Beijing is perhaps the one city that is most quintessentially “China”. What foreigners picture China to be, Beijing is.
Coming in as the 8th most populated city on the planet, Beijing can be hectic, busy, and smoggy. Despite this, there are truly beautiful sights and unique experiences to be had.
With just 3.5 days in this historical Chinese city during a longer trip in Asia, here was our lineup:
Day 1- Arrive into Beijing!
After a very long flight, we took the metro into Beijing city. We were then immediately thrust into the insanity that is the Chinese subway system. We miraculously found our hostel- Sunrise Youth Hostel (I’d highly recommend!) and checked in.
The first thing on my list was to experience communistic censorship for myself, so I used the Chinese version of Google (Baidu) and typed in the phrase “Tiananmen Square Massacre”. This terrible event that we learn about in history class here in the states came up with this as the first search result: “Massacre a Myth”. There’s some food for thought!
Day 2- Imperial China – Forbidden City & More
Bright and early we headed to the imposing imperial walls of the massive Forbidden City complex. Getting there early was perfect, as crowds were still small. The 15th century Forbidden City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is a stunning maze of temples and shrines. This area, walled off from the rest of Beijing, truly is like a city within a city. It is HUGE- and you can spend hours exploring all the colorful and intricate architecture and statues. Give yourself several hours here, and on your way out stop at Jingshan Park for a great distance view of the Forbidden City!
Next up is the infamous site of Tiananmen Square. Stand in the center, and take a moment to contemplate its history. Look around at the sheer amount of people, and soak it all in. If you’re not Asian yourself, you’ll likely get locals requesting to take photos of or with you (especially if your travel partner has rare red hair!)! You’ll see soldiers marching by, and the starred red flag flying high. You’ll also notice the mass amount of security cameras. When you think about why they’re there- it’s a bit eerie.
Also located in this giant, concrete square is the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao. His body is embalmed and laid out for public viewing, for a small fee. Outside, beneath his giant portrait at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, security is tight. In 1989, men threw eggs at the portrait and spent over 15 years in prison. Tiananmen has a heavy history, but it’s a necessary visit.
Next was the world-heritage site of the Temple of Heaven. This is an imperial complex of mostly religious buildings constructed around 1420. The calm and peaceful Temple Of Heaven Park is a gigantic 660 acre complex, even bigger than the Forbidden City! Besides seeing the temple, take time to walk through its serene gardens, and check out other ornate buildings like The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, and the Circular Mound.
From there, we made our way to the Beijing Pearl Market (HongQuiao Market). We had a lot of fun shopping its infinite stalls, and I learned how to tell real pearls from fake by rubbing them against your teeth! Bartering or haggling for good prices with the quick-witted vendors is a big part of traveling in China. Make sure to come prepared for some serious and high-pressure bargaining! I reviewed some “how to” videos and advice tutorials online before I came, and I’m glad I did! I talked the sellers down 50-60% in some cases (they started with a high asking price!). We had a lot of fun doing it, and even made some new friends! The pearls? They were just a bonus!
When it started to get dark, we went to the lively shopping area of Wang Fu Jing. A very modern part of town, this is a great place to come for people watching and food sampling. Nearby is the famed “Donghuamen Night Market”, where tourists can try a variety of strange foods. (Below is a video we took in December 2011- this was in the age before my blog and fancy filming equipment, so bear with us!!)
The exotic delicacies here will appeal to even the most adventurous of eaters! My husband tried snake, scorpion, cockroach, starfish, sea urchin, and more! One upsetting item I did see there was “dog meat pot” however. Conscious travelers should keep in mind that just because something is being sold here does not mean it is ethically sourced. For example, avoid purchasing seahorse, shark meat, and starfish here (we didn’t know better back then!).
Day 3- The Great Wall at Mu Tian Yu
Today is the day to see China’s biggest attraction- The Great Wall! We left around 7am on a tour bus, and rode for 1.5 hours. Then, all of my Mulan-filled childhood dreams came true, and we arrived at the Great Wall: Mu Tian Yu! This is a 1,400 year old section of the wall that was restored for safety and to allow visitors to walk on it. We took a chairlift up the hill to the entrance, and over the next few hours trekked left from Gate 6 all the way up to 23.
With its ups and downs it was very tiring, but the surrounding mountain landscapes keep you motivated! Also, in this section of the wall, there were basically no crowds at all! To get back down, we got to ride a slide built in the mountain. Overall, the day trip involved about 4 hours at the wall, and 4 hours round-trip transportation. We booked it ahead using Viator, and had a very positive experience!
Back in the city, we took the ever-crowded subway to the Xiushui Silk Market, a place with scarves and textiles galore! This time around, my bartering skills were a little sharper, and things went a bit smoother with pricing! After a delicious dinner in one of the many small alleyways of Beijing, it was time for bed at the hostel.
Day 4- Buddha and the Summer Palace
We started our last fully day at the Lama Temple. This is a very active Buddhist temple (also known as Yonghe Gong) where locals come to worship on a daily basis. It’s a busy place, and inside the temple is an 59 foot (18m) tall Buddha statue made of sandalwood. It’s actually in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest Buddha made from a single tree. This is a beautiful and peaceful place to experience.
Afterwards, we found ourselves aimlessly roaming around among Beijing’s famed maze of alleyways, known as hutongs. In a way, these seem to be where you can experience China at it’s most real and authentic. You can catch glimpses of daily life, and find the most traditional and tasty restaurants too!
Next we took the metro a bit out of the city center to the Summer Palace. Despite the high levels of smog, exploring the beautiful grounds filled with lakes, gardens, palaces, and temples is still a great experience. I even solidified my Chinese tourist status by buying an awesome panda hat! Make sure you stop at The Tower of Buddhist Incense, the Arch Bridge, The Marble Boat, The Long Corridor, and The Garden of Harmonious Pleasures – these were the most photogenic sites.
After several hours at the Summer Palace, we ended the night with another visit to the Silk Market for some knock-off purses- and then one last pass of the fun Night Market! Now it was time to say zaijian to Beijing!
Random Observations and Travel Tips for Beijing:
If you are pale, or have blonde or red hair- be prepared to feel like a celebrity! Nobody paid me much attention, but my red-head husband John had several people asking him for photos each day!
Chopsticks are of course widely used, and most authentic places won’t have a fork for you. If you’re slow and terrible at using chopsticks like myself, carry a fork in your bag for the day!
Do your research, and practice bargaining and haggling ahead of time- don’t be gullible and buy things for asking price at the markets.
You’ll be doing lots of walking, so stay alert for the numerous crazy drivers!
We had several people try to scam us, so please be on guard. In one day we evaded 1) A fake tour of the Forbidden City 2) Taxis trying to WAY overcharge us 3) Overcharged tricycle ride 4) ) A lunch menu hustler- tried to charge us 50 yuan for a meal that across the street was 2!
Sites like Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Google, etc. will not work in most places.
Hacking up phlegm and projectile spitting in the middle of the street seems to be the norm for older Chinese men. Be sure to keep your wits about you so you aren’t the unwitting victim!
The subway will always be absolutely packed – zero personal space exists. Be prepared for a human game of Tetris, where you are likely not the winner. See our video experience here!