Jumping on an early morning bullet train, David and I left Shanghai and traveled the six hours to Beijing. The capital of China is known for their extensive history and massive temple remains from former emperors. If Shanghai is the NYC of China, than Beijing is the Washington D.C.
If planned right, Beijing can be thoroughly enjoyed in three days. This will give you a high level experience of the capital with a bit of time to journey through the streets. China can be a difficult place to travel, but take a deep breath and enjoy the journey it will take you on. The experience is equally as important as seeing the sites.
The Forbidden City
Immerse yourself in the grandeur of life as an emperor as you walk in their steps and through their gates. The Forbidden City served as the palace for the rulers of China for nearly 500 years (1420 to 1912). Start with grabbing an audio guide ($6 USD) before crossing over the mote. These guides will give you historic commentary, in your preferred language, as you walk around the 720,000 square meter complex. The grounds are large and you will want to make it to the far end to see the Imperial Garden. We recommend sticking to the center walking path. You will pass through each of the large gates, and see the highlights of the largest complex in the world.
You can enjoy the ancient city in three hours or take half a day. There are cafes inside if you decide you want to spend most of your day there. I recommend taking your time to absorb the immensity of the grounds, and do some people watching as well.
Cost: between $6-$9 for adults depending on what time of year you go.
Tip: Travel with your passport, they will check it when you purchase tickets
The center of China (politically) is heavily monitored by police and officers. As you pass through sidewalk security before entering the square you will quickly be made aware that this is not a place for “the people” but an area where authority reigns. Take in the rigidness of the buildings that surround the square, and the giant Mao Zedong’s painting that looks out from the gate of heavenly peace.
Go either at sunrise or sunset to watch the flag ceremony. The uniformed troops emerge from the Tiananmen Gate and walk over the bridge – watch them walk in perfect synchronization (I was told 108 paces per minute). Arrive 30 minutes before to get a better view.
The Great Wall
Go for a walk along the Great Wall of China! This remains one of our favorite spots we visited to date. There are several ways to access and experience the vast 5,500 miles of this ancient wall, we recommend joining a small tour. Most tours will drive you the 2+ hours from downtown Beijing and cover highlights as well as offer tips on how to make the most of your experience.
We were recommend to take the tour offered by Leo Hostel. The tour included our drive there and back, a brief description at the wall (10 mins), 3 hours to walk the wall, and a Chinese lunch. You will walk the wall without a guide, getting time to take the steep segments at your own pace. The reason we went with Leo’s tour is because it takes you to the Mutianyu section which is 1) less traveled and 2) less renovated. With no tourist shops around (and frankly no tourist) this left us with a unique experience of enjoying a several mile long stretch of the wall all on our own. The Badaling area is popular, being the most restored segment of the wall, it is an easier walk and cafes and shop will surround you. With convince comes crowds, expect that area to be busy any day of the week.
Cost: $40/person, leaving at 7am returning at 5pm.
Another tour I would recommend checking our is Beijing Walking. He also goes to Mutianyu and is very knowledgable, more about his tours in a minute 🙂
After an amazing half day tour of the Great Wall you will want to take it easy. Stroll through the many pockets of Hutongs – traditional courtyard residences. These narrow streets offered residents a place to live near the Capitol starting in the 15th century. Due to the rapid growth of Beijing in the last century however, only a few of these historic communities survived being demolished. The ancient streets our void of color due to the limitation once in place that only the emperor was allowed the beauty of color for his palace.
Along these narrow walkways you will find small shops, and family restaurants, don’t be shy – take a seat and enjoy dinner next to the locals. David and I also enjoyed walking these streets each morning and seeing older men playing chinese chess and primary school children biking in their uniforms.
If you’d like to stay in this area and enjoy a fun cultural experience, stay at Shadow Puppet Performance Hotel. This hotel highlights the old art of shadow puppeteering. This was a popular form of entertainment where puppet shadows are cast across a canvas screen (this art dates back 1,400 years ago). Meet one of the few practicing puppeteers left today and enjoy a complimentary show at the hotel.
Tip: These streets are seriously narrow and taxies will most likely not pick you up or drop you off here.
Temple of Heaven
Temple of Heaven is considered the most holy place in Beijing. It was solely used for the Emperor’s yearly prayer to heaven for good harvest for his people. If there was bad harvest the citizens believed the emperor was not in good favor with the heavens. Three building make up the entirety of the temple with symbolic designs thoughtfully place to gain a positive relationship between the earth and sky. Discover all of the importance and traditions in this unique area via an audio guide or simply take time to enjoy all the beauty.
The temple is surrounded by a large park that fills up in the early morning with locals going for a walk, or enjoying their daily dose of Tai Chi. Come early and join a class or just enjoy the area with a warm coffee like we did.
Free Walking Tour
David and I love free walking tours. Some tours are connected to large companies but several are just home grown individual entrepreneurs that love their city – these are the best. We recommend if you are spending a few days exploring a new city, make a walking tour your first stop. This will give you a quick overview of the city’s history and tips on how to best spend your time. I never leave a walking tour without asking 1) where we should eat and 2) what museum/site we should visit.
The Beijing Walking Tour was one of the best we have been on. Highlights include a locals view of the government, a trip through a Hutong (including a stop at a cricket trainers house), and a great lookout from the Bell Tower.
Beijing offers an amazing insight into the lifestyles of their ancient rulers and a peek into the lives of those who fill the streets today. This city is unlike any other in Asia so enjoy the experience only China can offer you (this is not a place you will quickly forget).
China Travel Tip
Bullet trains are our preferred transportation to different cities in China. They have many perks over flying: wifi is assessable (via our SIM card), great scenic views, easy checking/boarding, and they typically get you closer to city center when you step off.
A one way bullet ticket from Shanghai to Beijing was $80 USD/person compared to last minute flights that were around $100 USD/ person.