The sweetheart of China because of its natural beauty and stunning landscape, no trip to southern China is complete without a stop in Guilin (桂林). Situated in the northeast of the Guangxi Zhuang Province, the city is surrounded by lakes, rivers, limestone hills and mountains. I was excited to make my way to the city — my ancestors were from this province, so it was a surreal experience going back to the ‘motherland’.
Guilin translates to ‘the Osmanthus Forest’ in English, named so because of the many sweet osmanthus trees found around the city. The trees produce white flowers during spring; they are not only pretty to look at, but produce a strong sweet fragrance as well. Entering the city for the first time, I was a little disappointed with the urban development that seemed to have overtaken its charm — but over the days, I got to witness the sublime beauty of its karst topography, winding rivers and cultural treasures; and its food and people.
Guilin is undeniably beautiful — it will never cease to amaze. I spent 5 days in Guilin on a pre-arranged tour, but my guide was so accommodating he allowed me to visit different places that caught my eye, and even suggested interesting stops as well. So here are the wonderful things I got to do during my visit to Guilin — the top 10 things I enjoyed the most.
1) Go on a Li River Cruise 李河巡航
The Li River is said to offer one of the most beautiful scenery in all of China, and is best appreciated on a 4-5 hour cruise from Guilin all the way to Yangshuo. Most people make the long journey, but you can also do a return 1-hour cruise along some of Guilin’s most stunning landmarks — and that’s what I did. I went on the other half of the cruise at Yangshuo during my trip to the town, you can read about it here:- Two Days in Yangshuo.
The leisurely cruise along the Guilin side of the Li River is more city based, you can admire the three riverside hills found in the city — the Elephant Trunk Hill, Diecai Hill and Fubo Hill (written below No.3) ; and float by several parks, squares and bridges. During my cruise in the early morning, I saw people exercising by the river banks, locals hunting for river snails, children bathing and playing in the river, as well as tourists gathered on platforms offering lovely views of the river.
The 1-hour slow boat cruise has seats and tables for visitors to order food and snacks; but I preferred standing on the upper deck to enjoy the views and the soft breeze.
2) Stroll around the Four Lakes 桂林四湖
Guilin is known for its two rivers and four lakes that can be found around the city — the Li River and Taohua River; and the Wooden Dragon (Mulong) Lake, the Osmanthus (Gui) Lake; and the Banyan (Rong) and Fir (Shan) Lakes, which are the largest and most famous ones in the city.
The lakes make great locations for a stroll — I really enjoyed my evening walk along the connecting Banyan and Fir Lake. Banyan Lake is a popular spot to see the large banyan tree (which it’s named after), the thousand-year old South City Gate, and the pretty white marbled zig-zag bridge that leads to an isle decorated with pavilions, walkways and old buildings. The ancient Sun (Yang) Bridge separates Banyan Lake from Fir Lake — which is famous for its many fir trees and the twin pagodas (written below No.6) on its banks. I also made a stop at Mulong Lake that was packed to the brim with bus loads of tourists enjoying a stage show in the vicinity — however, its lakeside was still peaceful for a short walk. As for the Osmanthus Lake, I only managed to make a quick stop at night.
I prefer strolling along the lakes, but if u want to experience the lakes from the water, there are cruises navigating all 4 of them — day cruises start from CNY70 (USD$10) and night cruises are about CNY210 (US$30).
3) Climb the Peaks in the City 桂林峰
The karst hills found dotted around Guilin is what makes the city both beautiful and unique. The hills offer visitors some of the most stunning views — either looking up from below, or looking down from above. Some of the most famous peaks that can be found in central Guilin are the Solitary Beauty Peak, Elephant Trunk Hill, Diecai Hill and Fubo Hill.
During my visit, I chose to climb only one of the hills — the Solitary Beauty Peak. The peak is situated on the grounds of Prince JingJiang’s Palace, a historical ‘city’ built in the late 14th century and served as the residence to the princes of the Ming Dynasty for over 250 years. It is now a university. The Solitary Beauty Peak is the palace’s highlight — it is 215m high, and has 306 steps. At the top, the sweeping views of Guilin city and its surrounding mountains are lovely; but I was actually most impressed with the cave at the foot of the hill. Named Peace Cave, it displays wall carvings of the 60 Gods of the Chinese zodiac.
I got to see the Elephant Trunk Hill, Diecai Hill and Fubo Hill from afar during my cruise along the Li River — the Elephant Trunk Hill with its ‘giant elephant’ shape is best admired from the river. If I had more time, I would have loved to climb and admire the view, the pavilions, the caves and temples of these three hills too.
4) Head to the Top of Yao Mountain 尧山
Of all the famous hills in Guilin, the most impressive and highest (and is therefore referred to as a mountain) is Yao Mountain. It reaches 905m at its highest point, and is situated about 10km out of central Guilin. An open chairlift brings visitors all the way to the top.
I was completely blown away by the panorama of the surrounding mountain ranges from the viewing platform atop Yao Mountain. It really cannot get anymore breathtaking. The mountain is known for its different views during the 4 seasons — azaleas in spring, green in summer, red and yellow in autumn, and perhaps snowy mountains in winter. I visited in early winter, so everything was green with little patches of red. I ended up spending more than an hour on the mountain — there are temples, religious statues, ponds, an ethnic minority tribe performance hall and even a forest full of wishing trees (with red ribbons) to explore.
For an extra charge, visitors can experience a thrilling ride down Yao Mountain. I had so much fun zooming down the winding slideway on a toboggan, all the way to the bottom!
5) Explore the Reed Flute Cave 芦笛岩
Reed Flute Cave is one of Guilin’s most popular landmarks and tourist attraction. The natural limestone cave got its name from the reeds growing inside, which locals use to make flutes; and is believed to be over 180 million years old.
It was an interesting one hour walk among the stalagmites, stalactites and pillars that make up the cave, illuminated by multicolored lighting that makes them even more impressive. I had fun trying to figure out why certain formations are given poetic names — like ‘Crystal Palace of the Dragon King’ or ‘Curtain Covering the Cloud Mountain’. Midway along the 240m long cave, there is vast open space with huge formations and calm pools. Tour groups gather here for a short video presentation of the cave’s history, and a (pretty unnecessary) 3D projection show.
The Reed Flute Cave is stunning, and if you are only spending time in Guilin city — this is a must-see. However, if your itinerary involves a side trip to the town of Yangshuo; visit the Silver Cave instead — it is bigger, longer, higher, and in my opinion, much more spectacular. You can read it about it here:- Two Days in Yangshuo.
6) View the Sun and Moon Pagoda 日月双塔
Proudly standing on the banks of Guilin’s Fir Lake (Shan Hu), the Sun and Moon Pagodas are pretty iconic. The Sun Pagoda is the world’s highest bronze pagoda, standing at 41 meters; and is 2 stories higher than the colored-glazed Moon Pagoda. An underwater glass tunnel links both pagodas together.
During my visit, I admired the Sun and Moon Pagodas from across the lake — once during sunset, and the other time at night. It was lovely taking a stroll along the two connecting lakes of Banyan Lake (Rong Hu) and Fir Lake; especially when it ends with watching the sun set and the sky changing colors over the silhouetted pagodas.
The most popular time to view the Sun and Moon Pagodas is at night; and though the platforms overlooking them get packed with visitors, it doesn’t diminish the beauty of the pagodas, illuminating the night sky in their gold and silver lights.
7) Walk along Zhengyang Walking Street 正阳步行街
Shopping streets are always lovely places to go to for souvenirs, street food and shopping — and in Guilin, it’s the Zhengyang Walking Street. With a history of over 1000 years, the road was once used by the nobles and princes of the Ming Dynasty; and at the turn of the millennium, was given an upgrade and turned into a paved pedestrian street and a tourism hub for shopping and recreation.
The Zhengyang Walking Street is 666m long, and about 13m wide; and is lined by restaurants, fashion outlets and specialty stores. There are also tons of food stalls along its side streets — it’s a great place to sample some of Guilin’s street food. From braised pork knuckle, grilled oysters and meat sticks to fruit juices and sweet desserts; I was spoiled for choice.
The street is situated just north of Fir Lake; so it made a good stopover after my evening stroll along the lake. I dropped by the street at night as well, when it comes to life with bright colors lighting up the shops, and street vendors setting up stalls at the side of the street. The 17.5m tall red bell and clock tower in the middle of the street serves as the street’s centerpiece and symbol.
8) Enjoy Guilin Food 桂林食品
Every city has their local specialty, and in Guilin, you have to try a bowl of their famous Guilin Rice Noodles (Mifen). This dish is so popular that locals and visitors have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner — and it doesn’t cost much too. Made from rice flour starch, the noodles are usually round; and is served in a hot broth together with peanuts, garlic, scallions and shredded beef, pork or chicken meat. I loved the Guilin Mifen so much that I brought back packets of instant Guilin Mifen home with me.
Some local Guilin dishes are the Lipu Taro and Pork Rolls, Li River Snails, and Steamed River Fish. The city is named after Osmanthus trees, so sweet osmanthus desserts and drinks are pretty popular too. I also had a taste of the Oil Tea (you cha). Locals regularly drink this concoction that is prepared by frying the tea leaves with oil, garlic, salt, ginger and sometimes chili; and then boiled with water. The broth (or tea) is a little too strong for my liking — it definitely is an acquired taste. During my visit to the Longji Rice Terraces (written below No.9), I tried the Bamboo Tube Rice, eaten by the people who live in China’s mountainous regions.
As I was following a pre-arranged tour, most of the meals were typical Chinese cuisine with a variety of dishes to share — chicken, pork, tofu, fish, and a variety of vegetables; served with white rice. I got bored with the selections after a few days, and went on a Guilin street food binge at Zhengyang Walking Street.
9) See the Longji Rice Terraces 龙脊梯田
Constructed from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1358) until the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Longji (Dragon Backbone) Rice Terraces look like the jagged back of a sleeping dragon, resting in the mountains of Longsheng County, about a 2.5 hours drive from Guilin. The most popular rice terrace areas in Longji are the Ping’an Rice Terraces (home to the Zhuang minority) and the Jinkeng Rice Terraces (home to the Red Yao people).
During my one-day visit, I chose to see the less-crowded and rustic Jinkeng Rice Terraces. I made my way to the Golden Buddha Peak (Jinfo Ding), the only place in all of Longji that offers a cable way to the top. The view from the peak is absolutely breathtaking — I couldn’t stop admiring the never-ending picture of green and golden waves hanging like ribbons along the mountains, and the small villages dotted among the terraces. I also stopped by the Huangluo Red Yao Village, home to about 400 of the Red Yao minority people. The ladies in this village are known to wear their hair extremely long — the longest measures 2.1 meters!
Entrance to the Longji Rice Terraces scenic area costs CNY100 (US$14.5). The entire area is so expansive, historical and cultural; and I wished I had more days to stay and explore all the rice terraces, the ethnic minority villages, and probably hike the many trails around the mountains.
10) Visit Yangshuo 杨朔
Yangshuo is a town located 1.5 hours southeast of Guilin — and is a popular side trip from the city. Surrounded by mountain karsts and winding rivers, the town can be reached either by road, or by the slow boats cruising along the Li River. Over the years, more and more tourists can be seen flocking to this small town to revel in its breathtaking scenery.
Some of the things to do in Yangshuo are bamboo rafting down the Yulong River, and taking a cruise down the Li River. The popular Impression Liu Sanjie musical night show is also based here. The countryside surrounding the town is still home to many local ethnic minority groups — so it is also a great place to immerse in the local culture.
Many travelers like setting up base in Yangshuo, as it is a good starting point for hiking expeditions and cycling trips through its stunning landscape. You can read more about my trip to Yangshuo here:- Two Days in Yangshuo.