Art, Architecture & Aesthetics: Explore Eastern China
Explore Eastern China on this 13-day tailor-made trip immersing yourself in Chinese art and culture in Beijing, Xi'an, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai. See the Forbidden City, Great Wall of China and Terracotta Army as well as less well known artistic and cultural treasures across Eastern China.
Itinerary at a Glance:
- Explore Beijing and a less visited section of the Great Wall of China
- See up close the staggeringly intricate soldiers of the Terracotta Army near Xi'an
- Visit a panda sanctuary neat Xi'an
- Admire UNESCO-listed Hangzhou, famed for its beautiful setting
- Take to the canals of Suzhou by boat and visit the classical gardens the city is famed for
- Spend a couple of days enjoying the buzz in energetic Shanghai
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When To Travel
All of the holidays we create are completely tailor-made to you
Day 1: Overnight Flight to China
Your tailor-made itinerary to explore Eastern China begins with a direct flight from the UK to Beijing, which takes ten hours. You'll be flying overnight so if you have any trouble sleeping pack a Mandarin phrasebook to brush up on some basic phrases.
Day 2: Arrive in Beijing
On arrival in the Chinese capital this morning your driver will meet you in the arrivals hall for a private transfer to your city centre hotel.
After lunch you have the afternoon to get your bearings and go for a wander in the neighbourhood around your hotel. We can recommend several restaurants for a first supper in China and some guidance for what to order to help you navigate the menu.
Day 3: Beijing’s Best Bits
Today is all about exploring the historic Chinese capital, with the emphasis on some of the absolute highlights.
Your guide will meet you at your hotel after breakfast, and the first stop is the iconic Tiananmen Square, the heart of the city. Wander through the square past kite-flyers and hawkers, and stopping at Chairman Mao's mausoleum en route, before you reach the entrance to the Forbidden City, the imperial palace Chinese emperors for 500 years from the Ming to the Qing dynasties.
Your guide will help bring this extraordinary place to life with tales of life within the walls of the palace for the emperors and the thousands of people who inhabited the Forbidden City over the centuries. Complete the visit with a walk up Jingshan Park for superb panoramic views over the city and back over the Forbidden City itself.
The final stop of the day is to explore the hutongs, the original single-storey neighbourhoods that once stretched in every direction from the Forbidden City. Sadly, many of the hutongs were levelled in the run up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but those that do remain provide a fascinating window on what Beijing once looked like. Wander the alleyways and courtyards with your guide and you'll see old men playing mahjong and street vendors peddling delicious bao (fluffy steamed buns) filled with various meats and vegetables.
This evening you can enjoy a well-earned dinner before an early night; tomorrow you're going to see another of the highlights of China - the Great Wall.
Day 4: The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu
After breakfast your guide will meet you for the two-hour transfer to Mutianyu, one of the finest sections of the Great Wall of China in proximity to Beijing, and dating from the Ming Dynasty (14th - 17th centuries). Take a gondola up into the hills before enjoying a two-hour hike along the wall, imagining as you go what life was like for soldiers manning the defences against the threat of marauding Mongols. At the end of the walk you can enjoy a well-earned picnic lunch before taking a fun toboggan ride back down.
Then head back to Beijing for an insight into a newer side of China with an exploration of the capital's contemporary art scene. Your guide will take you to 798 Art District, where derelict 1950s factories, built by Soviet-era East Germans, have been given a new lease of life as huge gallery spaces. Wander around the galleries and grab a drink from one of the achingly cool coffee shops.
Return to your hotel, and we can recommend several of the finest restaurants in Beijing and make reservations.
Day 5: The Summer Palace, Lama Temple and Liulichang Market in Beijing
Emperors enjoyed the beautiful surroundings of the Summer Palace for centuries, when it was their retreat from the humidity of sweltering Beijing in the summer months. The current layout of lakes, islands and buildings - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - was created by the formidable Dowager Empress Cixi, who put some 10,000 labourers to work digging the centrepiece Kunming Lake in the late 19th century.
This morning your guide will show you around the beautifully
landscaped gardens and temples some half-an-hour from Beijing, and
you can then enjoy a boat ride across Kunming Lake and past the
elegant marble boat 'moored' there.
This afternoon you have the chance to experience a little bit of Lhasa in Beijing at the Lama Temple or Yonghegong, the foremost Tibetan Buddhist temple in the capital for over three hundred years. Wander past meditating monks, breathe in the incense from thousands of joss sticks and marvel at the 60ft plus gold painted wooden Maitreya Buddha (Buddha's anointed successor) statue in the wonderfully named Hall of Boundless Happiness.
Last Stop Liulichang Market, where you can wander the many stalls and shops selling art supplies. It's a fun place to pick up souvenirs from your stay in the city.
Day 6: The Temple of Heaven and on to Xi’an
If you want a lovely insight into everyday life in China, we always recommend visiting a park, and there are few nicer for a morning wander than the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven. Wander through the grounds to see elderly Beijing residents performing tai chi, practicing sword fighting or artfully flinging frisbees in morning rituals carried out in 'People's Parks' across the country. Your guide can introduce you to the basic principles of tai chi if interested.
Then visit the centrepiece to all this - the Temple of Heaven itself. Designed as a holy place where emperors could come to pray for good harvests (which in turn usually ensured civil harmony), your guide will explain the meaning of the many motifs on the temple's walls.
From there, head to the train station for the four-and-a-half-hour journey to the former capital, Xi'an, where you will be met and transferred to your hotel for the night. This particular itinerary is technically a trip to Eastern China, but Xi'an is well worth the south-westerly detour.
Day 7: Xi’an and the Terracotta Army
This morning you will visit one of the absolute highlights of China, the Terracotta Army. Built to protect the country's first emperor on his journey into the afterlife, the army of 8,000 soldiers all have individual faces and most are in remarkable condition given they are 2,200 years old. The detail on some of the best-preserved warriors is incredible and has to be seen in the flesh to be believed. It's also amazing to look closely and see some areas where the original paintwork has still retained some of its colour, or to go into the attached exhibition where you can see some of the smaller pieces that have been excavated and restored to their original glory.
After a couple of hours spent admiring the army, you will return to the city centre to enjoy a bicycle ride around Xi'an's entirely intact city walls, the longest surviving example in the country, and a great vantage point from which to look down on the city.
Your final stop today will be to explore Xi'an's Great Mosque and Muslim Quarter. Islam migrated along the Silk Road to Xi'an over one thousand years ago, and the bustling streets retain the essential energy of a trading hub; while is this corner of the city you simply must pick up a few deliciously indulgent, sweet and tart persimmon cakes. Your guide will show you around and make a recommendation for the best place to try the local dumplings in a city that claims to have invented this most Chinese of dishes.
Day 8: Louguantai Panda Centre and Hangzhou
This morning you have a special chance to visit the Louguantai Giant Panda Breeding Centre to see China's national animal in the flesh. The Centre was founded in 1987, and on this memorable visit you will see pandas in their natural bamboo forested habitat, and meet the research staff who are dedicated to studying and saving this increasingly endangered species.
Next you will be whisked back to Xi'an's airport for the two-and-a-quarter-hour flight to Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province. You will be met at the airport and transferred into Hangzhou city centre and to your hotel. We can recommend somewhere to eat in town tonight.
Day 9: Hang Out in Hangzhou
Hangzhou is a one-time capital of China and generally agreed to be one of the prettiest cities in China, often invoked in the past as the archetype for the imperial Chinese aesthetic of mountains reflected in water. As such, the city's West Lake is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Marco Polo in his travels referred to Hangzhou as 'the finest and the noblest (city) in the world.'
The West Lake is your first stop this morning, from which you
can see hillsides coated in Dragon Well tea that the city is also
famous for, alongside elegant arched bridges and temple gardens.
Take to the waters of the lake on a boat ride for an even better
sense of the surroundings.
Then it's time to visit an ancient Chinese pharmacy, Huqingyutang Pharmacy, to learn about the admirable history of traditional Chinese medicine, gaining an understanding into the basic principles ('prevention, not cure' being key) of acupuncture, diet and herbal remedies.
On the subject of diet, tea plays a key role in Chinese traditions, and so we have arranged for you to enjoy a Dragon Well tea ceremony. Longjing (Chinese for Dragon Well) tea has been grown on the hills around Hangzhou for over a millennium, and you will learn about the tea leaf cultivation and preparation before the best bit - sampling the end product at a formal tea ceremony, and appreciating the distinctive terroir of this most delicious of teas.
Day 10: Hangzhou to Suzhou
There's one last Hangzhou highlight to see this morning - Lingyin Temple, a Buddhist Temple that has been rebuilt an astonishing 16 times, a rate of about once every hundred years since its initial inception in the year 326 AD. The site is still a magnet for pilgrims, and it's a lovely place to sit and watch the world, and the devout, go by.
Then you will be transferred the two-and-a-half-hours to your next stop as you explore Eastern China: Suzhou. The journey passes through some fairly non-descript towns, but Suzhou itself is a gem. Spend the rest of the afternoon wandering along the pretty canals that criss-cross a city that was famed for its scholarly and aristocratic families in bygone centuries.
Day 11: See Museums and Gardens in Suzhou
Today is another highlight on this trip to explore Eastern China as you have the chance to cruise along Suzhou's canals in a small wooden boat before you disembark at Pinjiang Street, a wonderfully photogenic collection of boutique shops and cafes lining another canal. It's another great place to pick up souvenirs of your trip.
Next you will visit a pocket-sized but beautiful example of the
famous gardens of Suzhou. The Master of the Nets Gardens uses a
number of techniques and tricks to give the impression of much
greater size than its actual one-acre area. The garden has in fact
been duplicated in its entirety at MOMA in New York as the perfect
example of Chinese garden design.
On the same theme, the next stop of the day will be Suzhou Museum, designed by starchitect I.M. Pei, most famous for his glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. His Suzhou Museum was in part a way of thanking the city which first inspired his interest in all things architecture, and it now houses everything from Neolithic artefacts to cultural treasures from more recent times.
Last but far from least on this Suzhou city tour is a visit to Zhuozheng, or the Humble Administrator's Garden. It's something of a misnomer as these gardens are the largest in Suzhou and also recognised by many as the most classical, with all of the key elements, from water features, bridges, bamboo groves and ponds filled with lotuses.
Day 12: Swap Sleepy Suzhou for Shiny Shanghai
As you continue to explore Eastern China, today is a day of contrasts, swapping sleepy Suzhou for the bright lights of Shanghai, the ultimate metropolis.
As you continue to explore Eastern China, today is a day of contrasts, swapping sleepy Suzhou for the bright lights of Shanghai, the ultimate metropolis.
After breakfast this morning you will be driven
two-and-a-half-hours to Shanghai. You will arrive in time for check
in at your hotel and lunch and then this afternoon you will dip a
first toe into this high-energy city.
Start with a visit to the intriguing Propaganda Museum to see a fine collection of the propaganda posters and other literature that were pumped out during the Chairman Mao era to persuade the population that communism was the answer.
Then visit one of the commercial zones that saw Shanghai become so wealthy in the pre-communist era. The French Concession, along with those trading areas run by the British, Japanese and Americans, saw what was a mere fishing village in the mid-19th century become one of the key commercial cities in the world. The French Concession is the most pleasant to explore today, with leafy boulevards and small bistros more redolent of the 'homeland' than China.
Rubbing up against the French Concession is the bohemian, buzzing Tianzifang Arts Area, a labyrinth of alleyways full of funky fashion boutiques and contemporary art galleries to explore. Again, this is a great place to stock up on souvenirs.
This evening we can recommend one or more of the city's finest restaurants or street food stands.
Day 13: Old Meets New in Shanghai
Shanghai merits at least a couple of days' exploration and today you will visit many more of the city's highlights.
First is Fuxing Park, once a private Ming Dynasty park, then
another throwback to the French colonial era, and now a green lung
in the city where you can have one final chance to settle in an
indulge in some excellent people watching as venerable proponents
of tai chi, frisbee throwing and ball room dancing go about their
From the relative calm of the park, visit the Bund, one-time centre of the Western powers' inspired commercial revolution that transformed the city. The Bund is famed for its architecture, which spans several decades and styles of Western architecture from the late 19th and early 20th century, and which sits in marked contrast with the vast skyscrapers across the Huangpu River that represent contemporary Chinese commercial muscle.
Another architectural curiosity is the Shanghai Museum, designed like an ancient Chinese cooking vessel. The museum collection of Chinese antiquities and ingenious inventions includes such fascinating pieces as a 3,000-year old bronze wine vessel so well balanced it can be poured with one hand.
Another Chinese innovation was in the field of acrobatics and martial arts and tonight you will see the fruition of centuries of acrobatic evolution at the ERA acrobatics show, for which we have got you tickets. Watch the acrobats and contortionists perform feats of barely imaginable strength and dexterity in a memorable finale to your tailor-made trip to explore Eastern China.
Day 14: Fly Home
This morning your driver will meet you at your hotel for the private transfer to Shanghai Airport and a late morning flight. The flight time back to London is 13 hours, and you will arrive back in mid-afternoon.
Holly and Frances are our experts for this itinerary and as seasoned travellers they have the inside track on the most memorable adventures.