For many, visiting China is a trip of a lifetime (or two). Strategy is key to ensuring the experience is a memorable one for all the right reasons. Travelers should be aware that for the same price ($160), the Chinese Embassy will issue a 10-year visa; just be sure that the appropriate box is checked on the application form.
Once overseas, five-star accommodations and curated experiences help create a framework for more spontaneous moments like an impromptu stop at a local teahouse or wandering through one of the many open-air markets. Here are essentials for two of China's most-visited destinations:
With a population soaring to nearly 20 million people and history dating back more than 3,000 years, Beijing is nothing short of epic. First-timers will head to its top tourist attractions, but it's the "how" as much as the "where" that counts.
• The Great Wall: There are several entry points within driving distance of Beijing, but the road less traveled offers less touristy vistas. Tour operator Audley Travel has been traveling to Asia since 1998 and highly recommends the entry point at Jinshanling for a more authentic experience. A guide will also help deflect the throngs of local villagers peddling souvenirs.
• Aman at the Summer Palace: While the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square should surely be experienced, for the night's rest and early morning tour, the Aman Summer Palace offers a luxurious backdrop that once served as a lush respite for emperors. Be sure to request a deluxe room with an authentic four-poster bed and schedule private access to the gardens through the property's exclusive east gate entrance.
Some say that Chengdu is like the Los Angeles of China: a more relaxed version of its bustling sister cities to the east. And for those who like heat, this capital of the Sichuan Province delivers spicy food along with outdoor adventures with the country's emblematic mascot, the giant panda.
• China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda: Become a panda keeper for the day and experience close interaction at the Dujiangyan base, about an hour's drive from the city center. There are plenty of photo ops among the well-maintained enclosures. See www.en.chinapanda.org.cn.
• Museum of Sichuan Cuisine: At this immersive museum, a collection of more than 3,000 cookery items sets the stage for demonstrations like authentic tofu-making and a hands-on cooking class. Participants prepare their own lunch, which may include centuries-old dishes such as mapo tofu and kung pao chicken. Those wanting to bring these authentic flavors home can purchase douban jiang, a fermented chile paste aged in open-air clay pots on the museum's grounds.
• The Temple House: Opened in July 2015, the property incorporates historical buildings as well as new construction, melding old and new with traditional Chinese elements of bamboo, brick and stone. See www.thetemplehousehotel.com.
• Sichuan Opera: This joyful variety show housed in Chengdu's outdoor Shufeng Yayun Teahouse includes puppeteers, acrobats and the famous "face-changing" act, where performers magically transform with the use of tightly fitted masks that portray different emotions. A VIP ticket also includes an optional shoulder massage during the show, or a photo in costume afterward.