10-16 days Imperial Tour
A handful of ancient capitals await you on the Imperial Tour. In these bustling cities and quaint towns, you’ll be swooned by a collection of ancient palaces, mausoleums, temples and defensive walls, and you can bet that there are even a few royal gardens thrown in for good measure.
The Imperial Tour fittingly throws in quite a few heavy hitters. Each of these destinations was a former dynastic capital, while four of them compose the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. All host audacious and beautiful royal architecture, temples, gardens and fantastic views of China through the ages – the perfect choice for the history buff.
Beijing (2-3 days)
Get started in the top dog of all imperial settlements. Beijing was the capital through five dynasties, including three of the most culturally and historically significant: the Yuan, the Ming and the Qing. Give yourself a day for the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace, and another for the Ming Tombs and of course the Great Wall. Also scope out some altars, temples and academies all commissioned or frequented by emperors: the Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, and the Confucian Temple and Academy are some of the best. Afterwards, hop on the express overnight train to Xi’an.
Xi’an, Shaanxi (2-3 days)
Beijing’s imperial grandeur may take home the gold, but Xi’an has possibly the most striking claim to dynastic fame. As the capital of mighty Qin Shihuang’s Qin Dynasty – the one that first unified China as one nation – Xi’an was the official first capital of China and the seat of power through over ten dynasties. First and foremost, make your way to the Tomb of the First Qin Emperor (Qin Shihuang) and his Terracotta Warriors, scour the smattering of Imperial Tombs throughout the countryside, and ramble around the beautiful garden scenery of the Big Goose Pagoda (and the little one, too). When you need to change it up, Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter offers one of the most riveting food markets in China, and the city walls are the perfect place for a city-sweeping bike ride. A train or a bus to Luoyang are both five hours; grabbing one in the late afternoon to get you to Luoyang for a good night’s sleep is a solid choice.
Luoyang, Henan (1-2 days)
The de facto seat of China’s power through a staggering 13 dynasties, Luoyang is one of China’s true dynastic citadels. Some of that glory has faded, but there’s still enough of Luoyang’s imperial past around to warrant a couple days. After brushing up on the history at the Luoyang Museum, wander your way through the charms of Old Town and find the antique market before hitting up the Eastern Zhou Royal Horse and Carriage Museum in the afternoon or evening. Next, get out of town for the UNESCO rated grottoes at Longmen Caves, and if there’s time drop by the White Horse Temple. A two-hour train will take you to your next stop in Kaifeng.
Kaifeng, Henan (1 day)
The city of Kaifeng actually sits on top of the largely buried ancient Song Dynasty capital, which was drenched in 368 floods from the years 1194 to 1938. Today, there are parts of ye old Song to be found, and they are most certainly worth a look, but getting in and out in a day can save more time for the end of the trip. A good start is at the Temple of the Chief Minister, the Shanshangan Guild Hall, and the old timey visions of Kaifeng Fu. If you have time, stop by the Kaifeng Museum or explore some of the city’s Chinese Jewish Heritage. Have dinner before your 21:30 or 22:30 train, both of which get you to Nanjing in the early morning.
Nanjing, Jiangsu (2-3 days)
Before the Yongle Emperor moved the capital back to Beijing from Nanjing, the city had a major run as one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals, and later was the seat of government for the Republic of China before they fled to Taiwan. To make the most of it, get started at either the Ming Xiaoling Tomb or the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, the final resting place of the first president of China. Next, ramble over to the Ming Palace Ruins and the Presidential Palace, then take your pick between the Imperial Examinations Museum, the Nanjing Museum, and/or the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Museum.
Hangzhou, Zhejiang (2-4 days)
Southern Song Dynasty ancient capital and one of the most livable cities in China, happy Hangzhou sparkles with the long-touted majesty of West Lake and whispers with memories of the culturally and economically prosperous times of its days of yore. Your first destination is obvious: West Lake has earned the accolades of countless poets and emperors, and several hours wandering its soothing gardens and shoreline are enough to lull you into another trip extension. Once you can shake off the spell, march over to the Mausoleum of General Yue Fei, the Southern Song’s greatest commander, and don’t miss Qingfeng Old Street, the Confucian Temple and the China Silk and China Tea Museums, all of which offer a glimpse of the jewels that represented Hangzhou in its prosperous imperial heyday. Hangzhou also has plenty of parks, temples and pagodas, and you should give a half day to the standout Xixi Wetlands Park in west of the city. From Hangzhou, grab a bullet train to Shanghai or a plane to another city for your flight home.
The Imperial Tour has several linkups with other itineraries. If you do the trip in reverse order – from Hangzhou to Beijing – you can extend your journey with the Silk Road Excursion or the Long March in Xi’an, or go on to Beijing and continue with the Nomad Lands. Hangzhou also sits in the middle of the Beaches & Beer tour.