Hangzhou: 2 days
(Two hours by bullet train from Shanghai.) Fabled West Lake is the major draw here, with its elegant causeways, pavilions, gardens, and arched bridges. Hangzhou is also renowned as a culinary capital: local specialties include stuffed-beggar’s chicken and fatty dongpo pork; sample both at the great Louwailou restaurant.
Suzhou: 1 day
(45 minutes by train from Shanghai.) Famous for its Ming- and Qing-dynasty gardens (don’t miss the Garden of the Master of the Nets and the Humble Administrator’s Garden), Suzhou was once called the Venice of the East for its canals. But smart travelers know the most picturesque waterways—fringed by whitewashed houses and 1,000-year-old humpbacked bridges—are in the village of Tongli, a 50-minute drive away.
Kunming: 1 day
(Three hours by air from Shanghai.) This city is one of China’s most pleasant, in climate-blessed Yunnan province. Visit the 15th-century Bamboo Temple and the 17th-century Golden Temple, stroll the pavilions and bridges of Green Lake, and savor the raucous energy of the Kundu Night Market.
Dali: 1 day
(45 minutes by air from Kunming.) Like nearby Lijiang, Dali has a strong ethnic-minority flavor, a walled Old City with cobblestoned streets, and striking mountain scenery—but without the same tourist mobs. Explore on foot, peek at the Three Pagodas, or go for a boat ride on Erhai Lake.
Taiyuan: 1 day
(One hour by air from Beijing.) The capital of Shanxi province, Taiyuan is home to the Shanxi Provincial Museum, offering a superb survey of the region’s 5,000-year history, and the Jinci Temple weaves a thread between Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. And 90 minutes southwest by car is Pingyao, a stunningly preserved walled city and veritable time machine that carries you back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.