Beijing, located in northern China, is the 2nd largest city by urban population after Shanghai. As China’s capital, its ancient history of imperial relics and architectural and modern buildings makes it a worth-while place to visit. We don’t recommend anymore than 72 hours, as the pollution is pretty bad in Beijing.
No Visa is required if your trip is less than 72 hours. You do, however, need to show your departure flight, or you will not be allowed to board the plane going to Beijing.
China is very strict on the internet, this means no Google in Beijing (this includes Google maps) so be sure to download Baidu or Apple Map for directions. Most sites online are blocked, which makes the internet useless for foreigners.
When planning your travels, please keep in mind that most people in China do not speak English. We had a lot of issues trying to communicate with the locals, so we highly recommend that you download Google Translate, you can use it offline, so no WiFi is needed. If all else fails, you should also be able to find someone who speaks English working in a touristy place or hotel.
Most taxi drivers also don’t speak English so print out (or screen shot) the name and address of your hotel and other places that you plan to visit in Chinese to show the driver. Keep in mind that most taxi drivers do not use a smart phone for directions, so they may turn you down. This happened to us many times, one specific example is after our hike. We had taken a bus back from the Great Wall of China and it stopped at a terminal with many taxis around. Taxi after taxi, drivers waved their hands no after we gave them the hotel address, which was in Chinese. After 4 taxi drivers turned us away and no google map to show us where we are, we started to panic a bit. At last we found a local, he spoke very little English, but enough to translate Chinese words to English. Luckily we had Google Translate app to ask for his help. After an additional 2 more taxis turning us away, he was able to help us find a taxi driver to drive us back to our hotel. Thankfully, this driver had a smart phone to help with direction.
The airport, situated 32 km northeast of central Beijing.
If you are landing after a long flight and/or you have a lot of luggage, the easiest and most convenient option is to take a taxi to your destination. If you don’t have much luggage and your hotel is close to a subway station, the airport express train is the fastest and cheapest option especially during busy traffic hours. It’s also an alternative option when heading back to airport.
Smart Card: If you think it is worth it, consider investing in a Smart Card. Smart card (aka Yikatong) can be used on all of the trains, city buses and some taxis. Simply swipe the card to entitle you to 20 to 50% off. The card is lent to users for free, but you have to put down a deposit of RMB20 per card. The balance (must be less than RMB100) and deposit (RMB20) will be refunded when you return the card. Just follow the Airport Express signs to purchase the Smart Card “YIKATONG” at PEK ticket counter of Airport Express station, you will find it just before the gates. Ask if it can be returned there as only some of the stations can do the refund, and card must also be in good condition.
Taxi. The 1 hr taxi ride to the city usually costs 120-150RMB. A taxi stand can be found outside of the Arrivals area, follow the arrival signs and head downstairs to the official taxi stand outside. Don’t go to the taxi counter as your price will be triple, go directly to the taxi. Only take legit taxis that are waiting in cue (with official certification at the airport, metered taxi), these taxis are from a licensed taxi company and the driver can be traced. Avoid anyone who approaches you as these illegal taxis will not only double the price, but doing so could put your life in danger.
As we were exiting the baggage area at the airport, we were approached by a man claiming to provide taxi service, he showed us a card with the rates displayed. The card displayed a cost of 500RMB for a ride to downtown from the airport. Thankfully, we did our research prior and knew the approximate cost, so we said no and walked away.
The ride to the city takes 20 minutes, cost 25 RMB. Trains run every 10-15 minutes. You will have to transfer from the airport express train to the Beijing subway, additional cost of 2 RBM per person.
Airport Shuttle bus. Cost is 15-30 RMB per person depending on your destination. See bus ticket sales kiosk. Shuttle depart every 60 minutes or earlier when full. Ask international information booth (agent does speak English).
Stay in Wangfujing city, located near prominent attractions like Forbidden city and Tiananmen Square. You also have access to shop for gifts and souvenirs as well as the delicious Snack Street of eastern cuisine. Tip: Flights and hotels are cheapest from December to March.
The Great Wall of China area comprises of 4 seasons, with temperature variations between day and night. Check the weather condition to make sure you dress appropriately for the hike. We went at the beginning of April, the weather was nice, a light sweater is recommended. However, as with any hike, expect to be hot and sweaty hiking the wall.
Due to pollution, there is a constant smog over the city. People say this is normal in big cities, but I have never witnessed air this bad in all my travels. On really bad days, the government would make an announcement to tell people not to leave their homes. Now I understand why I see many Asians wear face masks, they must be used to wearing it with the bad air. If you are sensitive, you might consider bringing your own face mask to wear.
We did not have much time in Beijing, so our experience with street foods were limited. One morning we ate across the street from our hotel, the food was delicious and cost us 20RMB for 2 bowl of soups, 4 breads, and 2 deep fried something. However, we decided to eat at the hotel buffet the next morning, only because I was craving for fruits, that costed us 60RMB each. Fortunately, the fruit quenched my craving so paying more for it was ok. As with any parts of Asia, if you do not feel safe trying street food, there are always higher end restaurants to suite your needs. However, these places are catered to foreigners, so expect to pay foreigners’ price.
Be adventurous but not to the extreme, especially when buying food from street vendors. If your stomach says yes, but your mind says no, I think is a sign that you should just walk away.
Top activities to do
1. The Great Wall
This UNESCO World Heritage site is the must-visit China attraction. The Great Wall of China is the longest wall in the world, different dynasties built different parts to protect territorial borders. At the present time, laws and funds are there to protect the Great Wall from disappearing due to human damage and natural erosion. Do not attempt to take any bricks home as it is illegal to do so. Tip: Arrive at the great wall round 9 to 10am to avoid large crowds of tourists. Allow yourself at least 4 hours to visit The Great Wall. The further you hike, the less crowded it becomes.
If you have a short layover, you have the option of hiring a taxi at the airport or arrange a tour company to drive you to a section of a Great Wall, which is anywhere between 1.5 to 2.5 hours drive from Beijing airport. Most company will drop you off, wait for you, and then drive you back to the airport. Cost ~800 RMB.
What to bring: Food and water, because the prices are double/triple at the wall. Umbrella to protect you from the sun behind the smog (and potential rainfall), sunscreen and sunglasses.The different sections of the wall...
There are 8 sections of the great wall open to visitors, with restaurants and toilets. Juyongguan, Badaling, Shixiaguan, Huanghuacheng, Mutianyu, Gubeikou, Jinshaling, Simatai. Check out this website to see which section you want to hike. You will have to pay an entrance price to hike and the cable car service to get up and down is also extra.
Badaling is the most commercialized and easiest to get to. There is a direct train from Beijing to this section of the wall. Because of this, it is also the most populated section.
Mutianyu is the longest fully restored section of the great wall. It is also less touristy than at Badaling. Unfortunately, we went during a festival, so the wall was pretty crowded. However, the higher you climb, the less people there are. If you can hike up to the highest point, tower 23, the views are amazing. The hike is not easy tho, expect to climb a lot of steep stairs. It took us about 2 hours to reach the top. But it was absolutely worth it, past tower 23, you will be able to see the wall in its original form, where nature has consumed what was left of it. The journey probably took us around 4 hours. For this reason, I do not recommend visiting the great wall with a tour group as most tours only allow you 2 hours at the great wall. This is not have enough time to make it to tower 23 and get away from the crowd.
Note: During my planning, google map predicts 2 hours as approximate travel times from Beijing to Mutianyu. However, with traffic and 2 lane roads most of the way, the taxi ride (~400 RMB) actually took us 3.5 hours. We left at 8am, prime traffic time, so we recommend leaving much earlier to avoid traffic. On the way back, we took a bus (25RMB), the journey also took us approximately 3.5 hours. Even though the bus was much cheaper, it was also super crowded, so we had to stand for half the journey. Was it worth it? NO. I would rather have paid more to have a seat, especially since we hiked all day.
Forbidden city is closed on Mondays.
Situated in the heart of Beijing, The name came about because it was a forbidden place to ordinary people and was home to emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Now it is called “Gugong,” otherwise known as the “Former/Old Palace.” There are two entrances to the Forbidden City– the southern gate ( Meridian Gate – Wumen) and northern gate (Gate of Divine – Shenwu Men). The southern gate is linked to Tiananmen Square on the south. You have to enter Forbidden City from its southern gate and exit from its northern gate, which is officially set as a one-way south to north travel route. NOTE: You need to show your passport to buy your entrance tickets (cash only). Forbidden City ticketing purchase is based on a real name policy. There are some exhibits within the complex that require additional tickets to access such as the Treasure Gallery and the Clock and Watch Gallery. We spent about 2 hours exploring forbidden city. However, everyone is different, you can take your time or rush through the place. We were in between.
Enjoy your visit to Beijing! Come along on our next itinerary to Ha Noi, Vietnam.