China’s 7 Most Significant Historical Sites You Should Know

China has a history of thousands of year, which gives China a lot of historical sites. Here, China Highlights would like to introduce you to the seven most significant historical sites in China, all of which had been included on the World Heritage List by UNESCO (check out World Heritage Sites in China).

If you are interested in them and plan to have a visit, you can consult us for details for free, and have us tailor-make a tour of China for you to include your favorite China highlights.

1. The Forbidden City: the World’s Largest Ancient Palace

shenyang imperial palace

The Forbidden City (or the Palace Museum) is one of the must-visit attractions for travelers to China. It used to be an imperial palace in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.It has housed 24 emperors.

The layout of this palace is strictly according to Chinese fengshui theory. China’s best-preserved imperial palace is the world’s largest ancient palatial structure (720,000 square meters, and more than 9,000 halls), and the essence and culmination of traditional Chinese architectural accomplishment.

Today, the palace is a large museum. There are thousands of historical relics, and the most precious two are the scroll painting of ‘A Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival’ (清明上河图) and a gold cup with three pillars used by Emperor Qianlong (金瓯永固杯).

Beijing is the city with the most historical sites in the world, including the Great Wall, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, and the Forbidden City. Check out our information on over 70 Beijing’s attractions.

Recommended tour: Four-Day Essence of Beijing Tour

2. The Terracotta Army:  First Emperor Qin’s Buried Battalions

xianthe terra-cotta warriors and horses

The museum exhibiting this life-size terracotta army lies about 1.5 kilometers east of the Mausoleum of First Emperor of Qin, which is believed to be a magnificent mausoleum (it has not been unearthed). The museum, with three pits containing the Terracotta Army, covers an area of 22,780 square meters. Over 8,000 terracotta soldiers and horses, and more than 10,000 bronze weapons were unearthed in these three pits.

The Terracotta Army was included on the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1987, candidate for the title “eighth wonder of the world” and the largest military museum underground. An interesting fact is that all the terracotta soldiers were made to face east towards Emperor Qin’s enemies.

Xi’an, where the Terracotta Army is located, is one of the two greatest ancient cities in China. The Ancient City Wall is another highlights of the city. You can check out more historical sites in Xi’an.

Recommended Tour: Two-Day Entombed Warriors Exposed Tour

3. The Great Wall: the Longest Defensive System in the World

the badaling great wall

The Great Wall of China is one of the greatest sights in the world. The entire Great Wall includes defensive systems built in the Warring States Period (475–221 BC), the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC), the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD), the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–557), the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234), and the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

In ancient China the Great Wall was used as defense against the invasion of nomadic tribes (mainly Mongolians) in northern China. Today, the Great Wall is a symbol of China, together with Tian’anmen and the five stars or the Communist flag.

The entire Great Wall of China zigzags across the mountains of northern China. We highly recommend hiking along the best-protected sections of the Great Wall: Shanhai Pass, Mutianyu and Jinshanling. Check out ourcustomizable Great Wall tours.

Recommended tour: Day Trip to the Great Wall of Mutianyu Section

4. The Potala Palace: Masterpiece of Tibetan Architecture

potala palace

If you are interested in Tibetan culture, the Potala Palace is an attraction which you should not miss. The Potala Palace was first built as a palace of Songtsen Gampo (617–650), the founder of the Tu-Bo Dynasty (吐蕃王朝).After being rebuilt in the 17th century, it was the residence of Dalai Lamas.

There are plenty of precious historical relics in the palace, including over 10,000 Buddha statues made of gold, silver, jade, wood, or clay, and about 10,000 tangkas (scroll paintings related to Budhhism). The gorgeous mural paintings, wooden carvings, and color paintings used for decoration are outstanding.

The Potala Palace is located in the northwest of Lhasa city. Other top attractions in Lhasa are: Norbulingka (“the Summer Palace” of Lhasa), Jokhang Temple (a Tibetan Buddhist temple with more than 1,350 years of history), and Drepung Monastery (the largest monastery in the world, with about 10,000 monks).

Recommended tour: Four-Day Essence Tour of Lhasa

5. The Summer Palace: China’s Largest Imperial Garden

summer palace

The Summer Palace is China’s largest imperial garden, built according to the blueprint of Hangzhou’s West Lake. UNESCO added this 300 hectare site to the World Heritage List in 1998, and described it as “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.”

The Summer Palace was a royal summer resort in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), so the architectures and the layout there are quite exquisite. Boat cruises are available on Kunming Lake. There are numerous stores in Suzhou Street, selling souvenirs like antiques, snacks, silk, jewelry, and tea. The shop assistants there are dressed in the costumes of the Qing Dynasty.

6. The Mogao Grottoes: a Holy Land of Buddhist Art

The Mogao Grottoes near Dunhuang City are famous for their exquisite mural paintings and Buddha statues. It has 735 grottoes, 450,000 square meters of mural paintings, 2,415 colored Buddha statues made of clay, and more than 50,000 historical relics. All of these make the Mogao Grottoes the largest and the most significant “holy land” of Buddhist art.

The Mogao Grottoes’ first carving was in 366, and with a contruction period spanning 16 dynasties, they are a summation of Buddhist art. The Mogao Grottoes are situated near an important city on the ancient Silk Road — Dunhuang, where you can see Crescent Spring (a miniature oasis in a pristine desert).

Recommended tour: Four-Day Essence Tour of Dunhuang

7. The Three Confucius Sites

confucius temple

Confucianism is a cornerstone of Chinese civilization. The Three Confucius Historical Sites (三孔, San Kong in Chinese) consists of the Confucius Temple, the Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion. Ancient architectural buildings, ancient stone tablets, and Confucius culture are the highlights.

The Cemetery of Confucius has become the graveyard of the Kong family, and more than 100,000 Confucius’ descendants are buried there. That why it is called Kong Lin (literally meanning Confucius Forest) in Chinese. The Kong Family Mansion, was where the descendants of Confucius lived.

Qufu Confucius Temple is the second largest scale ancient architectural complex, after the Forbidden City. The temple was originally built as Confucius’ house, and was changed into a temple to worship Confucius in the second year after his death. After that, extension of the temple continued, and today’s 95,000 square meters was completed in the Yongzheng period (1722–1735) of the Qing Dynasty.

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