The land of sweet osmanthus & epic karst mountains.
Most people may never have heard of Guilin. For avid travelers, especially those who’ve traveled extensively in Asia, this land of karst topography is definitely on their bucket lists. Rather than the historical landmarks in Beijing or Shanghai’s gigantic metropolis, what you’ll get in Guilin is a blossoming countryside where the epic-ness of mother nature sucks your human ego down to zero.
Situated in the southeast part of China, Guilin – the forest of sweet Osmanthus – is filled with small town folks living by the famous Li River that boasts majestic 30,000 mountains rising above water. 3-5 days is plenty of time to spend here.
By flying, you can get to Guilin Liangjiang International Airport (KWL) from major Asian airports and other Chinese domestic cities. There are airport shuttles that leave every 30 minutes, cost CNY 20 (USD $3.26) and will take you to Civil Aviation Mansion.
According to Travel China Guide, “the Guilin Railway Station (South Station) and North Railway Station (North Station) are the two main railroad passenger transport stations in the city. Every day, many trains arrive and depart, as the city is a hub of the Hunan-Guangxi Railway and Guiyang-Guilin-Guangzhou High Speed Railway. The South Station is located to the south of the city center and is more easily reachable than the North Station. The North Railway Station is situated in the northern suburbs of the city and has less convenient links with the city center. If the train you take stops at both of the stations, it’s better to get off at the South Station where handy transportation to the surrounding places is available, as well as trains connecting to China’s major cities.” The website also offers info on bus schedules.
While planning your trip to Guilin, be sure to also hit up Yangshuo, a country situated 90 minutes away by car (ask your hotel for a private taxi or minivan.) The cost is around CNY45-70 and Yangshuo Insider has more detailed info regarding bus and train transportations once you get there. In Guilin, here are some absolute highlights you definitely shouldn’t miss:
Mulong Lake Park 木龍湖公園
Zhongshan N Rd, Diecai Qu, Guilin Shi, Guangxi Zhuangzuzizhiqu, China, 541000
Mulong means “Wooden Dragon” in Mandarin, and it’s one of the main parks here where you can check out the “two river and four lakes” famous scenery. The main 45-meter tower is Mulong Tower, overlooking several centuries old walls since the Song Dynasty and the Mulong Bridge.
Fubo Hill 伏波山
Diecai, Guilin, China
So the Li River is kind of a big deal in Guilin. And Fubo Hill, which is situated very close to Mulong Lake Park, is known for the foot of its peak resting half in water and half on land. This explains its name, Fubo Shan, meaning: wave-curbing hill. The coolest part about this place is the Pearl-Returning Cave that has a good luck Buddha and the Thousand Buddha Cave, where you can see Buddha statues from the Tang Dynasty – the Golden Age of the Chinese civilization.
Peach Blossom Spring 桂林桃花源
Xiufeng, Guilin, Guangxi, China, 541000
For those who don’t know Chinese literature, The Peach Blossom Land or 桃花源, was a fable by Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 in 421 about a random discovery of an utopia where people lived in total harmony with nature, oblivious to the outside world. The park in Guilin was recently established for tourists, and I mean it’s REALLY touristy with a boat where performances and dancers drum away as you float by. Kinda like Disney’s It’s A Small World, except there are tons of karst mountains.
Ride the Li River Cruise 灕江游船
Binjiang Rd, Xiangshan Qu, Guilin Shi, Guangxi Zhuangzuzizhiqu, China, 541000
A 90 minute car drive south of the Guilin city center is Yangshuo county, which welcomes tons of tourists because of the magnificent karst mountains. WARNING: This is VERY loud and touristy. Riding the Li River Cruise comes with lots of pushes & shoves, and super loud guides shouting over speakers. Huge contrast to the zen-like vibes of the karst mountains. Definitely recommend hiring a private boat, which clearly I should have done.
Shop around in Yangshuo’s small alleys.
For such a small county, Yangshuo has lots of artisan shops where you can buy local specialties including painted fans, embroideries, and accessories made by locals that are really good with their hands. If you stroll through smaller markets, then stock up on oranges and kumquats, yum!
Devour local countryside cuisine.
Guilin’s style of cuisine is a combo of both Hunanese and Cantonese because it’s located in the Guanxi region, meaning the food here is spicy, with lots of chili and stir fry. They also like to put beer in meat dishes. My favorite was the beer duck and taro! Definitely indulge in wild plants here that are rarely eaten in other countries.
Witness cormorant fishing 看魚民利用鸕鶿 (漁鷹)
Like I always said, “traveling is the best form of education.” We may think it’s pure cruelty now, but in Guilin, travelers can learn about the ancient Chinese and Japanese using the cormorant fishing method which has taken place since 960 AD. To control the birds, fishermen tie a snare near the base of the bird’s throat. This prevents the birds from swallowing larger fish, which are held in their throats. The birds then spit out the fish.
Attend the Impression Sanjie Liu Light Show
No 1, Tianyuan Rd Lijiang Shanshui Theater, Yangshuo County 541999 China
One thing you HAVE to do here is attend the Sanjie Liu Light show at night. The stunning performance is created by famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou (remember House of the Flying Daggers?) By using the karst formations as backdrop and over 600 local performers, the show is jaw-dropping, out of this world gorgeous.
Say a little prayer at Sun and Moon Pagodas 日月雙塔
Shanhu Lake Scenic Area
The iconic symbol of Guilin in its city center is the Moon and Sun Pagodas. The Sun Pagoda is actually the world’s highest bronze pagoda, and the world’s highest pagoda above water at 41 meters. The Moon Pagoda is made of glaze, and in between them, there’s a 10-meter glass tunnel that runs underwater. Inside is a Buddhism museum where you can also learn about the history and fortunes of the Chinese zodiac animal signs.
Cruise the “Two Rivers and Four Lakes” 兩江四湖游船
More boats!!! Besides the Li River cruise, the other famous cruise is on Two Rivers and Four Lakes, which refers to the Li River, Taohua (Peach Blossom) River, Mulong Lake, Guihu Lake, Ronghu Lake, and Shanhu Lake. The history here dates back to Tang and Song dynasties. After the Ming Dynasty, many of the rich and famous built their homes by the lakeside. Poets and writers have also written poems and literary works here. On the hour-long cruise, you’ll pass by many bridges, even ones that look like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Chuanshan Park 穿山岩
55 Chuanshan Alley, Qixing Qu, Guilin Shi, Guangxi Zhuangzuzizhiqu, China, 541003
There are many incredible caves in China in general, and there are several cool ones in Guilin. Inside Chuanshan Park, you can visit a 34,000 year-old cave which was discovered in 1977. There are light installations inside where colorful caves can take your imagination to the wildest places.
Stroll along “Two Rivers and Four Lakes” 兩江四湖旁散步
Xiangshan, Guilin, Guangxi, China, 541003
Before you get on or off the boat, the area surrounding the Two Rivers and Four Lakes makes a lovely stroll on any afternoon.
Browse through East-West Alley 東西巷
Xiufeng Qu, Guilin Shi, Guangxi Zhuangzuzizhiqu, China
During Ming and Qing dynasties, East-West Alley was an affluent space where government officials and celebrities lived. Today, it’s where cute cafes and cool shops are. It’s divided into two parts: Traditional Culture Street and Fashion Style Street. This is where you can buy souvenirs or just chill out at vintage restaurants and bars.
Stay at Shangri-La Guilin Hotel
111 Huancheng North 2nd Rd, Qixing Qu, Guilin Shi, Guangxi Zhuangzuzizhiqu, China, 541004
Shangri-La is the best hotel in town. The 5-star luxury stay costs less than $150/night during low season, which I highly recommend. The rooms come with gorgeous decor, awesome amenities, and the breakfast buffet in the morning is absolutely outstanding!