After the crowds, queues, traffic and noise of China’s mega-cities like Beijing and Xi’an, the city of Guilin in Southern China is different, more relaxed and abundantly green. It’s an intoxicating city with Osmanthus trees blooming at every turn, the air heavy with their sweet fragrance.
During the summer months, however, it’s hot and humid, with the sticky, enervating heat often lingering into early autumn. One of the best ways to escape the cloying heat is to take a Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo, through the stunning Karst mountains.
Guilin is a beautiful city, surrounded by two rivers and odd shaped karst mountains. There are four charming lakes to explore and Guilin is safe to wander about in.
Expect to see local people socialising around the lakes, on hot, cloying summer days and evenings. You’ll probably come across groups of people sitting, playing local instruments and singing near the water’s edge late into the evening.
There are lots of popular bars and restaurants, and Guilin is a cultural hub, with plenty of good quality art and crafts to take home as souvenirs.
Related Post: Why I won’t ever eat spicy hot pot in Guilin again!
Sightseeing Highlights on a Li River Cruise
- Nine Horse Fresco Hill (you’ll need to use your imagination to see if you can spot all nine of the white “horses”)
- Yellow Cloth Shoal (natural markings in the rock that look like a large yellow fish)
- 20 Yuan Bill Hill (the view that inspired the artwork on the 20 Yuan note)
- Xingping Town
- Local Fishermen, fishing with cormorants
- Water buffalo grazing at the water’s edge
How to Get to Your Li River Cruise
The drive from Guilin to Zhujiang Pier, the departure point for Guilin river cruises takes about 45-minutes by taxi and you’ll need to arrive early, as cruise boats start to depart from 9 am.
While there are lots of boats (up to 50 a day) aim to arrive extra early if you’ve not pre-booked your Li River cruise tickets! The Guilin to Yangshuo Li River cruise is Guilin’s number one attraction. It’s equally popular with international and Chinese tourists.
Top Tip: If you’ve not brought a sun hat or fruit for the journey, buy them at the stalls between the car park and the dock, as you won’t be able to get either on the boat! The sweet and juicy local peaches are highly recommended – but remember to pack some wipes!
Expect to see multiple cruise boats moored up, ready for the day and the dock area absolutely heaving with people. It’s well organised though, with an efficient booking and boarding system – and allocated seats on each cruise boat.
Tickets and Tours
If you’re travelling independently, you can buy cruise tickets on the day (subject to availability). Alternatively, you may want to avoid the hassle and pre-book, knowing that your seat is guaranteed, and your transport to the departure point is all taken care of.
Here are some great tours you might enjoy:
- Full-day relaxing Li River cruise tour Highly recommended
- Private Full-Day Guilin City Highlights Tour
- 2-Day Guilin Trip
Li River Cruise FAQs
1. How Long Does a Typical River Cruise Take?
Most of the Li River cruises from Guilin to Yangshuo last 4-5 hours. As you gently putter along the river, you’ll have oodles of time to enjoy the picturesque Karst landscape, described by National Geographic as “One of the world’s Top 10 Watery Wonders“.
2. How Comfortable Are the Boats?
We were surprised by the large, well-padded seats (very important!) and wide picture windows offering an unrivalled view of the river. Each boat also has outside deck areas to enjoy, perfect for taking photos.
3. Which is best value for money – a 3-Star or a 4-Star Cruise from Guilin?
While there are 3 star and 4 star Li river cruises available, most Westerners are offered 3-star cruises with local tour companies competing to offer the most attractive prices!
Here’s where they differ:
4-star Li River cruises offer a buffet lunch, superior seating with seats on the upper and lower decks, and about half the number of passengers on the cheaper cruises.
3-star cruises are comfortable, but lunch is a pretty basic brown bag sandwich and drink option (unless you ask for the Chinese meal, which is much tastier).
You can buy a VERY limited selection of hot snacks onboard, but be quick, as they stop serving after about one hour. The deep-fried whitebait and river prawns were delicious!
4. What Information is Available on Board?
English language information about the journey and the landscape you travel through is scarce onboard and the majority of announcements are in Chinese.
Without our guide, it would have been easy to miss the highlights of the scenery.
5. What Are the Bathroom Facilities Like On Board?
Be prepared for squat toilets and don’t forget to take loo paper or wipes with you! After a 5-hour Guilin River tour, there’s a very slim chance of there being any left…
6. How Accessible is a Li River Cruise?
If you’re a wheelchair user, contact your tour company before paying for this trip, as a river cruise from Guilin might not be the perfect trip for you. Here’s why:
- There’s a flight of steps down to the boarding jetty and a similar flight of steps to ascend on arrival at Yangshuo. I didn’t see a ramp at either location and the steps at Yangshuo are crowded with street hawkers selling fruit and souvenirs
- The best views are from the upper decks of the cruise boats, which are not wheelchair accessible. Our boat had two flights of steps up to the upper viewing decks and there was no seating on those upper decks.
- There’s no disabled toilet on board (the three-star boat we cruised down the river on only had squat toilets)
That said, the views from the picture windows are superb and there is a ramp onto the cruise boats, once you reach the jetty. If you can manage the steps down to the jetty and you arrange with your tour company to be picked up as you disembark at Yangshuo, you’ll love this Guilin river tour.
7. When Can I Go On A Guilin River Cruise?
These cruises run all year around, but the depth of the river varies, depending on the time of year. During summer and early autumn, you’ll be able to admire the skill of the boat captains as they navigate narrow, channels, avoiding the dangerous shallows.
Where to Stay in Guilin – Before Your River Cruise
The Aroma Tea House Hotel is a gorgeous little boutique hotel with the warmest of welcomes and exceptional service. The friendly staff can’t do enough to help and the freshly cooked-to-order breakfast noodles are incredible!
The rooms are stylish, with beautiful traditional Chinese décor, and the view of the lake from the 5th-floor restaurant is mesmerising. A very affordable luxury experience!
Where to Stay in Yangshuo – After Your River Cruise
The fabulous 21-room Moondance Hotel is a short drive from the city and moments from the Moon Water Cave, Jinshui Cave and Moon Hill. With dramatic river and mountain views, super helpful staff and excellent food, this is truly a place to relax.
It’s also the perfect base for more adventurous activities in the region including rafting, ziplining, cycling, and hiking in the karst mountains and paddy fields. Expect to feel pampered – it’s a bit like heaven on earth!
I hope this post inspires you to visit the South of China and to try a river cruise in Guilin. Let me know in the comments if you’ve been to Guilin or are planning to go, or maybe you’ve been to Yangshuo? Did you take a Guilin River Tour? I’d love to hear your highlights.
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