Three Days in Beijing: My Recommended Itinerary
On my recent trip to Tibet, I made a short stop and spent three days in Beijing before catching the train to Lhasa. It was my third time in the Chinese capital, but it still blew me away. Here’s why.
Three Days in Beijing
Traditional yet vibrant, Beijing is a city that encapsulates the spirit of China perfectly with a slew of ancient palaces, temples and hutong districts. It’s an essential stop for anyone coming to China, not just because it’s the capital city, but because it’s also home to some of the most iconic and famous sights in the country. The Chinese capital city is a hodgepodge of historical sights and attractions, making it a great introduction to the Middle Kingdom.
Having developed so rapidly in the past decade, the Chinese capital is both old and new, slow and fast at the same time. Despite being a modern 21st century city, Beijing still has an impressive collection of traditional enclaves and pockets of interesting culture to uncover — perfect for both history buffs and culture vultures.
There’s so much to see and explore here, you’ll need at least a week to soak it all in; but if you only have two days in the city, like I did, here are some of the best things to do and see:
DAY 1: SEE THE BEST OF BEIJING
Visit the Forbidden City
Make your first stop the Forbidden City, the most important imperial palace in China that served as the home of emperors for almost 500 years. Take a crash course in Chinese history and learn all about the milestones and major events that took place in this massive palace. This UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 14th century is made up of 980 buildings; you’ll need at least 3-4 hours to see it.
There is a limit to the number of tickets sold each day, so get there early to make sure you nab your tickets. It’s closed on Mondays, so you might need to swap around this itinerary if your arriving at the beginning of the week. You MUST bring your passport with you when buying tickets.
Head to Tiananmen Square
Cross over to Beijing’s most prominent spot, Tiananmen Square, most famous for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, a pro-democracy movement which ended with the declaration of martial law by the government and the death of several hundred or possibly thousands of civilians. Here you’ll find Chairman Mao Memorial Hall where you can pay respects to China’s revered founder in his mausoleum.
Kick back at Jingshan Park
Across the road from the Forbidden City is the Jingshan Park, designed based on the principles of fengshui and to protect the palace from northern winds. Formerly a private imperial garden attached to the grounds of the Forbidden City, the grounds were listed as a Key State Park and opened to the public in 1928. Today you can climb the short hill for fantastic 360-degree views across the Forbidden City and Beihai Park and see locals doing tai chi as the sun sets.
Try the Famous Beijing duck
You can’t come to Beijing and not try the famous Peking duck. Its paper crispy skin and tender succulent meat are best savored with plum sauce and thinly sliced cucumber all rolled up in wafer thin pancakes. There are plenty of good duck restaurants in Beijing, but one of the most famous in town is Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant – it may be a restaurant chain but it’s had a loyal following since 1864. To ensure you don’t miss an opportunity to dine here, make a reservation beforehand.
DAY 2: GO BENEATH THE SURFACE OF BEIJING
Go People Watching at Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace
Get up early and have a huge breakfast before you head towards the Temple of Heaven. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the imperial complex played host to annual ceremonies of prayer. These days, the sprawling gardens here are where locals love to hang out and play chess, perform Chinese opera and fan dances.
From there, take a leisurely boat trip on Kunming Lake to get to the beautiful Summer Palace. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a masterpiece of Chinese landscape design, with natural landscape of hills and water combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges.
Get Lost in Nanluogu Xiang
Continue on to the Drum and Bell Towers, where you’ll find sprawling traditional hutongs (labyrinth-like residential areas) and old Qing Dynasty courtyard homes tucked behind the large landmarks. This is the best area to get acquainted with the old residential areas of Beijing and get a feel of how people live. You can even hire a rickshaw guide to show you around the nooks and crannies of this area.
In the evening, weave your way into Nanluogu Xiang, that’s flanked by restaurants, cafés and boutiques that has become a hip and cool district in modern Beijing. Don’t miss Mao Livehouse, one of the happening hubs of Beijing’s burgeoning rock music scene.
Eat at Wangfujing Street
For a night of shopping and eating, head to Beijing’s most famous pedestrianized shopping street lined with a slew of antique shops, modern fashion stores, souvenir stands and street food kiosks. You’ll be able to find everything from SIM cards and mobile phones to silk scarves and snacks to bring home. Food choices range from exotic fare like deep-fried scorpions and star fish to lamb meat skewers and tang hu lu (candied fruits on a stick).
DAY 3: EXPLORE BEYOND BEIJING
Climb the Great Wall of China
With three days in Beijing, this is a must. While it may be quite hectic to squeeze in a daytrip to the Great Wall, it’s definitely an impressive sight you don’t want to miss. Badaling is the closest bit of the wall to Beijing and bustles with visitors. To get there, take a train from Beijing North Railway Station to Badaling, which departs every two hours and takes about 90 minutes.
But if you want to see the wall at its most rugged (and without the throngs of crowd), head a little further from the city to other quieter sections such as Gubeikou, Jinshanling, Huanghuacheng and Jiankou. They are far more rugged and spectacular and still lie within 2-3 hours of Beijing. To speed things up, you can easily book a day trip or transfers from your hotel/hostel.
You can easily spend 3-4 hours climbing the wall — be prepared for steep steps and crumbling walls. There will be a few vendors selling snacks and drinks along the wall, so bring some cash with you if you think you might need something along the way (like a beer!).
Watch Chinese Acrobats
To end your trip to Beijing with a bang, I recommend catching a Chinese acrobatics performance. It’s fun, entertaining and thrilling, and it will keep you at the edge of your seat with an array of juggling acts, contortionist performance and mask-changing stunts. Tianqiao Acrobatics Theater is the oldest acrobatics theater in Beijing, with nightly performances at 7.15pm.
Where to Stay in Beijing
There’s no shortage of affordable hotels in Beijing, ranging from cheap backpackers hostels to quaint guesthouses in reformed hutongs to lavish five-star hotels. I recommend staying near the Tiananmen Square or the Wangfujing district for easy access to the city’s main attractions and eating haunts. My favourite place to stay is in the narrow alleys of hutongs, which make for a more authentic experience.
The Opposite House — A chic, stylish boutique hotel featuring minimalistic designs and an all white-and-beige interior. Located in the hip Sanlitun Village, the hotel is surrounded by gourmet restaurants, hip bars and boutique shops. We had a spacious and chic suite that felt more like a studio apartment in Scandinavia.
Shichahai Sandalwood Boutique Hotel Beijing — The former home of an administrator from the Qing Dynasty has been transformed into a stunning heritage hotel with classic old-world flair. I would definitely recommend this to those who want a taste of traditional China in their hotel.
Hotel Kapok Beijing — Just 200m from the Forbidden City, this modern budget hotel features simple, slick furnishing at close proximity to all the attractions in town. I usually stay here when I’m traveling alone, for the convenience and affordable prices.
Best Places to Eat and Drink
Beijng is the food capital of China, packed with outstanding street foods and top-notch restaurants to satisfy even the most hardened foodie. All your preconceived notions of Chinese cuisine will be defied here in Beijing as the city reveals the layers within its culinary culture.
Xian Lao Man — With a name that translates roughly to “the fillings are huge,” this is definitely the best place to go for authentic dumplings in Beijing.
Zhuang Zhuang de Men Mian — This simple diner specialises in men mian, noodles cooked in a covered ceramic pot atop gas burners. Its menu and decorations are done in a cute doodle style that draws in casual diners.
Zhang Mama — This tiny eatery in Andingmen serves flavourful and spicy Sichuan cuisine at an affordable price, but be prepared for cramped dining and long waits.
Planning a trip to China? Read more about my travels in China.
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