Architecture in China, A Guide for the Casual Traveler

A Guide For Travelers to the People's Republic of China

Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China in the rural mist of Chengde, Hebei Province of China
The Great Wall of China was voted one of the new 7 wonders of the world in 2007. Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

The People's Republic of China is a land of superlatives. It's the largest country in East Asia and the most populous country in the world. This ancient land is home to some of the world's tallest skyscrapers and most sacred architecture. China contains the world's longest human-made structure and some of the world's most ancient architecture. At the same time, the country is racing into the future, having become one of the world's largest import AND export markets.

  China's impact on the global economy—and global climate change—has brought the country charging into 21st century tourism. What architecture should travelers look forward to seeing when visiting these cities?

Visiting Beijing:

Remember that the Chinese written language is far different from what Westerners are used to. Chinese-to-English translations have been updated over the years, and even places have gone by different names. Beijing used to be called "Peking." Although not as populous as the City of Shanghai, Beijing has millions of people living in the capital city of China. Typical of many Chinese cities, Beijing is home to some of China's most important historic landmarks that stand in the shadow of 21st century architecture.

  • Great Wall of China. Extending about 6,500 km (4,000 miles), the Great Wall is the longest man-made structure in the world. Portions of the wall north of Beijing have been preserved. The Central Intelligence Agency's Physiography Map gives a good visual of where Beijing is located in relation to the meandering wall.

Site of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing also has many bold modern buildings, including these:

Also take a look at Best of Beijing from the China Travel Expert.

Visiting Shanghai:

Shanghai has become China's Global City, whose skyline has been transformed by the country's economic building boom. It is the largest city in the People's Republic of China and the largest cargo port in the world. The busy metropolis has more than 3,100 skyscrapers and some of the nation's most innovative modern architecture. Also in Shanghai are historic buildings along the Huangpu River in a region called The Bund.

Visiting Nanjing:

Nanjing is the capital of China's Jiangsu Province and one of the oldest cities near Shanghai. It's ancient walls and gates are being overshadowed by 21st century architecture.

  • Zifeng Tower, example of a 2010 skyscraper casting shadows on an ancient village

Visiting Suzhou:

Suzhou, west of Shanghai, is the second largest city in the Jiangsu Province, after Nanjing.

Its natural beauty has attracted both artists and scholars, continuing to make this city a center of culture.

Visiting Hong Kong:

Is Hong Kong part of China? Yes, mostly. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was a crown colony of the United Kingdom from 1842 until 1997, when the British handed it over to China. Today the region is known for its thriving capitalist economy and soaring skyscrapers. Many of the world's tallest buildings are located in Hong Kong.

Check out more Places to See in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Skyline by the Hong Kong Travel Expert.

Visiting Shenzhen:

Bordering Hong Kong, Shenzhen in Guangdong Province is an important foreign investment center and one of the busiest ports in China.

Visiting Guangzhou:

Also known as Canton, Guangzhou near Shenzhen in Guangdong Province is a densely-populated commercial and manufacturing center. Guangzhou is the capital of the Guangdong Province.

Must-See Along the Yangtze River:

Spanning about 410 miles (660 kilometers) along the Yangtze River, the Three Gorges Dam is China's biggest construction project since the Great Wall. The massive dam is expected to become the world's largest producer of hydro-electric power.

  • Three Gorges Dam (the Yangtze River Dam Project)

Visiting Tibet:

Tibet is the highest region on earth and site of the Potala Palace, Norbulingka, and many significant temples and monasteries. Visit the Tibet Photo Gallery by our China Travel Expert.

Visiting Xi'An:

Xi'An is capital of Shaanxi province and the first historic capital of China. Here is the site of one of the world's greatest archaeological discoveries—Emporer Qin's Terra Cotta Army, thousands of life-sized clay figures protecting the tomb of Qin Shi Huang.

Visit the Xi'an Photo Gallery by our China Travel Expert.

Visiting Ningbo:

This harbor city in Zhejiang Province may be best known to tourists for the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, one of the longest sea-crossing bridges in the world, which has connected Ningbo with Jiaxing (near Shanghai) since May 2008. In Ningbo itself, Pritzker architect Wang Shu has been careful to preserve the history and culture of one of China's oldest ports.

See other works by Wang Shu, Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate, 2012

Off the Beaten Path:

The freedom to travel anywhere in China may be limited, but touring the countryside provides many treats. Pingyao City, in Shanxi Province, may be the only remaining fully intact city wall in China. Unfortunately, Pingyao is the victim of China's industrial success, as it is also one of the most polluted cities in China. As many ancient communities are being destroyed in favor of modern urbanization, take note of the local residential architecture of the common folk. Houses and other folk architecture in China take on a variety of forms to provide basic shelter in a widely varied landscape. On display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, is Yin Yu Tang, an 18th century home from southeastern China that was dismantled, restored, and reassembled at the museum. Hopefully this speciman will not be the last example of China's vernacular architecture.