Family Adventure in the Middle Kingdom

If you think that travel in China isn’t family-friendly, think again. Just remember that you need a little bit of cultural understanding.


The People’s Republic of China isn’t known as a family destination. But what makes a destination a “family destination”? A steady diet of family trips to Disneyland is like dining on chocolate sundaes. Delicious, yes, but sooner or later it’s time to take a look at what else is on the menu that has some substance.

Our family traveled around the world for 12 months. Reflecting back, there were only a handful of places that opened the eyes of our children to the immense diversity of the wide world in which they live. China is one of those places. Here are some recommended sights and attractions along with few tips to help your children get the most out of a visit to China.

Required Sightseeing

The Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is an easy day trip from Beijing and captures the imagination of kids and adults alike. Highlights, other than just being at the world’s longest wall, include a hike along the top of the actual wall, riding a zip line down into a canyon and seeing the vast contrast between the affluence of Beijing and the poverty in the rural areas you’ll hike through. (Read John’s Great Wall feature and his daughter Katrina’s Teen Voice essay on her experience to the historic sight.)

Tiananmen Square/Forbidden City

Located in the heart of Beijing, the Forbidden City was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and today is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world adjacent to the Forbidden City, is a cultural touchstone and home to the Tiananmen Gate and Zhengyangmen Gate (also known as the Qian Men Gate) as well as the site of protests and political events.

What’s in it for kids? Well, for starters, you can tell them why the city was forbidden. To protect the emperor’s bloodline, aside from the emperor himself, only eunuchs were allowed into the inner courtyards of the palace, where the imperial family and harem lived. Even the emperor’s male children were exiled once they hit puberty. The life of a eunuch was fascinating in a macabre sort of way. Poor families provided young boys as a way to elevate the status of the family; after castration, the youth dedicated his life to serving the royal family. Since all but the eunuchs were forbidden into the inner courtyards, some of the eunuchs wielded great power.

This may not be a discussion you want to have with young children, but it is a great segue into the politics of corruption for older children.

For younger children, kite flying is a Chinese obsession and Tiananmen Square is ground zero. Buy a kite from a vendor in the surrounding area and spend the afternoon trying to get it airborne. Western children are somewhat of a novelty, even in Beijing, and your kids will be the center of attention. Local children will be drawn in and want to fly their kites with yours. Use kite flying to bridge the language gap and then let the day unfold.

Home in a Hutong Hostel

Typical western-style hotels can be pricey for a family, even in China. Hostels are keenly aware that people don’t like sharing sleeping spaces with strangers and offer groups—like families—a room to themselves. Hostels offer a lot of benefits beyond the typical tourist or business class hotel for a traveling family; they are generally cheaper, come with a kitchen and cater to the traveler. Meeting like-minded travelers is your best resource for things to do and places to go.

Our hostel in Beijing was in its own little world, known as a hutong (traditional alleyways). A hutong is bounded by a large city block but once inside, there’s an absurd maze of streets intended for pedestrian traffic even though the occasional car makes an attempt to snake through. Many of these old neighborhoods have been and continue to be destroyed to make way for modern structures. A few have been preserved ... for now.

This is where traditional Chinese socialize and play mah jong. Locals shop and eat in the countless markets and nameless shops that make up the soul of the hutong. A casual visitor to Beijing may see the wide streets and dazzling lights, but you can’t understand the soul of the city without stepping inside a hutong. It’s a metaphor for China as a whole.

Be Prepared: Have Your Kids Read Up on the Destination Prior to Your Trip

Nothing will prepare your child to be fully engaged than to know about the places they’re about to visit. Two excellent books will introduce them to Chinese culture and the problems the country faces. While both books are geared toward the juvenile reader, they are unforgettable for adults as well. Red Scarf Girl is the true story of Ji-li Jiang’s childhood during the peak of the Cultural Revolution. Another riveting account is the Diary of Ma Yan, the actual journal of a modern girl who struggles to get an education among the crushing poverty in rural China. Her diary and the story of how it fell into the hands of a French journalist in 2001, thrusting her into the international spotlight, is moving. You won’t be able to stop thinking of Ma Yan when you visit the rural countryside near the Great Wall.

Like But Don’t Look at the Local Food

Like Chinese food? Most people do. What’s not to love? Rice, noodles, chicken, vegetables, crunchy bovine intestines, tree fungus, pig gums. What? Crunchy bovine intestines aren’t listed on the menu at the Chinese restaurant around the corner from your house?

I remember once telling a colleague to not look too closely to his food or else he wouldn’t eat anything. If the thought of bovine intestines make you squeamish, then that’s sage advice if you plan on eating anywhere other than Kentucky Fried Chicken. Just keep your picture dictionary handy and steer clear of any restaurants displaying pictures of dogs. At our bravest, we simply went to a restaurant near our hostel, looked around at what the other patrons were eating, and pointed to what looked best. While the food was usually delicious, I generally had no idea what we were eating.

At times, though, I confess needing my comfort food. Hands down, the best burrito in Beijing is at the Mexican Wave, ironically located near the Russian Embassy. It also has entertainment and one musician who does a great Neil Young set.

Get Into the Culture


The Chinese entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. Everyone has something to sell you, from baseball hats to DVDs of the Hollywood blockbuster that opened just last night. Make a game of it with your kids and count the different things for sale in a two-clock radius of your hotel or hostel. One grocery store in Beijing we visited was packed cheek to jowl. The odd thing was that there seemed to be more employees than patrons.

Watch Your Step

When shopping or sightseeing, watch your step when crossing the street. The person with the most expensive car has the right of way at intersections. Pedestrians have fewer rights to the road than manhole covers. So exercise patience and caution.

Warn your children that kids under 18 cannot use the internet in China. That’s one solution to protecting children from online predators—deny access entirely. When the staff of one Internet café realized my 11-year-old daughter was on the ‘net, we were kicked out.

Don’t Mind Others’ Manners

No queues
In a country with 1.3 billion people, it would be reasonable to assume that some resources are limited. We saw many examples of people staking their claim for a limited resource and not backing down; for example, the concept of standing in line for a movie or the subway simply doesn’t exist. During one point of our time in China, we were in the company of a couple from the United States. The woman was paraplegic and wheelchair-bound, but there was no way anyone would give up their seat for her on crowded buses or trains.

It’s okay to stare
In Western culture, it’s rude beyond words to stare at someone that may be considered different, but in China staring is a spectator sport. Our waitress at a hot-pot restaurant was so amused at our family’s inability to retrieve food from a boiling pot of oil using only chopsticks that she fetched the rest of the staff to gawk at us. For the remainder of the meal the staff surrounded our table pointing, guffawing and giving a play-by-play account of our attempt to feed ourselves. We were simply the evening’s entertainment.

Spitting as sport
The Chinese believe that discharging phlegm is healthy and they are prodigious at it; for all I know, it will be a new Olympic event, with the judging based on production in gallons per hour. I sat next to one grandmotherly Olympian for several hours on a ferry. Her ability to produce deep-throated discharges of phlegm was truly impressive.

What makes China a great destination for families? The experiences you will have are so far removed from the sphere of influence of the average suburban kid. If you want to push the envelope of that sphere for your children, there’s no better place to start than China.

Destinations: Beijing, China

Themes: Family Travel, Experiential Travel

Activities: Sightseeing

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