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China's famed for its huge metropolises and idyllic landscapes, and in Guilin – a city of around five million people circled by dramatic nature – you get the best of both worlds. This southern Chinese destination is in a lush green setting dotted with striking limestone karst hills. In the heart of the city are Shanhu Lake and Ronghu Lake, connecting up to the nearby Li River that leads to world-class climbing favourite Yangshuo.
You can jump in a lift and be whisked straight up to the roof garden at a Guilin hostel. Here for the food? Some Guilin hostels put on a Western and Chinese breakfast each morning and have weekly dumpling parties where you can learn to make these Chinese specialities. There are also hostels in Guilin in palatial and traditional villa-type buildings, as well as hostels with pod beds for privacy. Pick from Scandi-style hostels with river views and others that are right on the lakes.
Guilin's split into two main sections, divided by the River Li snaking from north to south. The traditional, older part of the city is to the west, while the east is more modern, with contemporary buildings such as the Guilin International Exhibition Centre. Xicheng Pedestrian Street is in the western side of the city – head here for bars and shops as well as a whole host of night market stalls.
Some of the top things to do in Guilin are out in the countryside. Journey to Reed Flute Cave, about 5km from the city, to see stunning stalactites and stalagmites, along with distinctive rock formations glowing under multicoloured illuminations. Outdoors, you could visit the 100-acre Guilin Tea Science and Research Institute to check out 250 varieties of plants in a space originally used to grow tea for Ming-era royalty. Back in the city, the copper Sun and marble Moon pagodas are best seen when they're lit up at night.
Taxis, public buses and sightseeing buses are available for getting around Guilin. You'll need exact change for the public buses. A fun way to see the city is to rent a bike. Guilin Liangjiang International Airport is a 25-minute taxi ride from the centre and can be reached via a shuttle bus that goes every half an hour. You can take boat trips on the Li River from the city centre's Jiefang (Liberation) Bridge.