The 8 Largest Lesser-Visited Chinese Cities That Should Be on Your Radar
In the US, size is king. We like our vehicles to be trucks, our prairies vast, our Mac’s big. We might even be under the impression that our cities put others to shame. But even our biggest metropolises shrink in the shadow of the largest cities in China. Everyone knows about the staggering size of Shanghai and Beijing, China’s two largest cities by population — 22.3 million and 11.7 million respectively — but do you know that its third, fourth, and fifth biggest cities make New York look like a village? And the largest cities in China do more than just shatter records — they are centers of culinary culture, history, and art, and make great destinations for travelers looking for unexpected experiences.
These are the largest cities in China by urban population, according to World Population Review, and how they compare to the eight most populated cities in the US.
1. Tianjin: 11 million people
New York City: 8.6 million people
One of the most important port cities in China, Tianjin is not only rich in economic activity, but also in culinary culture and architecture. Nanshi Food Street is the best place for checking out the local cuisine. It’s a huge food mall that looks like an ancient Chinese citadel, with over 100 different food stalls with dishes from all over China.
“Pancake rolls with crisp fritters and Goubuli steamed buns, which originated in Tianjin, are among the most well-known breakfast dishes in China,” says Thomas Brown, a travel agent working in Beijing. “But only in Tianjin can you get the most authentic taste.”
To get a real feel for Tianjin’s architectural history, stroll down Guwenhua Jie, otherwise known as Ancient Culture Street. This pedestrian thoroughfare is lined with temple gates and food stalls, and is classified as one of China’s AAAAA scenic areas by the China National Tourism Administration (the top official rating for tourist attractions in China).
“Guwenhua Jie integrates local traditional culture and delicious food, and is a must-visit for travelers to the city,” Brown says. He also suggests a visit to Tianjin Panshan Mountain Scenic Area, a place known for its Buddhist temples and royal gardens. There, you can take a cable car to Wansong Temple halfway up the mountain, as well as Guayue Peak, or hike the 9,000-foot elevation to the peak yourself via one of the mountain trails.
2. Guangzhou: 11 million
Los Angeles: 4 million
A huge city in southern China, Guangzhou is a blend of history and forward-looking innovation. “Known for being one of the starting points for the Silk Road, Guangzhou is now a thriving metropolis and os well known for its manufacturing and fashion hub,” says Catherine Heald, CEO and Co-Founder of Remote Lands, a luxury travel agency specializing in Asia travel. “Travelers can also take a step back in time to visit Old Canton in the western part of the city, including Canton Tower, or the many skyscrapers in the eastern part.”
Indeed, the first thing you may notice about Guangzhou is Canton Tower, one of China’s tallest buildings. The 1,970-foot tower has observation decks, restaurants, coffee shops, and thrill rides, and, at one point in history, it even held the distinction of being the tallest tower in the world.
The peaceful Guangxiao Temple, dating all the way back to the Han Dynasty in 206 BC, is another must-visit in the city. Along with the nearby nine-story Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, built in 537 AD, Guangxiao is one of the most important Buddhist temples in Guangzhou.
According to Brown, the food scene in Guangzhou is also not to be missed. “The breakfast in Guangzhou is called morning tea,” he says, “which is something every tourist must experience. It contains many local specialties, such as steamed vermicelli rolls, crystal shrimp dumplings, and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf.”
3. Shenzhen: 10 million
Chicago: 2.7 million
A former market town, this southern Chinese city became a Special Economic Zone in 1979, and has since grown into one of the largest cities in China. According to Heald, “Shenzhen connects Hong Kong to China’s mainland and is one of the largest, most popular cities in southeast China. It is a one-hour high-speed train ride from Hong Kong and a special economic zone where a lot of manufacturing is done.”
One of the city’s most unique sites is the Window of the World, an Epcot-like pavilion with over 130 tributes to international attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, the Taj Mahal, and the pyramids of Egypt. If you haven’t had your fill of kitschy attractions, you can also check out Happy Valley Shenzhen, a huge amusement park covering 86 acres, with nine areas inspired by international destinations.
As for natural scenery, Brown recommends checking out “Wutong Mountain, which is one of the most popular scenic spots in Shenzhen among those who live there.” From the top you can see the coastal mountain range and nearby Roc Bay. Several hiking trails are available, including a scenic seven-mile loop trail from Wutong Village. And if you’re looking for something a bit more relaxing, Dameisha Beach, the longest beach in Shenzhen, stretches for nearly 2,000 yards along the South China Sea.
4. Wuhan: 9.7 million
Houston: 2.4 million
The city of Wuhan has come to be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s unfortunate, as Wuhan is far from being a scary place – it’s full of great attractions for visitors.
“Visitors to Wuhan will be surprised by many aspects of the city,” says Heald, “from its history as a colonial British settlement and the location of the Wuchang Uprising, to its modern-day spring Cherry Blossom Festival [taking place in early March every year], nightlife, and emerging art scene.
According to Brown, Yellow Crane Tower should be at the top of any visitor’s list in Wuhan. Once a military watchtower, the historical pagoda dates back to the third century, and is a point of immense pride among residents. “It is also a National AAAAA level tourist attraction,” says Brown. “You can’t visit Wuhan without climbing the tower.”
For a dose of natural scenery, visit East Lake. The largest inner-city lake in China, East Lake is also the largest scenic area in Wuhan, with viewing platforms, spring blossoms, and tea-houses and restaurants along the shore.
5. Dongguan: 8 million
Phoenix: 1.7 million
Dongguan isn’t known for being a tourist spot, but “this is a city with much history,” according to Heald. “It is where the first Opium War started and where many Chinese believe the road to their independence began. Travelers should visit the Opium War Museum along with the Humen Bridge, which is one of the city’s best-known landmarks.”
Even if you’re not a fan of museums, the Opium War Museum is worth a visit. Built in 1957, the museum commemorates the Opium War of 1839, one of the most important and consequential wars in Chinese history. The museum’s exhibits focus on the opium trade, its suppression, and the wars that followed, with a number of period relics on display.
Keyuan Garden is a great place to get a feel for the city’s architecture and natural scenery. Established during the Qing Dynasty in the mid-19th century, it’s said to evoke the ancient and famed Suzhou Gardens — a UNESCO World Heritage site which standardized many features of Chinese garden design.
Brown recommends hiking Yinping Mountain, a 3,000-foot peak in the scenic Yinpingshan Forest Park, as well as Longwan Wetland Park, an open park with a running track, Ferris wheel, and colorful installations that serve as perfect photography backdrops.
6. Chengdu: 7.4 million
Philadelphia: 1.6 million
While you might think that a city of over seven million people would have a frenetic, fast-paced energy, Chengdu isn’t nearly as overwhelming as cities of a similar size. “The pace of life there is slow,” Brown says, “and it’s a great city to relax in. Tourists will see a lot of people drinking tea and chatting in the park.”
Chengdu is perhaps best known as the panda capital of China, with most pandas in China coming from the Sichuan region (of which Chengdu is the capital). For the full panda experience, there are two stops you need to make. The first is just south of the city, at Dujiangyan Panda Base, which includes a panda hospital, medical lab, panda kitchen, educational center, and 30 sets of enclosures where pandas live. There are even programs that allow visitors to take care of pandas themselves. The second stop is Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda, a nonprofit breeding facility for giant pandas.
For a taste of Chengdu’s history and culture, Brown suggests taking a walk down the strangely named Wide and Narrow Alley, “a historic and cultural street with many historic buildings.” The street dates back to the 17th century, and is one of the last remaining parts of the old city. Now, the street is a popular tourism venue lined with restaurants, teahouses, and boutique shops.
According to Brown, Wide and Narrow Alley is also a great place for trying food from the Sichuan region. Along the road, you’ll find restaurants and food stands selling stir-fried Sichuan chicken with Sichuan chili peppers, spicy dumplings, vinegar-soaked wontons, and Chengdu hot pot. Be warned, though, that Sichuan-style dishes are traditionally very spicy.
7. Chongqing: 7.4 million
San Antonio: 1.6 million
Sitting right on the Yangtze River in southwestern China, Chongqing is known for its cuisine and natural attraction — despite being one of the largest cities in China. “Chongqing is extremely unique,” says Teree Bisso, a TEFL teacher currently living in China. “It has large hills and mountains dotted with skyscrapers. Think San Francisco, but Chinese skyscrapers and architecture. It is a street photographer’s dream.”
According to Brown, the “most famous scenic spot in Chongqing is Hongya Cave, a 2,300-year-old cave that became a military fortress during the Ming Dynasty. The cave has been renovated in the traditional Ba-yu Chinese architectural style, defined by its stilted buildings. The area is also a national AAAAA scenic spot.
Not long after arriving in Chongqing, you’ll realize that the Yangtze River is the beating heart of the city. Rather than sit in traffic on a bridge, take the Chongqing Yangtze River Cableway, a cable car that crosses the river. It’s probably the most scenic (and efficient) way to enjoy the city sights, and the whole journey takes under 10 minutes.
The residents of Chongqing take particular pride in their culinary tradition. “This city is well-known for its spicy food,” Heald says. Boiled fish, glue pudding (rice flour rolled in a ball and stuffed with sesame), hot and sour rice noodles, and Wangyazi duck roast are among the most popular dishes in the area.
8. Nanjing: 7.1 million
San Diego: 1.5 million
Nanjing, previously known as Jinling, was the capital during six dynasties in ancient China and has a very long past. Though today it serves as an important center for commerce in Eastern China, it retains much of its historical sites.
Any history tour of Nanjing should include the Bao’en Temple. Built in the early days of the Ming Dynasty, this pagoda was where people came to worship Buddah and release the souls for the dead from purgatory. Today, the temple sits on the south bank of the Qinhuai River, and houses a modern art exhibit. Your next stop should be Purple Mountain, the burial place of several emperors and legendary heroes from over 10 dynasties, and the home of over 200 heritage sites, including Linggu Temple and Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum.
As with many of China’s major cities, Nanjing’s culinary creations shouldn’t be skipped. The city is particularly known for its Jinling roast duck, which has a tender, juicy interior and crispy exterior. Stewed eel, shredded dried tofu, and beef potstickers are also popular and ubiquitous in Nanjing.