By Sara Naumann
China is a vast and extraordinary country spanning thousands of miles from the deserts in the west to the ocean on the east. Culturally, China has one of the most rich and textured histories of all civilizations that encompasses over 5,000 years. This is rich stuff for a traveler.
The following list is a perfect place to start creating your first-time visit itinerary for China. Need more ideas? Click here to read another top-ten list that will take you to more exotic destinations...
The Forbidden City, or Palace Museum, sits at the center of Beijing, directly north of Tiananmen Square where the famous portrait of Mao Zedong hangs on the palatial crimson wall. It was the imperial seat for Ming and Qing dynasty emperors from 1420 until 1912 when the last emperor, Pu Yi, abdicated. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
The Great Wall winds its way across China covering over 5,500 miles (8,850 km). While the latest construction occurred after 1368 during the Ming Dynasty, construction of the Great Wall began over 2,000 years ago. In fact, the Great Wall is actually made up of a number of interconnecting walls spanning China that different dynasties and warlords constructed over the years.
Discovered in 1974 when a local farmer was digging a well, the terracotta army, buried in 210 BC with the first emporer of the Qin dynasty, is a breathtaking site. The thousands of life-size figures have individually unique faces and hair and armor styles appropriate to their rank. The museum of the Terracotta Army is located in Xi'An, Shanxi province.
Illustrating the 20 Renminbi (Chinese currency) note, the karst mountains are famously beautiful in China. Located in the south of China in Guangxi province, they can best be viewed from Yangshuo, a small town outside Guilin, a major city in Guangxi Province.
China's "Paradise on Earth", Hangzhou is a lovely city centered around the famed West Lake. This green city is full of gardens, tranquil temples and pavilions and bustling historic streets to venture through. The hills surrounding the city grow the famous longjing green tea. Hangzhou is close to Shanghai but is a much more laid-back, cultural city.
Jiuzhaigou Valley is a nature reserve located in China's Sichuan province. A beautiful example of China's varied landscape, Jiuzhaigou is famous for crystal blue lakes and multi-level waterfalls. It is populated by a number of Tibetan villages so is also a superb place to see and experience Tibetan local culture.
Now a Chinese museum, the Potala Palace was traditionally the seat of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhists' spiritual leader. Famous for its imposing white walls surrounding the inner red palace, the building sits at 3,700 meters or over 12,000 feet. The Potala Palace is located in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The Bund, meaning embankment, was historically the seat of Shanghai's most powerful businessmen in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Bund is a fabulous place to see examples of Shanghai's rich architectural history, illustrated by the HSBC Building, built in 1923 and at the time said to be "the most luxurious building between the Suez Canal and the Bering Strait." (Quote source: Wikipedia)
Heading out to Chengdu is a great way to get a taste of Sichuan as well as an in-depth understanding of Giant Pandas at the Breeding Research Base.
See modern China - and Asia - at the cutting edge with a visit to Hong Kong. Walking down the Kowloon side promenade gives the traveler a view of some of the most beautiful modern architecture in China, dominated by the Bank of China Tower designed by I.M. Pei.