Flight duration: 1.5 hours
Best months to visit: April to May and September to early November
Recommended for: All ages
Located on the northeastern coast of China, Dalian is considered a young city by Chinese standards, having only been around since 1898. Despite the profusion of new skyscrapers, a pocket of history remains in the form of colonial Russian and Japanese architecture erected during the early 20th century.
Being a coastal city, Dalian has many marine attractions. Tiger Beach Ocean Park (大连老虎滩海洋公园) is the largest center of its kind in China. Covering an area of 1.18 million square meters and spanning 4,000m of coastline, the park is home to many species of birds, marine animals, fish, and coral. The basement level has a 360-degree view of the aquarium and there are daily sea lion shows. Other animal attractions include Shengya Aquarium, Dalian Forest Zoo, and Jidiguan Pole Aquarium.
If you’re visiting Dalian for the beaches, head to Bangchui Island (棒棰岛) for a quieter experience. It has pebbly and sandy beaches with a secluded bay to swim in, as well as cliffs and hills. The park charges RMB 20 for admission and a taxi costs around RMB 20 from the downtown area. You can stay at one of the resorts on the island or visit Bangchui on a day trip.
When it comes to dining, the main attraction here is seafood. One of the most famous chains is Tiantian Yugang (天天渔港), where a dizzying array of fish and other sea creatures are displayed in refrigerated shelves. Point to the one you want and the wait staff will take your order. However, drawbacks include Chinese-only service, high prices, and smokers. For a more casual dining experience, plop down at one of the barbecued seafood stalls at the night market or near Sanba Square (三八广场). Try the salted fish and corn cake (咸鱼饼子) at Shuangshengyuan (双盛园), a 100-year-old chain that started out as a small food stall selling only the famous pancake.
Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern operate direct flights between Beijing and Dalian Zhoushuizi International Airport. You can also take the high-speed train from Beijing South Station, which takes just under 6 hours.
Flight duration: 2.5 hours
Best months to visit: April to October
Recommended for: All ages
Located on the border of Hunan Province, Zhangjiajie is said to be the inspiration for the floating mountains in Avatar. In fact, a 1,080m pillar formerly known as the Southern Sky Column was officially renamed “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” in 2010 after the film.
This misty land features scenic mountains, forests, caves, lakes, waterfalls and column-shaped peaks. The area is a natural oxygen bar – an ideal getaway from the urban jungle of Beijing to enjoy the some of the freshest air on Earth, if not Pandora.
Popular attractions include Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
(张家界国家森林公园), Suoxiyu Natural Resource Reserve (索溪峪自然保护区), and Tianmen Mountain (天门山).
Zhangjiajie cannot be seen in a rush. Most of the attractions are expansive, requiring bus rides on winding mountain roads and leisurely boat rides through the valley. However, thanks to modern technology and new constructions, some of the area’s previously-inaccessible gems are now within reach.
Built into the side of a huge cliff, a glass elevator called Bailong Tianti (百龙天梯) rises 326m into the sky (equivalent to around 100 stories) and claims to be the world’s biggest exposed glass elevator. It begins its ascent in the shadow of the cliff, then bursts into the light. The elevator rises between countless Hallelujah-style mountains until the mountain’s base disappears in the mist, creating the illusion of floating on air.
Admission to the park costs RMB 248 per person and the ticket is valid for three days. If you have more than two days to spare, consider taking the world’s longest cable car and travel through the air for 7.2km to Tianmen Mountain, where you can walk the various paths around the mountain – including a new section with a glass floor. Though terrifying at first, it offers a dramatic bird’s eye view of the park.
Though it may feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, there’s no need to worry about getting around and finding a place to stay. Zhangjiajie is a fully-developed tourist destination with hundreds of accommodations, from youth hostels to the five-star Pullman Zhangjiajie. The modern Xibu Pedestrian Street (溪布街) is a complex of restaurants, snack stalls, bars, live music venues, and shops selling souvenirs and minority dresses that will keep visitors busy in the evenings.
Air China offers direct flights from Beijing to Zhangjiajie every other day during low season and every day during high season (starting from April). There are also many flights (2.5 hours) and high-speed trains (6 hours) between Beijing and Changsha, the capital of Hunan. Zhangjiajie is a four-hour bus ride from there.
Flight duration: 2 hours
Best months to visit: March to May and September to November
Recommended for: All ages
Families are spoiled for choice in Shanghai, which features everything from animal attractions and history walks to double-decker sightseeing buses and amusement parks. Both a financial powerhouse and a cosmopolitan playground, the city is split by the Huangpu River into Puxi and Pudong (lit. “Huangpu west bank” and “Huangpu east bank”).
Echoes of the turbulent past can still be heard in neighborhoods like the Bund, the French Concession, and Hongkou District, where the Shanghai ghetto was once home to 23,000 displaced Jewish refugees from Europe. Though the Bund is of limited interest to families beyond its waterfront views, the area is notable for its architectural diversity and historical significance.
There’s much more to see and do in the former French Concession, which encompasses Xujiahui (徐家汇), Huaihai Lu (淮海路), and Hengshan Lu (衡山路). The latter has the densest concentration of restaurants and bars. Xintiandi (新天地) and Tianzifang (田子坊), both located near Huaihai Lu, are Shanghai’s answer to Nanluoguxiang – but instead of hutongs, they’re constructed within a spiderweb network of alleyways called nongtang (弄堂). Shopping is the main activity here, with an eclectic assortment of boutiques selling everything from insect-themed jewelry and used cameras to vintage Shanghai beauty products. If you must pick one, go with Tianzifang; it has more charm and character.
You can’t leave Shanghai without trying the city’s famed street snacks. One of the most popular – and crowded – places to do this is City God Temple (城隍庙), a huge complex of shops and restaurants located within the old walled city. Here, you can sample Shanghai snacks like soup-filled xiaolong bao (小笼包), massive guantang bao (灌汤包), fried pork dumplings (生煎包), and little wonton soup (小混沌). While you’re here, check out the adjoining Yuyuan Gardens (豫园) –
but avoid going on weekends.
There are many family-friendly museums in Shanghai, including Madame Tussauds on Nanjing Xilu, featuring wax statues of celebrities like Jackie Chan and Yao Ming. One of the quirkier museums in Shanghai is the tiny but well-curated Shanghai Propaganda Art Museum, which houses 20th century Chinese propaganda posters with English descriptions. On the Pudong side, families can consider visiting Shanghai Ocean Aquarium by the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (combo tickets available).
There are numerous daily flights between Beijing and Shanghai. Many would argue that the 5-hour ride on the high-speed train is more convenient and comfortable. It departs from Beijing South Station and arrives at Shanghai Hongqiao Station.
Photos courtesy of Bfishadow and Michael Saechang(Flickr), Wikimedia Commons; Fufuwolf, www.sqfp.info, Wang Jianjun(Flickr), Wikimedia Commons; Alexliu’pic(Flickr), Jirui Chen, Adactio, Kamal Zharif, Iceninejon, Michael Vito(Flickr).
This article originally appeared on p62-65 of the beijingkids April 2014 issue. Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com