Places to visit, stay, explore, food to try & more in China
There are few countries in the world with a culture as distinct as China. A country of contrasts, China offers thriving metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong as well as beautiful mountains, valleys, rivers, and plains in the West and Southern parts of the country.
China is a country filled with micro-cultures, languages, cuisines, and ethnicities.
Rapid change has attracted curious people from around the globe and there is a thriving ex-pat scene for anyone looking to teach overseas.
While I dislike the pollution of many of the big cities, the countryside, the food, people, and the history you’ll discover here will leave you in awe and forever changed. This is a country with layers where everything is filled with meaning and history.
This travel guide to China can help you plan your visit to this gigantic country (there are over a billion people here covering 9.5 million square kilometers) with advice on things to do, how to get around, stay safe, save money, and much, much more!
China Travel Costs
Accommodation – Prices start at around 30 CNY for an 8-10 bed dorm in many of the smaller cities. Expect to pay closer to 85 CNY in Hong Kong and Beijing. For a private room, prices begin around 110 CNY though expect to pay almost double that in the larger cities. Hostels here are generally well equipped and have free Wi-Fi, drinking water, lockers, and even warm blankets in the winter! Hostels in cities will have western-style toilets, though in more remote parts of the country you may find squat toilets more common.
Budget hotels begin around 75 CNY per night for basic accommodations, with higher prices in Hong Kong. Budget hotels will usually include heat or AC, your own bathroom, a kettle, and TV (though you’ll only get Chinese stations). Keep in mind that any hotels offering free breakfast will likely be serving a Chinese breakfast (dumplings, rice congee, vegetables, etc.).
Airbnb is plentiful in China and can be found in all the major cities though it’s much less common in rural areas. Prices range from 175-750 CNY depending on the city and the type of apartment.
There are plenty of campgrounds around the country. Expect to pay around 20 CNY per night for a basic plot. Wild camping is a grey area; it’s both legal and illegal at the same time to allow local authorities the final say. I would avoid wild camping and stick to official campgrounds to avoid any problems.
Food – Food in China is cheap. I mean, really cheap. A meal from a street vendor usually goes for around 7-14 CNY. For this, you might get noodles, rice, pork buns, or soup. A full meal in a sit-down restaurant will cost between 15-54 CNY plus the fee for a bowl of rice and clean bowls (yes, these cost extra!), which is often around 4 CNY. If you stick to the local food, you’ll find it hard to go broke. You could spend less than 70 CNY for an entire day’s worth of food.
In western China, southwestern China, and the interior, food is much cheaper than in the big cities and you can eat for under 35 CNY per day about half the costs of the big cities as long as you stick to street food/local restaurants.
For Western food, you can expect to pay much higher prices for food that will be a disappointment compared to home especially if you’re outside of the more Westernized cities like Hong Kong. A western-style sandwich or fast food meal can run about 40 CNY and a cup of coffee can be similarly-priced to back home sometimes more!
Vegetarians and even vegans will be able to get by relatively easily in the cities with a little planning as China’s history with Buddhism has made the country quite veg-friendly.
Since food is so cheap, there’s no need to self-cater or cook your own meals. You are better off eating the street food and at the restaurants. Moreover, many hostels don’t have kitchen facilities for you to use even if you did go grocery shopping. Therefore, self-catering is not something I recommend. The food is cheap and plentiful, so enjoy it! If you will be buying your own groceries, expect to spend between 250-400 CNY depending on your diet.
Activities – In general, sights are affordable in China even popular attractions such as the Great Wall or the Forbidden City are under 68 CNY. While the Great Wall never kept out invaders, it’s beautiful and is only 45 CNY, the Forbidden City is 60 CNY (40 CNY if you visit between November and March). Smaller temples, activities, and sights are much more reasonably priced and cost under 20 CNY.
While attractions and temples are less than 70 CNY, prices for hikes and outdoor activities tend to be more expensive, often costing around 200 CNY. For example, a trip to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain costs around 200 CNY, a visit to the Jiuzhai Valley is also 200 CNY (as much as 2,000 CNY if you want to go as part of a tour) and a three-day pass to the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian province is 140 CNY while admission to the Yellow Mountains in Anhui province is 190 CNY. You’ll still need to pay for transportation to these places as well.
Given the size of China as well as its general affordability thanks to cheap food and accommodation, there are plenty of ways to save money when you visit here. Here are some of the best ways to save money during your next trip:
Use sleeper trains – Use sleeper trains (doorless compartments with bunks) to travel overnight since distances between cities can be quite large. Spending a night on the train will save you paying an extra night of accommodation. Lower bunks are less expensive, so purchase a few days in advance to take advantage of these savings. Some stations have ticket offices for foreigners if you need help navigating your options.
Ask for Xiao Pan – If eating alone, ask for “xiao pan”. These are small portions and work out at 70% of the size and price of a normal dish.
Hard Seats – Travel on the “hard seats” on trains or buses. These are the cheapest and most basic seats but are not “hard” as the name would lead you to believe (they’re just regular seats).
Take a walking tour – Free walking tours are available in most Chinese cities. They generally last a couple of hours and are a great way to get the lay of the land and learn some of the local histories.
Avoid Golden Week – Golden Week is the busiest holiday of the year and is a time when the entire country is off. Held at the start of October, prices will rise, transportation is booked out weeks in advance, and the large cities are essentially gridlocked. Avoid visiting during this time. (Or, at the very least, avoid the big cities!)
Stick to public transportation – You can get pretty much anywhere in all the major cities by bus or subway and it’s super affordable. Do as the locals do if you want to save money.
Buy water jugs – Instead of buying bottled water every day (as the tap water is not potable), bring a reusable water bottle and buy the biggest jugs you can find. They are only around 15 CNY and will last weeks. If you’re not staying that long, get your fellow travelers to chip in. You’ll save money and prevent more single-use plastic from ending up in a landfill.
How to Get Around China
Public Transportation – Buses are the most popular way to travel and usually cost between 1-3 CNY within a city. Major cities also have extensive underground systems that are less than 6 CNY per ride. The Airport Express line in Beijing costs 25 CNY.
While most cities in China are great to discover on foot, pollution can be quite hard on the body for extended periods. Be sure to check the air quality every morning before heading out.
Bus – Buses are generally cheaper than trains when it comes to intercity travel so they are your best bet for short distances (anything under 8-10 hours). For example, the 9-hour ride from Beijing to Anshan is around 220 CNY while the train is between going to be at least 350 CNY (and the train only saves you 90 minutes). The two-hour bus ride from Beijing to Tianjin is around 80 CNY while the trip from Shanghai to Hangzhou is 3 hours and costs around 120 CY.
Train – For long-distance travel around the country, trains are an affordable and often unique choice. On a high-speed train, the ticket from Beijing to Shanghai is around 555 CNY for 2nd class, around 935 CNY for 1st class, and around 1,800 CNY for a VIP seat. The journey takes around 4.5 hours.
For the full-day train that takes between 14-22 hours, a soft sleeper ticket is 525 CNY while a superior sleeper is 880 CNY. You can also get a regular hard sleeper seat for just 180 CNY but 22 hours in a seat is asking a lot!
The 5-6 journey ride from Beijing to Xi’an will cost 515 CNY for a second-class seat, 825 CNY for a first-class seat, and 1,630 CNY for a VIP ticket.
For overnight trains, keep in mind that the lower bunk is usually cheaper as it is closer to the noise. Top bunks will be more expensive, though they occasionally have very little space to offer (even though you pay more); it is not uncommon to be unable to sit all the way up. But you do get more privacy, which is worth it in my opinion!
Flying – There are plenty of regional carriers in China when it comes to flights. In fact, there are over 30 domestic airlines in the country! Some of the larger ones are Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, and Southwest Airlines. Just keep in mind that many flights rarely leave on time, so be mindful of your connections when booking!
Round-trip flights from Beijing to Shanghai can cost as little as 1,150 CNY for the two-hour journey.
From Beijing to Hong Kong will cost at least 900 CNY and take just under four hours. Xi’an to Shanghai will cost at least 950 CNY and take just over two hours. Beijing to Taipei will cost around 1,600 CNY and take just over three hours.
Car Rental – China does not recognize the International Driving Permit, making it virtually impossible to rent a car here unless you apply for a Chinese license. I don’t advise renting a car here.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking in China isn’t very common so you’ll need to do some preparation before you head out. Using a thumb won’t work as that isn’t a widely-understood gesture for hitchhiking in China. Having a sign (written in Mandarin) that says “hitchhiking” is your best bet to secure a ride as you’ll get lots of taxis trying to pick you up if you’re standing on the side of the road.