If you asked most people to name a city in China, Beijing would likely come to mind. Beijing, China is one of the world’s most historically rich cities with 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites encompassing a few millennia of history, a vast population of 19 million residents, and the political centre of China.
The majority of international and domestic tourists travelling though China utilize a tour company to arrange their accommodation, transportation, restaurant meals, tickets for attractions and so on. The reality is that travelling in China can be more difficult than other Asian countries due linguistic and cultural differences. Surprisingly few people speak English, aside from guides and in hotels that accept Western guests. A guided tour is an efficient and stress free way to get around the city and I would recommend it for most travellers visiting China for the first time. If you plan to visit China independently, try to learn as much Mandarin as you can before you go.
A sample 5 day inclusive tour through Beijing includes:
Transport to and from the airport in China on the first and last day
Accommodation in 4 or 5 star hotels for 4 nights
Three meals a day for 3 days
Transport by coach for 3 days
Professional Chinese tour guide
You can find 5-day package deals like this for Beijing for as cheap as 50 dollars!!
Now you must be wondering what the catch is. They couldn’t possibly offer these incredibly low prices without operating at a loss right?
And you would be correct.
Looking at the fine print you will find that there will be mandatory shopping trips to various silk, pearl, tea, jade and jewelry outfitters on the itinerary. This is because the tour company gets a commission based on any voluntary purchases their tour group make. You cannot opt out of these shopping trips. The time spent at the various shopping trips may last as long as the time spent on actual attractions.
There will usually be a few additional optional attractions in the tour itinerary, most likely the Mythology Sands acrobatic show, tickets to the Temple of Heaven and a rickshaw tour through the hutong (traditional Beijing neighborhoods) that all tour participants must attend. The cost of the options is NOT included in the price of the tour. Generally, you can expect to spend 100 USD on the options.
Tipping the tour guide is technically an option but does feel more obligatory. Expect 10 USD per day.
Hotel rooms are based on double occupancy, thus single travellers will pay a supplementary cost.
The costs of attaining a visa are not included, nor are flights. Though depending on the package tour groups can help you with visas and flights for an additional cost.
A 5 day tour of Beijing will actually cost 200USD instead of 50USD.
However, even with the added costs it is more cost-effective than planning an independent trip to Beijing.
However, if you prefer independent travel and are up to the challenge, a self-guided trip to China is entirely possible and can be an extremely rewarding and pleasant journey. You are able to spend as much time as you like at each site, you can better tailor the day to your interests, and you will avoid the “shopping” trips that are often included in the tour packages.
When to go:
The most popular and busiest times to visit Beijing are during summer, June, July and August, and during Chinese holidays. Summer is humid and hot with temperatures with highs of 36° Celcius and lows of 25° Celcius and rainfall.
In spring, between April and May, the temperature in Beijing has lows of 8°C and highs of 26°C. Warm days and comfortably cool nights. Windy and chances of sandstorms. There will be more tourists than winter and fall but not nearly matching the numbers in summer.
Winter is between November and March and consists of highs of 21°C and lows of down to -10°C with snow. This is considered the low season for Beijing with cheaper accommodation and fewer visitors.
Fall or autumn is during September to October, with highs of 26°C and lows of 8°C. The days grow shorter and cooler. A sunny, beautiful time of the year with less tourists and more space to breathe.
Where to Stay In Beijing
We stayed at the King’s Joy Hotel, a ten-minute walk from Tiananmen square, conveniently close to bus and subway transit, grocery stores, and restaurants.
Day 1: Arrive in Beijing
International Airport and take a taxi to your hostel or hostel. Expect to pay up to 180 RMB to get into the center of Beijing. If you have long, irregular oversized luggage, you will have to take a van and it will cost around 700 RMB.
For a relaxed introduction to the city, visit Da Shi Lan commercial street, a pedestrianized shopping street lined with traditional storefronts selling tea, silk, clothing, snacks, pastries and more. Then continue onto Qianmen street and have lunch or dinner at the original Quan Ju De restaurant, one of the most well-recognized restaurants in China, to experience the savory traditional local dish, the Peking roasted duck. The ducks are roasted in an open fire burning oven and carved by a chef by your table. You will also receive an authenticity certificate and the ID number of the duck.
Return to your hotel and rest up for the day. As you will likely be jetlagged take it easy and try to avoid sleeping for an extended period of time during the day if you can.
Day 2: Forbidden City and Beijing’s Parks
From the hotel, walk back to Qianmen Street and head North to Qianmen, translated as Front Gate, which consists of two gates. The Southern gate is the Archery Tower of Zhengyangmen while the Northern is Zhenggyang gate, dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Formally one of the nine entrances to the Inner City of Beijing, this gate presently looks a little out of place without any adjoining walls.
To get to Tiananmen Square you will have to undergo a security screening and bag check. Locals scan their Chinese IDs while foreigners must have their passports ready to be quickly examined.
Tiananmen Square is one of the world’s largest squares and is named after the Tiananmen gate, the entrance to the Imperial City. At sunrise soldiers from the People’s Liberation Arm (PLA) emerge from the Gate of Heavenly Peace to perform a march to Tiananmen Square where they hoist the flag of the People’s Republic of China. At sunset, the march flag is the PLA troop lowers the flag and returns to Tiananmen Gate. During this time traffic is halted and you are unable to enter Tiananmen Gate both above and underground until the ceremony is completed.
The two attractions standing on the square are the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a 38m marble and granite obelisk dedicated to the revolutionary martyrs of the 19th and 20th century, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. The Mausoleum is only open in the morning between 7am and noon and while it is free admission you will pay a small fee (10rmb) for bag storage and electronic devices.
Surrounding Tiananmen Square you will find 1950s Soviet-inspired architecture contrasting with the traditional Ming Dynastic gates on the Northern and Southern end of the square. If you have time you could spend a few hours in the National Museum of China (free entry) or take a look in the Great Hall of the People (30rmb) to the West of Tiananmen Square, a meeting place for the National People’s Congress, the national legislative body of China. The Great Hall of the People is featured on the 100 rmb note!
Tiananmen Gate or Gate of Heavenly Peace was the largest gate on the former Imperial City Wall which also enclosed the Forbidden city. The gate of heavenly peace is presently adorned by a giant portrait of Mao Zedong. It was here, on October 1st, 1949 that former Chairman Mao declared the People’s Republic of China.
The Forbidden City was an imperial palace complex during the Ming and Qing Dynasties during 1420 to 1912. For almost half a millennium this exclusive palace belonged to the Emperors of China and it was from here that China was ruled from. This was the center of ceremonial influence and political power in China. The Forbidden City was declared a Unesco Heritage Site in 1975. There are over 900 buildings in the complex, though not all are currently accessible to the public due to renovations.
You could easily spend hours in the Forbidden city exploring the different buildings at your leisure and ascend the steps leading up above the gates for views inside and outside of the Forbidden city. Most people and tour groups will lead you in a straight line from the moment you enter the Forbidden City through the Merdian Gate until the Northern most exit at The Gate of Divine Prowess. As soon as you deviate off the main South to North path you will find yourself free of crowds.
Tips for buying tickets:
I would recommend getting to the Forbidden city as early as you can because tickets can run out before noon. If you have a Chinese friend or if your reception is kind enough to get the tickets for you in advance online then you can go any time during the day.
The Palace Museum is in charge of the Forbidden Palace and has shifted from in person sales to online sales. However, it is still possible to buy tickets on the day of in person for people who do not have internet, Chinese bank accounts to pay with online, or require special assistance. Walk through the gate of Heavenly Peace and through the courtyard towards the Merdian Gate. The ticket office for in-person sales is to the East just before the Meridian Gate, the entrance to the Forbidden City.
There may be people in front of the ticket office informing people in Mandarin or English that a) There are no more tickets left b) The ticket office is in another direction. This is very confusing but just ignore them and go up to the window and get your ticket.
Jingshan Park is a man-made hill formed by the soil dug up to create the moat surrounding the Forbidden City. It was formerly enclosed in the Imperial City walls and not accessible to the Chinese public. There are five hills in the park, each topped with a pavillion. The highest pavilion sits at a height of 150ft and provides a panoramic view of Beijing and overlooks rooftops of the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, when there is a high level of smog, buildings situated a few kilometers away will not be visible.
Bei Hai Park is a former imperial garden directly to the West of Jing Shan park. This is a peaceful public park frequented by both locals and tourists. Start off your visit at the Jade Flower Island (Qióng huá dǎo) on the lake in Bei Hai Park.
If you have bought the thoroughfare ticket which includes the White Pagoda, a 40m white stupa dedicated to Dalai Lama situated on the highest point on Jade Flower Island, and the temples below, I would recommend ascending directly to the White Pagoda first then making your way down through the temples. The White Pagoda is striking from a distance but up close there is little to explore. Descending to the temples below, you may find the buddha statues of interest. For us it was not necessary to have gotten the thoroughfare ticket.
Before you leave Jade FLower Island, visit the Long Corridor on the North side of the island. The Long Corridor is a covered pathway next to the lake and decorated in artistic drawings. This will give you a taste of what is to come at the Summer Palace in the proceeding days.
If you have any energy left or missed out on visiting the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, you have another chance in Bei Hai Park. You will locate the Nine Dragon Wall in the Northwest section of Bei Hai Park, close the Bei Hai North Subway station. Built in 1402 and composed of colorful glazed bricks depicting nine dragons playing in the clouds on both sides of the wall, there are only three of its kind left in China.
Day 1’s itinerary can also be done at a more relaxed pace and spread over 2 days if you have a strong interest in exploring the buildings around Tiananmen Square.
Day 3: Summer Palace
Why go: The summer palace is China’s largest and best preserved imperial park. Built in the mid 18th century, this grandiose summer home was used exclusively by the royal families for rest and relaxation and later, as a permanent residence. It opened to the public in 1924 and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.
Getting There: Take Subway Line 2 from Qianmen Station (前门站) for two stops and alight at Xuanwumen Station (宣武门站). Then transfer to Subway Line 4 (Daxing Line) for 16 stops before alighting at Beigongmen Station (北宫门站) and take the A1 northwest exit (A1西北口出).
Tickets: There are two types of tickets you can purchase.
The basic entrance ticket for the complex or the through-ticket for the complex and the paid attractions within the Summer Palace. The entrance ticket is 30rmb during the high season (April to October) and 20rmb during the low season (November to March). The through ticket is 60rmb during the high season and 50 during the low season.
You can also purchase tickets for each paid attraction individually: Suzhou Street (10rmb), Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha (10rmb), Garden of Virtue and Harmony (5rmb), and Wenchang Gallery (20rmb). Through tickets save you 15 rmb during the high season and 25 during the low season.
Entry: There are 3 points of entry to the Summer Palace: North, East, and South entrances. We would recommend starting from the North entrance and make your way down the hill rather than starting from the East or South entrances and ascending longevity hill at the end of your visit.
If you start at the North entry, as we did, meander down under the bridge to Suzhou Street, a riverside shopping street with a feel of a small canal town. The emperors’ who occupied the Summer Palace had Suzhou street built for a private shopping experience. These days you will find small restaurants and various tourist brick a brac. Hawkers will try to sell you on the boat ride around the hill.
Ascend Longevity Hill and take in the views of sprawling cityscape of Beijing. It is worth paying for admission to the Tower of Buddhist Incense, which will grant you access to the complex of buildings descending Longevity Hill starting with the iconic 20m high octagonal Tower of Buddhist Incense before entering the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, and out through the Gate of Dispelling Clouds.
At the bottom of Longevity Hill, head West to the Marble Boat, a 32m stationary marble boat with colorful glass windows was built in 1893 was commisioned by the Empress Dowager Cixi and funded with illicit money from the Navy.
Afterward, walk next to Kunming Lake through the Long Corridor or Long Gallery. At 728m long, this covered walkway is the longest of its kind in China found in a Chinese classic garden. Look up at the decorated beams and walls above you, there are an astounding 14 000 colored paintings to view. Use your imagination and have fun with the the stories behind each visual, since the paintings do not come with any written explanations!
Next up is the Garden of Virtue and Harmony, where the Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi would attend private Peking opera performances in the Grand Theatre. Facing the Grand theatre is the hall of nurtured joy where the Express would privately enjoy the opera.
The Wenchang Gallery located by the Wenchang Tower is a museum displaying artifacts from the Summer Palace with a collection spanning over three millennia of history. Exhibits showcase a wide range of items, from handicrafts, paintings, books and calligraphy to furniture, chinaware and more.
Day 3: Great Wall of China – Badaling Section
The Great Wall of China is one of China’s most famous landmarks and must-see attractions. This great fortification extends over 21 000 km, scales mountain ridges and slopes, has walls dating back as far back as 7th century BC. However it was during the reign of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd century BC that the walls become unified into a single Great Wall. The walls have been rebuilt time and time again over the last two millenia, and the walls we can view and walk on today are from the Ming Dynasty (mid 14th to mid 17th century).
As a first time visitor to Beijing, the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China is a great choice as it is very well preserved and easily accessible from Beijing.
How to get there:
Take the Number 1 Bus from Qianmen to Badaling between 5am to 11am. Buses leave every 30 minutes and take approximately an hour to 1.5hr depending on traffic. Go 10 minutes early as the buses leave promptly and seats are first come, first served. The bus is located at the Southwest corner facing the Qianmen Arrow Tower. The number 1 bus is 20 RMB each way.
The bus arrives and departs from Badaling Guntiangou parking lot by the gondola entrance. Departure times from Badaling Guntiangou parking lot run until 4:30pm (low season) or 5pm (high season).
If you plan on ascending via cablecar you can purchase entry + cablecar tickets here. A single trip is 100RMB or 140rmb for a round trip. Otherwise, you exit the parking lot, cross the street and turn left for the ticket windows selling Badaling entrance tickets, 40rmb during high season and 35rmb during low season.
South Side versus North Side
The South Side has significantly less traffic than on the North side, gentler inclines, and shorter, with 7 watchtowers.
The North Side can get extremely congested in narrow sections and around the 4th watchtower, where you can pay to arrive by a pulley ride and the 8th watchtower, where the North cablecar ascends and is the highest point at Badaling. The crowd quickly thins out after the 8th watchtower, and between this point and the 12th watchtower, there is ample room to breathe, relax and have lunch.
When you arrive back in Beijing, have dinner then take in the Chanyang Theater acrobatic show at 7pm, if you want discounted tickets be sure to book them at least two hours in advance on their official website.
Day 4: Temple of Heaven
Why go: The Temple of Heaven first was built in 1420 by Emperor Yongle during the Ming Dynasty and expanded with successive emperors. It was here that Heaven worship ceremonies were held and sacrifices were made by the emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The park covers a greater area than the Forbidden City as it was not right for an imperial residence to be larger than this place of worship dedicated to Heaven.
Entrance to the park itself is 15 RMB from April to October or 10 RMB from November to March. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Imperial Vault of Heaven and Circular Altar Mound are 20RMB. A through ticket for the park and the sacrificial buildings are 34RMB or 28RMB during the high and low seasons respectively. The latest time to buy tickets for the paid attractions is 4pm (in high season) or 3:30pm (during low season) depending on the time of year. You can still get inside the park itself until late in the evening but the paid attractions are enclosed behind a wall separating them from the rest of the park.
If you are staying at the King’s Joy Hotel or in the surrounding area as we did, the Temple of Heaven Park is a 20 minute walk away. Otherwise you can utilize the subway system, take Line 5 and alight at Tiantan Dongmen Station.
Buy your tickets from the North Gate and head to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. As the name would suggest, this was the palace wherein the emperor would hold ceremonies praying for agreeable weather and a bountiful harvest. Everyone clambers for photos in the space directly south of the Hall, but if you go to either the East or West Side you will find almost no crowds.
After admiring the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, walk along the Imperial Walkway ridge or Danbi Bridge to the Imperial Vault of Heaven. This bridge’s significance comes from the emperors’ belief that they would (exclusively) traverse to heaven via the central bridge.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven is where the Gods’ tablets used during the Heaven Worship Ceremony at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests were kept.
The Southernmost building in the park is the Circular Altar Mound, where imperial sacrifices to Heaven were made annually on the Winter Solstice.
Wangfujing Street Food
The Wangfujing Street food market is a pedestrianized street lined with food stalls selling snacks. Here you can find a variety of foodstuffs on a stick, from potato chips and candied food to scorpions, squids, and other eccentric food. It has become more commericalized over the years but can still be a fun, bustling experience and make for some fun photo ops. After you’ve filled yourself up with food there are several large malls on the same street if the mood for shopping strikes before you leave Beijing.
To get there take subway line 1 and alight at Wangfujing station.
Alternatively you can walk to Wangfujing Street in half an hour from the North entrance of the Temple of Heaven Park. Simply head North along Qi Nian Street, the street directly in front of the North Entrance, for 2km until you reach Wangfujing Street.
Bird’s Nest and Water Cube
Beijing National Stadium, otherwise known as the Bird’s Nest and the Beijing National Aquatic Centre, also known as the Water Cube, are the two most recognizable buildings from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The best time to view the structures is in the evenings, when the heat of the day is past and the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube are lit up in various colors. Most people are content to view the Olympic structures from the exterior, but if you are interested in going inside visiting hours for the Bird’s Nest are between 9am and 6pm and tickets are 50rmb. The Water Cube is open between 9am to 8pm from May to October and from 9am to 6pm from November through April. Admission to the Water Cube is 30 RMB or splash around in their water amusement park for 200RMB.
To get there take Subway Line 8 and alight at the Olympic Sports Centre. The Bird’s Nest and Water Cube is 11km from Tiananmen Square so you can expect travel time to take up to an hour one way if you are walking and taking the Subway.
We hope we’ve shown you that it’s not difficult to organize your own self guided trip to Beijing. If you are the type of traveler that would like to explore Beijing at your own pace and don’t mind putting in a little bit of effort to get around then by all means go for it! However, we also understand if you would rather join a tour and have all your travel arrangements made ahead of time. It’s not easy stepping into a new country, particularly if it is your first exposure to East Asian culture and mainland China.