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What to Expect on a Li River Cruise – A Unique Experience

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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.

However, summer’s sticky, enervating heat often lingers 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.

About Guilin

Sun and Moon Towers Guilin
The picturesque Sun and Moon Water Towers at Shanhu Lake, Guilin

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.

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
Water Buffalo on the Li River Guilin
There’s plenty of wildlife to enjoy along the way, including water buffalo grazing peacefully 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.

 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 for the cruise at the Li River Guilin. It was like a convoy!

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.

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’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:

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“.

Taking a river cruise in Guilin is a very pleasant way to travel down the Li River to Yangshuo

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 the best value for money – a 3-Star or a 4-Star Cruise from Guilin?

The best way to see China's beautiful Karst mountains is on a river cruise in 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 basic brown bag sandwich and drink option (unless you ask for the much tastier Chinese meal).

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!

Deep-fried whitebait and river prawns on the Li River Cruise in Guilin on the way to Yangshuo

4. 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 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 slim chance of any left…

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

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 for 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.

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

7. When Can I Go On A Guilin River Cruise?

These cruises run all year round, 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.

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

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!

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

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, super helpful 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!


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, 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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