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China, Asia's powerhouse and home to approximately one fifth of the human race, is changing so quickly that onlookers can hardly keep pace. The nation's rapid development and economic growth has attracted worldwide attention in recent years as its leaders strive for a peaceful rise to bring China's people out of poverty, embrace economic globalization and improve relations with the rest of the world. Growth and economics aside, China has much to boast about. It is a country so vast; so rich in history, culture and natural beauty, that the scale of its grand sights is overwhelming. Iconic historical sites, traditions and civilisations dating back thousands of years are set amid breathtaking country landscapes and futuristic cities. From its populated east, desert plains of the Mongol Plateau to Manchuria in the northeast, and the vast plains and highlands of the west, China inspires every type of adventure and is worthy of more than one visit – with 28 provinces and more than 53 major tourist cities to explore, visitors are unlikely to scratch more than the surface in a single trip.

Beijing, the nation's capital for over 3000 years, is China's premier tourist destination and a good place to begin. Visitors flock to the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, the Ming Tombs, the Temple of Heaven, the architectural masterpiece of the Forbidden City, and the equally impressive Summer Palace. But what also makes this city interesting is its mix of modern high rise buildings and backstreet hutongs packed with tiny shops and eateries. Beijing is the place to try Peking Duck, fly a kite in the vast breezy square of Tiananmen, and learn tai chi in the park.

In contrast to Beijing are Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau. Each city has dynamism – an energy and a vibrancy that is invigorating. One hundred years ago they were the small, bustling trading posts of Europe. Back then forts, churches and European buildings lined the cobblestone streets and hidden laneways. Now though, new-wave architecture and high-rise structures dominate the skyline, signalling their rise as major financial and tourist centres. Shanghai was known in the early part of the 20th century as the 'Paris of the East' for its boulevards and the grand art deco architecture. Now the shopping capital of China, it is a thriving metropolis of traditional alleyways, futuristic skyscrapers and colonial buildings that vie for space on the Bund and in Pudong. The Bund's riverfront promenade in the old city of Shanghai was once home to numerous world banks, consulates and trading houses. It emits a sense of neoclassical glamour, heightened by its upscale shops, restaurants, and nightclubs. The tree-lined avenues of Shanghai's French Concession feature art-deco apartment buildings, old Modernist mansions, funky boutiques and cafes; making it one of the most interesting of the colonial districts. The old lanes of Taikang Lu offer a pedestrian-friendly experience. Here, the traditional nongs (small lanes) and shikumen (stone houses) thrive, defiantly it seems, against the wrecking balls that have modernised most of Shanghai. Known as an arts and crafts enclave, it has developed from a renovated residential area and so offers excellent examples of preserved Shikumen architecture. Art-lovers should make a bee-line for 50 Moganshan Road, or M50 as it's often referred to, Shanghai's burgeoning gallery district. Those with money to burn on luxury brands should hit the boutique stores along Nanjing Road and Huaihai Road, the Dongtai Lu Natique market for old-school Communist mementoes, or the bustling Yuyan Bazaar for local bargains. Re-fuel with a plate of the city's famous soup-filled dumplings then catch an evening show by the graceful and highly skilled Shanghai Acrobats (or get a drink on the 36th-floor lounge of the Shangri-La Pudong and enjoy the view!).

Hong Kong's appeal is in its intoxicating East-meets-West vibe. Its mix of British colonial legacy, ancient Chinese traditions, futuristic cityscapes and quiet, verdant nooks are complemented by picturesque islands and beaches located only minutes away. While Hong Kong has so much to offer visitors, a single day in this city should include a tram ride to Victoria Peak and lunch at Café Duco; an afternoon exploring the Ten Thousand Buddas' Monastery Peak and New Territories; dinner at Yung Kee (a famous Cantonese restaurant) and a wander through Lan Kwai Fong to experience the best of Hong Kong's nightlife.

Macau, Hong Kong's sister city, has risen rapidly in popularity over recent years, overtaking Hong Kong in terms of visitors and even knocking Las Vegas off its perch as the world's top gambling city. A Portuguese colony for much of its existence, Macau offers a fantastic blend of colonial architecture, excellent restaurants and an arsenal of casinos to empty money into.

Beyond China's best-known cities are many, many others; each with their own charm. Xian, once an ancient capital on the Silk Road, is most famous for the discovery of its Terracotta Warriors. Xitang's cobblestone streets, canals and traditional guesthouses provide the perfect place to sip tea and practise the art of calligraphy. Hangzhou, overlooked by tea plantations and sat beside the gorgeous West Lake, is one of China's most cherished cities. Guilin is regarded as the country's most picturesque city, with crystal-clear rivers and mountains that boast unusual rock formations and caves.

China has no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage listed sites of great natural and cultural significance – the best-known being the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan; Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area; and Mount Emei and the Leshan Giant Buddha. Located in the mountainous north-west of Yunnan Province, the Three Parallel Rivers area contains an outstanding diversity of landscapes such as deep-incised river gorges, luxuriant forests, towering mountains, glaciers, alpine karst, red-sandstone landforms, lakes and meadows. The three of the great rivers of Asia: the Yangtze (Jinsha), Mekong and Salween run through steep gorges which, in places, are 3,000 m deep and are bordered by glaciated peaks more than 6,000 m high. Being one of the world's least-disturbed temperate ecological areas, it is an epicentre of Chinese species and a natural gene pool of great richness. The Tiger Leaping Gorge trek is the finest in the region. Those who are up to the three day challenge pass through quiet villages, shady forest, blustery precipice and verdant terraced farmland – all wedged between two snow-covered mountains.

The Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area is one of a cluster of three protected areas in the Minshan range, all of which have been separately nominated for World Heritage status. The essence of this area lies in its waters: lakes, spring waters, streams, waterfalls, rivers and shoals. So spectacularly beautiful, it is a great masterpiece of nature with dreamlike scenery (including lake shores covered in crystals). The mountainous habitat supports another of China's treasures, the Giant Panda, as well as a great number of rare bird and plant species. Mount Emei (also known as Emei Shan) in western China's Sichuan province is the highest (3,099 meters) of the four sacred Buddhist Mountains of China and home to the country's first Buddhist temple. Old growth-forests and mist shroud ancient monasteries and reveal a magnificent golden statue of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva at the summit. Visitors can trek to the summit or soak up the immense beauty of the region on a cable car ride.

China is so vast, it can be visited at any time of the year but there are many extremes of weather, depending on the region. It can be a very real challenge to navigate around China during Chinese New Year, as you will be joined by many of China's substantial population. The up side is that the country is particularly festive and exciting at this time.

The best time to visit Beijing is during autumn (September to early November). Hong Kong's weather is best during spring (March to May), and winter, while cool, is still pleasant. Hainan, considered by some to be China's Hawaii, is best visited between November and March (when the rest of China is freezing!) The Yangzi River region is very hot and humid during summer and should be avoided – so should southern China as its coastline is harassed by typhoons. Tibet's most favourable months are between April and October, with the peak season starting in May and ending September. This breathtaking destination can reach 38C in summer, even with night and early morning temperatures dropping below zero.

Click here for our suggestions on events and places to go at various times of year