Visiting China is a big thing. It’s a massive country with an enormous population, colossal cities, and epic history. So it’s almost impossible to ensure that your trip will give you an experience encapsulating everything that will amaze you about Chinese culture. Although, you can come close by planning your trip to coincide during a major festival.

There are lots of different festivals in China, from regional holidays to different ethnic celebrations, but the bigger ones are observed throughout (and even sometimes outside of) the country. Using elements from both current and historical culture in China, visiting during a festival is a great way to take in many different aspects of Chinese society in a short amount of time.

Here are the four big festivals you should try to be in China for:

Chinese New Year

Fireworks for Chinese New Year in Beijing.

Image via Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0- Bridget Coila.

Set to the start of the traditional Chinese calendar, the Chinese New Year (which is also known as the Spring Festival) is a big deal around the world. And in China it’s even bigger, with parties events, and (of course) fireworks that can run for up to two weeks. It’s also a time when guests are especially welcomed in China
When to Go: The exact date varies year to year, but it’s usually between late January and late February.
Where to Go: Your best bet is going to be a major city, which will have the best firework displays and biggest parties, like Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Beijing.

Lantern Festival

Yu Garden in Shanghai decorated for the Lantern Festival

Image via Flickr – CC BY 2.0 – Jakob Montrasio.

Probably the most picturesque of all Chinese festivals, the Lantern Festival traces its roots back to the early days of the Eastern Han Dynasty and the Buddhist tradition of lighting lanterns in temples as a sign of respect to the Buddha. It’s now the big finale for the two weeks of celebrating after Chinese New Year. And although there are regional and local variations on how it’s observed, all include organized displays of lanterns at night, which are fantastic to admire.
When to Go: The 15th day of the first lunar month, which is usually in February or early March.
Where to Go: You can definitely take in some amazing lantern displays in the major cities, but it might be worth doing some research to find a smaller town or village in the south – like Taijiang, or Binyang – which are said to be home to celebrations that are more vivid and authentic.

Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon boats before a race in Hong Kong.

Image via Flickr – CC BY 2.0 – istolethetv.

It’s believed that the Dragon Boat Festival was originally meant to commemorate the suicide by drowning of the ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan. Over the centuries, it has spread to other Asian countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia, and has been recognized as a public holiday by the Chinese government since 2008. The main focus of the festival is organized races between “Duanwu” (dragon boats). Some say that the races are meant to imitate the effort to find Qu Yuan’s body in the Miluo River. The tradition of eating sticky rice dumplings, called zongzi, is said to come from what the searchers dropped into the water to give fish something besides Qu Yuan’s body to eat.
When to Go: Close to the summer solstice, on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese calendar, which occurs in May or June.
Where to Go: The most popular Duanwu races are hosted in the bays of Hong Kong or the lakes close to Beijing.

Mid-Autumn Festival

A full moon in the old part of town in the city of Dali just before the Mid-Autumn Festival

Image via Flickr – CC BY 2.0 – Tom Thai.

A fall harvest festival that’s celebrated in most East Asian countries, the Mid-Autumn Festival is usually celebrated by spending time with family and admiring the moon in some way, since it takes place when the moon is often at its brightest and fullest. There’s also lighting of lanterns and dining on mooncakes, a pastry made with a filling that most commonly consists of red bean or lotus seed paste.
When to Go: The festival takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese calendar and is typically between late September and early October.
Where to Go: It’s best to visit friends or family during the Mid-Autumn since it’s a more intimate holiday, but there are usually tons of events and cultural displays for visitors in the major cities, like Shanghai or Beijing.

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About The Author

Dave Odegard is an ex-army brat turned internet word person, whose work has been published on Maxim Online, USAToday, Buzzfeed, and more. He is currently the Senior Content Writer at Fareportal (CheapOair's parent company) and spends his free time exploring the wilds of Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Sweden.