It's not shocking to learn that China's cities are overflowing with people. This was the first country in the world with a population over a billion, after all, and is still the most populous country in world history so far.
On the other hand, seeing just how populous China's top 15 cities are put things into another perspective entirely. Collectively, they're home to 260 million people, which is the same as the entire US, minus California and New York state.
Shanghai's population ranges from between 25-35 million, depending on where you look. (Here and in other large Chinese cities, getting accurate population statistics can be daunting, due to imprecise census techniques and large populations of migrant workers). Indeed, it takes only one glimpse at the city's sparkling Lujiazui skyline over the Huangpu River for you to realize you're in one of the world's largest cities.
Even if you don't go up in the emblematic Oriental Pearl Tower (perhaps you're the sort for an afternoon stroll through Yuyuan Gardens or the historical French Concession?) Shanghai definitely lives up to its nickname, "Pearl of the Orient."
Moving southeast from Shanghai, from the Yangtze River Delta to the Pearl River Delta, takes us to the city of Guangzhou, the most important in southern China's Guangdong province. Known historically as "Canton," the seat of Cantonese language, culture, and cuisine, today's Guangzhou is a bustling industrial hub that's home to around 25 million people.
While nearby Hong Kong, located just two hours away by train, tends to siphon off most tourists in this part of China, there's plenty to do in Guangzhou. Marvel at the 2,000-foot tall Canton Tower, say your prayers at the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees or take an excursion to peaceful Baiyun Mountain.
China's most important and longest-standing capital, Beijing is probably the city most foreigners associate with China. This mega-metropolis, however, is more than the smog with which the international media often associates it, and then 24 million people to which it can be quantified.
With millennia of history, Beijing is a cultural tourist's dream. Whether you spend your day exploring the ancient Forbidden City, pondering its juxtaposition with the Mao-era Tian'anmen Square (which sits just across the street from it), walk amid the towering skyscrapers of the Guomao District or make a day trip to the Great Wall, Beijing has something for everyone.
(And that says a lot when you consider just how many people call Beijing home.)
On most world maps, it would be impossible to discern Shenzhen from Guangzhou, which sits less than 100 miles away as the crow flies. To be sure, while both cities are part of the Pearl River Delta mega-metro area, Shenzhen maintains its own unique identity. Or, you might be more correct to say, it's created it: Prior to the early 1970s, this modern city of more than 20 million had a statistically insignificant number of residents.
Of course, Shenzhen is much more than the high-tech industry that has fueled its meteoric population growth in the past five decades, or the forest of steel and glass that stands as a monument to it. Ironically, some of the most popular things to do in this massive city are nature-related, from peace Lizhi Park to idyllic Dameisha Beach, to famed hiking spot Mount Wutong.
Located nearly 500 miles down the Yangtze from Shanghai, Wuhan feels like another world in many ways—the population is not one of them. Although you probably haven't heard of this central Chinese city, which is the capital of Hubei province and enjoys nonstop air service to San Francisco, its number of citizens puts it in the same league as Shanghai and other populous Chinese cities on this list: a cool 19 million.
The most famous attraction in Wuhan is the five-story pagoda of the Yellow Crane Tower, but heritage is only the beginning of Wuhan's story. Enjoy a tranquil stroll through the Wuhan Botanical Garden, scream your head off at Happy Valley Wuhan theme park or enjoy a panoramic view from Tortoise Mountain TV tower.
Of all the huge Chinese cities that aren't Beijing or Shanghai, Chengdu is probably the one springing to the greatest global prominence these days. Although it's "only" home to 18 million people, Chengdu is the most important business center in southwestern China, the Sichuan province that surrounds it serving as a transfer depot between Tibet, Southeast Asia and the eastern reaches of mainland China.
Chengdu is just as satisfying for travelers as it is for businesspeople, however. Delight in spicy Sichuan cuisine in the city center, take a heartwarming day trip to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding or venture even further outward to enjoy the spellbinding beauty of the Jiuzhaigou Valley.
Chengdu is just a couple hours southeast of Chongqing by high-speed train, but it's a world away in terms of experience. Officially Chongqing is smaller, with 17 million people, although some population estimates of the aptly-named "World's Largest Village" put its numbers above even Shanghai.
And why do some refer to Chongqing as the World's Largest Village? Among other reasons, because many of the millions of people who now live in its skyscrapers lived on farms less than a decade ago. Interacting with them is one of the great joys of visiting this city, in addition to seeing a panorama from Nanshan Mountain, trying not to burn your tongue on spicy hot pot or making a day trip to Fengdu Ghost City.
Just as Chongqing is only a short distance from Chengdu by train (NOTE: in case you haven't noticed, China's high-speed rail network is life-changing), Tianjin is sometimes referred to as the "Port of Beijing" on account of its proximity to the capital. Don't mistake closeness as congruence: This city of 15 million has its own identity, and then some.
To be fair, Tianjin is dripping with a lot of the same irresistible heritage as its big brother to the northwest, from the Ming-era Drum Tower to the charming Temple of Great Compassion. But while Beijing is decidedly Chinese, Western influence is stronger in coastal Tianjin: The French-inflected Porcelain House; the Russian-Orthodox Xijai Church; and the Tianjin Eye Ferris wheel, whose name is an obvious nod to London's.
As recently as a decade ago, many travelers thought of Hangzhou as a day- or weekend-trip destination from Shanghai. A walk around West Lake, a photo at Lingyin Temple and you're good to go. Hangzhou has since asserted itself as a destination in its own right—and not just because it has a population of 13.4 million, it's one of China's largest cities.
Tip: Take advantage of nonstop flights to Hangzhou from Los Angeles on Sichuan Airlines, and make a long weekend of your trip to this underrated city. After a day or two in Hangzhou's city center, visit nearby Anji Bamboo Forest, where the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed.
Although many travelers still don't know Xi'an's name, or recognize that it was once China's capital (while "Xi An" officially translates to "Western peace," it also signifies the city's historical importance as China's "Western capital), it's nonetheless home to one of China's best-known tourist attraction, the Terracotta Warriors.
Then again, while a trip to this city of 12.9 million wouldn't be complete without paying a visit to the warriors, they merely scratch the surface. Spend your morning mountain the walls of the old city, while marveling at the Bell Tower at mid-day and eating your way through the spicy Muslim Quarter by night.
Among the list of large Chinese cities here, Changzhou is probably the one you're least likely to have heard of (so far). Although it's home to more than 12 million people, Changzhou hasn't achieved notoriety among tourists like Xi'an, or among businesspeople like Chengdu. It's also extremely close to Shanghai, which steals the spotlight, to say the least.
So what might make you want to visit Changzhou? Culturally there's the pagoda of the Tianning Temple, which isn't old (it was only built in 2002) but is nonetheless a stunning example of traditional Chinese architecture. Or, if you're a nature fan, explore the bio-diverse wetlands of Lake Tai.
Shantou sits in much the same place as Changzhou, in terms of its relative lack of recognition among people outside of China. About 12 million people make their home in this city, which sits about 200 miles east of the Pearl River Delta on China's southern coast.
As far as what to do in Shantou? Well, there's not a whole lot compared to other cities on this list. Enjoy a sunrise or sunset at Nan'ao Beach, appreciate the heritage of Zhongshan Park or take a rest at the Queshi Scenic Resort.
Just as Beijing is China's northern capital and Xi'an was once its western capital, Nanjing is China's erstwhile southern Capital—"Nan" means "South" in Mandarin Chinese. Nanjing sits along the Yangtze River, slightly closer to Shanghai than it is to Wuhan, and is home to about 11 million people.
Not surprisingly, there's a lot of history to see in Nanjing, from Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum to Nanjing City Wall, to peaceful Jiming Temple. You should also be aware of the horrific massacre that occurred here in 1939, which is still a sore spot in Sino-Japanese relations.
It would be tempting to lump Jinan in with Changzhou and Shantou, given how low a profile it has among foreigners. On the other hand, Jinan enjoys nonstop flights from Los Angeles, a testament to its importance as the commercial center of growing Shandong province.
Likewise, for a city as poorly-known as this one, Jinan's tourist attraction definitely make the 11 million people who live here proud. The most conspicuous one is the massive statue atop Thousand Buddha mountain, but you can also enjoy peaceful Batou Spring, scenic Daming Lake, and the informative Shandong Museum.
Although it's last on this list of huge Chinese cities, because only 10.5 million people call it home, Harbin is in some ways the most impressive entrant. Its annual Ice and Snow Festival is perhaps the most stunning winter wonderland that exists anywhere in the world, even if the thought of enduring temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero makes your bones hurt.
Harbin begins with the Ice Festival, but it doesn't end there. Most notably it's home to St. Sophia Cathedral, which is so scenic you might feel like you've traveled several hundred miles north to Russia.