Four days is not enough time to see it all, but still substantial to get your feet dirty and visit the most prominent of attractions in Beijing. This post will be the perfect itinerary for those with limited time. Although, if you are planning on visiting this monstrous city, and can spare a day or two extra, six days in Beijing would be ideal.
Below are the various attractions we visited, what we ate, what it costs and how to travel around. We only had four days and kind of ended up wasting one, more info on that in Sophs blog “CHINA: The Good The Bad and The Funny.”
With only a few days to make the most of this smoggy city, we quickly found our feet after scrambling along the Great Wall of China in Gubeikou and Jinshanling. (Be sure to check out our post on Gubeikou, we highly recommend getting out there for two to three days to experience old as well as restored parts of the Great Wall.)
As quick as we found our feet though, it felt like we were rendered slow by the crowded public spaces and the amount of thick smog in the air; itching our throats and blocking our noses. Standing still in Beijing was an oddly strange feeling, as the world around you seemed to rush on by at a whirlwind pace, it felt almost risky to come to a complete stop in most public spaces, even though it never really was. We moved onwards to experience the main attractions on offer.
Day 1 – Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and the parks surrounding it will easily take you a full day, with a lot of walking. Arrive early, with comfortable shoes and lots of water. You have to queue to get in through the security check and pass through the underground passageway into the square. The square is gigantic and from here you can appreciate the regal statue of Mao Zedong and his mausoleum (be on the lookout for the soldiers standing guard as well as shift change, they make wonderful additions in your photographs). Around the square, you can also visit the Museum of China, Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Great Hall of the People. To our absolute dismay, we were unable to visit these attractions due to one of China’s biggest political meetings, the “two sessions” going on at the time, with added security measures and many of the tourist attractions being closed off. These meetings happen every year and usually begin on March 1st. They can also last anywhere from 1 to 2 weeks, try to keep that in mind if you’re thinking of heading to Beijing around the beginning of March.
The square is monumental, but the Forbidden City (Palace Museum) will take your breath away, so get a move on. Once you are done in the square you can head over to the Palace Museum, enter through the gargantuan entrance and queue to buy your ticket. Passing under the Duanmen (entrance) gate into the old imperial palace grounds feels like walking into the past of giants, as the large opening in the wall swallows hordes of tourists in awe. It feels absolutely surreal to be standing in the same place, feeling totally insignificant and tiny, where the emperors of China from the Ming and Qing dynasty lived their lavish lives. It is, after all, the largest palatial structure in the world, boasting 9,999 rooms filled with ancient artifacts. We found ourselves ogling each new section in wonder, mouths hanging open, feeling a new found respect for this ancient civilization who displayed such advanced sophistication in every little detail at such an early time period. The idea that this imperial palace was built in the 1400’s solely for royalty, that no common eye would ever witness the exquisiteness of the architecture, and yet we were there gawking at its beauty for only 80CNY, was hard to believe.
When you eventually exit the palace museum on the far end, be sure to cross the street and visit the Jingshan Park. Once you are in the park you can follow a few steps up to a large pagoda that overlooks the entire Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. On a good clear day, I am sure you will be able to see most of the capital from this viewpoint. Unfortunately, the day we went was considerably hazy with smog, so we could only make out the furthest walls of the Forbidden City. If you’re into dressing up in traditional wear for a photography shoot, this is the place to do it. Right by the pagoda was a small stand with some costumes to wear with a backdrop of the Forbidden City in the distance. You could either have them take your photo or dress up and take your own, the latter being less expensive.
After all this walking and gazing you will undoubtedly be starving, we had some fruit to snack on through the Palace Museum and were even offered some giant citrus fruit to share with an old lady, but by the time we saw it all from the top we were famished. We had heard there was some great Beijing duck (Peking duck) in the area around the museum, so we hustled a trike driver in a side street, just outside the park and asked him to take us to Dadong duck restaurant. After an exhilarating ride through small streets, we found ourselves waiting in the queue of a different Dadong restaurant. The menu was far above our budget, but we figured that when in Beijing, one has to eat Peking duck. It was served with style and looked super classy, but sadly we were not entirely impressed. This might sound weird, but we truly prefer the way duck is prepared in South Korea.
Cost: November to March 40 CNY per a person/ April to October 60 CNY – General entrance. If you want to purchase a ‘through entrance ticket’ to see inside the ‘Treasure Gallery’ and ‘Clock and Watch Gallery’ it is an extra 10 CNY per gallery.
We heard there will be a change in ticket purchasing, from late October 2017 there will only be one window left open for ticketing and special needs, while all visitors will be expected to buy their tickets online. Most likely through a travel agent.
Peking duck at Dadong Duck Restaurant was around 22o CNY for a whole duck and its side menu.
How to get there: We used the Subway Line 1, got off at the Tiananmen West Station and used exit A. You can’t miss the Meridian gate and Tiananmen Tower from the exit. You can also use Tiananmen East station exit B. Very important: Entrance can only be made through the Meridian Gate in the south and exit is only allowed through the Gate of Divine Prowess in the north.
Opening times: April to October 8:30 to 17:00 and November to March 8:30 to 16:30. Get there early, if you arrive an hour before closing, they will not let you enter – not that you would have any time to see it all if you entered that late anyway.
Top tip: If you have enough time, there is a park to the west of the Meridian Gate called Zhongshan Park, we thoroughly enjoyed strolling through these gardens and if you exit on the Palace Museum side you can find yourself skipping the whole security queuing vexation. So, if you are not interested in doing Tiananmen Square or can fit both in, do not hesitate to visit the park. We found it great for photography and it was definitely a peaceful break from the busy streets.
Day 2 – Temple of Heaven and Beijing Street Snack Market
Walking through the gardens at the Temple of Heaven (a world cultural heritage site) is a treat in itself. You get to see the older generation working out, dancing, practicing tai chi, gambling and playing ‘jianzi’ (Chinese hacky sack). You would have to visit early in the morning to catch these early risers as they begin their day at around 5 am. Arriving at the temple, we suggest walking right around the gardens before visiting the sacrificial alter. Here, you can appreciate the rose gardens and rows of ancient pine and cypress trees. We went in the late afternoon and enjoyed the freshness provided by the trees and watching the people so much, that we ended up actually missing the access time of the sacrificial temple itself. Whoops. We could, however, find a vantage point leaning against a wall to see the temple and appreciate its size and detail in design from the outside. It was quite magnificent. There is no wonder that the photograph of this three-tiered circular temple is one of the favorites in travel magazines.
This is one of the architectural masterpieces of the Ming and Qing dynasties dating back to 1420. The entirety of its design representing the connection between heaven and earth. Once a year, on the winter solstice, the emperors would come here to worship heaven and pray for a good harvest. It’s said that emperors were favored more when the crop yields were good and had trouble with the common folk if they weren’t. They must have really prayed with painstaking determination for a good harvest each year.
Cost: Entrance is 10-15RMB each (off-peak and peak season respectively). I have read it can cost more at times, up to 30RMB.
Opening times: April to October, main attractions open 8am-5.30pm (tickets available 8am-4.30pm). November to March, main attractions open 8am-5pm (tickets available 8am-4pm).
How to get there: Take the subway line 5 to Tiantan Dongmen station. Exit at (A1) or (A2) for quickest access to the temple grounds.
Top tip: If you have the time, this would be a great day visit, pack a picnic and take some cards and perhaps a jianzi to play with. The park grounds offer tranquil areas to escape the bustle of Beijing. Everything in the surrounding area is quite pricey, so be sure to take your own provisions. This is an ideal attraction for couples and families and also a great location to get some great backgrounds in your photographs.
Wangfujing snack street market
Afterwards, later in the afternoon, for an early dinner you can head to the famous street food market, Wangfujing, for some truly unique and interesting treats. This is however more to satisfy your curiosity than your appetite. The collection of street foods here are from all over China and can be a bit more costly than general street food, as this is mainly a tourist attraction. So don’t forget to haggle to stretch your Yuan. Haggling in its own right is fun, too. Prepare yourself for tight fitting crowds, small spaces, noisy vendors and strange smells. Some of the strange street foods include deep fried scorpions, spiders, cockroaches, starfish, lizards, frogs and snakes. There is also other snacks such as meat kebabs, deep fried ice cream and fruit smoothies, amongst many other things on offer. You will have so many choices, be brave and try something a little different while you are there.
Seeing some of the creatures on offer at the market got us concerned about how tourism has supported the demand and collection of some of these strange foods. We opted not to support some of the vendors who were selling deep fried creatures, such as flying lizard and seahorse, because we could not imagine how this was ever an authentic street food but rather must have been displayed for its strangeness.
If you still have an appetite after visiting the snack market, there are a few good restaurants in the area where you can sit down and relax away from the crowds. Try ‘The Grandmas’ restaurant, it comes highly recommended and they have a variety on the menu to choose from. We heard good things!
Cost: At the market, you can expect to pay anything from 10 CNY to 30 CNY per a snack.
The Grandma’s restaurant offers great value for money, averaging around 30 CNY – 60 CNY per a meal.
How to get there: Take Subway line 1 and exit at the Wangfujing stop. It’s a short walk from the station. Turn left out of exit (B) and right if you exit at (A). Just continue down the street till you find the entrance.
Top Tip: Don’t be shy to haggle with street vendors! Try the small fried scorpions on a stick, it tastes a lot like crispy bacon.
Day 3 – The Summer Palace
The Royal Park will leave you feeling small and exhausted. It covers an area of 70 000 square meters and incorporates hills, forests, lakes, an Island, arched bridges, temples and other historic buildings. Expect to spend a full day exploring the park and enjoying its expansive views and scenic spots along the water side of the Kunming lake and its tributaries. You can even rent a paddle boat and paddle around the lake, or take a ride on one of the motor boats or a small ferry.
We started at the North entrance gate and crossed the arched bridge at Suzhou Market Street making our way through the temple entrance and then up to the top of Longevity hill to the Buddhist temple with 1000 golden Buddhas decorating the walls. From here you have the advantage of seeing over the entire royal gardens and Kunming Lake. Just beyond the temple to the right are some rocks one can stand on to get the best view, even though a sign instructs people not to climb the rocks, everyone does.
Making your way down to the lake along the garden paths covered by big old trees you will come across a few pagodas. Often, people are performing music or dance here and it’s free to watch or join in if you can.
Once you have arrived at the lake you can decide whether you want to rent a boat or walk around. We chose to walk and enjoy the surrounding views. We had limited time here, it took us three hours to briskly walk the circumference of the lake and snap a few photos. We of course sat and enjoyed the scenery every so often. We would advise giving yourself at least 6 hours to fully enjoy everything on offer.
Excluding the beautiful gardens and lake, there is also the oldest three story wooden theatre in China located next to the lake. This is considered the cradle of opera in China and is the same place performances were held for the Empress Dowager. Be sure to take a look at the exhibition rooms holding gifts and valuables of the emperors as well as the first ever car imported to China as a gift to the Empress Dowager, a truly vintage Mercedes Benz.
Even though we didn’t have much time to see everything here, we feel we made the most of it. Being able to see where the emperors and their concubines once came to relax, and where the Empress Dowager Ci’xi once ruled from, gave us an insight into the past. Sitting down and watching the people go by, one could almost imagine the serenity of the gardens when commoners were not allowed here, and how much space the royalty had to themselves. I read a funny story about the concubines being able to shop here in the Summer Palace gardens. They would ‘play shop’ as the emperor would pre-purchase all the goods that were on sale for them. Visiting this world heritage site, we felt removed from Beijing, even though it was only 15km from the city center.
Cost: April to October – 30 CNY/ November to March – 20 CNY, this is for general entrance. For a ‘through ticket’ or ‘combination ticket’ to see all the sites inside, such as the Dehe Garden, Wenchang Hall and Suzhou Street the price is 60 CNY and 50 CNY, respectively.
How to get there: We used the subway line 4 and got off at the Beigongmen station using exit D to walk to the north entrance.
Opening times: 6:30 to 18:00 with scenic spots open from 8:30 to 17:00 in the summer and 7:00 to 17:00 with scenic spots open from 9:00 to 16:00 in the winter.
Top tips: Pack a picnic or at least take some reenergizing snacks along. There are so many spots in the gardens where it would be perfect to sit down and enjoy a picnic while watching people stroll past.
Rent a boat to get a great view from the water of the palace.
Be logical when planning your route around Kunming Lake. Choose a direction and go for it. We entered at the north gate and exited at the East Gate, walking anti-clockwise around.
Day 4 – The bell tower, drum tower, and Hutongs
This was on our agenda, unfortunately, because we wasted a day unsuccessfully entering the Palace Museum, and then having to visit the train station to sort out our train ticket to Xian, we exceeded our time in Beijing and were left wishing we had visited these sights. Hearing how other guests were describing their experiences of these attractions made us suffer some serious FOMO.
This should be an easy day with some walking. The Bell Tower and Drum Tower are close in proximity (about 90 meters apart) and the Hutongs in that area are some of the best to get lost in. We even heard that this is a great place to get out for a lively evening.
The towers were once used to tell the time. Actually, they were originally used as musical instruments but later served the purpose of noisy clocks telling the people of Beijing the time according to the morning bell and dusk drum. This was as early as the Han Dynasty (206BC).
The Bell Tower houses the biggest ancient bell in China with its chime being heard approximately 20 km away. After taking a few steep steps to the top, you can enjoy a great view of the capital below. The Drum Tower holds drumming performances every hour and also has a great view from the top.
As we said, we cannot attest to this as we were not there, but heard all about it from the other travelers at our hostel. Everyone had only good things to say!
Lastly, many of the guests who did the two towers also really enjoyed spending time walking through the Hutongs nearby on both sides of the Hou Hai and Qian Hai lakes.
Cost: Bell Tower = 15 CNY / Drum Tower = 20 CNY / Combo = 30 CNY
How to get there: Subway line 6 take the Beihai North station Exit. You can use line 2 and 8 as well to reach the Towers.
Top tip: If you are limited on time in Beijing and really want to do this, perhaps you can somehow squeeze it into your itinerary on the same day you do the Palace Museum or the Temple of Heaven. It will be a busy day, but you could do it.
Where to stay
The Chinese Box Courtyard Hostel. (click for their facebook page)
Behind the two large red doors that block off the busy alleyway outside, hides a haven for travelers. The hostel creates a place where people feel comfortable to mingle and share their day’s adventures. It was also an appropriate place to sit down and work. The bunk beds are clean and comfortable and not as noisy as most bunks associated with the word ‘hostel’, so to speak. Then, for those not prepared to share dorms, the hostel has a number of private rooms for you to choose from. The bathrooms were for the most part clean, and the communal areas were cozy and spacious at the same time.
The greatest aspect of The Chinese Box, however, are the amazing staff members! They made us feel at home and were extremely knowledgeable about what to see, how to get there and what not to do. They are also extremely friendly and love to make sure their guests are enjoying their time in China. We spent a night drinking homemade Baiju with them, talking about their lives in China and laughing about the current political debacles around the world.
There were a few restaurants down the street near the subway station. Our favorite being a small hotpot restaurant where we could pick out our fresh vegetables, dumplings, sausage, noodles and herbs for a small price. We filled a huge bowl, which they then took and boiled for us in their hotpot mix. This was possibly the best hotpot we had in China. To find it, walk one block past the Xisi subway station and cross the street at the end of the block. It was on the corner along the side street. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the name down, sorry.
The Chinese Box is rather easy to find and in close proximity to the subway line 4, Xisi station. This made getting around the city a breeze. The subway in Beijing is easy to use and the English signage is well displayed.
This is our idea of four well spent days traveling in Beijing. This will give you the opportunity to explore the famous sights, excluding the Great Wall, which we recommend treating as its own destination worth a two-day visit, at least.
If you have visited Beijing and would like to add to the itinerary, please comment below.
We were still getting into the swing of traveling when we were in Beijing. You could say we were a little clumsy at it.