China. Totally, completely different than what I expected. In the best way.
Beijing is often touted as the overcrowded, super polluted, communist capital of China. And that’s all true… but once you see it face to face, your opinions won’t revolve around any of that.
We spent 3 days in Beijing, and if you’re willing to wake up early, stay gone all day, and hop around the city (luckily cabs are cheap – read more here) it’s plenty of time to explore. Here’s what to do & the reasons that back it up:
Beijing Capital is a HUGE international airport, so my fellow Atlantans will be right at home. It ranks second only to Hartsfield Jackson as the world’s busiest airport.
Arrivals are NBD though. Immigration was painless, and as long as you have your VISA sticker you should breeze right through. If you’re planning to go for the 72-hour VISA free entry, don’t stress about that either. There’s a separate line you can go through and fill out/hand in your paperwork on site.
Once you get your luggage, head all the way to the bottom floor for the official taxi line. Taxis are cheap in Beijing. I’m talking $20 for an hour long cab ride. And yes it will take you an hour to get to the city center from PEK. Take a nap, because when you get to your hotel you’ll want to drop your bags and go.
Temple of Heaven:
Based on where your hotel is, you can do any number of things first. Ours was walking-distance to the Temple of Heaven, and we made the mistake of actually walking there in January. Twenty minutes later we were at the front gates, but our fingers were numb.
When you get there, it can be a little confusing as to how to get inside and what exactly you’re paying for. Just buy the most basic entrance ticket to get inside the walls at the front gate. Once you get in, don’t go straight through – you’ll have to buy additional entrance tickets if you do (these are for other attractions along the way). But if you’re just trying to get to the Temple of Heaven, go left or right and walk through the tree-lined paths. You can simply go around the other attractions and head straight for the back.
This area is what made me fall in love with Beijing. Wangfujing has a little bit of everything, and it’s so full of life that you can’t possibly get bored. There’s plenty of shopping (alleyway markets and department stores alike), tons of seriously crazy street food, and free entertainment everywhere you look.
Here’s a glimpse of what to expect:
You definitely want to take your time in these alleyways, but don’t take too much time. And don’t look too interested. People are friendly, but they can also be a little to friendly – don’t be surprised if someone tries to pull you over by the arm.
Like I said before, entertainment everywhere! We were talked into joining two Chinese guys for a game here.
Once you work up an appetite, grab one of the candy-coated strawberry skewers & a beer from the street vendors. You’ll need it to work up your nerve for the REAL street food later.
Once the sun goes down, head to the infamous Wangfujing Snack Street. Some vendors won’t let you take a photo until you buy, but there are plenty of options. From starfish to scorpions, to huge beetles and even large lizards on a stick – you can’t leave without having a taste of something. We opted for seahorse – fried and seasoned for us on the spot!
After dinner, don’t crash just yet. Although Houhai Lake is a bit farther from central Beijing, its a huge area full of restaurants and bars right on the water. And its perfect for walking around – all in one spot. We headed here and ended up at a Chinese restaurant with amazing food. Most of the bars in the area have live music playing, but you might have to do some walking to find one that has the right atmosphere (i.e. not sad and dark, but not flashing strobe lights). Regardless, its worth the trip for walking around & dinner on the lake.
Great Wall – Jiankou to Mutianyu:
Just wow. You need at least an entire day for this. And I mean a 12 hour day. Click here to read about our hike from the Wild Wall to the restored section.
If you don’t already know what happened here, look up the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Then go visit. It’s surreal what happened here – I wouldn’t leave Beijing without visiting this site. I even remember reading about it in textbooks as an elementary student.
Even if you have no interest in history whatsoever, you should still go. The huge portrait of Chinese leader Mao Zedong hangs outside the Tiananmen Gate, and to experience even more of the Chinese culture – go at sunrise or sunset to see the flag raising/lowering ceremony.
We opted to get up before the sun. The flag raising ceremony lasted less than 10 minutes, but the fact that it happens every. single. day. is impressive in itself. Worth the early start in my opinion!
The Forbidden City is massive. It literally has 9,999 rooms (9 is a lucky number in Chinese culture), so it would take you months to see it all. But that’s exactly why you need to see it, even if you just spend 30 minutes there. It’s hard to grasp the scale of it from within, but you can also head to Jingshan Park afterwards for a good view from above.
FYI – you’ll need your passport to buy tickets here, so keep it on you. Read my post here for more tips like this on China.
Hong Qiao Pearl Market:
This wasn’t on our list when planning our trip, but we actually had some EXTRA time during this day. We had been told by multiple English-speaking cab drivers about the fact that Obama visited this market when he was in Beijing. So we thought – maybe it’s really that good.
Hong Qiao can easily be designated a “tourist trap” – but you should still go, and here’s why. If you know what you’re doing – you can walk away with some decent merchandise. Contrary to the name, Hong Qiao doesn’t just sell pearls. You can find just about anything in here – shoes, jackets, Christmas ornaments, silk ties, jewelry, electronics… and the list goes on. The trick is to offer 10% of whatever they are selling at. Yes – TEN PERCENT.
It feels weird at first to throw out such a low number, but when you go back and forth a few times and hold firm – you can win. It seems to obvious to say, but just be willing to walk away. You’ll notice that you start to get treated differently. We were even told by some shop owners that they thought we lived in Beijing because we threw out such a low price right away. You won’t regret it.
We left with two pairs of Nike shoes for about $15 a pair (most definitely fake but it’s China – who cares), and a glass “hand-painted” Christmas ornament for $6. Thank you come again. You can have beers in the basement level to celebrate.
Da Dong Roast Duck:
You can’t come to Beijing and not have Peking roast duck. The city is famous for it, and it’s as good as they make it out to be. We did some research (as there are hundreds of places that serve it), but in the end we opted to go with Da Dong – a Beijing classic that has been serving roast duck for years. If you want an easy win, go here – it’s been rated in the Top 10 Best Peking Duck Serving Restaurants by multiple food critics.
Depending on where you’re staying, the restaurant may be an hour cab ride (thank you Beijing traffic). But once the chef carved our entire duck tableside and we tasted it – WHO CARES. It’s that good people. Just make sure and go on an empty stomach.
This day doesn’t really count – all we did was eat breakfast at the hotel and head to the airport! The reason I mention “Day 4” is because you’ll want another night in order to make the most of your 3 days in Beijing.
So, to wrap it up – 3 days in Beijing is truly all you need. I believe you can fully see and experience China in that time, even if it’s your first visit.
I hope this was helpful for anyone who’s trying to make a quick trip to China! Please let me know if there’s anything I missed, or anything you loved!