20 Must-Know Tips for Visiting China for the First Time

August 18, 2023

China is an amazing country to visit with a fascinating history, delicious food, beautiful landscapes, and vibrant cities. If you’re planning a trip to China, here are 20 tips to make your visit easier and more enjoyable:

1. Learn handy Mandarin phrases

Speak a few key Mandarin words and phrases to be polite, ask for help and connect with locals.

“Ni hao” (hello), “xie xie” (thank you) and “dui bu qi” (sorry) are handy basics. Learn to ask “Ni shuo Yingyu ma?” (Do you speak English?) which is very useful. Also know key words for directions, like left, right, bathroom, etc. You don’t need to be fluent, just learn polite greetings, please’s and thank you’s.

2. Sample street food delicacies

Street food stalls offer delicious, authentic and affordable local snacks and meals. Expect to pay around $1-3 USD.

Try breakfast favorites like you tiao (fried dough sticks), soy milk and steamed buns. For lunch or dinner try skewers, dumplings, noodles bowls and savory pancakes. Be adventurous and you may find new favorite foods! Keep an eye out for long lines at popular stalls.

3. Bring an air pollution mask

Many large cities in China suffer from smog and air pollution issues. The air quality can vary day to day. Bring a protective face mask for use during periods of heavy smog or respiratory irritation. N95 rated masks offer the best filtration.

4. Have cash on hand

While credit cards are increasingly accepted, cash is still king in China. Keep enough yuan on hand for meals, transportation, admission tickets and other expenses. Get cash from ATMs in the airport or your hotel. Major hubs have ATMs, but rural areas may not.

5. Get a VPN before you go

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is essential for accessing websites and apps blocked by China’s firewall. Sites like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp and many news sites are restricted. Download a VPN app before your trip so you can use the internet freely and stay in touch with family and friends back home. You can check VPN review sites to find out which VPNs work best in China or search with Chinese terms such as “VPN排行” (VPN ranking). Connect to a server located outside of China to bypass the firewall.

6. Get a local SIM card

Purchasing a local Chinese SIM card for your unlocked phone gives you mobile data access for maps, translations, ride sharing apps and more. China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom are major providers. You can get SIM cards at the airport or local retailers.

7. Follow cultural etiquette

Respecting Chinese cultural norms will help you avoid offending locals. Learn the customs for eating meals, bargaining, visiting temples, giving gifts and more. For example, finish everything on your plate to avoid insulting your host.

8. Experience a tea ceremony

Visit a traditional teahouse for a Chinese tea experience. Knowledgeable hosts introduce you to each tea, explain the brewing process and share tasting notes. You’ll sample different varieties like green, black and oolong teas. Popular teahouses can be found in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

9. Hike the Great Wall

China’s iconic Great Wall is a must-see attraction on any trip. Choose one section, like Mutianyu, Badaling or Jinshanling, that fits your fitness level. Bring proper shoes, water and snacks for a Great Wall trek. Go early to beat crowds if possible. The views are phenomenal.

10 Wander the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City in Beijing offers incredible insight into China’s fascinating imperial history. This complex housed Chinese emperors and their households for almost 500 years. You need 4-5 hours to walk through this massive site and see highlights like the Gate of Supreme Harmony.

11. Marvel at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

See the towering karst stone pillars that inspired the scenery in Avatar at this park in Hunan province. Ride a gondola up for amazing views. You can even walk on the glass bottomed Skywalk bridge between cliffs if you’re feeling daring!

12. Take an overnight train

Traveling by sleeper train is a convenient way to cover long distances in China while also saving money on a hotel room. Beds are basic but clean and orderly. Pack food, entertainment and toiletries to enhance the experience. Popular routes are Beijing to Xi’an and Shanghai to Guilin.

13. Try all types of dumplings

Chinese dumplings, called jiaozi, are a must-try! Sample steamed, pan-fried, boiled and soup dumplings which come with various fillings. Try classic pork and chive, Shanghai crab and pork or vegetarian versions. Learn how to properly eat soup dumplings without spilling.

14. See giant pandas

Get up close to China’s adorable national treasure at panda conservation centers in Chengdu, Fuzhou or near Yangshuo. The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu is the most popular. You’ll get to see pandas eating, playing and lounging in their natural habitat.

15. Haggle for deals at markets

Don’t be shy about bargaining at street markets, souvenir stalls and small shops, where haggling is expected. Offer about 30-50 percent of the asking price. If your price is rejected, walk away and often the vendor will call you back. Always negotiate with a smile!

16.  Cook hot pot with friends

Eating hot pot is a favorite Chinese social dining experience. At the table, a pot of broth simmers, then you add raw meat, vegetables, noodles and dumplings to cook right in the pot and dip in savory sauces. Great for groups! Order a mild or spicy broth.

17. Explore the Terracotta Army site

The Terracotta Army site near Xi’an offers a jaw-dropping look at thousands of lifesize clay soldiers from around 200 BC. This vast tomb complex of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang provides insight into the country’s rich history. Allow 2-3 hours to walk around.

18 .Cruise the stunning Li River

Take a relaxing 4-5 hour boat ride along the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo. You’ll be surrounded by breathtaking limestone karst mountains jutting up from the water. The scenery is even better than on China’s 20 yuan bill!

19. Take a tai chi lesson

Tai chi is a traditional Chinese martial art focused on slow, graceful movements that help improve balance and health. Take a lesson and learn tai chi fundamentals from a master. Lessons often take place in scenic outdoor locations. Tai chi originates from Chen Village in Henan.

20 .Feast on dim sum

Go out for dim sum, a China dining experience centered around small plates, tea drinking and conversation. Try shrimp dumplings, pork buns, turnip cakes and other bites wheeled around on carts in bamboo steamers. Hong Kong is famous for its dim sum houses.


With intricate history, delicious cuisine, diverse landscapes and vibrant culture, China offers an incredibly rewarding travel experience. By getting a VPN, practicing key phrases, eating adventurously, respecting etiquette and more, you can make the most of your first visit to this fascinating country. Remember to have patience, keep an open mind, and don’t rush too much as you explore. Immerse yourself in all that China has to offer. Follow these tips to have the trip of a lifetime and understand why so many travelers return to China over and over again – constantly discovering new wonders. Where will your China journey lead you? The possibilities are endless.

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Andi Perullo de Ledesma

I am Andi Perullo de Ledesma, a Chinese Medicine Doctor and Travel Photojournalist in Charlotte, NC. I am also wife to Lucas and mother to Joaquín. Follow us as we explore life and the world one beautiful adventure at a time.

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