Accept your limitations – with a country as vast as China, it’s impossible to do justice to the massive array of things to see and do on single family holidays. Hong Kong is a must-see, but lesser-known cities such as Tianjin (with the Huangyaguan Pass – a less touristy entry point to The Great Wall than Badalang) and Guangzhou (famous for its incredible markets and shopping) have their own distinct charms.
Start with the capital Beijing, cultural and historical centre of China. Its Temple of Heaven, a huge park and palace complex, is a great place to begin the day – the earlier the better if you want to watch locals performing tai chi and karate. Beijing Zoo is an old favourite, especially for its panda house. For people-watching and kite-flying, head to Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City, a city complex that housed China’s emperors for more than 500 years, is packed with treasures to gawp at, including dragons, phoenixes, lions and flying horses, but also space to run around in. Afterwards, escape the crowds by heading to Beihai Park, former imperial pleasure garden, where you can grab an ice-cream and take a pedal-boat on the lake. The UNESCO World Heritage listed Summer Palace is another welcome respite from central Beijing; built as the emperors’ summer residence, it’s great for picnics.
Take the bus to the Badaling Pass about 90km from Beijing, a good if touristy place to view the Great Wall – the cable-car saves little legs. Make sure to take food and water.
For more on visiting the Chinese capital and the Great Wall, see our feature An Insider Guide to Beijing with Kids.
Don't be daunted by Shanghai – despite or perhaps because of its size (18 million souls), it has plenty to keep families happy, including the Shanghai Disney Resort, Happy Valley theme park, the Ocean Aquarium and the drive-through Wild Animal Park (the latter has plenty of green space to run around in – a boon in a place where grass in parks is zealously protected). The Bund, old Shanghai's colonial riverside, has dozens of historical buildings; get there early to see locals performing tai chi. Short cruises along the Huangpu River give the chance to get an overview of Shanghai without having to cajole, bribe and beg kids to keep up, or whizz to the 88th floor of the Jin Mao Tower for great views. For fresh air, head to Century Park to join locals picnicking or to Yu Gardens in Old Town, where the restored buildings and gardens get packed to the brim with tourists but provide a diversion from the urban jungle. See the famous Shanghai Acrobats (evening performances only).
Make the short flight (75 minutes) from Beijing to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Army and Horses – 7,000 life-size pottery soldiers, horses, chariots and weapons arranged in battle beneath an enormous hangar-like building. Xi’an itself is still surrounded by its city wall, which you can tour in a chauffeured golf buggy.