Guilin is one of China’s top tourist destinations and its spectacular karst landscape is a quintessential image of China. As a city that relies mainly on tourism, Guilin is cleaner than most cities in the Middle Kingdom, but it makes up for that with a much larger than average share of scams. Most people use Guilin as a base to explore northern Guanxi province, most notably the town of Yangshuo and the Longji Rice Terraces in Longsheng. Given the incredible scenery, it comes as no surprise that the most popular activity in the area is a cruise on a bamboo raft down the Li River.
Best Time to Go
Guilin has long, hot and humid summers with mild winters and a lengthy rainy season from March to August. The best time to visit is directly before or after the rainy season.
Getting to Guilin
Liangjiang International Airport serves flights from most major cities in China as well as a select few international destinations, like Kuala Lumpur, Seoul or Osaka. In the off season, it is possible to find extremely cheap flights costing less than most train tickets, so it pays to see what is available. To get to downtown Guilin from the airport, take the airport bus for 20 RMB or a taxi for around 100. The airport bus drops you off just south of the center, so you will need to connect to public transport, walk or take a taxi for 10 Yuan.
Guilin has two train stations: Guilin Station, which mainly serves trains that make a stop in Guilin and Guilin North Station, which mostly handles trains that originate or terminate in Guilin. Trains arrive from Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Beijing, Kunming, Nanning, and Chengdu. The public bus is the best way to get downtown from the stations, but naturally, taxis are available too, as you’ll find out when they swarm you the second you step outside. Be careful with them.
The long distance bus station lies a few hundred meters north of Guilin Railway Station and has connections to most major cities. The more local buses, such as those to Yangshuo or Longsheng, depart from the square just outside the railway station.
The public buses in Guilin cost 1 Yuan or less (buses beginning with the number 5 are free) and are far and away the best way to get around. The local tourist map that is available all over has the bus routes on it. An especially useful line is bus #58 which runs from the train station and bus station to many of the attractions. Taxis are relatively cheap too, but not all drivers are honest.
Guilin has no shortage of options when it comes to accommodation. As always in China, hostels are your best bet if they’re around, which they are here. And many of them are excellent. The most popular, for good reason, is the Wada Hostel. It has a great location by the river, but still close to the railway station and dorm beds go for around $7 (twins for $20).
I didn’t know any of this when I first arrived and stumbled on the Backstreet International Youth Hostel while walking around and checking out some options. It’s a nice place, despite the unfortunate name, and located right in the main tourist area. I paid around 35 Yuan for a dorm bed (in 2011; they’re $6-7 in 2014) and singles were going for 140, I believe ($20 these days).
I really wanted my own room though, so I switched to the How Flowers Youth Hostel, which is located just across the street from the railway station. It’s grungier, but I liked it well enough and they gave me a single for 40 Yuan ($10 in 2014). I would not generally recommend this place unless you really want your own room and you want if for no more than $10. Or maybe if you have an early morning train, but the much nicer Wada Hostel is only a little further from the station. How Flowers is a good hostel, but there are much better in the city.
If you don’t like hostels and prefer to stay in a hotel, the Han Tang Xin Ge Hotel is pretty incredible given the low rates: just over $25 for a single and just under $35 for a king size bed. The only drawback for some would be the distance from the railway station: it takes about 30 minutes on foot. There are buses, though and most would consider the quieter location and the proximity to West Hill Park (see ‘Things to Do’ below) an advantage.
Eating & Drinking
You’ll find a lot of street food vendors and cheap restaurant in the area around the railway station. This is probably the best place to eat cheaply. You’ll find some good and inexpensive restaurant scattered around the tourist area as well, but you’ll have to look much harder for them. Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of places to eat, but most are geared toward tourists and serve bland, overpriced food. In most places, the standard advice is to follow the crowds, but that does not work in Guilin as the crowds flock to some of the worst places.
Guilin is safe, but watch out for pickpockets anywhere crowds gather, especially at the stations. Take care of scams in the touristy areas of Guilin. If someone approaches you, assume they are trying to rip you off, no matter how nice and helpful they seem. Keep talking to them if you like, but don’t go anywhere they suggest and they will suggest a lot of places—as you’ll soon find out, they have a ‘relative’ involved in basically any business you could think of….
Things to Do
Guilin has quite a few parks, gardens and other attractions, but in my opinion, they are all overpriced and none of them are worth visiting. If Guilin is your only stop in China, I’d check some of them out; otherwise, you’ll find similar, but much better and/or reasonably priced attractions elsewhere in China. Guilin also has several climbable limestone peaks that are worth a visit on a clear day as they afford some amazing views of the city and the surrounding countryside
- Seven Star Park: large park with a small zoo area that features giant pandas and red pandas as well as Seven Star Cave; at Qixing Road on the east side of the city, 15-20 minutes on foot from the main pedestrian area downtown; ¥50 entrance, additional ¥60 for the cave and ¥32 for the zoo
- West Hill Park: park includes a lake, some temples, hundreds of Buddha statues, numerous caves and the Guilin Museum; 2 km west of the city center; entrance fee is 75RMB
- Diecai Mountain: a park with several karst peaks that can be climbed using stone staircases, as well as an aviary and a butterfly museum; on Longzhu Road, accessible via buses 2, 13 or 58; open 8:30AM-5:30PM; ¥35 entrance fee
- Elephant Trunk Hill: a hill with a natural arch that resembles the trunk of an elephant dipping in the water, assuming you’ve recently swallowed a number of psychedelic mushrooms; I’ve included this here only because it’s basically the symbol of Guilin; located just across the Li River from the tourist area of town, but you won’t see it from there, as officials have completely obscured any view of the river by planting a bunch of trees to keep people from ‘enjoying’ this view for free; to see it, you’ll have to go on a boat tour for ¥75; I encourage you to skip this, as it is arguably the biggest rip-off in all of China—and that’s saying something
- Peach Blossom River: Guilin’s other river, flowing through the western part of town; quite beautiful and a nice area to relax; as you might guess, features peach blossoms in spring (and colorful leaves in autumn)
- Reed Flute Cave: an impressive cave, but incredibly touristy with light shows and the like; very overpriced and only worth it if you’ve never seen a limestone cave before and have no plans to visit any others in the area; located on Ludi Road 5 km west of the city; take bus #3 or rent bicycles; open 8AM-5:30PM; ¥90 entrance fee
- Solitary Beauty Peak: this peak in the center of Guilin offers incredible views of the city and the surrounding countryside; the path to the summit begins at the Ming Dynasty palace in the center of town (Wang Cheng); take bus #1 or #2 from the railway station; entrance is ¥70
- Yaoshan Hill Park: large park that includes the highest peak in the area; doesn’t seem to be too popular with visitors, but has arguably the best views among the various climbable peaks; you can climb to the top or take a chair lift; on the way down, you have the option of taking a toboggan from the half-way point; located several kilometers east of downtown on Jingjiang Road; take buses #10 or #98 to get close, but you’ll still have a bit of a walk; ¥60 entrance
- Crown Cave: another brightly lit up and thus incredibly colorful cave; take a long distance bus to the area, followed by a monorail or visitor’s jeep for ¥35 to the entrance; ¥65 to enter, plus another ¥5 to see the waterfall in the cave
- Daxu Town: ancient town over 1000 years old on the bank of the Li River; located near Crown Cave, 1.5 hours by bus from Guilin
- Li River Cruise: the most common cruise takes you from Guilin to Yangshuo, through the incredible Li River karst landscape; ¥400 for a luxury cruise, ¥360 for ordinary, ¥140 for a bamboo raft and an additional ¥200 to see the traditional cormorant fishing
- Two Rivers and Four Lakes Cruise: as the name suggests, a boat tour around the two rivers and four lakes of Guilin, including a traditional cormorant fishing demonstration; the scenery is lit up at night and looks pretty amazing; on Binjiang Road; every half hour from 9AM to 9:30PM; ¥150 (¥130 off-season)
- Butterfly Cave: another colorfully lit up cave; this one includes a rock formation shaped like—you guessed it—a butterfly; a rope bridge takes you from the cave’s exit over to another mountain, passing a waterfall
Money Saving Tips
- do not take a taxi from the airport; take the airport bus instead
- similarly, take public transit to get downtown from the train and bus stations and also to get around the city; remember: all city buses beginning with the number 5 are free and others cost only 1 Yuan
- eat at small restaurants or street food stalls, especially in the area around the train station
- avoid the tours, as most of them are not worth the money
- limit the attractions you visit, as many are similar and most are overpriced
- don’t get scammed; be very wary of any stranger who tries to befriend you; Guilin is not the place to make friends with the locals—do that elsewhere in China