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China family holidays

PandasPandas
Mountain sceneMountain scene
Valley sceneValley scene
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Capital City Beijing
Flying Time 10hrs
Carbon Footprint 9.31 CO2
Timezone GMT +8
Currency Yuan Renminbi

Today

Overview

While the world’s fastest-growing economy and most populous country (over a billion people and still growing, despite the stringent one-child-per-family policy) may not strike you as an obvious place to take kids, China is fast becoming a popular choice for adventurous family holidays, especially among those with older kids.

China's 4000-year history has left an impressive cultural legacy of palaces, ancient monuments, Buddhist gardens and pagodas that will inspire even the stroppiest of teenagers, while Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics and an intense development program have transformed the cities to a mind-boggling degree. Now safer and easier to navigate, they offer out-of-this-world skyscrapers to gawp and great shopping, especially for those who love their gadgetry.

But this is also a country with some of the world's most diverse and breathtaking scenery, including mountains, deserts, foothills, plateaus and plains, offering fast-paced outdoor activities for adrenaline junkies plus gentler outings for smaller children.

Even if it were possible, seeing everything in one whirlwind trip may not be the way to go, especially with little ones – it's best to target a couple of places you and the kids don't want to miss. Bear in mind that the further you stray from the main cities, the harder the travelling will be, especially with tots in tow. 

Things to do with kids in China

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 Wuhan (home to Mao’s Summer Villa), 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 new-in-2016 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 (1hr 15min) 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. 

Eat

Cuisine in China is so diverse that you should be able to find something on any menu to satisfy even the fussiest of eaters. Vegetarians are always catered for. A big – and unexpected – hit with many kids is moonfruit, sometimes known as pamplemousse, which looks like a huge grapefruit but is much sweeter. 

If you're caught on the hop, try soft baozi buns (savoury and sweet) from street vendors. Some of the night-market specialities may look a little scary to a small (or large) person, but western fast-food chains are readily available in cities, and big cities have lots of restaurants catering specifically for westerners, which can take the stress out of family holidays.

Give tap-water a wide berth in favour of bottled or boiled water, fizzy drinks or fruit juices. For the grown-ups there’s tea in lots of interesting varieties, beer (Tsingtao is a popular brand) and even branches of a certain global coffee chain!

When to go to China

The weather in China is diverse, ranging from semi-tropical summers in the south-east to hot, dry summers and bitterly cold winters in the north-east. 

Generally, the best times to schedule family holidays here are autumn and spring, when temperatures are a reasonable 20–24°C throughout China. Warmer months to travel are Apr–Oct, but most of China’s annual rainfall also occurs in summer (June–Aug).

Cost

As in Hong Kong, China as a whole may not be cheap to get to, but once you've reached your destination, food is generally very cheap and accommodation can also be a relative bargain, depending on what level of hotel you choose (it's also possible to splurge massively!).

By Rachelle Keyes

Related features

Child-Friendly Beijing: Insider Tips to the Chinese Capital
Child-Friendly Beijing: Insider Tips to the Chinese Capital
Travel agency founder and father of three Peter Danford shares his tips for enjoying Beijing with children.

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