So, you’re coming to China, but you’ve been to Beijing and seen Shanghai. The Great Wall and the Terracotta Army are great, but maybe you’re looking to get off the beaten path and see a more authentic side of the Middle Kingdom. In that case, it’s time to explore some of the best small cities in China.
There are lots of reasons to look at a list of small cities in China. For one thing, small cities are usually much more wallet-friendly than the top tier tourist destinations.
One thing to keep in mind is that what qualifies as a ‘small’ city in China might not be considered small anywhere else in the world. A big city is a 20 million plus megapolis, so quiet provincial cities may still be home to several million people.
Also read: How Much Would a Trip to China Cost?
Situated on the coast in the northern province of Liaoning, Dalian offers both exceptional seafood and surprising architecture. The city was controlled at times by the Russians and the Japanese, resulting in a very unique international atmosphere. It’s one of the few places in China where you can find historic European architecture, good beaches, and clean air.
What to do in Dalian? Take in the architecture on the ‘Russian Style’ street, admire the ocean cliffs along Binhai Road, and make sure to visit Xinghai Square, which bills itself as the largest city square in the world. Whatever you do, don’t leave Dalian without trying the seafood. Vendors on the beach sell fresh catch for a few dollars, but the seafood restaurants along Xinghai Square serve up an even more memorable feast: pick live seafood from the tank and it will be steamed right at your table.
Another northern Chinese gem with Russian history, the capital of Heilongjiang province is known worldwide for its annual ice and snow festival. Beyond the festival, there’s still plenty to do in Harbin.
Probably the most beautiful church in all of China, the Russian Saint Sofia Church could fool anyone into thinking they’re in Moscow. Zhongyang Pedestrian Street is perfect for strolling and packed with shopping and street food — make sure to try the yang rou chuan (lamb skewers). If you’re looking to take interesting photos, visit Harbin’s ultramodern opera house and theatre.
Harbin is also a good jumping-off point for skiing in China. Yabuli Ski Resort, widely regarded as the best in the country, is only about 200 km outside the city. There is a very small ski hill right inside the city limits if you’re just looking to hit the slopes for an afternoon.
Suzhou is certainly on the tourist track, but with so much history and culture only a half-hour train ride from Shanghai, it would be a shame to miss this beautiful small city. The “Venice of China” is best known for the canals crisscrossing its historic centre, traditional Chinese gardens and several well-preserved historic villages on the outskirts of the city. Tongli Water Town is the easiest to get to, although it’s the most touristy and expensive. Go after 5.30pm for free entrance and fewer crowds.
Beyond the water towns, you can watch how silk is made at the Suzhou Silk Museum, hike through tea terraces on the islands in nearby Taihu lake, and sample delicate Jiangsu cuisine, one of the eight traditional cuisines of China.
Unlike many “ancient towns” in China that have been completely rebuilt for tourists, Suzhou feels genuinely historic. It’s easily one of the best small ancient towns in China for anyone looking for an authentic experience (or just beautiful photos).
While Nanjing is by no means a small city, it’s not frequently visited by foreign tourists. Nanjing was the capital of the Ming dynasty before the seat of government was moved to Beijing, so the city is dotted with historic sites, from the original city walls to the tombs of the emperors.
Seasonal attractions are a big draw in Nanjing. Qixia Mountain in the northeast of the city has been famous for centuries for its fall colours, and for the thousands of statues of the Buddha carved into the hillside. In the springtime, 40,000 plum trees blossom in the central Purple Mountain park, and Nanjing hosts one of the largest lantern festivals in the country at the end of Chinese New Year (late January or early February).
While it doesn’t have the star power of nearby Shanghai or the historical depths of Suzhou, Nanjing is a relaxed city where travellers can get a taste of modern Chinese life without all the trappings of heavy tourism.
Several hours down the coast from Nanjing (on the bullet train, that is) lies Xiamen, a city that’s been attracting Chinese tourists for years with its mild weather and pleasant scenery. The city is known for its tree-lined beaches and laid-back vibe, although it’s recently begun to develop into a centre for the arts. You can find galleries, boutiques, and local artisans at Shapowei Art Zone, housed in a repurposed industrial space.
Xiamen also boasts the world’s longest elevated cycling route. The raised route is 7 km, but if you’re looking for a longer ride, the Amoy Circular Route circumnavigates the island city in 43 km. It’s also the site for one of China’s biggest marathons.
Vehicle-free Gulangyu island, a short ferry ride away from the city centre, is a good retreat if the city wasn’t relaxing enough for you already. In addition to the beaches, there are historic houses from when the island was inhabited by foreign traders during colonial times.
With over 30 million people, Chongqing can’t really be called a “small” city, but it’s often overlooked in favour of its more famous neighbour in Sichuan Province, Chengdu. What Chongqing lacks in famous panda reserves, it makes up for in vibrant street art and spicy food. Chongqing hot pot (and Sichuan food in general) is wildly popular all over China and there’s nowhere better to test your tolerance for spicy food.
Chongqing is one of the few places in China where graffiti is viewed as art as opposed to vandalism. The brightly coloured buildings give the city an edgy, alternative vibe in stark contrast to most other big Chinese cities. Add in the large student population, booming arts scene and mountainous topography and you have a hip, unique city that truly stands out in China.
While Chongqing doesn’t have too many major tourist attractions (the city itself is the main draw), it’s a good base for exploring the region. Cruises heading upriver to the Three Gorges of the Yangtze begin in Chongqing, and there are plenty of opportunities for side trips to historic sites like the Dazu Buddhist Temple.
If you want to beat the crowds to the next major tourist destination in China, get to Xingyi now. This small city in the far west of Guizhou province is very difficult to get to, but that will change when it’s connected to the high-speed rail network. In the meantime, the easiest way to get there is by slow train from Kunming.
For now, Xingyi’s three main tourist destinations are blissfully uncrowded and absolutely stunning. The Maling Gorge, which cuts right through the city, holds dozens of waterfalls and a glass elevator. To the south, Wanfenglin Scenic Area offers majestic karst peaks, beautiful country villages, and a temple built into the side of a mountain. Further south is Wanfeng Lake, where you can visit an admittedly out of place but beautiful European-style castle. There’s also a park, boating and a zip line on the lake.
While Xingyi itself isn’t much of a destination, it makes a great base for visiting the surrounding sites, and it’s exceptionally affordable. Make sure to try plenty of Guizhou food during your visit. The local cuisine is a delicious mix of spicy Sichuan food and vibrant Yunnan cuisine.
Kunming is the gateway to mountainous Yunnan, but there are plenty of reasons to spend a few days in the city before heading north. Kunming has such clean air and comfortable weather year-round that it’s known as the ‘city of eternal spring’. Take a walk through the beautiful city parks or have a drink in an open-air café and you’ll see why it’s known as one of the most liveable cities in China. In fact, many dissidents who were exiled to Kunming during the Cultural Revolution declined to return to east China when the political winds changed.
There are a number of historic sites in Kunming, including Yuantong Temple and the East and West Pagodas, which date back over 1,000 years to when Yunnan was an independent kingdom. There are also plenty of options for day trips. The Stone Forest, or Shilin in Chinese, is a grouping of dramatic vertical rock forms about two hours away from Kunming. Just outside the city, the Western Hills provides numerous hiking opportunities, peaceful temples and views of nearby Dian Lake.
Another unique attraction on Dian Lake is the Ethnic Minorities Village. Yunnan is home to several dozen groups of people who are not Han Chinese (the dominant ethnicity in Eastern China). The village showcases the traditional clothing, customs, architecture, and religion of 26 of these groups, all in a beautiful park that you can see in one day. It’s a great educational experience for kids or anyone who wants to learn more about lesser-known sides of China.
There’s so much to see in the Middle Kingdom that it can feel overwhelming to any traveller. There’s no shortage of cities in the world’s most rapidly urbanising country. Hopefully, this list will help you get off the beaten path in one of the best small cities in China.
Now, if you’re planning a trip with tight purse strings, read on for some money-saving tips for visiting China on a budget.