Aah China! The great empire in the East, a country capable of combining Communism and Consumerism, luxurious cars and chariots, the world’s largest train and one of the most polluted cities on Earth. As we told you on our article about our arrival in China, contrasts are part of the charm of China. Our first stop in the country of tea and counterfeiting was going to prove it! Continue reading to discover our 5-day itinerary in Beijing, capital of China.
Where to sleep in Beijing ?
Beijing is an enormous city and tourist spots are quite far from each other. That’s why the best option is to find accommodation next to the Forbidden City and also near a subway station. We chose the Beijing Saga International Hostel. It’s a well-furnished hostel, clean, with a good location, with Wi-Fi connection and a restaurant and bar. They have all the things you may need, with both private and shared rooms. If you’re looking for a cheap nice place to stay in Beijing, you should check it out!
Day 1 in Beijing: Temple of Heaven
After a good night’s sleep, we decided to visit the Temple of Heaven. Since we were kind of tired, we agreed to take it easy for the first day so we could enjoy every visit. So the programme of the day was to visit Temple of Heaven.
We wanted to discover the city so we chose to walk there, considering the temple was located at a 90-minute walk from our hostel. Walking is probably the best way to discover a city!
Walking up through to the street next to the hotel we found a museum about the hutong, so we decided to enter and stay for a little while.
We took Dongdan and Chongwenmen avenues to get to the temple. The streets are huge, with lots of little shops where you’ll find all kinds of stuff. The trafic is crazy here, and they seem to have a like for honking their way through! We were surprised by the number of electric scooters and cars, there wasn’t as much noise as you’d expect from the trafic!
When we arrived at the temple, we received a message from a friend’s friend, who was going to visit the temple with us, and she says she’ll meet us at 4pm. So as it’s only 12am, we take advantage of the fact that we’re in the southern area of the city and decide to go to Beijing’s South Railway station to buy our train tickets for next Monday (we were going to Nanjing after some days in Beijing).
Once in the station, we felt shocked at its grandeur. The station is really big and it’s easy to lose your way, especially because most signs are written in Chinese and even the nice ladies who work at the information desks don’t speak a word of English (or French, or Spanish, or any language other than Chinese). We finally understood that the ticket office was located on the second floor (wait, there’s a second floor apart from this huge first floor?). On the second floor we found the ticket office and a huge panel where everything was written in Chinese. We didn’t understand a single word, so we decided to queue up and ask for help. But there were 10 different lines and a crowd of people. Well, what the heck, let’s queue up!
Some minutes later, it’s our turn. The lady at the office says “English last line”. Oops, that means we’ve just lost the last 20 minutes on the wrong queue and we need to start over at the last of the lines! Yeah, we’re so glad, and of course we’re not hungry at all after all that walking! But we decided to finish this ticket-office line-hopping game before lunch. So we go to the last line and queue up for some 20 more minutes. The lady at the counter understands us perfectly, but when we’re about to pay she kindly informs us that she doesn’t accept credit cards, just cash (we had to pay 880 RMB so we’d rather use our fee-free credit card). Meaning we go to our third line of the day and finally get our tickets to Nanjing!
So two hours have flown by and now it’s time for lunch! The positive part is that Beijing South Railway Station has about 20 restaurants on the last floor. We find a place with pictures and prices and finally take noodles and vegetables in a soup bowl. Quite tasty, actually!
We then take the subway back to Temple of Heaven where a friend is waiting for us.
The visit finally starts, and the history of the place is really interesting! The Temple of Heaven, also known as Tian Tan, was built between 1406 and 1420 by Emperor Yongle (from the Ming Dinasty), who also built the Forbidden City.
In old China, the emperor was considered the “son of heaven”, and he had the duty of imposing order on earth while connecting to the authority in heaven. The temple reflects the power of the emperor through many symbols (like the 9-by-9 arrays of door nails on the gates, the number of steps, etc).
The walls of the temple have a rectangular shape in the south (symbolizing the earth) and a round shape in the north (symbolizing heaven). The ensemble of the Temple of Heaven is actually 4 times larger than the Forbidden City!
We really liked our visit to the Temple of Heaven, which is a really magnificent place, surrounded by a beautiful park which add to its charm. It became UNESCO world heritage in 1998.
Day 2 in Beijing: the Forbidden City and Beihai Park
We started our day by visiting Tian’anmen square, and we were surprised to see so many people at 10am! You’ll need to queue up to get into the square as there are security controls on every entrance. The square itself has nothing out of the ordinary, it’s just enormous (as most attractions in China, by the way), it’s filled with people and funny giant flower bouquets. You’ll see some columns at the end, near Mao’s Mausoleum. It’s from this square that you can take pictures of the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Tian’anmen Square means the Gate of Heavenly Peace, because it is the entrance to the Forbidden City. It’s actually the 4th biggest square in the world, and many events have taken place here during the history of China (specially government changes). It’s internationally famous after the demonstrations of 1989.
After visiting the square, we headed towards the Forbidden City (it wasn’t easy to elbow our way through the stairs and passages, though!). You’d better not be enochlophobic if you’re going to visit these crowded places!
The ticket price for the Forbidden City is 60 RMB. The ensemble is magnificent and impressive, and once again we marvelled at the size of monuments, spaces and temples inside. And it better be large, because the crowd is not little (maybe we should’ve arrived at 9h when it opened?).
We decided to skip the guides and walk ourselves through the place. You’ll be given the option of renting an audio-guide or hiring a personal guide.
Built between 1406 and 1420 under the reign of Yongle (Ming dinasty), the Forbidden City expands over 72ha and is one of the largest and best preserved palaces in all China. During our visit we explored temples, museums with imperial treasures and many pieces of art (paintings, musical instruments, ceramic, etc).
We hope you like walking because the visit can be quite long: about 3 hours for a quick visit, even longer if you’re planning to see all the museums and gardens.
If you finish your visit at the north gate, and if you’re corageous and the visibility is good, climb up Jingshan Park, as the views from the top offer a great panorama over the whole Forbidden City.
After the beautiful visit of the City, we headed towards Beihai park, some couple hundred meters from there, where we had lunch and spent the afternoon.
Beihai park is a 1000-year-old imperial garden (it’s construction started in the 10th century!). It occupies 68ha around the lake and includes a number of historical buildings (temples and palaces).
It’s a real haven of peace in the middle of this boiling capital, where you can peacefully go for a walk, stop and have a drink or a snack.
The entrance ticket is 10RMB and it’s open from 6.30am to 8pm. We really liked it!
Day 3 in Beijing: Great Wall of China
Our third day was going to be one of the most important ones of our stay in Beijing, we were going to visit the Great Wall! We had read a lot of things about the place, received many opinions about the best area to visit and the best agency to go with, and suggestions that we should go on our own. So much info that nothing was clear in our heads, so we decided to check with the hostel once we arrived in Beijing. We just knew we didn’t want to go to the Badaling section of the wall (too crowded!). So the hostel organized different trips, and after several questions we decided to go with the Mutianyu section!
We booked our excursion the day before, and the trip included breakfast, transportation to and from the base of the mountain, lunch and an English-speaking guide.
The Mutianyu section of the wall is located 70km north of Beijing, and its construction started in the 6th century by the Qi dynasty. The Great Wall at Mutianyu has the largest and the best preserved sections of the wall if compared to the other sections. This part of the wall has three important wathtowers and is surrounded by woods and streams.
We woke up at 6.30am for a quick shower, and breakfast was served at the hostel at 7am. We prepared our backpacks with some warm clothes, water and our cameras!
At 7.35 the minibus was ready to go. We were 10 people and an English speaking guide (though we must admit we couldn’t really understand his strong Chinese accent, so we just understood half the explanation!). The journey went ok, it was about 90 minutes and we saw some of Beijing’s outskirts and countryside, although it wasn’t specially beautiful. We were surprised by the pollution, though! We don’t really see it while in the city, but once we hit the speedway we couldn’t see the buildings 200 meters from us! It was rather shocking!
Once at the bottom of the mountain, the guide makes a little debrief of the options we have to climb up to the wall (it’s either the cable car or a 40 minute walk up the stairs) and each person decides by themselves.
We decided to surpass ourselves and climb all the way up… even if 5 minutes later we were already out of breath! But we really wanted to get up there so we continued.
After quite a lot of effort and a lot of sweating, 40 minutes later we could see it! The Great Wall of China, wow isn’t it beautiful! We were so happy to be there! Plus there wasn’t a lot of people!! We were a little afraid of finding thousands of tourist buses, but it felt nice to see that we had chosen the right excursion.
It was the morning so the visibily was kind of poor (despite the great temperature), we could just hint the mountains around us, but on the way back the sky opened up a little and the views were much better!
At 1pm the group gathered again for a typically Chinese lunch. We won’t be able to tell you exactly everything we had (we don’t really know, actually!) but there were 10 dishes and a little bit of everything: vegetables, chicken and mushrooms, potatoes, etc. and everything accompanied by rice. We can say we had a good meal and we also had the chance to talk to the other people in the group, which was nice.
On the way back to Beijing we couldn’t avoid falling asleep on the bus, we were so tired!
The bus arrived at the hotel at 4.40pm, so we left our backpacks and went for a walk on Wangfujing Street, a pedestrian street where you’ll find big shopping malls next to little shops. It’s actually one of the most important shopping areas in Beijing, so we wanted to check it out and see what kind of souvenirs and trifles they sell in the city. The street is quite spacious, and there’re a lot of people and many different shops (from Chanel to the silliest souvenir shops). And since the night arrives early in Beijing, we could see all the street lit up, it was nice!
At the end of the street we stumbled upon Beijing’s “Old Market”, a huge indoor market. You’ll find everything here, from souvenir to combs, clothes, etc. We wandered the little streets until we arrived to Wanfujing Snack Street, an alley full of food stands. Once again, the variety is great: scorpions, duck heads, chicken feet – yeah, kind of shocking!). But we must admit that we don’t really like to eat that kind of stuff! Luckily we found a place at the end of the street where they served vegetarian spring rolls, and they were really tasty!
After such a great day – though tiring! – we went back to the hotel and slept like logs.
Day 4 in Beijing: Summer Palace
On our 4th day in Beijing we slept in a little, we needed it! Before going out and start our day we decided to go to the bank and exchange some money. And we queued up for more than one hour! Apparently, Saturday means less clerks at the bank for the same number of clients, so we had no choice but to wait! Note that banks in China are closed on Sunday, and that many of them don’t do cash transactions on Saturday!
After this long wait we headed for the Summer Palace. We arrived at the North Gate, and two options are available to visitors: you can either pay a 30RMB ticket and get access only to the park, or pay 60RMB and get access to every attraction within the park. We had read other bloggers who reccommended getting the 60RMB ticket, but we decided to get the cheapest one. As we didn’t really know what attractions we wanted to see, we decided to get the 30RMB ticket and then buy separate tickets for the places we felt like visiting.
We spent more than 3 hours in the park, it’s enormous and really beautiful! It’s the largest royal park in China, and overall the best preserved! Inside the park you’ll find temples, gardens, Kunming lake, galleries, the palace, the marble boat, Longevity Hill and the tower of Buddhist Incense, among many other things. It’s the perfect place for travellers, combining outdoors and history of China. It’s also UNESCO World Heritage since 1998.
In the end we walked a lot but it was really worth it. We didn’t really realize our ticket was restricted as there was only one palace we would’ve visited for 10 more Yuan.
In the evening we had some peanut butter noodles and fried dumplings. The noodles were delicious but we must admit we prefer steamed dumplings! We then came back to the hotel and had a good night’s sleep, because the next day we were going to visit one of the most charming places in the city!
Day 5 in Beijing: Lama Temple and Hutongs
We took the subway and arrived to the Lama Temple (or Yonghe temple). It’s located in the north area of Beijing and it’s the most famous Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet!
Lama Temple is very different from all the other temples we visited in Beijing: it’s a place for prayer and not a tourist attraction (yeah!). Many people come here to pray and burn incense to honour Buddha.
As usual, it’s an ensemble of temples, the most important of which is at the end of the compound. Inside you’ll find a giant Buddha statue carved from a single piece. There are also galleries and rooms with pieces of art, ceramics, jewels, clothing, etc.
We really liked visiting this temple, it’s much calmer than other temples in China. The only downside is that our clothes stank of incense and smoke for the rest of the day!
After regaining our spiritual energy, we continued walking and passed Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, but we didn’t get in. We had noodles and a mushroom salad for lunch (not great to our taste!).
We then headed towards the Hutongs. Beijing’s Hutongs are groups of narrow streets and alleys, usually kind of charming and traditional. They’re something you’ll only find in Beijing, and they have been there for more than 700 years! In fact, “hutong” means “water well”, which was essential at the time. The little streets were built around wells and finally formed hutongs. After the arrival of mass tourism, the government started razing to the ground the old unsanitary hutongs and began building flashy commercial hutongs. We decided to visit both kinds, the old and the modern, and we really liked both! We actually recommend you visit both types of hutons, as the atmosphere is really different. For the modern part, visit Wudaoying and Nanluoguxian, and for the old one we visited Shijia and Baofang.
On the 6th day we took a train to Nanjing. We’re currently preparing an article about transport in China that you’ll be able to read soon! We’re also writing our article about Nanjing, a nice city half-way between Beijing and Shanghai. It’s coming soon!