With over 1.4 billion people, China is the most populated country in the world. Over the years, migration from the countryside to the city increased sharply. In fact, by 2018, close to 60% of Chinese live in an urban center, that’s over 800 million people. Though there are various definitions of what a megacity is, it’s widely accepted that these are cities with a minimum population of 10 million people. Therefore, China has 14 megacities. All of them are located in the eastern half of the country, with 9 along the densely populated coast.
If you watch TV you might be under the impression that most Chinese megacities have a similar skyline: endless monotonous towers and super-wide motorways. And while that image is not entirely wrong, there are quite a few notable differences. Megacities tell the story of China’s outstanding economic growth through the years. While towers built 10 or 15 years ago seem pretty basic, the newer ones are truly impressive. Additionally, most boast plenty of nicely tailored parks, pedestrian streets and large sidewalks.
What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when thinking about China? Probably, its outstanding natural sites, charming ancient towns or the world-class metropolis of Beijing and Shanghai. For some reason other large cities remain undiscovered, except for Xi’an, and Chengdu. The first one is visited due to its proximity to the stunning Terracotta Warriors, while the second one to visit Panda Sanctuaries. However, both cities are fascinating on their own and worth spending several days discovering.
We also loved Guangzhou for its unique Chinese heritage and Tianjin for its blend of colonial and Chinese architecture. Finally Hangzhou blew our minds with its outstanding West Lake. Actually, there are plenty of other metropolises worth visiting including Wuhan, Suzhou, Chongqing, Nanjing or Shenzhen. However, the following 7 hip Chinese megacities made our list because of their heritage, natural environment and contemporary architecture.
There is nothing that can prepare you for Beijing, no matter how many pictures of it you’ve seen. It’s the most Chinese of all Chinese cities: monstrously big and at the same time lovely and innocent. Cities in China are full of contrasts, but Beijing tops them all. On one side there is the overwhelmingly large Forbidden City, testament of China’s imperial grandeur. On the other hand, the city is full of modest Hutongs, unique working class low rise neighborhoods. It is probably the only Chinese megacity where these types of settlements still exist. Also, it’s probably the greenest.
What to see in Beijing
Beijing offers plenty of impressive historical sites. The Forbidden City encompasses the largest collection of ancient wooden buildings on earth. The Temple of Heaven is a historical temple where people would pray for a good harvest. The Summer Palace, an Imperial Garden, is a masterpiece of Chinese landscape design. North of the Center you’ll find the Jonghe Temple (Lama Temple), and the Bell and Drum Towers. For cool modern architecture don’t forget to visit the Sport Complex built for the 2008 Olympic Games. If you are into artsy neighborhoods pay a visit to the Art District 798.
Where to stay in Beijing
It’s not clear where Beijing’s city center is. It could be around Wangfujing Pedestrian Street or perhaps near Quianmen Street. Both streets are full of character and close to the Forbidden City. The Guomao area and Sanlitun offer great shopping and dining, but there is nothing to see there. You see, it’s not easy to choose a place to stay in Beijing. That’s why we stayed in two places: in the Crowne Plaza near Wangfujing Street and in the Wanda Vista in Guomao (formerly Sofitel). Both fantastic experiences!
While Beijing offers a brilliant glimpse into traditional China, Shanghai showcases the best of modern China. It is one of the coolest cities in the world. The Shanghainese are the most cosmopolitan people in China, they speak good English and have seen the world. In Shanghai you’ll find the best food, fantastic nightlife and fabulous hotels. Not to mention its outstanding architecture. There is plenty of European heritage, beautiful Chinese temples and ultramodern skyscrapers. Shanghai should satisfy anybody’s needs.
What to see in Shanghai
The enormous International Settlement is where colonial architecture is. The nicest part is the French Concession and “The Bund” (embankment) next to the Huangpu River. The city center revolves around the enormous People’s Square (People’s Park). Likewise, the Municipal People’s Government, the Shanghai Grand Theater and the Shanghai Museum are on the square. The cool pedestrian Nanjing Road connects it with the Bund. The flashy Pudong district showcases the best of Chinese contemporary architecture. Its famous skyline, located directly across the Bund is called Lujiazui. The fantastic four are located here: the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and the Shanghai Tower.
Where to stay in Shanghai
There is so much to see and do in Shanghai that it is difficult to choose a place to stay. Unlike Beijing, it’s pretty clear where the city center is, around the People’s Square and Nanjing road. After spending a week in Shanghai we were certain that our Renaissance Yu Garden was a great choice. It is located next to the city’s Old Town, with the Yu Garden and the City God Temple just a step away. Due to the neighborhoods low rise buildings the hotel offers unobstructed views of the city center and of Pudong’s skyscrapers.
Xi’an was our entering point into China and in all honesty it felt less sophisticated than other Chinese megacities. We pretty much came here to visit the Terracotta Warriors and absorb the Jetlag, but we left impressed. It is the only Chinese large city that preserves its old City Walls entirely. Xi’an was the last city on the Silk Route and the unique Muslim quarter, inside the city walls, is a remainder of those times. Additionally there are plenty of historical buildings.
What to see in Xi’an
The Terracotta Warriors are without a doubt one of China’s most important tourist attractions. Xi’an was China’s first capital after Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified the country for the first time in the year 221 BC. He built a giant mausoleum with more than 8000 Terracotta Warriors to protect him in the afterlife. The city center is surrounded by one of the oldest and longest City walls in China and you can walk or bike on top of it. In the very heart of the center you’ll find the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower from the 14th Century. Next to them you can get lost inside the Muslim Quarter and visit the Great Mosque surrounded by beautiful gardens. Outside the City Walls you shouldn’t skip the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda nor the Small one.
Where to stay in Xi’an
Xi’an is a pretty centralized city and most attractions are located inside the City Walls. Additionally both the Bell and Drum Towers stand at the main intersection, next to the Muslim Quarter where all the action happens. That’s why we chose the nearby Aurum Hotel. Apart from the location, it also offered a nice swimming pool, which we didn’t try as we were terribly tired. It didn’t turned out to be the best decision we ever took. Trying a typical Chinese hotel is an interesting experience, but not the most rewarding one. In spite of its extremely nice staff our bed was just too hard to fall in love with the place. Apparently the neighboring Citadines Central Xi’an is much better (we stayed in one of their hotels in Guangzhou and it was fabulous).
Though we didn’t expect much from Chengdu, the place really surprised us. We came to visit cute pandas and the world’s largest Buddha statue, so we basically chose Chengdu to rest. The city is changing a lot! Typical working class neighborhoods from the mid 20th Century are constantly being demolished to make space for ultra fancy skyscrapers, and we could see it firsthand. We ended up loving the city. Our favorites were its different pedestrian areas, cool parks and historical temples.
What to see in Chengdu
Chengdu has three interesting pedestrian areas, a magnet for shoppers and foodies. Chunxi Road is a large modern area full of skyscrapers and fancy shops. Kuanzhaixiangzi and Jinli offer a more traditional and intimate atmosphere. Kuanzhaixiangzi Street is lined with fancy bars playing live music and packed with hip young Chinese. Next to Jinli there is a gorgeous park together with a charming Wuhouci Temple. Don’t forget to visit Wenshu Temple, the city’s nicest and walk around the adjacent neighborhood. We couldn’t find the Anshun Bridge (maps in China don’t work properly), but it’s a reconstruction anyway!
Where to stay in Chengdu
Chengdu is indeed a very large city thus its attractions are scattered all over the place. We chose the beautiful Sheraton Lido Hotel for its perfect location. The hotel is within walking distance to the centre (Chunxi Road and Tianfu Square) and connected to the entire city by two metro lines. We had a pretty cool view of the city’s futuristic skyline from our room, but the one from the swimming pool is even better.
Originally we didn’t plan on visiting Tianjin. We wanted to spend more time in nature and less in big cities. But our plane ticket to Hong Kong was significantly cheaper from Tianjin than from Beijing, so we had to visit. What a surprise! Just like Shanghai, Tianjin came into prominence after the II Opium War, when it was forced to open itself to Foreign Concessions. As a result, the city is full of European heritage. There is also fantastic contemporary architecture and many areas are pedestrian friendly.
What to see in Tianjin
The most beautiful part of Tianjin is the touristy Italian Quarter. Across the Haihe River there are some really cool ultramodern buildings and behind them the city’s largest pedestrian area – Heping Road and Binjiang Road. The pedestrian area ends at the beautiful St. Joseph Cathedral, and the bizarre Porcelain House is not far either. The Five Avenues Area inside the former British Quarter is quieter, but equally interesting. Its central point is the monumental Minyuan Stadium. North of the city center the pedestrian Gulou Street (Ancient Cultural Street) with its monumental Drum Tower is a great example of a Chinese traditional street.
Where to stay in Tianjin
It’s not that difficult to choose a place to stay in Tianjin; it has to be the city center! Just north of the Italian Quarter the Tianjin Main Train Station is the meeting point of three metro lines. One connects you to the airport, one to the new fast train station and the last one to the port town of Binhai. Our Radisson Tianjin Hotel, located just a step away, is fantastic value for money and within walking distance to many interesting areas. Additionally, we got a room with magnificent views.
While reading Wikipedia’s article about Guangzhou we got the impression it was a cultureless city with not much to see and do. We couldn’t disagree more (who writes such things?), we absolutely loved it! You’ll also find websites saying that it’s China’s richest city, yet somehow we felt it was more rundown than other Chinese megacities. To us, the most interesting part is the Old Town (Xiguan) inside Liwan District. The area around Beijing Street is the city center, while the Tianhe district houses the city’s largest business area.
What to see in Guangzhou
Most points of interest are within the city center (Yuexiu District): the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-Sen’s Memorial Hall, the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees & Flower Pagoda, the Sacred Heart Cathedral and the Yuexiu Mountain and Park. The city’s main shopping alley Beijing Street is also there. The business Area of Guangzhou in Tianhe District is home to the city’s tallest skyscrapers and a large pedestrian area. The Guangdong Museum and the Guangzhou Opera House are here too. Don’t miss the beautiful Canton Tower, just across the Pearl River. Finally the beautiful colonial neighborhood on Shamian Island (next to the Old Town) is probably Guangzhou’s nicest neighborhood. We walked all about admiring the trees and architecture.
Where to stay in Guangzhou
Our favorite neighborhood is definitively the Old Town. It somehow feels magically stuck in time with numerous Chinese merchant houses from the beginning of the 20th Century. We stayed at the gorgeous Citadines Lizhiwan Guangzhou Hotel located inside the so-called Lychee Bay Scenic Area. This beautiful street is packed with authentic old houses and surrounded by a lush park with a huge lake – Liwan Lake Park. The colorful Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street is in the neighborhood and Shamian Island is within walking distance. While walking around the park we stumbled upon a live Chinese Opera production. Fantastic costumes, voices and music under gorgeous trees: a memory we will carry forever.
We spent our last week in China around Shanghai. Apart from China’s largest city we wanted to visit another giant metropolis. Suzhou with its numerous beautiful gardens was one option, but we felt like we wanted to see something different. So, Hangzhou got into our minds. It has what probably no other big Chinese city has: an incredible natural spot in its very own center. Of course, we are talking about the famous West Lake. The place is so special that in 2011 it was included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
What to see in Hangzhou
The West Lake Cultural Landscape comprises several temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens, hills and artificial islands. It is practically the city’s only major attraction. You can spend days just walking about and people watching. The northern part of the city center is packed with shopping centers and interesting skyscrapers. The cool Zhejiang Science & Technology Museum is here too. Hangzhou’s few remaining historical sites are in the southern part of the center, next to the lake. Amongst them, don’t forget to check out the Drum Tower and the charming Hefang Street.
Where to stay in Hangzhou
As mentioned above, the West Lake is Hangzhou’s main attraction so you should stay near. We stayed at the Westlake 7 Apartment in the city center. Located inside a fancy residential building it belongs to a group of serviced apartments. Our first apartment had a typical Chinese extra hard bed, so we changed rooms and were given one with a slightly softer, yet acceptable bed. Chinese people are very straightforward; you can always ask what you want, and they will respond the way they feel, always trying to help. No hurt feelings! Anyhow, the hotel’s location is perfect; we could walk everywhere, with the lake a couple of blocks away.