Li River China. Grey Globetrotters header image

Guilin is an intoxicating city. Osmanthus trees bloom at every turn, and the air is heavy with their sweet fragrance. Located in the South of China, the climate here is hot and humid during summer months, with the sticky, enervating heat often lingering into early autumn. One of the best ways to escape the cloying heat is to take a river cruise in Guilin.

After the crowds, queues, traffic and noise of China’s mega-cities like Beijing and Xi’an, Guilin feels like a different, more relaxed and greener country.

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Planning to go on a River Cruise in Guilin? All you need to know before you go
China Li River Cruise

Arriving in Guilin the afternoon before our journey to Yangshuo, I was craving serious relaxation after long, exciting and hot days exploring Beijing and Xi’an. BUT, I’ll admit right now that I’d not done any real preparation for this part of our trip! Other than a vague idea that there would be breath-taking scenery and funny shaped mountains to enjoy, I didn’t know what to expect from Guilin or the Li River cruise we’d booked.

Before the River Cruise in Guilin

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

Guilin is safe to wander about in, with a couple of charming lakes to stroll around (local people do this to get some relief 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.

Luckily, our hotel was moments from the shore of Shanhu Lake and minutes from popular bars and restaurants. Unfortunately, we made a huge, hilarious mistake trying out the hot pot in Guilin.

Departure Points for a River Cruise in Guilin

 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 down the Li River. It was like a convoy!

It’s a 45-minute drive from Guilin to Zhujiang Pier, the departure point for the river cruises.  Expect an early start as cruise boats start to depart from 9 am. While there are lots of boats it’s good to be there extra early if you’ve not pre-booked as the river cruises are Guilin’s number one attraction, equally popular with international and Chinese tourists.

Prepare to ‘run the gauntlet’ of the usual touristy shops, and stalls selling the freshest of local fruit on your walk from the parking area to the dock. The sweet, juicy local peaches are delicious.

Prices here are higher than in Guilin itself, however, if you’ve forgotten to bring a sun hat or fruit for the journey, buy them here. You won’t be able to get either on the boat!

When we arrived, there were more than 50 cruise boats moored up, ready for the day. The dock area was heaving with people. It’s all very well organised though, with an efficient booking system (we came to expect this in China!) and allocated seats on each cruise boat.

A river cruise in Guilin passes through magical rock formations called Karst peaks
The stunning karst scenery from the deck of the cruise boat. So many photo opportunities

How Long Does a River Cruise in Guilin Last?

Typical Li River cruises last 4-5 hours. As you gently putter along from Guilin to Yangshuo, 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“.

What Are The Li River Cruise Boats Like?

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

How Comfortable Are the Li River Cruise 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.

Should You Take a 3 Star or 4 Star River Cruise in 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 river cruises available, most Westerners are offered the 3-star cruises with local tour companies competing to offer the most attractive prices!

Here’s where they differ:

4-star cruises offer a buffet lunch, superior seating with seats on the upper and lower decks, and about half the number of passengers of 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 need to 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

Information 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.

Know Before You Go on a River Cruise in Guilin

Be prepared for squat toilets and don’t forget to take loo paper or wipes with you! After a 5-hour river cruise, there’s a very slim chance of there being 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

Accessibility

If you’re a wheelchair user, contact your tour company before paying for this trip, as this might not be the perfect river cruise 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, which are not wheelchair accessible. Our cruise boat had two flights of steps up to the upper viewing decks which provided nowhere to sit
  • 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 enjoy this river cruise.

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

Sightseeing Highlights on a Li River Cruise in Guilin

  • 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 graze at the water's edge - seen from your cruise boat on a Li River cruise in Guilin
There’s plenty of wildlife to enjoy along the way, including water buffalo grazing peacefully at the water’s edge.

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. We were quite sad to leave this magical scenery behind

Help for you as you plan your trip to China

Tours you might like to consider:

Where to stay before your River Cruise in Guilin

In Guilin, we stayed at the boutique Aroma Tea House hotel, where the warm, caring service was exceptional. The staff couldn’t do enough to help and the freshly cooked-to-order breakfast noodles were incredible! We loved the stylish rooms, the beautiful traditional Chinese décor and the view of the lake from the 5th-floor restaurant. 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 prefect way to start the day!

In Yangshuo, we struck it lucky with the fabulous 21 room Moondance Hotel, 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.

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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. Did you take a Li River cruise? I’d love to hear your highlights

About Author

Coralie is a Brit living in North Yorkshire. When she's not writing, she's either out exploring, planning a new trip, tasting street food or relaxing with a cold G&T. With 40+ years of adventurous travel to almost 40 countries (so far), she knows there's still much to see and remains an adventure-seeker at heart. Follow her on social media and keep up with her adventures and awesome travel tips.

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