Pingyao is definitely one of the lesser known travel destinations in China. I had never heard of it myself until I planned our most recent trip to China and was left with a hole in our itinerary after plans to spend a week in Mongolia fell through.
We were all excited to sleep in a yurt and ride camels in the Gobi desert and horses in the grasslands. Unfortunately, they were still snowed in while we were there in April, and we were all disappointed.
My sister and her family lived in Beijing for 4 years, so she was able to glean insider travel tips from locals, and that’s how we first heard about Pingyao. All of the locals know about Pingyao, because it was considered the banking capital of ancient China.
But it’s still kind of a novelty for foreigners. In fact we were the only Americans we saw in Pingyao, while we were just a few of many throughout the rest of the cities we visited.
I didn’t really know what to expect, but I stuffed Pingyao and Datong into the hole in our itinerary, and boy am I grateful for those recommendations! They both meant backtracking a bit, but they were totally worth it! It’s hard to choose a favorite city when you visit so many in such a short time, but I think Pingyao is probably my favorite.
China isn’t known for being charming the way old European cities are charming, but I can honestly say that Pingyao is charming. You’ll have to go see it for yourself!
The History of Pingyao, China
Ancient Pingyao, China began as a garrison town during the Zhou Dynasty. It traded hands many times and was the birthplace of the Jin Businessmen (one of the two power houses during the Ming and Quing dynasties). Over the next century, it became the banking center of China and played a very important role in the economic development of the country.
Pingyao’s prosperity led to large, beautiful, public buildings and infrastructure advanced for it’s time. Magnificent private residences and charming, grey brick storefronts line the main streets inside the ancient walls. It has retained it’s grandeur, barely changing over the last thousand years, which makes wandering through the streets of Pingyao incredibly memorable.
It was designated a World Heritage site in 1997.
10 Amazing Things to do in Pingyao, China:
1. Stay in an Ancient Chinese, Courtyard-Style Home
The ancient Chinese, courtyard-style home we stayed in may well have been the most unique and interesting place I’ve stayed in my entire life. It was so amazing to see, up close and personal, how the Chinese in this area have lived for centuries.
The way we build our homes in the United States is evidence of (or is it the cause of) our need for personal space. Most single-family homes are built in the center of lots, leaving a large perimeter of land (the yard) surrounding each home.
Chinese courtyard-style homes are the exact opposite, with rooms constructed around the perimeter of each lot (their lots are much smaller than our average 1/4 acre lots) leaving the central courtyard vacant. Those courtyards are used for cooking and congregating.
The home we stayed in has been remodeled to include nice, western-style bathrooms, actual mattresses (the Chinese don’t believe in using mattresses), plus heat and air conditioning, but otherwise it’s very authentic, right down to the fancy woodwork details, the ancient, painted murals and platform-style beds.
See how the ceilings in the rooms are arched? The architecture was fascinating!
They would build a series of arches using bamboo and reeds, then plaster over the arched framework and add a flat top. The resulting structure would be strong enough to hold up the second story, or the patio structure on the top of the roof. The pottery ceiling tiles are round to fit over the bamboo roof poles.
Here is a photo of the neighboring roofs and the alley that all of these homes are along. You’ll just be walking along down an alley like this and there will be doors periodically that open into the courtyards of all of these homes.
The alleys and doorways leading to the courtyard-style homes all over Pingyao are charming. Each family puts its own finishing touches on its doorway gates. Many of them leave their gates open so you can peer into the courtyards as you pass.
You can really get a good sense of how other cultures lived and thought and felt by staying in their actual homes. It was honestly the experience of a lifetime.
This is the ancient Chinese, courthouse-style home we stayed in. We just rented the entire place (via airbnb) so we could all stay together. The host was very easy to communicate with (she speaks English well, but she also understands Western mentality) and very happy to see to our needs. She lives in a small room in the courtyard, but we never saw or heard from her unless we texted her or knocked on her door. We appreciated the privacy.
I hope these videos will give you a better understanding of the Chinese courtyard-style homes.
I saw several different courtyard-style homes available to rent here, so if the home we stayed in is booked, be sure to look for another! It’s sure to be the highlight of your stay in Pingyao, China!
2. Rishengchang Exchange Shop
Pingyao is considered the banking capital of ancient China, and the Rishengchang Exchange Shop was the first bank in China’s history. How cool is that?
The Rishengchang Exchange Shop was once the lifeblood of the Chinese economy and is considered a landmark building in the development of the country. This shop was responsible for the delivery and security of silver, gold, jade and other valuables all over the nation.
It’s been converted into a museum displaying the history of banking in China. Signs in Chinese and English explain the purpose for each part of the complex, and there are even mannequins to help you visualize the dealings of the bankers.
Since being declared a UNESCO site, most of the important buildings in Pingyao have been turned into museums. You can purchase the Ancient Pingyao City Pass (more information at the bottom of this post) for admission to all of them.
I don’t know why there were living quarters at the bank, but that’s where I took the photos above of the kang. A kang is a platform bed made of bricks warmed by a wood stove next to the bed. The “chimney” of the wood stove runs through the brick before exhausting outside, keeping the bricks toasty warm for the bed’s occupants. But can you imagine sleeping on bricks?
No wonder the Chinese don’t appreciate mattresses if they’re used to sleeping on bricks.
3. Ancient Pingyao Government Offices
Located in the center of Pingyao, the Government Office complex has over 300 rooms to explore, from courts to prison cells to torture chambers and living quarters for the magistrates and their servants. It’s interesting to catch a glimpse of how feudal China was governed and how justice was administered. This place was the governing seat of Pingyao for over 600 years.
4. Confucious Temple
The Confucious Temple is located in the southeast corner of Pingyao. It was built during the Tang Dynasty. We enjoyed observing how others worship at the various temples we visited all over China, including this Buddhist temple in Pingyao. They’ll let you ring the huge bell at the entrance for 1 RMB.
5. Temple of the City God
The Temple of the City God is the best preserved Confucius Temple in China. It features complex construction, detailed brick carvings and vivid statuary and frescoes.
6. Walk the Ancient Pingyao City Wall
Built in 1370, with a circumference of 6.4 km, the ancient city walls are still largely intact and are considered among the best-preserved ancient city walls in China. The wall is turtle-shaped and contains six gates — one gate each in the north and south walls and two gates each in the east and west walls.
Certain sections of the wall are still earthen, which is interesting to see as most Chinese walls are completely brick or block. Unfortunately, only a small section of the wall is walkable.
From the top you can see the patchwork of ancient rooftops across Pingyao. You can see down into a few of the streets and properties, which gives you a good idea of the cities layout and how the people live.
7. Wander Pingyao Streets
The streets in Pingyao are just incredible. Everywhere you look you’ll see colorful textiles and wares juxtaposed against the ancient, traditional grey brick. And oh, the beautiful faces!
Pingyao’s main streets, lined with storefronts are stunningly charming, in addition to being noisy and busy. But when you step off into the many alleys criss-crossing the main streets, it’s like being transported to another world. Most of the ancient courtyard homes still heat with coal and cook in their courtyards with wood.
Women hang out laundry in their courtyards and trade gossip back and forth with neighbors, and it’s easy to imagine these people living out their daily lives a millenium ago.
And then you see something crazy, like this:
Are those missiles? Who knows. But at least it’s never boring!
A Chinese gentleman with a monkey stopped us on one of the side streets and asked if we wanted to hold his monkey. Random, but very interesting and the opposite of boring.
The shopping on Ming-Qing street is super fun, and a great place to purchase souvenirs and local wares and yummy things to eat! Plan to spend, at the very least, an afternoon walking the main streets of Pingyao to see all of the interesting people and places.
8. Nine Dragon Screen
You’ll see many of these intricately carved, stone screens all over China. I think they were used in front of wealthier residences to both show off their wealth and for privacy. Many of the better examples are being preserved, which is awesome, because they’re really neat.
9. Eat all the yummy things in Pingyao, China
Don’t miss the opportunity to taste some of the delicious food available in Pingyao! There are all kinds of food stalls along the two main shopping streets with yummy snacks like potato tornadoes and ice cream confections and fruit smoothies served in baby bottles.
But you have to be a little careful and wary. We ordered chicken sandwiches from a food stall that had lovely photos of Chik-fil-a-esque fried chicken on buns. They served us what looked like blackened squid pieces on buns. The vendor insisted that he gave us what we ordered. We had to argue with them to get our money back, but I wasn’t paying for those!
We walked down the street to a vendor displaying similar chicken sandwiches and ordered from them. Those sandwiches actually came out delicious! Sometimes things are just so weird in China.
There are also yummy restaurants everywhere. We kept watching for the Chinese characters for la mien. They serve fresh, hand-pulled, Muslim noodles, along with other yummy things.
10. The Catholic Church
We were astonished to find this Catholic Church in the middle of Pingyao. It’s obviously Catholic, but wasn’t religion (especially Christianity) outlawed by Mao? And I’ve read that previous emperors disavowed Christianity, too. This church is obviously not new. I wish we could have found someone to ask about it.
The gate is open and the doors of the church are open, and it looks clean and cared for, so I think you can go ahead and go in if you want to. There were people around and nobody stopped us.
Ancient Pingyao, China City Pass
All of the attractions listed above are included with the Ancient Pingao City Pass. We bought our passes at the information desk at the gate (the base of the city wall) where you can walk up onto the wall. But I noticed that they were available at most of the attractions, too, as well as other places throughout the city.
The passes cost 120 RMB per adult, 60 RMB for children, and adults over age 60 are free. We only visited a few of the attractions on the pass, but it was still worth every penny. The attractions are very interesting, and it’s fun to walk between them, too.
Ancient Pingyao City Pass includes:
- Pingyao China Ancient City Wall
- Ancient Government Office
- Temple of the City God
- Ancient Ming-Qing Street
- Temple of Confucius
- China Rare Newspaper Museum
- Pingyao Ancient Residence Museum
- Ancient Security Guard Company Museum
- Rishengchang Exchange Shop
- Baichuantong Exchange Shop
- Xietongqing Exchange Shop
- Weishengchang Exchange Shop
- Qingxu Taoist Temple
- Military Arts House
- Tianjixiang Museum
- No. 1 Ancient Security Guard Company in North China
- Former Residence of Lei Lvtai
- Museum of Chinese Chamber of Commerce
- Tongxinggong Ancient Security Guard Company
Getting Around Pingyao, China
Pingyao is easily one of the most walkable cities in China. The nearest train station is about a half hour away, but buses run into Pingyao several times each hour. We hopped off the bus at the city gates and walked in to find our airbnb (the ancient, Chinese courtyars-style home I described above).
Everything is picturesque in Pingyao, and it’s not very big, so it wouldn’t be a disaster if you did get lost. But all of the alleys lead out to the main streets, which bisect the town and lead to the gates in the city wall, so it’s very easily navigable.
In fact, Pingyao is so walkable, you rarely see any taxis. I wouldn’t want to drive here, either. The roads are so old and narrow that you could only really drive on a couple of streets, and those are where the markets are held.
I bet there are taxis outside the city walls, but we spent all of our time inside the walls because that’s where all of the attractions are and that’s where our airbnb was.
We took a bullet train from Beijing to Pingyao. The train station is just a few minutes by bus outside of Pingyao, and buses into Pingyao run several times each hour.
We took a train to get to Datong upon leaving Pingyao, but we had to hire private drivers to take us to Taiyuan to catch a train, because there were no trains leaving from Pingyao. I’m not sure, but I think the issue is that Pingyao is a small stop on the railway, so trains originate in Beijing, and all the seats are booked from Beijing onward, leaving no available seats at small stops like Pingyao.
We spent two and a half days in Pingyao, and we could easily have spent another full day there without being bored. My kiddos were dying to just spend some time playing at the airbnb courtyard-house, and I wished we had set aside that time.
Because I stuffed Pingyao and Datong into an already planned itinerary, we backtracked a lot and weren’t incredibly efficient with our time. If I had it to do over, this is the order in which I would have traveled: Beijing > Datong > Pingyao > Xi’An > Shanghai > Beidaihe > Qinhuangdao > Beijing.
No matter. We had a great time anyway! And we learned a ton during our trip, which is one of our main reasons for traveling. We homeschool and we use travel as a means of education.
Have you experienced China? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!