“Go to Beijing for the history, to Shanghai for the technology, and to Guilin for the beautiful scenery” is the advice that many Chinese people will give to people who want to visit China.
Famous for its striking karst mountains, Guilin has been drawing Chinese tourists for centuries and in the last decade has started to gain a reputation in the international travel community. With plenty of hiking opportunities and easy access to the surrounding small villages, Guilin is the perfect place to get lost in nature and also to get to see one of China’s increasingly rare small cities.
After spending 3 years exploring the Guilin and it’s surrounding areas, here are the essential things that every traveler should do when they visit Guilin.
Hike a Karst Mountain
Because karsts are everywhere in Guilin, there are plenty of great hiking spots in the city. Karst mountains are small and steep which means that hiking in Guilin City doesn’t require much time. Most hikes in the city take anywhere from 10-40 minutes to reach the top. Although the hikes are short, they offer beautiful views of the surrounding area.
Some of the most famous karsts in Guilin are Elephant Trunk Hill, Tunnel Trunk Hill, and the karsts in Seven Star Park. Entering these parks requires a ticket which you can buy at the front entrance. It is normal in China for tickets to cost more for tourists than for locals.
If you are traveling on a budget and not looking to buy entrance tickets, there are plenty of karsts in the city that are free to climb and offer the same beautiful views. One of my favorite free climbs is Old Man Mountain because its free and offers sweeping views of a large portion of Guilin.
Check out the Sun and Moon Pagodas
Located in the center of a small lake in downtown Guilin, the Sun and Moon Pagodas are a good place to check out the religious history of the area. Visitors can walk around the lake to get a good view of the two striking towers or go inside and look around.
When entering the pagodas, you will see the Moon Pagoda first as it is smaller and closer to the shore. Once done exploring the Moon Pagoda, visitors need to take an underwater tunnel to reach the Sun Pagoda which is further out in the lake. The Sun Pagoda has a Buddhist Shrine on the top floor and some souvenir shops in the basement.
While gorgeous in the day, the pagodas are even more striking at night when they are lit up with silver and gold lights that reflect off the water. On the weekends, local artists sometimes perform in the area around the pagodas.
Explore Zhengyang Walking Street
The Zhengyang Walking Street in Guilin is the place with some of best shopping, street food, and nightlife in the city. Zhengyang is typically called the Walking Street or Pedestrian Street in English because cars and other vehicles are forbidden from entering the area.
At Zhengyang you can leisurely stroll amongst the crowds of Chinese people and other tourists, buy souvenirs, grab a beer, and even just people watch. Zhengyang is truly the heart of Guilin and is a must-see if you want to check out some of the best restaurants and bars.
Zhengyang offers some great Chinese food, but also has Western options such as an Irish pub and Spanish restaurant. It even has a place with good Indian food called Kali Mirch.
Take a Li River Cruise
The Li River flows from Guilin City to the nearby village of Yangshuo and is bordered on both sides by mountains. Taking a boat ride on the Li River is the best way to get away from the city and truly take in the beauty of the Guilin landscape. The picture on the back of the 20-yuan note was taken somewhere along this river. Usually, the boat captain will stop and point it out to visitors.
The Li River Cruise normally leaves Guilin around 9 or 9:30 a.m. every day and is a relaxing and slow journey. Many people use the cruise to travel from Guilin to Yangshuo. Although it is more expensive and longer than the bus or train, the Li River Cruise is definitely a more enjoyable way to reach Yangshuo.
Cycle through Yangshuo
Visiting Yangshuo is typically on the top of most traveler’s to-do lists when it comes to exploring South China. Yangshuo is located about an hour by train from Guilin city and is renowned for its beauty and closeness to the famous karst mountains.
The best way to see Yangshuo and get an up close and personal view of the mountains is by cycling through the city. There are many routes you can take to see some of the most beautiful karsts or you can just explore on your own.
For the best experience, you should try and get out of the city and into the surrounding villages. These areas make for excellent photos. You’ll probably even spot some water buffalos along the way.
Hike the Longji Rice Terraces
The Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces, or Longji Rice Terraces, are a must-see in Guilin if you like hiking and have the time. The one downside of visiting Longji is that it is difficult to get to. The best way to go is by private car or bus. To enjoy your stay, it is best to go for at least 3-4 days because unfortunately a lot of your time will be taken up by travel. Luckily the location is worth the hassle.
I especially love going to Longji because every time you go it is a little different. Depending on the time of year that you visit, you will have completely different views depending on what stage of growth the rice is in. My favorite time to go is in the fall because that is when the rice turns golden brown just before the harvest.
There are 3 villages in the Longji Rice Terraces area. The most visited village is called Dazhai. Dazhai has the most options for accommodation and is very beautiful but quite touristy. My favorite village to stay in is called Ping’an. Ping’an offers visitors most opportunities to experience the local culture but is more difficult to get to.
No matter where you stay, it is possible to see all the villages in the area by hiking the Dragon’s Backbone Trail. This trail is absolutely beautiful and takes you through all the different villages. Hiking from Ping’an to Dazhai took me 4-hours each way but was entirely worth it.
Try Guilin’s Local Cuisine
Because China is such an old country, each city no matter how small typically has its own cuisine. Guilin is especially famous for its rice noodles. The most famous rice noodle dish in the city is called Guilin Mifen (Gway Lin Mee Fun). It is a warm and tasty bowl of noodle soup that has a clear broth, rice noodles, bits of meat, green onions, and some pickled vegetables. The best things about Guilin Mifen is that you can control what is added to the bowl and make it your own.
Another famous Guilin dish is Yangshuo Beer Fish. Beer Fish is easier to find in Yangshuo village but also can be found in Guilin on Zhengyang walking street. Although Beer Fish is a more recent creation, it’s worth a try. Typically made with fresh carp from the nearby river and a beer sauce, it’s a great dish to share. Watch out for the bones!
Lastly, when you are in Guilin you should the infamous oil tea. Oil tea is a misleading name because, in reality, it is more of a soup than a tea. Made from a ginger and oil base, oil tea has natural caffeine and is often consumed in the early morning by local farmers. Plain oil tea is quite bitter so most locals add salt, green onions, and some rice puffs to the broth.