While visiting with Micky and Minnie can be fun, you don't have to pack up and go to Disneyland to enjoy family travel. China has activities for kids of all ages and all you have to do is get a little creative, plan accordingly and make sure your expectations are set. I have found, in my many years of traveling with kids in China, that if I plan it right, we can all enjoy the more adult-centric activities and the kid-centric ones. Here are some fun things for you to think about including in your family trip to China.
Raft Down the Yulong River
Adults will enjoy a lazy float down the Yulong River in China's southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region amid a beautiful backdrop of karst mountains covered in green during the summer. Kids will enjoy arming themselves with water guns and squirting their parents and each other. Arm each boat and make it a battle as you head downriver. Just make sure you have your camera in a plastic bag!
Climbing Rockeries in Suzhou Gardens
Suzhou is one of China's most famous tourist destinations for domestic and foreign visitors alike. And while visiting Suzhou's UNESCO-listed gardens may not at first seem like a fun kids' activity, consider the possibility of climbing.
Especially if your kids are of the younger variety, if there's one garden you choose, try the Humble Administrator's Garden. While adults can enjoy the aspects of a pristine classical Chinese garden, kids can explore, climb and play. The rockeries are especially fun for kids. They can climb up and through them - many are cave-like or have steps up to the top. You'll have plenty of time to take the photos you want and you'll probably end up having to drag your kids away!
Chinese New Year Fun at Shanghai's Lantern Festival
. There's plenty to do for kids in any weather. And in the winter, it's hard to motivate to be outside but if you're in Shanghai during Chinese New Year, then you must try to take your kids to see the amazing lantern display that is created every year at Yuyuan GardensArranged around the theme of the zodiac animal, colorful lanterns are hung from nearly every building culminating around a giant figure of the zodiac animal of the year as well as an incredible display around the old tea house outside the garden.
Aside from viewing the lanterns, the whole area is festive and fun. Kids can enjoy traditional forms of entertainment such as shadow puppets and trying different street snacks. The lanterns are typically up and viewable throughout the Chinese New Year holiday and the festival culminates with the night of the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month.
Visit Shaolin Temple and See the Birthplace of Kung Fu (and Zen Buddhism)
Big and little boys and girls of all ages will enjoy a trip to the birthplace of Kung Fu. Even if you think you're not into Kung Fu fighting, when you visit Shaolin Temple and see what these incredible monks can do, you will be impressed. And even if a young man putting a needle through a sheet of glass isn't your thing, the grounds of the temple are impressive and beautiful and you may be surprised to learn the story of the founding monk, Bodhidharma and the birth of what is best-known today as Zen Buddhism.
Visit the Clouds - Views from a Skyscraper
At the time of this writing, there's a new building going up in Shanghai's Pudong that is slated to be the tallest building in Shanghai and the second tallest in the world. The Shanghai Tower will be completed in 2014 but until then, you can take your kids up to the top of other towers in China. In Shanghai, The Shanghai World Financial Center has a fabulous sky deck and various viewing options.
The Jin Mao Tower is another great option. If you're don't like the idea of spending lots of money on a ticket up to the sky deck, you can enjoy the views from one of Shanghai's top luxury hotels: you can drink coffee in the Grand Hyatt lobby or have a cocktail in the Cloud 9 bar and enjoy the same view.
Ride the Silk Road - Camel Trekking on the Sand Dunes
Riding a camel among the sand dunes in Gansu Province has been one of the most memorable, fun adventures I've had in China so far. When I came back from my trip to the Silk Road and showed my kids they were livid. Months later, they are still asking when I can take them to the desert so they can ride camels.
So if my family is any indication, camel trekking is fun for the whole family. I guess the only tip I'd have is that if your family includes really small babies or kids, then you might consider the heat when you visit. That said, I think babies in carriers would be perfectly OK (as long as you don't fall off your camel).
Harbin Ice & Snow Festival
The only strike against going to Harbin in the dead of winter is the cold. But as long as you have the right clothes (don't worry, you don't have to pack all that, you can easily purchase warm clothes in any market), then a visit to Harbin's famous Ice & Snow Festival will be a fun winter adventure for the whole family.
For a month from early January to early February, the northern city of Harbin becomes a snowy, icy paradise. Along the Songjiang River, amazing snow sculptures are created for the pleasure of visitors and in Zhaolin Park enormous ice sculptures presenting everything from the Forbidden City to the Palace of Versailles are lit up at night for visitors to tour. There are ice slides and ice playgrounds. And when you get cold, buildings are heated so well, you'll be peeling off the layers in order to enjoy some Russian-influenced black bread or borscht.
Later, when you've had enough of the ice and snow, you can visit the Harbin Siberian Tiger Habitat and see these endangered large cats in action.
No kids activities list would be complete without the Chinese Giant Panda. Beloved by all, the panda has a special place in the heart of Chinese people and visitors alike. And if you really want the perfect Christmas card photo, then get your family to Chengdu and snap photos of your kids cuddling Giant Pandas at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in the city's north.
The fee will seem hefty at the time but photos and memories will last a lifetime. And the proceeds go to the facility to help them conserve this endangered species.
Food Exploration: Beijing Duck to Beggar's Chicken
If your kids aren't adventurous eaters, can they be bribed? Even if you don't want to take specifically a culinary tour, you can easily explore food with your kids in China.
Beijing Duck is a perfect place to start. If you're going to have it, see if you can talk the restaurant into showing your kids the wood-fired ovens where the ducks are roasted and then ask the staff to show you how to eat it. Most restaurants assume you know what to do with each course, but many first-time visitors to China have no idea. Kids might really enjoy dipping the crispy skin in the sugar. And if that's not fun, maybe making their own "duck taco" using the pancakes and lean meat will be fun. Don't be shy about asking questions or even getting your hotel to help you set up a demonstration in advance.
My kids' favorite restaurant in Shanghai is called Din Tai Fung. It serves a plethora of Chinese comfort food including, in my opinion, the best xiaolongbao dumplings in the land. The great thing about this restaurant for visitors is their open dumpling-making windows where kids can watch the magic. Staff will give kids small balls of dough to play with at the table as well. Ask a staff to help your kids learn to shape the dough into the perfect dumpling.
Hike in a Bamboo Forest
Sightseeing can mean a lot of walking but it can also mean a lot of time spent in transportation and sitting. A great way to get the whole family moving is to go for a hike. And while there are amazing mountains to trek, you might not have time to go too far off the beaten path or you may have small ones who won't be able to manage a tough hike.
Moganshan offers the perfect mix of near-to-civilization (about 2 hours outside of Shanghai) and access to the outdoors. We had a beautiful weekend there with several families and all of us did a 3+-hour hike in the misty bamboo forests with few complaints from the wee ones.
Trek in the Longji Rice Terrace Villages
Along the same lines as hiking in Moganshan, albeit a little further afield, is trekking in the Longji Rice Terraces. This famous area is a 2+-hour drive north of Guilin and famous for its minority villages and incredible scenery. The mountains here are terraced from top to bottom and create a stunning landscape. The trek itself, while not terribly strenuous, can be arduous in the peak of summer. But we managed it with kids aged 2 to 9 and all it took was about 3 popsicle breaks, 4 lollipops, and loads of gummi-bears.
Sing! Intro to Karaoke (KTV)
If you've got older kids and are at a loss as to how to entertain them, surprise them with a booking at a karaoke club. Unlike karaoke bars in the US, clubs in China will offer private rooms where your family can embarrass themselves in privacy. Very likely the club will have English songs from all generations so you can sing your heart out to Abba while your kids find their favorite Katy Perry song. A bonus challenge to your kids will be to see if they can figure out how to program the machine!
As you must know, tea is an essential part of Chinese culture. And while your kids may not appreciate tea, like tea or even be interested in tea, they might actually enjoy getting out into the tea fields and picking it. And if they don't enjoy picking it, they might enjoy tromping around the hillside while you pick tea. In any case, you all get a bit of fresh air and sun.
Down south, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is famous for its scenery dominated by the karst peaks that create some of the most famous landscape images of China. What you don't see in those photos are the hundreds of caves that go right along with the landscape (where there's a limestone mountain, there is a cave).
My kids really enjoyed exploring the famous Reed Flute Cave, just inside Guilin City but there are many to explore both within the city and outside. The area around Yangshuo has many caves for spelunking, some you wander through, some in which you can even enjoy a mud bath.
Cuddle - Family Co-Sleeping on a Kang Bed
In northern China, traditionally families sleep on kang beds. These platforms are raised above the floor, heaped with mats and blankets and heated from below from a wood or coal oven. My kids love it when we end up in an inn with a kang bed. And I must say, it is a rather cozy way to sleep.
Hike the Great Wall of China
This is really a no-brainer. Everybody loves the Great Wall. Little kids can climb and explore and pretend to be soldiers. So can big kids, for that matter. There are areas of the Great Wall that are rebuilt, renovated and hold masses of tourists. And there are other parts, way out west, that see hardly anyone at all. In some places, you can cable-car up and slide down and in others, you can hike on crumbling ramparts for hours without running into another soul.
Touring by Boat - the Huang Pu River Tour
They love the feel of it, maybe it's the open air or the fact that they're on transportation that is less confined. It's a new and different experience and the water traffic can be delightful for little kids and big kids alike.
One of the best ways to spend a few hours in Shanghai is to take a Huang Pu River Tour. The boats leave along the Bund all day long and you can book short or longer tours. The tour boats take you up and down the river and you'll see not only the fabulous architecture on either side of the river, you'll also get to enjoy the traffic along the river - a sign of an economy in motion.