China’s the world’s oldest civilisation, its most populous country, second largest state and third or fourth biggest land mass – depending on the measurements.
The political regime’s almost as complex as the country’s geography, climate and culture. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when family holidays turn out to be quite straightforward here.
Tourism’s well managed and, with more UNESCO World Heritage sites and natural wonders than almost anywhere else on earth, doesn’t really have to try that hard.
There are hundreds of excellent hotels across a wide budget range in every city. And, whatever you want to see or do, there will definitely be a guided tour or, at the very least, a state-registered and knowledgeable local guide.
Good domestic rail and air services make multi-centre holidays in China doable and affordable.
China has 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites, second only to Italy’s 51.
The country’s iconic attractions include: the Great Wall; The Forbidden City; the Yangtze River; the Li River Karst Landscape; Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries; the Terracotta Army; Xanadu and the Silk Roads.
Hong Kong has its own Disneyland and dozens of other waterparks, theme parks and family attractions as well as 41 city beaches and direct flights to all major cities in mainland China.
China has over 292 different languages, but English is widely spoken in Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Chinese law’s very strict and penalties for crimes involving visitors are particularly harsh. So for all its size and diversity, China’s one of the safest countries for family travel.
China is currently the fourth most visited country in the world, attracting 55.7 million tourists annually. The WTO estimate it will rise to number one by 2020.
Where to go and stay in China
To call Hong-Kong ‘China Light’ is an injustice, but it’s undeniably a city kids will feel more familiar with. A balance of incredible street life, mesmeric shopping, colourful heritage and non-stop action, it’s a love-story in the making for teenagers. And younger kids have theme parks, waterparks, aquariums and cute sights on every corner to keep them happy.
Hong Kong has some of the world’s most luxurious hotels but mid-range international brands like Holiday Inn are good value and budget options include sleek Salisbury Hotel YMCA which has family rooms available.
Don’t miss: Lantau Island; Po Lin Monastery and the giant Buddha; Hong Kong Space Museum; Ocean Park, one of the world’s top 15 amusement parks; Temple Street Night Market; Luk Yi Teahouse; Big Wave Bay; and treetop trekking in Hong Kong Aviary Park.
The South China Sea is omnipresent in Hong Kong and good for dolphin watching cruises and over 41 city beaches.
Hong Kong is a one hour and 25 minute flight from Guilin; under three hours from Beijing; two hours from Shanghai and Chengdu.
One of the world’s largest and most densely populated capitals, Beijing’s as exciting and enchanting as it is hectic. This is the city for the Forbidden City and accessible sections of The Great Wall. Where ancient districts are tucked into a vast urban sprawl and you can pretty much expect everything to be unexpected, eccentric and, often, spectacular.
Modern Beijing is well stocked with large, modern luxury hotels to luxury to three and four star international chains.
If you’re travelling with older kids think about staying in the hutongs: these ancient district are famous for historic siheyuans or courtyard houses and many are now charming boutique guesthouses – much cheaper than city hotels and far more interesting.
Don’t miss: The Great Wall; the Forbidden City; Tiananmen Square; the Summer Palace; Temple of Heaven; Beijing Zoo for the giant pandas; Prince Gong Mansion; the Beijing hutongs; Houhai Lake; and Wangfujing for shopping.
The hutongs are good for authentic local food and kid’s classes in everything from Chinese calligraphy to Peking Opera stage make-up and cookery.
Take a guided tour of the city or self-guide round the hutongs on a hired bike.
Visit in spring or autumn for lowest pollution levels, cooler weather and fewer crowds.
The city’s quietest in winter but it can be exceptionally cold and snowy.
Guilin is the city to visit for cruise holidays on the legendary Li River famous for its huge, limestone karsts. The experience of China here couldn’t be more different from Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. Outdoor adventure, traditional culture, nature and freedom to explore independently are the main attractions and the pace is significantly gentler so it’s a good choice for younger kids.
Guilin city centre hotels range from five-star to family run guesthouses.
Stay in Yangshuo for historic boutique hotels and Longsheng for inns overlooking the spectacular terraced rice fields.
Li River cruises take between 3 and 5 hours and 4-star boats serving lunch are the most comfortable option with kids.
Don’t miss: a bike ride round Yangshuo countryside; the Longji rice terraces; Daxu old town; Gudong waterfall; Jiangtou village; bamboo raft cruises on River Yulong; West Street for noodles and night shopping; River Li hike; and the Reed Flute Cave.
Best time to visit for dry, warm weather is between May and September – Chinese school holidays are in July and August and Guilin can be busy.
Flights to Guilin from Hong Kong take just over an hour.
High altitude Chengdu’s the city for Giant Pandas and authentic Sichuan cooking, it’s also the gateway to Jiuzhaigou National Park.
Chengdu’s a major tourist city and has an excellent range of family hotels.
Jiuzhaigou National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and sister park to Yosemite in the US.
Don’t miss: Dujiangyan Panda Base; Leshan Buddha; Mount Emei; Stone Elephant Lake; and Happy Valley amusement park.
Chengdu’s just over two hours by air from Beijing and best between March and June or September to November.
What do and see with kids in China
Disneyland, Lantau Island, Hong Kong Seeing Disneyland in China might not be top of the wish list, but the smallest Disney park in the world’s on brilliantly exciting, attraction-stuffed Lantau Island.
Ocean Park, Hong Kong One of the world’s top amusement parks and as well loved for fabulous sea views as the children’s zoo and aerial tramway.
Great Wall Hiking Tour, Bejing You can visit the Great Wall in Beijing and even toboggan down from it. But the most scenic and unspoiled section is between Simitai West and Jimshanling and a short hiking tour is fun with older kids.
Panda Keeper Tour, Chengdu A three day family tour of Chengdu which includes one day working as a keeper at Dujiangyan Panda Base.
Terracotta Army, Xi’An One of the greatest 20th century archaeological discoveries, the Terracotta Army dates back to the beginning of the Chinese Imperial Era in 1200BC.
Beijing Hutongs Hire bikes or hail a rickshaw and tour Beijing’s historic hutongs. The contrast with the high-rise ‘new’ city’s astonishing and a bit of relief at times too.
The Forbidden City, Beijing One of the world’s most important palaces, the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing was royal residence to the Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties between 1368 and 1911.
Water Cube Waterpark, Beijing Built as the aquatic centre for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Water Cube now houses a 12,000m² children’s waterpark.
Ladies Market, Hong Kong Teenage heaven on a street, Ladies Market is the thronging heart of cheap, colourful, cheerful and, often, odd bargains and worth seeing even if you aren’t buying – haggle, it’s expected.
The Peak Tram, Hong Kong For the most iconic view of Hong Kong take The Peak Tram up into the mountains and look down on the city from high, high above.
Educational value for kids
Beijing’s hutongs have kid’s classes all year round where children can learn traditional Chinese arts and crafts.
Families can try their hand at farming in small villages like Gaotian on the outskirts of Guilin.
State run tourism in China means there are guided tours for almost everything and the standard’s uniformly high.
Visit one of Beijing’s many parks and watch (or join) morning Tai Chi classes.
See at least one of the country’s legendary temples, they all have enchanting stories and legends.
China’s steeped in customs and rituals which long pre-date its communist regime, learning some traditional etiquette is considered polite for adults and charming in children.
Get kids used to being without media in China. The state controls and censors the internet heavily, so it’s back to guidebooks, cameras, paper maps and postcards.
How to get about China with kids
Don’t hire a car in China. The easiest way to get about enormous cities is by public transport, taxi or rickshaw (prices are pre-set and all drivers are state-licenced). Fast and frequent train services and regular domestic flights connect all major tourist areas. And, if you’re planning to go off the beaten track and don’t speak Chinese, there are tours to almost everywhere and many are specially designed for families with kids.