I love to travel (but then again, who doesn’t?). But more specifically, I love travelling to China. Having lived there for a year, I’ve travelled far and wide within the country, beyond the usual well-known cities of Beijing and Shanghai. As I explore the off-the-beaten-track places, I’m constantly amazed at how diverse this country is.
One of the provinces that has been on my bucket list (for far too long) is Hunan湖南. Located in the southern central part of China, the landlocked province of Hunan is best known for its natural beauty and unique landscapes. After coming across so many pretty photos on my Instagram feed, I finally seized the opportunity to visit Hunan when I managed to snag some affordable tickets to Changsha长沙on China Southern Airlines for less than S$250!
Here are my top 10 favourite photo spots that make Hunan the perfect destination for your next Instagram adventure!
Changsha长沙 – The gateway to Hunan湖南
As the capital city of Hunan province, Changsha is the gateway to Hunan and perfect place to start your adventure. Apart from China Southern Airlines (which transits through Guangzhou), Scoot also flies direct to Changsha five times a week from Changi Airport. Unlike the more well-known cities, Changsha is relatively new to tourism (yay to lesser crowds!) Just imagine, beautiful sights without large hordes of tourists, that’s a dream-come-true for people who live for the gram.
1. Orange Isle 橘子洲
While doing research for the trip, Orange Isle consistently came up as a must-visit destination in Changsha. While I initially thought it would be super inaccessible, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it is located right in the middle of downtown Changsha, conveniently accessible by the metro.
The key attraction here is the statue of Mao Zedong, which is one of the few statues that depict his younger self. At a height of 32 metres, the imposing statue is a good spot for a #selfie.
What I love about this place is how quaint and peaceful it is despite being located right in the heart of downtown Changsha, making it a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
2. Yuelu Hill 岳麓山
Home to the famous Yuelu Academy岳麓书院, one of the first four ancient academies in China, Yuelu Hill is filled with beautiful natural scenery and historic sights such as the Ai Wan Pavilion爱晚亭, Lushan Temple麓山寺 and Yunlu Palace云麓宫. Just like the Orange Isle, this also came up high on the list of must-visit places in Changsha.
Given the huge area, I would recommend spending at least half a day here to fully explore all that Yuelu Hill has to offer.
3. Hunan University 湖南大学
During my travels, I always like to visit the local universities (especially the architecturally appealing ones). Located near the south entrance of Yuelu Hill, Hunan University is one of the prettier university campuses I’ve visited in China with its old-school vintage architecture.
One common feature across most China universities is that you can almost always find a statue of Mao Zedong (in the exact same pose) on campus grounds. While this may not be particularly Instagram-worthy, it’s the locals (with their whole range of creative poses) taking photos with the statue that intrigues me.
4. Wen He You Lao Chang Sha Long Xia Guan 文和友老长沙龙虾馆
As a huge crayfish (or better known as 小龙虾 in China) fan, I was determined to hunt down the best crayfish in town. What caught me by surprise is how huge this joint I visited was. Located in Hisense Plaza on Xiang Jiang Middle Road, this famous restaurant is made for Instagram.
What’s really interesting is the juxtaposition of the upscale mall and the run-down interior (in a good way) of the restaurant. Spanning across 3 levels within the mall with sub-levels and mezzanines, it’s an epic playground with cool photo spots at every corner.
Zhangjiajie张家界 – More than the Avatar Mountains
Zhangjiajie (or more specifically the Hallelujah Mountains from the movie “Avatar”) was the main reason why Hunan was on my bucket list in the first place. Through this trip, I came to realise that beyond the karst mountain landscapes, Zhangjiajie has so much more to offer. A mere 5-hour bus ride from Changsha, I definitely rank it as the top must-visit place in the Hunan province.
Pro-tip: While there are multiple ways to get to Zhangjiajie from Changsha, taking the bus is by far the most convenient due to the high frequency of buses. Buses depart from the Changsha West Bus Station at regular hourly intervals. In comparison, trains are far less regular, but are significantly cheaper (about 60 RMB or S$12 for the train VS ~120RMB or S$24 for the bus)
5. Tianmen Mountain National Park天门山国家森林公园
Located within Zhangjiajie city itself, Tianmen Mountain National Park is usually visitors’ first foray into Zhangjiajie. I would recommend catering a full day to explore the beauty of Tianmen Mountain and taking pretty shots of the Heaven’s Gate, cliff-hanging walkways, 99 bends and many more beautiful sights.
Sadly, I was there on a super foggy and rainy day, which makes it extremely challenging to capture any good shots. That being said, the fog does add some mystic and magic to the photos, you just need to be alert for any window of opportunity when the fog clears up (even slightly).
Pro-tip: There are 3 routes (Route A, B & C) for your day trip to Tianmen Mountain National Park. Go for the most popular Route A, which allows you to take the cable car all the way up the mountain. Take your time to explore the sights at the top of the mountain, before heading down 999 steps from the Heaven’s Door to take a bus back to the foot of the mountain. With this route, you can avoid the strenuous climb up to the Heaven’s Door that comes with Route B and C.
6. Wulingyuan Scenic Area 武陵源风景区 - Up the Mountains
A short 45-mins drive from Zhangjiajie is the Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Covering a total area of 690 sqm, it consists of various zones such as Tianzi Shan天子山, Yuanjiajie袁家界, Yangjiajie杨家界 and more. While there are different areas you can base yourself at, I chose Wulingyuan town as it has a more developed tourist infrastructure (read: more food options, which is extremely important for me).
While two days should be sufficient to explore the area, I suggest buffering an extra half-day to one day to give yourself the best chance at getting good shots in case of bad weather. The two best ways to enjoy the scenery in this area are either to head up the mountains to capture top-down views, or to stay at the bottom of the valley.
For the best views of the karst pinnacles from the top, my personal favourites are Tianzi Shan and Yuanjiajie (where the famous Hallelujah Mountain from “Avatar” can be found). Tianzi Shan is easily accessible via ropeway, while Yuanjiajie can be reached by the Bai Long Elevator 百龙天梯。
If time permits, you can also visit Yangjiajie and Huangshi Zhai黄石寨. While the views there may not be as epic, it’s significantly less crowded from my experience, which makes for good hiking options!
Pro-tip 1: Most of the areas up in the mountains are connected via free shuttle buses. As most tour groups will ascend the mountain via the Bai Long elevator early in the morning, you can avoid the crowd by going up the Tianzi Shan ropeway instead and taking a bus to other sights like Yangjiajie and Yuanjiajie, before descending via the Bai Long Elevator at the end of the day (essentially the reverse route from most tour groups).
Pro-tip 2: As weather can be unpredictable, buffer extra time at each location.
7. Wulingyuan Scenic Area 武陵源风景区 - Down in the Valley
While the Ten-Mile Gallery十里画廊 is the most popular area for tourists to admire the mountainous landscape from the valley, I personally prefer the 7-kilometre hike starting from Shui Rao Si Men 水绕四门, along Golden Whip Stream金鞭溪 as it is far less crowded, which makes it much more ideal for taking the best shots for the gram.
At the end of the hike, you will reach a huge open area known as Da Yang Ba 大氩吧 where you are treated to great views of the karst landscape. Due to the vastness of the area, I found this place the best to take panoramic shots of the mountains.
Pro-tip: If you’re based at the Wulingyuan area, just take a local bus for 10 RMB (~S$2) from Da Yang Ba (which is located the Forest Park Entrance) back to Wulingyuan after the long hike.
Feng Huang Ancient Town凤凰古镇 – A Journey Back in Time
A 6-hour bus ride away from both Changsha and Zhangjiajie, Feng Huang is the place where I took the most photos during this trip to Hunan. It ranks among one of the most touristy (with local tourists even!) and crowded ancient towns I have visited in China. Between the charming architecture and beautiful river, there is no lack of photo spots within the town.
Pro-tip: The tour groups start to descend into the beautiful old town from 7am onwards. It pays to stay within the old town to beat the crowd by waking up way before 7am to get your perfect shot.
8. Tuo Jiang Tiao Yan沱江跳岩
The series of stones across the Tuojiang River is probably the most popular attraction in Feng Huang. While it is almost mission impossible to get a shot that is not flooded with people, patience goes a long way if you are willing to camp at the same spot for the perfect shot. If you are not dead set on capturing that perfect moment, I actually had a really great time sitting there, on the stones to people-watch.
9. Life on/along the Tuojiang River
As an ancient town situated on the banks of Tuojiang River, you can’t capture the essence of Feng Huang without including a shot of the Tuojiang River. I got tonnes of photo inspirations just by strolling along the banks of the river.
One of my favourite things to do is to try to capture the life of locals, and there is no lack of it as you stroll down the river.
Whenever there’s a river, there are bound to be bridges. As I walked along the river banks, I was amazed by the number of bridges here.
One of the unique architectural features in Zhangjiajie is the Tujia Diao Jiao Lou 土家吊脚楼. These wood-stilted houses used to be residential houses of the Tujia Ethnic Group of this region and are usually built above water on stilts, without any nails or rivets.
10. Golden Hour & Night View
While the ancient town is nice and pretty in the day, it really comes alive at night with all the lights. For me, I chose the Tuo Jiang Tiao Yan area to capture the golden hour shots, before slowly walking along the river banks towards Hong Qiao for more photo opportunities.
Being a huge country with such diverse landscapes, China is really the dream destination for any Instagrammers out there. With increasing connectivity and more direct flights between Singapore and various cities in China, I really cannot think of any reason why China should not be in your travel bucket list. So what are you waiting for?
About the writer
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, Seah Kay Siong.
About Kay Siong: With travelling and eating being his two biggest passions in life, Kay Siong spends all his free time on weekends planning for upcoming trips, or randomly looking for cheap flights on SkyScanner. With a penchant for travelling to “exotic” destinations within China, he particularly enjoyed his time in Dandong (the small town which shares a border with North Korea), Harbin (major Russia influence) and Kashgar in Xinjiang (where he saw no other Han Chinese in his entire time there). For memory’s sake, he buys a Starbucks tumbler from all the cities he’s been to, and he has over 60 Starbucks tumblers in his collection thus far (of which more than half are from China cities). To find out more about his travel adventures in China, follow him on @travelinsiderchina on Instagram.
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Best time to visit
Weather wise, the best times to visit are in spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) due to the lower temperatures. However, do note to avoid the Chinese long weekends such as the Qing Ming Festival (usually in early April) and the Golden Week (first week of October) if you want to avoid the hordes of local tourists.
Within Changsha, the metro is the most convenient and inexpensive way to get around (single trip tickets only cost 2 to 3 RMB, or S$0.40 to S$0.60). In between cities within Hunan, train is usually the cheapest option, but inter-city buses (better known as Chang Tu Qi Che长途汽车 in Mandarin) tend to be more convenient as it brings you directly to the city centre.
China’s local currency is the Renminbi (RMB). While cashless payments like Alipay and WeChat Pay is very prevalent in China (even for the roadside stalls), cash is still accepted in all places. Do bear in mind to have small change as much as possible in case the local vendors do not have enough loose change for you if you make payment by cash.
Scoot flies to Changsha directly five times a week. Search for the best deals and book your trip now!