Destination guide for Guilin, Guangxi province, China
We were lucky enough to have several opportunities to spend time in Guilin, Guangxi (广西桂林), while living in the nearby provincial capital of Nanning. Located in the north-east of Guangxi Province, most travellers only briefly see Guilin on their way to the more popular holiday town of Yangshuo, on the Li River. But Guilin should also be on your travel radar. It is said in China that “Yangshuo is the most beautiful place in China, and Guilin is even more beautiful than Yangshuo”. And they’re right.
Many millions of years ago the whole area around Guilin was at the bottom of the sea and the towering karst (limestone) mountains were once small islands dotted through that sea. The whole region was pushed up by volcanic and tectonic activity and the sea drained away, leaving the most spectacular mountains and fertile soils in China. If you’ve ever seen one of those Chinese paintings where a temple sits on top of a seemingly sheer mountain, that will almost certainly be near Guilin.
The Chinese have lots of wonderful sayings describing Guiling and I think they say more than I ever can. “Guilin’s landscape ranks the first under heaven”, “a world full of peaks as beautiful as green lotus flowers and jade-like bamboo shoots” and “green hills, blue water, weird rock and bizarre caverns” are just some of the things Chinese poets have said about this region.
Even the city of Guilin itself is a tourist magnet within China, attracting around 250,000 tourists each year to visit more than 100 cultural sites that dot the local area. There are direct flights into Guilin from most major cities in China including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi’an, Kunming and Hong Kong, so it’s very easy to get to and serviced by lots of good hotels and guest houses.
Things to see and do around Guilin
There are so many amazing places to see in this area that I’ll struggle to do it justice, but these should be on your itinerary if you have time (numbers refer to icons in map above):
1. Duxiu Peak (Solitary Beauty)
Climb up over 300 stone steps to the top of a mountain right in the heart of Guilin city for amazing views of the town and the surrounding countryside, including the Li River. Take time to check out the Qing Dynasty calligraphy engraved in the eastern cliff of the peak.
2. Diecai Hill (Folded Brocade)
Just outside Guilin to the north-east and looking over the Li River, this hill is so named because the many folds in the landscape look like a folded brocade cloth. Attractions in the area include the Cloud-catching Pavilion and the River-viewing Pavilion, the Diecai Pavilion and the Fengdong Cave (Breeze Cave).
3. Fubo (Whirlpool) Hill
Not far from Duxiu Peak (1) on the banks of the Li River, this is another great spot to look over Guilin and the surrounding countryside. Check out the south side of the hill where you’ll find Huanzhou (Returned Pearl) Cave and Qianfo (1000 Buddhas) Cave – there’s not really 1000 Buddha statues in there, but there are a few dozen dating from the Song Dynasty.
4. Xianbi (Elephant Trunk) Hill
Not surprisingly this hill alongside the Li River looks a bit like an elephant with its trunk running down into the river. If you check out the north side of the hill you’ll find a Ming Dynasty pagoda that’s worth a look.
5. Banyan Lake and Fir Lake
Both are located almost in the heart of Guilin, one on the western side and one on the eastern side, and are named after the banyan and fir trees that respectively surround them. Near Banyan Lake you’ll find the restored Guilin City Gate (Gu NanMen) which dates back to the Tang Dynasty. But really the lakes are just a great place to chill out.
6. Chuanshan (Pierced) Hill
Located to the south of Guilin city centre, this hill is named after the hole in the middle of it that looks a lot like a full moon. On the nearby hilltop there’s a Ming Dynasty pagoda that’s also worth visiting. Check out where the Xiaodongjiang (Little Easter) River cuts between the two hills forming almost a mirror image.
7. Nanxi (Southern Stream) Hill Park
Located about a kilometre north of the city centre, this park has two almost vertical hills that face each other like mirror images. If you explore around these hills you’ll find many caves and carvings in the rock dating from the Tang and Song Dynasties.
8. Qixing (Seven Star) Park
East of the Li River, this park gets its name from the seven peaks that are considered to look like the Seven Sisters constellation (in the Big Dipper). There are lots of places to explore in this park including the Qixing Cave, the Flower Bridge, the Guihai Forest of Steles, Camel Hill and the Longyin Cave. This is the largest park in Guilin and often very busy.
9. Ludi (Reed Flute) Cave
Out on the western edge of Guilin, this amazing cave system runs some 240 metres deep and about 500 metres long and has a stunning array of stalagmites, stalagtites and stone pillars, making it one of the top tourist attractions in Guilin. When we first visited Guilin, the caves were only open to a select few, but now everyone can explore them.
Places to stay in Guilin
Know that if you arrive in Guilin by train or plane, you’re likely to be snapped up very quickly by hotel touts who’s job is to convince you that most of the hotels are full and theirs is not. They are very insistent, so it’s best to have a hotel booked before you arrive and arrange to be picked up. We fell for this on our first visit and ended up in a hotel that was still under construction! Forget the “rack rates” of hotels in Guilin, as you can always negotiate a better price and Agoda usually has some great specials available. We’re quoting the “best” prices below.
The White House Hotel is one of the top places to stay in Guilin, a 5-star traditional style hotel in the city centre near the Banyan Tree and Fir Tree Lakes. It’s only a small hotel (37 rooms) with prices starting from USD$145 for a windowless room or USD$175 for king room with a view (including breakfast). The hotel sits right on the edge of the lake and has a nice balcony/terrace overlooking the lake. The staff speak good English (which is hard to find) and the decor feels like something out of Shanghai in the 1940s. Possibly one of the best hotels anywhere in China.
The Shangri-La Hotel is another 5-star property located near Diecai Hill and Fubo Hill to the north of the city centre, with river view rooms starting from US$175 a night. It’s a very modern hotel with a nice cafe, restaurant and bar as well as a fitness room, swimming pool and landscaped gardens to wander through. There’s even a pub! The rooms are large and luxurious and the staff are very caring and attentive. It’s a fair way into the city centre but only 10 minutes by taxi and the surroundings are very peaceful and relaxing.
The Guilin Riverside Hostel is a cheaper 2-star hostel located on the lake near Elephant Trunk Hill in the city centre that gets rave reviews from guests. Bunk rooms start at just USD$13 per night and you can get a private queen room for around USD$20 per night. There’s a nice balcony to relax on and a pub with a pool table and library of travel books. This hostel won a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor in 2012 and the helpful staff speak pretty good English and will try to arrange your tours.
The Guilin Han Tang Xing Ge Hotel is a 4-star option near Xihu Lake and Xishan Park just east of the city centre, with single rooms from around USD$35 per night and king rooms from around USD$40 per night. The hotel offers a free shuttle service to most of the popular city sights and a shuttle to the airport for about USD$5. There’s a travel agency in the lobby that will arrange your tour needs and onward bookings and the hotel offers a basic Chinese style breakfast for about USD$2.