Tour

The Bund, Shanghai
The Bund, Shanghai

Today, you'll embark on a highlights tour of Shanghai. It begins with a visit to the upscale Huangpu District and a walk around 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. There's also pavilions, ponds, tea houses, rockeries, cloisters, and covered bridges.

You'll also visit the Jade Buddha Temple, which is the most famous Buddhist temple in Shanghai. It was originally built in 1882 to house two large statues of Buddha sculpted from pure white jade. One, a Buddha in a sitting position, is 6.4-feet (2-meters) tall and weighs three tons; the other, a reclining Buddha, is 3-feet (1-meter) long. The original temple was destroyed during the fall of the Qing Dynasty, but the statues were saved and the temple that exists today was built over the same site in 1928.   

Finish the day with a visit to 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 in the Bund, including the 1920s landmark Shanghai Bank Building and Customs House

You'll also visit a section of the waterfront known as the French Concession. It was controlled by the French from 1849 to 1943 and is known for its wide, leafy boulevards. Today it's a bohemian enclave abounding with boutiques, wine bars, breweries, cafés, and trendy restaurants.

Day 3: Fly from Shanghai to Chengdu

Chengdu
Chengdu

In the morning you'll transfer to the airport, where you'll catch a 3.5-hour flight west to the center of the country and Chengdu. This city is the capital of China's Sichuan province, an area famous for many things, not least of which is its namesake chili peppers and mouth-on-fire cuisine.

Besides the spiciness of its food, Sichuan is also known for giant pandas, whose native environment is the highland bamboo forests of central China. These threatened animals are the icons of the region, and just outside the city you'll find the Chengdu Panda Base. This is the largest non-profit panda research and breeding facility in the world, and it's open to visitors.  

Upon arrival at the airport, you'll transfer to your hotel for check-in. You'll then have the remainder of the day free. Perhaps head out for a stroll, because despite being a modern and sizeable metropolis, Chengdu is pleasantly walkable. There's a laid-back quality here you won't find in other major cities in China. This is evidenced by the proclivity of residents to while away the hours drinking tea and playing mahjong. 

If you really want to test your foodie bonafides and tolerance for piquant food, head to a local restaurant for some notoriously spicy hot pot. This dish is a communal cauldron of rich broth spiked with merciless amounts of five-alarm-fire chili peppers.

Day 4: Chengdu Panda Base & City Tour

A group of pandas lounging around at Chengdu Panda Base
A group of pandas lounging around at Chengdu Panda Base

Early in the morning, you'll hop in a car for the drive to Chengdu Panda Base, located about 6 miles (10 km) outside the city. The goal of this non-profit is to replicate the living conditions of giant pandas and facilitate breeding, as this species is threatened in large part due to its low birth rate. The base also doubles as a zoo, with various enclosures and habitats home to around 50 giant pandas. This is on top of other rare and threatened animals, such as red pandas and the black-necked crane.

But it's the giant pandas that are the star attraction for visitors. This is the only place in the world to see so many of them in one place. Nearly the size of an amusement park, you could easily spend half a day at Chengdu Panda Base before exhausting all the exhibits. The real surprise is what great climbers panda bears are. It's fascinating to see these rotund animals, which weigh around 250 pounds, shimmy up a tree and balance themselves precariously on a thin branch bending under the weight.

And if you're wondering why you need to arrive at the park at such an early hour, it's because pandas are notoriously lazy. Left to their own devices they'd prefer to do nothing but eat and sleep. This is a big reason for their low birth rate: they can't even get motivated for romance. Pandas are only really active in the morning around feeding times, and by afternoon most of them are sprawled out on the ground enjoying a snooze. 

Back in Chengdu, you'll embark on a tour. Sprinkled throughout this modern city are historic landmarks that harken back to ancient dynasties. First up is Wenshu Temple, a complex built in 1706 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in Chengdu. However, a previous temple existed on the same site during the Sui Dynasty of 581–618.

Covering 13 acres (5 hectares), the monastery features five halls, a pagoda, and a library of ancient Buddhist texts. It's free to visit, and open to the general public. You'll certainly see people on their knees in prayer and burning joss sticks at shrines.

Later, you'll continue your historical tour of Chengdu with a visit Kuanzhai Alley. This large portion of the city's Qingyang District is actually a network of three parallel city alleyways called, in English, Wide Alley, Narrow Alley, and Well Alley. These pedestrian streets also date back to the Qing Dynasty and feature various plazas, temples, and a host of shopping, dining and nightlife options.

Day 5: Flight from Chengdu to Lhasa

Potala Palace in Lhasa, the winter home of the Dalai Lamas until 1959
Potala Palace in Lhasa, the winter home of the Dalai Lamas until 1959

In the morning you'll transfer to the airport in Chengdu and board a 1.5-hour flight west to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

Translated as the "Place of Gods," Lhasa dates back to 639 ACE when the founder of the Tibetan Empire, Songtsen Gampo, moved the kingdom's capital here. After a civil war in the 9th century led to the monarchy's collapse, the next few centuries saw a Buddhist revival. Large monasteries of the new schools of Buddhism were constructed, and after the 5th Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, relocated to Lhasa in 1642, the city became both the political and religious capital of Tibet.

Upon arrival, you'll be met by a local expert guide who will accompany you on the drive to your downtown hotel and give you an introduction to the city. Besides its cultural highlights, Lhasa's position at 11,990 feet (3,656 meters) on the Tibetan Plateau means it is one of the highest cities in the world. No doubt you'll feel the effects of the thin air the moment you arrive. 

After checking in to your downtown hotel, you'll have the remainder of the day free. Perhaps head out for a stroll, but don't exert yourself too much as your body needs time to adjust to the altitude. Be sure to drink plenty of water, especially on your first day.

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Day 6: Lhasa Walking Tour

The imposing walls of Patala Palace
The imposing walls of Patala Palace

After breakfast, you'll head out into the city on a tour, first visiting Barkhor Square. At the edge of it is Jokhang Temple, a pilgrimage site built during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo in 652 ACE for his two wives. Specifically, the temple was built to house the wives' dowries in the form of golden Buddha statues. One of these statutes is the most revered in Nepal, thus making Jokhang Temple the spiritual heart of Tibet. Each day pilgrims fill the temple and prostrate themselves in accordance with their faith. 

You'll then head to adjacent Barkhor Street. More than a pedestrian throughway lined with shops, Barkhor Street is known as the "Holy Road" to Tibetans. It dates to the 7th century when Buddhists started making the journey here. The procession of the masses created a footpath around the temple, which became a pilgrimage site unto itself. Today you'll see pilgrims performing the religious ritual of walking in a clockwise circuit along this road, turning prayer wheels and chanting mantras. 

But Barkhor Street is more than a pilgrim route. This oldest street in the city is a hotbed of activity and a thriving commerce center. If you want to purchase souvenirs, prayer beads, or the aforementioned prayer wheels, you can do so on this road. Thre are also a number of Tibetan, Nepalese, and Indian restaurants as well as butter tea shops. 

Afterward, you'll visit Potala Palace, the iconic fortress that sits atop Red Mountain in the middle of the Lhasa Valley. Interestingly, Potala is actually a complex comprised of two different buildings: the White Palace and Red Palace. With its sheer walls, gates, turrets, and gilt roofs, Potala is as imposing as it is regal.

Potala served as the winter home of the Dalai Lama beginning in the 7th century, but today it's a museum, which you'll enter on this tour. Inside, there are a whopping 1,000 rooms, which are decorated with thousands of murals, scrolls, sculptures, and other items made of jade, porcelain, silver, and gold. The White Palace contains the ceremonial hall and throne room of the Dalai Lama, and the Red Palace contains the golden burial stupas of past Dalai Lamas.

After visiting Potala Palace, you'll return to your hotel and will have the remainder of the day free.

Day 7: Tour of Lhasa's Religious Sites

Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer residence
Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer residence

Today you'll head out for a tour of some of the area's famous religious institutions. The excursion begins with a visit to the Sera Monastery. Located on the outskirts of Lhasa, this is one of the most famous monasteries in the country. It sits on 28 acres (11 hectares) and is dedicated to the Gelugpa Sect, which, having emerged in the 15th century, is the youngest school of Tibetan Buddhism. It was built in 1419 during the Ming Dynasty and is comprised of a four-story ritual hall, a college, and 32 dormitories.

Fun fact: in Tibetan, the word Sera translates to "wild rose." This monastery got its name due to the fields of wild roses that were in bloom when it was built. 

Afterward, you'll visit Norbulingka, a palace and park complex situated on 88 acres (36 hectares). It was built in 1755 as a summer residence for the Dalai Lama, thus the buildings are designed around flourishing gardens and green spaces. The complex itself is comprised of four palace buildings, a monastery, various halls, and pavilions. On top of being a summer home and park, Norbulingka has served over the years as the site of the signings of various international treaties. 

The last attraction for the day is Drepung Monastery, which was built in 1416 and is the mother temple of Dalai Lamas, a title it earned in 1546 when the third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, the living incarnation of Buddha, was enthroned here. This collection of whitewashed buildings sits on 61 acres (24 hectares) in a dramatic location at the foot of Mt. Gephel. Here two grand white pagodas are surrounded by the main ritual hall plus four tantric colleges and various dormitories.

Day 8: Day Trip to Yamdrok Lake

Yamdrok Lake
Yamdrok Lake

Tibet is full of places considered sacred by the nation's Buddhists. These include man-made structures like temples as well as natural landmarks like mountains and lakes. Yamdrok is one of Tibet's largest bodies of water, and it also happens to be one of its most sacred of four holy lakes.

After breakfast, you'll take a  two-hour drive to Yamdrok, located southwest of Lhasa on the road to Shigatse, the country's second-largest city. Not only is this freshwater lake spiritually important, but the landscapes around it are gorgeous. Simply admiring Yamdrok with its background of snow-capped mountains is an ideal way to spend your time here. And the lake itself will leave you awestruck. The word "yamdrok" translates to "turquoise" in Tibetan, and that's exactly the color you'll see when you arrive.

The reason for this lake's spiritual importance is specific. It's here that senior monks come after a Dalai Lama passes away to find the new male child in which the reincarnated spirit has inhabited. Supposedly Yamdrok possesses powers that can reveal the identity of the new Dali Lama. The monks, therefore, offer prayers and blessing objects into the lake until they see a sign that reveals the new location of the Dali Llama's soul.

After some time spent admiring the scenery, wildlife, and hiking around the lake, you'll return to Lhasa by car.

Day 9: Fly from Lhasa to Xi'an

Walking the historic city walls of Xi'an
Walking the historic city walls of Xi'an

In the morning, you'll transfer to the airport for the three-hour flight west to Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. Xi'an 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, which include Beijing, Nanjing, Luoyang, and  Xi'an. 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. This was such a vital route that it lasted for around 2,000 years, from the 2nd century BCE to the 18th century.

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 airport, you'll transfer to your hotel for check-in. If you do 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 Wall. 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 and sample Xi'an's varied dining options. 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 broad, hand-stretched noodles often served with spicy chiles. Also not to be missed is roujiamo, which is a precursor to the hamburger and consists of baked bread filled with braised, shredded meat.

Day 10: Xi'an Highlights Tour

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 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 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.

Day 11: History & Culture Tour of Xi'an - Train to Beijing

The Mulsim Quarter of Xi'an
The Mulsim Quarter of Xi'an

After breakfast, you'll head to the Shaanxi History Museum , located in south Xi'an. This state-run, modern museum is one of the nation's largest. It has accumulated over 370,000 ancient artifacts that were unearthed in Shaanxi Province. These include bronze items dating to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), ceramic figures, and murals found in tombs dating to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It's a great place to get a comprehensive overview of the region's history, and it's ideal for the whole family. 

Later, you'll visit the historic Muslim Quarter. Located in the center of Xi'an behind its ancient walls, the old buildings lining the narrow streets here are home to Xi'an's Muslim, or Hui, community. It might come as a surprise, but Islam is the most enduring of all faiths in the city. It was first introduced by Arab merchants during the Tang Dynasty and flourished during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Today the Muslim Quarter is a popular area with many shops, restaurants, and street-food vendors.

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. 

You'll then transfer to the railway station in Xi'an and catch the high-speed train to Beijing, which travels at speeds up to 186 miles (300 km) per hour and covers a distance of 755 miles (1,216 km) in just five hours. Your destination is Beijing, the capital of China and the most densely populated city capital in the world (it boasts a population of over 21 million people). As one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, Beijing has been the seat of power in the country for eight centuries.

Upon arrival at the train station, you'll be met by a driver who will transfer you to your hotel for check-in.

Day 12: 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 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 13: Great Wall Guided Tour

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

Day 14: Departure from Beijing

Farewell, China
Farewell, China

In the morning you'll meet a driver and transfer to the airport in Beijing, where you'll catch your flight home. This concludes your unforgettable journey through China. Until next time!

Map

Map of Tour of Shanghai, Chengdu, Lhasa, Xi'an, & Beijing - 14 Days
Map of Tour of Shanghai, Chengdu, Lhasa, Xi'an, & Beijing - 14 Days
Max
Written by Max Yang, updated Jan 28, 2020