Note: Frugal Travel Guy wanted 4 full days in Beijing, with a light first day as his son was flying in the afternoon of the first day. Day 4 evening was reserved for the overnight train to Xi’an.
- Great Wall
- Summer Palace
- Tian’anmen Square (w/ Mao’s Tomb) & Forbidden City
- Temple of Heaven
- One of the knock-off markets (Silk Market, Pearl Market or Yaxiu Market)
Nice to see, depending on interest:
- Spirit Way (near Great Wall)
- Lamma Temple
- Prince Gong’s Residence/Hutongs
- Panjiayuan ‘Antique’ Market (weekends)
- Donghuamen Night Market
- Jingshan Park (hill behind the Forbidden City)
- Olympic Stadiums: Bird’s Nest & Water Cube (metro or combine with your return from the Great Wall)
- Old Summer Palace
- Capital Museum
- Military Museum
- Great Hall of the People (in Tian’anmen Square)
- National Museum (in Tian’anmen Square)
- The Place shopping mall
Day 1: based at the Airport Hilton, waiting for your son, so save the big must-sees for the next day.
If on a weekend, take an early morning taxi to the Panjiayuan ‘Antique’ Market, good for the scrum and for picking up kitschy souvenirs. Precious few ‘antiques’ are actually antique, whatever the vendors tell you, but you can admire the consummate skill of the fakery. At this and the other markets, fierce negotiation is essential; certainly do not pay more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the original asking price. It is in the southeast of the city, good for reaching by taxi from the airport, which is in the northeast. Not convenient by metro.
If not on a weekend, start out at the Lamma Temple (Yonghegong), a good example of Chinese Buddhist Temples, with some Tibetan touches. After this, give temples a pass unless you are an addict. Taxi or metro (line 2, Yonghegong), it is in the north part of the city center.
A quick taxi from Lamma is the huge dim sum place Jin Ding Xuan at the gate of Ditan Park, can’t compete with Hong Kong, but good by Beijing’s coarse culinary standards.
While on the north side of town you can take the metro (line 8, Olympic Sports Center) to the Olympic Stadiums, not worth going inside but good for a stroll; they can also be done in a drive-by on the return trip from the Great Wall.
For a shopping fix, the Yaxiu Market (line 10, Tuanjiehu) is not far, not as famous as Silk Market but more variety. Hunt around for an iPord or Poro shirt. It is in the Sanlitun area with lots of expat-oriented nightlife.
The Silk Market (line 1, Yong’anli) is right in the center of town and can be visited today or the other days depending on shopping interest.
My favorite of the knock-off markets is actually the Pearl Market next door to the Temple of Heaven (see day 3), even though the seafood market in the basement has long been replaced by knock-off luggage.
Prince Gong’s Residence (line 4, Ping’anli) is ok, more interesting as an entry-point to the hutongs, Beiijing’s traditional lane neighborhoods. Many people enjoy walking or pedicab tours of the hutongs. It is near the Houhai area with a number of lakeside cafes. Traffic around here is awful.
You can also visit any of the several good museums, depending on interest. The Military Museum (line 1, Military Museum) is musty propaganda with lots of weapons. The Capital Museum (line 1, Fuxingmen) is excellent with great architecture. Both are on the west side of town. They keep changing ticket policies, some are now free but distribute all their tickets in the morning, it is a pain to keep up, so just show up and hope for the best. Play the helpless foreigner with only one day in Bejing card.
Day 2: with your son arrived and you all positioned in the north of town, this is the time to strike for the Great Wall. With you car and guide, put your luggage in the trunk and roll out early.
Head first to the Spirit Way for the animals and people that go two by two, part of the Ming Tombs. Give the tombs themselves a pass; one has several empty boxes underground, the others are similar to Buddhist temples, but missing the fun statuary.
Continue to Huanghuacheng Great Wall, my favorite stretch of the wall. This is little known which makes it a delight, but is critical to arrange in advance and make sure the guide/driver understands and knows this place. When there, you cross a small reservoir by bridge, buy tickets from an old lady with a huge dog, walk about 10-15 minutes on a hilly path, and then up a short ladder up to the wall.
Lots of B&Bs are in the area are good for lunch (many have billboards of smiling donkeys, poor Eeyore). No English spoken, but you will have a guide that day.
If you can’t get enough Great Wall, then Mutianyu is about a half an hour away (Badaling is the hyper-touristy part, Mutianyu is second on that scale). Doing both Huanghuacheng and Mutianyu would chew up an entire day.
This is getting really punishing, but if you only do Huanghuacheng, when heading back south you can swing by the Olympic Stadiums, or try to squeeze in the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) (if not by car, it is near line 4, Xiyuan), which often is the favorite of Beijing. Like most of what you will see, it is gigantic, but focus on the main parts listed in your guidebook, the Long Corridor, the main palaces and the lakeside. Day 4 is kept open for the Summer Palace if you do not make it today.
Nearby is the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) (line 4, Yuanmingyuan Park), even larger, but mostly an empty park. The ruins of Western-style palaces are a big draw for Chinese but of less interest to non-Chinese. Combine it with the nearby Summer Palace, but it is not a must-see.
If you somehow have energy in the evening, you could stop at The Place (line 1, Yong’anli is closest, but a short taxi north from there is best as the walk is quite long) shopping mall, which has some dining choices, the Golden Jaguar Buffet (sumptuous) and others. The draw is the huge roof screen high above the open square with varying projections. Sounds corny, but it is a delight. (Golden Jaguar also as locations in Shanghai)
Day 3: the brutal pace continues. You will see both the Tian’anmen Square areas (line 1, Tian’anmen East or Tian’anmen West, though best is line 2, Qianmen) and Temple of Heaven. Time the order based on the visiting hours that day of the week for the Mao-seleum (8.30-noon Tue-Sun, 2-4pm Tue & Thu, mornings only Jul & Aug).
If you start in Tian’anmen, visit Mao first. The line is huge but fast. You have to check bags across the street, so it may be easier to go in shifts and have one hold the bags. Technically you should have your passport but they often don’t check.
Flanking the square are the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum. Both are somewhat interesting, but the mandatory tour of the Great Hall takes time and is mainly for communism junkies. The National Museum just finished a big remodel to super-size itself over the British Museum and Louvre.
To the south of the square is the heavily renovated Qianmen area, now remarkable only for the difficult to find Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant. It is so ‘hole in the wall’ that only foreign tourists bother try to find it.
Head north towards the Forbidden City. When crossing the street, to the left (west) you can see the modern National Theater.
Continue into the Forbidden City (Gugong). It is huge and seems to go on forever. Keep walking until you cannot proceed without buying a ticket. There are some early tickets for different things but skip them. Once formally inside, you can either go the central route or some areas branch to the right (east) side for exhibitions of different kinds of treasures, though the cupboard may be a little bare. Take your pick. Either way, keep making progress, it gets a bit repetitive. At the end you reach a garden which is the favorite of many.
You will exit out the back and if you have energy and interest you can climb up the hill behind in Jingshan Park. Otherwise, find some place for lunch or take a break at your hotel, if nearby. No convenient metro stop so take a taxi to your next destination.
Next is the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) (line 5, Tiantan Dongmen). There are several gates, you want the east gate at the metro stop. Across the street is the Pearl Market, which I like for the huge jewelry section upstairs and also the eletronics bric-a-brac on the main floor. Less intense than Silk and Yaxiu. For the Temple of Heaven, focus on two things, the long hallway leading to the temple, where locals hang out, especially on weekends, singing, playing games, etc. And the main shrine. The other areas down to the south are ok, but not must-sees. And by now you will be exhausted.
In the evening you can go to the Wangfujing (line 1, Wangfujing) pedestrian-only street. Many major hotels and big stores. A few blocks east of the Forbidden City. It runs north-south and at the northern end of the pedestrian section, to the western side, is the Donghuamen Night Market with stands putting every kind of animal on a stick to eat, from scorpions to star fish. Continue a few blocks further and you will reach the quiet Donghuamen (Donghua Gate) of the Forbidden City, dimly lit at night.
For sampling Peking Duck, in addition to Liqun mentioned earlier, the two great ones are Quanjude (the oldest) and Dadong (the upcomer), both have branches all over the city, so choose depending on your hotel. Avoid the dreadful tourist group one near the Worker’s Stadium.
A great area for nightlife is Sanlitun (line 10, Tuanjiehu), used to be trashy, but now is more upscale. The Yaxiu Market is in Sanlitun.
Day 4: catch up on anything missed or some ‘nice to sees.’ If you didn’t get the Summer Palace on the Great Wall day, make sure to see it now.
Overnight train to Xi’an.
Readers, share your stories of Beijing!