From the Great Wall and Forbidden City to the Terracotta Army and Yangtze River, China is home to countless natural, cultural, and historical treasures. Many first-time visitors go to Shanghai, Beijing, and Xi’an, but there are so many hidden gems not far away. A great way to discover China’s vast countryside is by taking a Yangtze river cruise, where you’ll uncover thousands of years of compelling history and untouched nature.
In this travel guide, I’ll cover the top sights, must-dos, and important logistics you should know before booking your Yangtze river cruise.
If you haven’t seen my Instagram stories from my recent trip, be sure to check out these highlights before reading the rest of my article:
(Here are my Yangtze River Cruise Stories)
Now, without further ado, here’s everything you need to know before embarking on your Yangtze river cruise!
Interesting facts about the Yangtze River
Before diving into my Yangtze cruise ship experience, here’s some interesting information about China’s Yangtze River.
Also known as Chang Jiang (“Long River”), the Yangtze is the most important waterway in China. It extends more than 3,900 miles (6,300 km), making it the third longest river in the world after the Nile and Amazon. Only 778 miles (1,250 km) is currently used for river cruises.
The Yangtze River begins in the mountains of Tibet, and runs all the way to the East China Sea near Shanghai. It’s home to the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest source of hydroelectric power. More than one-third of China’s population lives along the river, underscoring its historic, cultural, and economic importance.
In recent years, Three Gorges river cruises have become a top tourist attraction in the heart of China.
How long should you spend on a Yangtze river cruise?
This really depends on how much money you’re willing to spend and how relaxing/fast-paced you’d like your itinerary to be. I did a 3-night Yangtze cruise from Chongqing to Yichang aboard the Yangtze Gold 8, which covered most of the highlights along the Yangtze, including Fengdu Ghost City, White Emperor City, and the Three Gorges. However, if you’re not strapped for time (and cash), there are plenty of cruise lines offering longer voyages. Here are the most popular cruise itineraries:
- 3-4 days: Chongqing to Yichang. This is the most popular route amongst international travelers.
- 10-11 days: Chongqing to Shanghai.
Note: there used to be Yangtze cruise itineraries from Chongqing to Wuhan, however no cruise lines will be servicing this route in 2020.
When is the best time of year to do a Yangtze and Three Gorges river cruise?
During my recent trip to China, I asked multiple cruise tour operators and guides this question. They advised that the spring and fall months— April, May, September, and October – are ideal for taking a Yangtze river cruise. This is when the weather is generally comfortable and there’s not much rain.
Spring and fall
In the spring, you’ll see the blossoms bloom. In the fall, the leaves on the trees turn bright red. That’s part of the reason why the spring and fall are considered “high season.” I think it’s totally worth the higher prices that come with it, as the weather can really make or break your trip on a Yangtze river cruise.
If saving money is your top priority, consider taking a cruise during the winter. Not only are prices low, this is when the Yangtze River is at its lowest water levels. As such, the Three Gorges will appear taller and more dramatic.
Due to the immense heat, humidity, and rainfall, summer is not a very desirable time for cruising on the Yangtze. Though if you do, be sure to book well in advance, as many people spend their summer holidays there.
Chongqing, one of China’s hottest destinations
Planning to take a Yangtze river cruise from Chongqing? Before embarking, I recommend giving yourself at least a day or two to explore this vast city.
As the world’s fastest-growing tourism destination, Chongqing is a sizzling hot place right now. It’s known for its hot temperatures, hot springs, and hot pot, among many other things. The city is a major economic and industrial hub in western China, and a popular launchpad for exploring the Yangtze.
Here’s what you should know about Chongqing before visiting and setting sail on your Yangtze river cruise ship.
Hot weather in Chongqing
During the summer, temperatures in Chongqing average 90° F (31° C) and can reach up to 111° F (44° C). Because the city is surrounded by mountains, heat gets trapped here, making it incredibly hot and humid in the summer.
Hot springs in Chongqing
Chongqing is known for its world-class hot springs, which are said to be on par with those of Budapest. Many can be found inside hotels and resorts, as well as spa and massage facilities. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see them, as my time in Chongqing was too short. Next time, I would definitely stay in a hot spring resort!
Hot pot in Chongqing
Chongqing is the de facto capital of hot pot. The hot pot here is said to be the hottest and spiciest in the world. So much so, that locals boast that you haven’t truly tried hot pot until you’ve been to Chongqing. As someone who likes mildly spicy food, I’ve got to say…it was amazing!
What is hot pot?
Native to China and East Asia, hot pot is a method of cooking food in hot broth. Hot pot isn’t just a meal, it’s an experience. It requires a group of brave souls who can stomach strange and unfamiliar foods steeped in simmering hot broth. This spicy hot food is best enjoyed when washed down with some light Chinese beer.
Much of the meats used for hot pot can’t be found commercially in the US or other Western countries. Some local delicacies in Chongqing include pork brain, freshwater eel, duck intestines, and beef tripe. To be honest, I was concerned my insides wouldn’t handle it the next day, but thankfully I was totally fine!
We enjoyed our hot pot inside a World War II air raid shelter. Qinou Zhang did an amazing job explaining each of the foods we tried!
When in China, do as the Chinese do!
Chongqing at night
Before departing on your Yangtze river cruise ship, be sure to soak in the city skyline at night.
Once the sun sets, Chongqing’s urban sprawl descends into a magnificent sea of lights. Everything from streetlights and boats to skyscrapers and bridges illuminate — a spectacle that looks like something out of the future.
I was most impressed with Chongqing’s bridges, which are majestic by day and night. There are 14,000 bridges in the entire municipality and 2,000 alone in the city proper.
I was blown away by how beautiful the city is at night. That’s why it’s great the cruises depart in the evening.
Below is a performance we were treated to during an evening in Chongqing. The erhu, which is sometimes called the Chinese violin, is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument.
Cool things to see and do on a 3-day Yangtze river cruise
I had the pleasure of taking a 3-day cruise along the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Yichang. Here are the highlights and shore excursions you won’t want to miss on your Yangtze river cruise!
Fengdu Ghost City
Fengdu Ghost City was the first shore excursion on my Yangtze river cruise. It’s perched atop Ming Mountain, accessible by more than 400 stairs or by taking a gondola. If you decide to take the gondola up, be sure to walk down at the end of your tour – as you’ll encounter some stunning scenery!
According to legend, this “ghost city” dates back more than 2,000 years. It was founded by two officials associated with the Han Dynasty, who fled to this hilltop refuge and became immortal. Their names, Yin and Wang, were combined centuries later into “Yinwang,” meaning King of the Underworld.
As one of the top sights along the Yangtze, Fengdu Ghost City is a complex of Confucianist, Taoist, and Buddhist temples filled with spooky sculptures and paintings. These were created to depict spirits and the afterlife.
There are three levels of Fengdu Ghost City, representing Earth, Heaven, and Hell. Visitors are encouraged to adhere to several superstitions throughout the complex in order to make it to Tianzi Palace at the top.
Aside from the architecture and relics, it was fascinating to learn about the Chinese people’s imagination of Heaven and Hell. In many ways, it resembled that of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Though of course, there were many notable differences too.
Beacon Fire of Three Kingdoms (“Feng Yan San Guo”)
This open-air show is a must-see for anyone taking a Yangtze river cruise.
The Beacon Fire of Three Kingdoms show combines amazing special effects, music, and equestrian to tell the story of the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history, which occurred more than 1,700 years ago. The three kingdoms that dominated the Yangtze were the Han, Wu, and Ming Dynasty. This show captures the imagination using all senses: lights, sounds, smell, and feeling (the entire auditorium rotated 180 degrees).
This show was such a sensory experience, where everything on the “stage” seemed to move, reflect, and illuminate all over the place. Apparently, there are a few other shows like this across China, but I’ve never seen nor heard about anything like this elsewhere.
The aquatic stage, special effects, and holograms were all phenomenal. I found it to be much more engaging than going to a movie theater or concert. The only downside was that all the commentary/songs are in Chinese, so it was difficult to follow unless you researched the context beforehand.
Check out my Instagram stories to see videos of this incredible shore excursion!
White Emperor City (“Baidicheng”)
White Emperor City is a hilltop fortress and temple complex dating back more than 1,800 years. It served as a strategic defensive position during the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. Today, it’s a popular stop and shore excursion on the Yangtze at the gateway of the Three Gorges, offering a taste of the beauty that awaits.
Known as the City of Poets, White Emperor City was once the stomping ground for notable Chinese poets who sought refuge amid the lofty mountains and river.
Many stone slabs left behind showcase their precious work. It was interesting to learn that some characters in these Chinese poems are old and not used anymore. Moreover, the English translations don’t fully capture the meaning behind the words, so you’ll have to learn Chinese to fully understand them!
Inside White Emperor City, you’ll see interesting temples, gates, and gardens while learning about the ancient stories and traditions that span the city’s vast history. You’ll also get to see the remains of two hanging coffins, one of which is more than 2,000 years old.
To get to White Emperor City, you’ll have to hike up 350 steps. Before the Three Gorges Dam was built—when the water level of the river was much lower— it was 1,000 steps to the top.
The Three Gorges is the star of the show as far as Yangtze river cruises go. This stretch of gorgeous gorges extends 120 miles (192 km) from Fenjgie to Yichang.
On this incredible voyage, you’ll encounter steep valleys and dramatic rock-shaped formations that have inspired Chinese people for thousands of years. Qutang Gorge, the first gorge you’ll see as you pass White Emperor City, is the most magnificent and awe-inspiring in my opinion. By the time you get to Wu Gorge, the fairytale really begins to take hold. Finally, Xiling Gorge’s radical rock formations make you feel like you’re sailing towards the edge of the world.
The Three Gorges is a short but sweet stretch. Thankfully, there are some equally epic tributaries that draw out this magical river experience.
Mini Three Gorges
Another top excursion on a Yangtze river cruise is the Mini Three Gorges, also known as the Lesser Three Gorges. This tributary of the Three Gorges, called Daming River, requires a smaller boat to navigate through.
The Mini Three Gorges have a Shangri-La feel to them, seemingly untouched and unspoiled (though are becoming more touristy each year). The waterways are quite narrow, making the gorges appear taller and more dramatic than the other three gorges.
Interestingly, the Mini Three Gorges are home to hundreds of “hanging coffins.” These wooden coffins were placed in caves high above the water, some dating back to the Tang Dynasty (over 1,000 years ago). It’s a mystery how they were put there, dangling hundreds of feet above the river.
Locals call the Mini Three Gorges the highlight of the highlight of the Yangtze River. After seeing its steep cliffs, thick vegetation, and emerald green water up close, I must agree.
Three Gorges Dam
This was the final stop on my 3-night Yangtze river cruise. The Three Gorges Dam is 2.3 km long and 185 m tall, making it the largest hydroelectric dam in the world.
The Three Gorges Dam was built between 1994 and 2009. Though it’s brought positive economic impacts to the country and lots of renewable energy, the dam’s construction was controversial. Millions of people were displaced, and habitats were lost as a result.
Other Yangtze River Cruise Ships
In addition to the downstream cruise I took aboard the Yangtze Gold 8, here are some other Yangtze river cruise lines you should know about (including an upstream cruise):
Victoria Cruises: The following 8 ships are in the Victoria Cruise fleet: Victoria Anna, Victoria Grace, Victoria Jenna, Victoria Katarina, Victoria Lianna, Victoria Selina, Victoria Sophia. These ships range from 192 to 378 passengers.
Sanctuary Retreats: The Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer carries only 124 passengers, making it an intimate Yangtze cruise experience.
Abercrombie & Ken: Luxury small group journey down the Yangtze River.
Century Cruises: Take a Century Cruise aboard a 5-star luxury cruise ship.
Viking Cruises: Take a 14-day Viking cruise and China tour to see the imperial jewels of China. (cruise ticket price starts from $1,567).
Why you should take a Yangtze river cruise
Cruising down the Yangtze River was such an incredible experience! From Chongqing to Yichang, I was blown away by the high-tech cityscapes and immaculate nature. For those who want to visit China and have a route mapped out for them, a Yangtze river cruise is an excellent option. Next time, I would definitely want to sail all the way to Xi’an and Shanghai as well.
Have you been to China before? Letting me know about your experience in the comments below!
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