T+L tackles one of the world's most mystifying destinations with tips and tools to help you plan a successful trip to China.
BANYAN TREE HOTELS AND RESORTS On the grounds of the Banyan Tree Lijiang, in the southern Yunnan province.


China can seem as impenetrable as it is imposing. Consider the numbers: it’s the world’s most populous nation (1.3 billion), where more than 100 cities have populations over a million. Fifty-six ethnic groups are spread across 22 wildly distinct provinces and five autonomous regions, in a landmass slightly larger than the U.S. Its history seems limitless and its traditions just as deep. But here and now, change is the only real constant—and it is accelerating at a dizzying pace. (One thousand new cars hit the streets of Beijing every day.)

How do you begin to fathom a country of such extremes? The futuristic cities glittering above timeworn villages; the great rivers and vast empty deserts; the radical new architecture juxtaposed with millennia-old monuments; the ceaseless push-and-pull between Confucianism, Communism, and commerce. Where do you even begin? Have no fear. Start here.

Peking Duck

Made in China; meal for two $60.

Chefs sweat over apricot wood-fired ovens in this open kitchen setting to produce ducks with crisp skin and subtle fattiness, served with tissue-thin pancakes, sweet plum sauce, and garlic and sugar for dipping.

Shanghai Soup Dumplings

Jia Jia Tang Bao; meal for two $5.

Firmly off the tourist map is this local favorite, where the succulent dumplings come with a seasonal addition of crab roe in the fall.

Spicy Hot Pot

Huang Cheng Laoma; meal for two $30.

Decorated like a museum with relics and paintings, this cavernous restaurant serves tear-jerkingly spicy hot pot. Ingredients are served by conveyor belt (rotary sushi-style) on one side of the restaurant, while traditional table service is also offered.


Noodle Loft; meal for two $20.

Noodle artists shave knife-grated noodles in the foyer of this hip restaurant, decorated with contemporary Chinese art.


Qin Tang Fu; meal for two $10.

Wheat buns toasted on a griddle and filled with braised pork are served from a take-out window at this popular restaurant. The restaurant is decorated with colorful toys and short-legged tables, making it a good option for families.

Big-Plate Chicken

Yisilan Fanzhuang; meal for two $15.

Central Asians and Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority of northwest China, convene here for large helpings of this stewed dish.

Jen Lin-Liu is the author of Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.