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The Ultimate 1 Day Li River Cruise Guide – What to Know Before You Go!

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What to Expect on a River Cruise in China?

Are you looking to add a Li River cruise from Guilin to your China itinerary? If so, you’re in the right place! The city of Guilin in Southern China is the starting point for the most breathtaking cruises on the Li River.

The scenery on a picturesque Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo through the iconic Li River mountains is so beautiful that CNN rates it as one of the world’s 15 best rivers for travellers!

A 4-5 hour cruise past the ancient villages, dramatic rock formations, fantastic caves, and rice paddies in this scenic part of the Guangxi province is a good choice for your trip to China.

To help make your trip planning easier, I’ve compiled a list of the best Li River Cruises from Guilin that will give you an unforgettable trip. You’ll find options to suit all budgets.

No time to review the complete list? Here are my TOP picks for the Best Guilin to Yangshuo Li River Cruise Tours. Some have private tour guides included in the ticket price; the others are group tours:

⭐️ 👥 Best 4-star Cruise with a Private Guide: Full-Day Li River Cruise to Yangshuo

⭐️🛳 Best Cruise Boat: Li-River Cruise Group Day Tour on a Luxury 4.5-Star Boat

Whichever tour you pick, all provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enjoy this stunning region of China. So let’s get started!

Li River Cruise China
The cliffs of the Karst mountains surrounding the Li River are like nowhere else in the world!

Sightseeing Highlights on a Li River Cruise

👀 Look out for 20 Yuan Bill Hill (the view that inspired the artwork on the 20 Yuan note), and Yellow Cloth Shoal (natural markings in the rock that look like a giant yellow fish)

🐴 Count the white “horses” at Nine Horse Fresco Hill

🐟 Watch local fishermen fishing with their trained cormorants, as they have for centuries

🐫 See water buffalo grazing at the water’s edge

👜 Experience Yangshuo’s bustling West Street

Water Buffalo on the Li River Guilin
Water buffalos grazing peacefully at the water’s edge.

Li River Cruise Boats – 3 Levels of Comfort

You need to know that not every river boat cruise from Guilin is the same. Standards of comfort, service, and hygiene vary significantly, and some cruises are NOT designed for Western/English-speaking travellers.

While 3-star and 4-star Li river cruises are available, most Westerners are offered 3-star cruises when booking with local tour companies in China, who compete to offer the most attractive prices!

Here’s where they differ:

3 Star Standard

  • 3-star cruises have comfortable seating and wide picture windows.
  • The upper deck is perfect for scenic photos; however, there are no seats.
  • Lunch is a pretty uninspiring brown bag sandwich and drinks (unless you specifically order the much tastier Chinese meal).
  • Limited hot snacks are served – for about one hour.
Deep-fried whitebait and river prawns on the Li River Cruise in Guilin on the way to Yangshuo
Delicious deep-fried whitebait and local river prawns on our Li River cruise!

4 Star Upgrade

  • A 4-star Li River cruise has superior seating with upper and lower deck seats
  • These boats carry around half the number of passengers on the cheaper cruises, so you have much more space
  • Lunch is a good Chinese buffet
  • Announcements are made in English and Chinese, so you will know EXACTLY when to whip out your camera to capture the best scenic shots
Li River scenery from a Li River cruise
The captain must steer a careful line to avoid getting stuck in the river’s shallows near the river bank!

4.5 Star Luxury Cruise

  • The luxury Shenjiang hao boat is the most comfortable of all the Li River cruise boats
  • Seats are available on the upper and lower deck
  • Fewer passengers = much more space.
  • Round-trip bus transfers and buffet lunch included
  • Announcements are made in English and Chinese, so you will know EXACTLY when to whip out your camera to capture the best scenic shots.

Typical Li River Cruise Itinerary:

  • 08:00 am Pick up from your hotel, with a private or group transfer to Guilin Pier (depending on the option you choose)
  • 09:00 Arrive at Guilin Pier, collect your tickets and check in with your passport
  • 09:30 am Li River Cruise departs from Guilin Pier
  • 11:30 am – 12:30 pm Chinese Buffet Lunch is typically available at this time 
  • 1:30 pm Arrive at Yangshuo Pier and disembark the cruise boat

(Times are indicative only)

Li River Cruise - Elephant Trunk Hill
Elephant Trunk Hill, Guilin

Li River Cruise Route:

The cruise from Guilin Pier to Yangshuo Pier follows the winding Li River for 83 km through dramatic scenery. From your comfortable vantage point, you will see:

Elephant Trunk Hill is a great rock that resembles an elephant drinking from the Li River. Sitting at the point where the Li River and the Peach Blossom River join, this karst mountain has been a tourist attraction since the days of the Tang Dynasty (618 AD – 904 AD).

You can see Elephant Hill from your Li cruise boats – look back at Guilin at the start of the journey along the river.

Approaching Yangshuo on Li River
Approaching Yangshuo on the Li River

The Yellow Cloth Shoal: a scenic spot where local lore tells of seven fairy maidens who came to the Li River and loved it so much that they transformed themselves into mountain peaks to stay forever.

A sizeable creamy-yellow flagstone beneath the water gave this spot its name. However, the seven towering peaks perfectly reflected in the water below have made this one of China’s most recognisable and famous landscapes, inspiring mountain-water artists for at least 1,500 years. 

Nine Horses Fresco Hill: a steep, weathered cliff close to Xinping town, almost at the end of the river cruise. Multi-coloured rock patches on the cliff face resemble horses running and jumping across the rock.

Local legends claim that the horses were heavenly creatures that slipped down to earth to drink from the Li River and ended up trapped for eternity on the cliff.

Li River Cruise - Xinping Village
Ancient Xingping town dates back to 265 AD

Ancient Xinping Village: a fishing village renowned for its stunning scenery, much of which you can see from a Li River cruise, including Snail Hill and Lotus Crag.

Green Lotus Peak: Yangshuo’s highest peak – Bronze Mirror Peak – is visible from the river’s running waters.

When to Go – Cruise Schedules

You can cruise on the Li River at any time of year, but the high season (and best time) is from September until November, after the heat and humidity of summer and before the bone-chilling winter arrives. Travelling during these months also avoids the rainy season.

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 private car. You’ll need to arrive early, as cruise boats start to depart at 9 am, and the whole area is bustling.

A Guilin to Yangshuo cruise on the Li River is Guilin’s #1 tourist attraction.

Up to fifty cruise boats depart daily, depending on the season, as these trips are equally popular with international and Chinese tourists.

 So many cruise boats lined up ready for the cruise down the Li River. It was like a convoy!
So many cruise boats lined up, ready to experience the Li River mountains. It was like a convoy!

Top Tip: If you don’t have a sun hat or fruit for the journey, you can buy them at the stalls between the car park and the dock, but not on the boat! The sweet and juicy local peaches are delicious – but remember to pack some wipes!

Expect the dock area to be heaving with people. It’s well organised though, with an efficient booking and boarding system – and allocated seats on each cruise boat.

Your guide will navigate you efficiently through the crowds to the correct boat, ready for your cruise.

Li River Cruise from Guilin
The stunning karst scenery from the deck of the cruise boat offers so many photo opportunities

Tickets and Tours

If you prefer to travel independently, you can buy cruise tickets on the day (subject to availability). I recommend booking your river cruise before you travel to know that your seat is guaranteed and your transport to the departure point is taken care of.

Most cruise boat tickets sold at Guilin’s Zhujiang pier are for Chinese-speaking tours, with no English commentary.

Best Li River Boat Tour for English-Speaking Guests

Our Pick
Guilin River Li Cruise

Full-Day Li River Cruise to Yangshuo

Rating ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

⌛️ 8 Hours | Private Tour

📍 Private transfers with hotel pick-up and return

🍴 Food: Buffet lunch included

✔️ Minimal waiting time – everything is taken care of for you

✔️ Dedicated, knowledgeable guide

✔️ Prebooked tickets on a luxury ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ cruise boat (the highest rating)

A Quirky Alternative to a Riverboat Cruise

BONUS Pick
Bamboo raft on the Li River - an alternative to a traditional Li River Cruise

Bamboo Rafts Trip

Rating ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

⌛️ 4-6 Hours

👥 Group Tour

📍 Air-conditioned coach transfers with hotel pick-up and return

✔️ Minimal waiting time – everything is taken care of for you

❇️ FAQs: Li River Cruise

This type of trip is a big deal for most folks, and you may have some questions! Here are the answers to questions that people often ask.

How Long Does a Typical River Cruise Take?

Most 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 bamboo groves, small villages and picturesque Karst landscape, described by National Geographic as “One of the world’s Top 10 Watery Wonders“.

Taking a river cruise in Guilin is a very pleasant way to travel down the Li River to Yangshuo
Can you spot the convoy of boats heading down the Li River?

How comfortable are the boats?

We were surprised by the large, well-padded seats (essential!) and wide picture windows offering an unrivalled river view. Each boat also has outdoor deck areas, perfect for taking photos.

What information is available on board?

English language information about the journey and the landscape you travel through is scarce, and most announcements are in Chinese.

Without our local guide, it would have been easy to miss the highlights of the scenery.

What are the bathroom facilities like on a Li River cruise?

On the 3-star cruises, be prepared for squat toilets, and don’t forget to pack loo paper or wipes! After a 5-hour Guilin River tour, there’s a slim chance of any left…

Bathrooms on the 4-star and 4.5 star boats are Western-style.

When you take a cruise on the Li River in China, look out for traditional fishermen, using a tethered cormorant
A lone local fisherman on one stretch of the beautiful Li river

How Accessible is a Li River Cruise?

If you’re a wheelchair user, a river cruise from Guilin might not be the perfect trip for you. Here’s why:

  • There are 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.
  • There’s no disabled toilet on board

That said, the views from the picture windows are superb, and there is a ramp for the cruise boats once you reach the jetty. You’ll love a Guilin river tour if you can manage the steps down to the jetty and arrange with your tour company to be picked up as you disembark at Yangshuo.

Goat Mountain, seen from a River Cruise in Guilin - Grey Globetrotters
The two-horned mountain on the Li River. Locals believe this mountain looks like a horned goat, making it a popular spot to photograph

When can I go on a Guilin River Cruise?

These cruises run all year round, but the river’s water level 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.

Spectacular Karst peaks seen from a river cruise in Guilin
Last moments of the cruise before arrival in Yangshuo.

Which Guilin dock do English-speaking Li River

 Only cruises departing from Zhujiang Wharf offer English-speaking guides, so we recommend this departure point for non-Chinese-speaking visitors.

Is Guilin worth visiting?

Guilin is a beautiful city surrounded by two rivers and odd-shaped karst mountains. There are four charming lakes to explore, and Guilin city is safe to wander about.

This scenic city is a cultural hub with plenty of good quality art and crafts to take home as souvenirs. There are many popular bars and restaurants (although we did have one less-than-great meal).

Expect to see locals 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.

Where to Stay in Guilin – Before Your River Cruise

Our Pick
Sun and Moon Towers Guilin

Aroma Tea House Hotel

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 we loved the mesmerising view of the lake from the 5th-floor restaurant where breakfast is served (with made-to-order fresh noodles – yum!) A very affordable luxury experience!

View from the Aroma Tea House Hotel over the lake at Guilin
The view from the restaurant at the Aroma Tea House Hotel. The perfect way to start the day!

Where to Stay in Yangshuo – After Your River Cruise

Our Pick
Li River Cruise Yangshuo

Moondance Hotel

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. This is truly a place to relax, with dramatic river and mountain views, the loveliest staff and excellent food,

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!

⛰ The Wrap-Up: The Ultimate Li River Cruise Guide

How many people can say they’ve experienced this beautiful region of China?

I hope this post inspires you to visit the South of China and experience a Li River cruise and Yangshuo. Discover one of the best places on earth the best way, and gain real insight into rural Chinese culture!

From breathtaking views of towering karst mountains carved into bizarre shapes over millennia to idyllic landscapes and authentic culture, a River Li cruise is an unforgettable experience.

Don’t wait to make your China dreams come true—start planning and book your Li River cruise tickets today!

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