Guilin is one of the most beautiful cities in China, and a place that should be on everyone's travel bucket list. It's an easy domestic flight from all the larger cities, and can also be reached by train, thanks to China's extensive rail network. It's also a great place to go for a weekend away from Guangzhou - hop on the high-speed train and you'll be there in less than 3 hours!
I flew into Guilin from Chengdu and took a taxi into the city. The taxi stand at the airport is easy to find, but make sure you have the address of your destination written down in Chinese, as the drivers generally don't speak English. It's also a good idea to write down the phone number of the place you need to go so the driver can call and ask for directions.
During my stay in Guilin I stayed at Memory Inn, which is located just off Zhongshan Middle Road (中山路). It's a short walk from all the tourist spots, and the reception staff were extremely friendly and helpful. If you'd prefer to stay outside of the city center, you might consider booking at Lotus Hotel in Lu Jia Village (鲁家村) - this was initially the place I booked, but it ended up being too far out of the city for me.
The best way to get around Guilin's city center is by bike. However, if you're like me and you prefer to explore by foot, you can get to all the main attractions by walking.
Zhongshan Middle Road divides two of Guilin's four lakes. On the west side is Ronghu Lake (榕湖), with its Crystal Glass Bridge. There's a small charge to cross the bridge, and visitors can spend up to 15 minutes on it. Although the fee is really small (about 10 CNY if I remember correctly), I personally don't think it's worth crossing unless there's something interesting happening on the small island it's connected to. It's a nice spot to take some photos though.
A pedestrian tunnel passing under Zhongshan Middle Road connects the two lakes and is a nice place for more photos as it has some nice carvings. Shanhu Lake (杉湖) sits on the east side, and the twin pagodas there are a great place to get a bird's eye view of the city.
The Moon Pagoda (月塔), made with glazed tiles, stands 35 meters high and the bronze Sun Pagoda (日塔) is slightly taller at 41 meters. I only saw the pagodas from the scenic area across the lake, but have since found out that they're connected by an underwater tunnel that visitors can enter.
The area around Shanhu Lake is really pretty. You can take the scenic walk through the trees via one of the pathways, or continue down Binjiang Road (滨江路). You can also cross Binjiang Road for a view of the Li River.
If you're looking for a good cup of coffee, I recommend a visit to a little shop called Barista's Monkey. I'm 99% sure it's on Renmin Road, just off Binjiang (my GPS couldn't always be trusted).
The service isn't the fastest and the staff don't speak any English, but they do know how to make a good latte. They are also very nice, despite the language barrier - I waited quite a while for my coffee as the girl was dealing with a large group of rather high maintenance European tourists, and was offered a free piece of cake as an apology. Unfortunately the cafe doesn't have milk alternatives, but they do have some healthy-looking salads and paninis on their menu.
If you can grab a table by the window, it's a nice place to sit and people watch for a bit.
Just a few minutes' walk from Binjiang Road is the Guilin Central Square (桂林中心广场). Not much happens here unless there's a special event, but it's a nice clean park where you can see some flowers and get a glimpse of the famous waterfall hotel.
From here you can take one of the many staircases down to Xiao Xiang Gang Commercial Market (小香港商业城), also known as 'Little Hong Kong'. This is a large underground market that runs beneath the central square and is filled with cheap goods and clothing (of questionable quality of course). This is a great place to practice your haggling skills!
Back at street level, Zhengyang Pedestrian Street (正阳步行街) is located across from the Central Square, and is a great place to grab something to eat or drink. There are also plenty of retail shops here.
Across Jiefang East Road you'll find East-West Lane (东西巷). At the beginning is Fashion Style Street (时尚风情街), a mall with brand-name shops like H&M. It's a nice mall with a modern European theme which can be accessed from the shops at ground level or by taking the elevator down from the street.
Just beyond the designer shops is the historical district, a maze of old alleys from the Qing & Ming dynasties. Here you'll find even more street vendors as well as small food shops. This area can be quite crowded, so watch out for pickpockets.
Bordering the alleys are the old city walls, and at the edge is Xiaoyao Tower (逍遥楼), which was once the East Gate Tower of the city wall during the Tang dynasty. Visitors can climb to the top for a view of the surrounding area.
If you're looking for an even better view of the city (and are up for a bit of a hike!), head over to Jingjiang Prince City (靖江王城), where you'll find Solitary Beauty Peak (独秀峰). Admission to the site is about 130 CNY and includes entry to a small cave at the bottom of the hill. Keep in mind that no photos are allowed in the cave and signs are only in Mandarin, so if you like to use translation apps with the camera function the cave may not be worth the visit.
Though the cave is disappointing, the hike to the top of the peak is definitely worth it. It's up here, looking out at the vibrant green cone-shaped mountains stretching far in every direction, where you can really understand why school textbooks in China refer to Guilin as "the best landscape under heaven." Make sure you're wearing good shoes and bring water as it's a fairly steep staircase to the 66-meter-high viewpoint. At the base of the staircase are a few vendors selling drinks and souvenirs.
After my short stay in Guilin, I took a boat cruise up the Li River and spent a night in Yangshuo. Though it takes a couple hours longer than driving, the river cruise is a great way to see the natural beauty of the area. If you're staying an extra day in Guilin, it can be done as a round-trip, with a coach bus taking you back to Guilin at the end of the day. I recommend spending some time in Yangshuo though - there's so much to see, and the nightly 'Impression Sanjie Liu' light show is pretty breathtaking.
There are so many other attractions in Guilin that I didn't have a chance to see. If you're looking for more to do, consider checking out Elephant Trunk Hill (象鼻山), Seven Star Park (七星公园), where you can also visit the Guilin Zoo, and the 1,000-year-old Daxu Ancient Town (大圩镇).
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