Is a short stay in Beijing enough to see the main attractions? And how many days? That is quite a common question. There are few historical sites you do not want to miss and others you may want to leave for the next visit. Visiting Beijing in 3 days can be done. You may have to miss out on something but that’s the usual travelling (in)decision
Believe it or not, the art market is big and it is definitely suggested to have an exposure to it. The good news here is that it is mostly concentrated in a single area, easy to move around, less time spent on transportation.
Visiting Beijing in 3 dyas – Is it enough for a short stay?
I believe there is a minimum limit to any kind of travel length.
A long time ago I asked myself if it is worthy to visit a city or place on a rush, moving from site to site without any real understanding and just shooting photos here and there.
I ended up with a new definition:
The Tapas Trip
I could taste a bit here and there but I could not really understand the culture of the place, I could overview the places (not view), between quick snacks, not typical of the place I was visiting, by the way. Yes, I had a stamp on my Passport but that was it.
Back to the question on how many days should be the short stay in Beijing or how long must be the weekend?
In my first visit I did factor in 4 full days (5 nights). Was I happy with everything I have done. Mostly yes. Based on your like you can skip something and make it in 3 days. I had a bit of jet lag as well, so 4 days was more adequate
That was my mistake #1. I was coming from Europe and although 6 hours are not as many (living in Australia you get used to much more in any trip LOL) I did feel a bit asleep and tired under the hot sunny day of a full blue sky in Beijing. Is it unusual?
Roofs of the Forbidden City
Planning your very long weekend in Beijing
If you are visiting Beijing is just two days, that is fine, just decrease the number of things you want to see. It’s better to see well less things than having a Tapas Trip
When I came down to plan my trip I had to make a choice, either beginning of June or second week of July. I decided for July. Why? Pollution
Pollution is a real problem in Beijing. July and August are the months with more storms which clear the city for 2-3 days. I played my cards and hoped for a big storm that could clear the air. Obviously there was a possibility that I could have been in the middle of it. However the idea to be in Beijing and not being able to see more than 300-400 metres due to pollution was not my idea of enjoyment.
Suggestion # 1: try to plan the trip in summer
If you are visiting Beijing in 3 days you should probably plan only the things to do but not the sequence. I decided not to plan anything till in Beijing. I listed my main places to see but not the sequence. No much point to visit the Great Wall of China on a stormy day because it was planned a month in advance.
Any trip can almost be booked one day in advance in China and Asia. There is always a place for a new customer. You can plan maybe 2 days in advance through email and pay the day before. You will have the time to check the weather forecasting and be sure you will have a good time
I was 4 full days during my short stay in Beijing, Thursday to Sunday. The number of Chinese visitors to the city is quite incredible and the weekend is just packed. Planning the major sites outside the weekend is highly suggested. Do not expected orderly queues, it’s more of a push and go style, anywhere you go.
Short stay in Beijing – A long weekend or more
My plan included these main sites:
- Great Wall of China (1 day – I wanted to have a few hours walk on it and experience a remote part)
- 798 Art Zone (1 day – I love art generally speaking and my exposure to the Chinese art is pretty limited. That was a great opportunity to go deeper)
- Forbidden City, The Imperial Gardens and Tiananmen Square (1 day – Maybe more maybe less, based on the day and my attention level)
- The Left Over day including a visit to one or two hutongs (city areas with small lanes and ancient buildings), the Beihai Park, The National Centre for Performing Arts and another couple of sites based on the free time (1 day – I decided for these places based on my interests and popularity as well. Also an easy access to the transportation system was a factor. Unless you talk Chinese, the Subway is the only transportation you can work around. What about a taxi? Yes, with precautions, we will see later)
Is there any shopping in the city? Plenty!! In my long weekend in Beijing I decided to add it to the Left Over day, based on time. Shops are also open till late, and this is another way to spend the evening by the way.
How to sequence my days?
Suggestion # 2: Check the weather forecasting once closer to the trip (1-2 days prior) and plan the sequence of the days
So I did in my case. I was super lucky and there was a huge storm the day before I arrived (that balanced my incredible misfortune in the latest part of the trip, read more at the bottom)
The National Centre for Performing Arts
The weather forecast was showing 3 days of blue sky and a white day (it’s not snow, just pollution). I therefore planned the Forbidden city on the very first day and the Great Wall of China on the second day, easy!
Day 1 – Full on start
The forbidden city – a must in any visit to Beijing
Being a must visit, it is obviously a popular place. I expected a a big queue and….I found a big queue, no surprises. I was amazed by the number of Chinese tourists and the almost absence of western tourists. Maybe it was just an unusual day.
The forbidden city – View from the Imperial Garden hill
The queue to the entrance was big but well organised and it did not take that long, maybe also because I was entertained by the many people trying to sell the Great Wall tours to the Chinese tourists. Nobody actually approached me trying to sell anything, I was really surprised. The western tourism is not that good market here, too few people.
Once the ticket was bought I was indeed approached by few local official guides that offered me a few hours service through the forbidden city. I did take one at the end as I was not really in the mood to read any book and, being the first day in Beijing, it was nice to have a bit of a chat and understanding.
Suggestion # 3: how to select the guide to the forbidden city? Make sure it is an official one (they have a special pass/card), he/she speaks your language (have a small talk for few seconds about a different subject than the forbidden city to see how the vocabulary is), nice and smily person and ultimately the price (they do have different price, they argued that this is due to the experience, which I believed, however how could I judge the experience or knowledge, go with your personal feeling on this)
Entrance to the Forbidden City
The crowd is never missing in the Forbidden City
Wonder around the Forbidden City, still some empty space around
Worthless to say it was a magnificent visit, the guide was very knowledgeable and I came out with more understanding of the Chinese history and local culture. We also had a chat about living in Beijing, present culture versus the communist pre-90s years, relationship with the oldies, even the financial market, he was more interested in it than I was I must say.
This is most definitely a must visit
The Imperial Garden
Once you are out from the North Gate, the Imperial Garden is just in front of you, you can’t miss it. It is a natural extension of the forbidden city, although not included in the ticket.
The guide decided to come as well. I guess he was so concentrated talking about the financial markets that he actually enjoyed spending time with me. He was very relaxed and I liked him, beside his knowledgeable explanations of the forbidden city.
Once in, you realize why the emperors used to spend quite a bit of time here. It is really a magnificent place. Walk around and just enjoy the shadow of the local trees and the few temples. Finally climb on top of the hill where you can have an extraordinary and unique view of the forbidden city. I am not sure what can you actually see on a polluted day, however I was very lucky and with a blue sky on top of me, the field of vision was impressive.
The Imperial Garden – Young Chinese inscriptions
The Imperial Garden
On the way down we were approached by a girl explaining us that we could have a tea tasting organised in one of the temples in the garden. The building was quite intriguing and I decided to accept. I knew from the start that it may have been a tourist trap. And it somehow was. I had a great hour tasting many tea types, receiving explanations of the tea processing method, the origin and difference between the world areas. I felt like buying some tea, I had to (that’s the trap). Yes, I probably paid 3 times as much as in a shop outside but considering the time spent in the place it was not too bad (I need to justify my choices LOL). I think it was fair enough (more justifications LOL). I would not still call it mistake # 2
The Beihai Park
I was not too far away from the Beihai Park so I decided to change my plan and visit it straight away. I could have a late lunch as well and a bit of a rest around the lake.
The Beihai park is a formal imperial park now open to the general public. As soon as I was inside I was impressed by the big lake and the central Qionghua island where the White Pagoda is. It is one of the biggest parks in China and the people of Beijing come here to relax in a green area.
Entrance to the Beihai Park
Qionghua island and the White Pagoda
You can rent a boat, have a walk, wonder around, make few photos of the local life and the people exercising in the park
Day 2 – Get ready for some trekking
The Great Wall of China
Should I visit the Great Wall of China in my short stay in Beijing? The answer is obviously a big YES. And now it comes the Suggestion # 4: Take a longer trip to a remote part of the Wall and be careful which tour you select
Unless you live in China you have spent, like me, time and money to come over to Beijing. The Great Wall of China is very very long, around 9000km. Do I really want to go to the closest section to Beijing because the trip to reach the wall will be just 1 hour or less by bus? What should I expect there?
Of course a huge mass of tourists rushing and walking over the Wall together with a big number of locals trying to sell any kind of Made in China goods which at least they can be called here local goods LOL
Which part of the Great Wall of China should I visit?
With over 9000Km of wall it is quite easy to get it right….or completely wrong of course!! I usually prefer to plan carefully in advance to better enjoy the place I visit. Photography is also an important part of my trip and get it right is quite important. Few days ago I came across a short article on the Great Wall of China “China Issues New Guideline on Crowd Control at Scenic Spots” which stated, between many other rules and guidelines, that “each person must have a space of 2.5 to 10 square meters to move about“. Yes, that is the case when people can get it really wrong, a visit that turns into a battle to gain few metres. This photo from the same article says it all
Each person must have a space of 2.5 to 10 square meters to move about
Maybe from a photography prospective you will have an unusual shot of the Great Wall of China, although it is not quite the experience I wanted to have
After reading comments here and there I came to the conclusion I should definitely avoid any part of the wall to close to the city. I know I have a short stay in Beijing and I do not really want to spend it in the bus but I prefer to have a long day but be happy at the end. I can sleep one hour more the day after if I really need it.
Suggestion # 5: Avoid all together the JUYONGGUAN and HUANGHUA CHENG part of the wall. If you are in a big rush and you are into a tapas trip than it is absolutely fine but expect a crowd around you, or a huge crowd in the weekend (hopefully you will have 2.5m to move around LOL). Both sites are around 50-60km from Beijing and can be reached by public transportation (although not that easy) or by taxi. It’s a 2 hours walk, all in all a half a day experience
BADALING is around 70km from the city and it is another popular part of the Great Wall of China, which translates in busy part. Very busy in the weekend. Most of the tours you find in the city will include BADALING which explains why you could meet the same people you may have met in Beijing. Even a cable car is available for people that cannot or do not want to walk up, another feature that makes this side quite popular
I decided for the walk from JIANKOU to MUTIANYU, about 90km from Beijing. It is a 10km walk but in a part of the wall that has not been refurbished, therefore not as easy to move around. I looked into the web for few tour operators but I could not find any. The alternative was by taxi to JIANKOU and back by public bus. That would have been quite a challenging day, considering my Chinese limited to 10 words.
I checked therefore another part, JINSHANLING to SIMATAI. That’s around 120km from Beijing and a similar 10km walk. There was a tour available. One without handicraft visits (I will say more about it later). So I decided to go for it. The tour was organised to cater 40-50 people but there was total freedom. We would have been left in JINSHANLING and picked up in SIMATAI. Obviously you can’t get it wrong, just follow the wall.
The view of the mountain around is magnificent
A panoramic view of the Wall of China
The Wall of China in this area is not always fully refurbished, which adds a great character to the trip
Some steep ascends along the wall
Once in Beijing I visited the agency and booked the trip. You can also book by email and pay on the same day (if still possible). The agency/hostel is called backpackingchina.com (please note that I have no affiliation with this place, I had just a good experience). It is actually also a nice place, in a nice area, to stay, although quite on the touristy side.
Please note that in few web sites it is advised to avoid the visit of the Great Wall of China in summer. I was there in July and I was alright. I like however a warm climate. It was in the 25-30 degrees range. The JINSHANLING to SIMATAI walk is not that popular and you can almost be on your own. Carry some water with you. From time to time you may meet also locals selling water bottles.
All in all it was a great day. I really enjoyed the trek, it was awesome and I was most of the time on my own or just with few people around which was great. Here is the Suggestion # 6 to enjoy the walk. It is actually a set of tips:
- as soon as you arrive to the starting point seat and wait for few minutes. Most of the people that are in the same tour will leave almost in a rush (is there any race?) and you will enjoy the place in a more relaxed way. You have 4 hours to do the 10km walk, plenty of time.
- take some water with you, at least 2 litres. The fall back solution is to buy from the locals once you see any of them (rare). Prices are obviously quite high (just think how hard is to take anything up there, well deserved I think)
- take your lunch/sandwich with you and stop in one of the towers where you will have a nice breeze in the shadow. Having a lunch break in the Great Wall of China is not everyday meal place 😀
- take it easy. There are few steep parts which you really need to literally climb it. I had running shoes and they worked fine. Trekking shoes are probably better. The Aussie way, by flip flops, is probably not suggested although I saw a couple wearing them, hard core
Can you find an end to this 9000km long wall
Towers are built every top of the hill, the perfect place to have a rest
Never ending wall
I was back in the city for dinner and a nice sleep!!
Day 3 – the arty day
The 798 Art Zone
Is half a day enough to explore the 798 Art Zone?
It really depends on many factors. With a short stay in Beijing you may come to this question
If you are into art and you love exhibitions and meeting the artists, have a talk, and possibly buy art works, than plan a full day, at least.
Check what exhibition is on. That plays an important role obviously. I am very passionate about photography and there were few exhibitions I was really interested to see. Plus there was the opening of the famous “The Little Black Jacket” by Karl Lagerfeld (See the E-xperience here). Could I make it in a better time??
“The Little Black Jacket” by Karl Lagerfeld
“The Little Black Jacket” by Karl Lagerfeld
“The Little Black Jacket” by Karl Lagerfeld
I was running behind in my plan as I still missed to visit Tiananmen Square. So, I thought to go to the 789 Art Zone in the morning and, probably exhausted already in the early afternoon, I could have moved on.
How wrong I was!! They pushed me out at 5-6pm from the last exhibition I was seeing!! The day was gone in a breeze. I could not believe it. I do not think it was just me as I had the possibility to talk with other people and they all told me how fascinating was the area.
The 798 Art Zone is a vast factory site (thing almost a small district) with many buildings interconnected through tunnels, small lanes and streets, all dedicated to pedestrians. You can wonder from one exhibition to the next in just few meters. Many cafes and restaurants between, where you can have a bit of a rest and plan the next hours.
There are few permanent exhibitions however the most of the building host temporary exhibitions by Chinese artists/photographers. I was there on Saturday and I reckon the weekend is the time to go as the artists are there to have talks and you may come across some openings as well.
The factory was actually an East-German factory that used to make the old TV units, the ones our parents used to put in the corner of the rooms, the big heavy ones 😀 Rumours say that they used to produce weapons as well, although never confirmed.
The old TV Factory
The area is still very industrial
A Mao portrait exhibition
The area itself is quite fascinating to tour around, very industrial feeling of course. Even if not fully interested in art or photography, or the mix of the two, you may be well surprised how you can enjoy your time here.
It was the highlight of my short stay in Beijing I must say, maybe because the expectation was not that high
Suggestion # 7 : How to go to the 798 Art Zone? Take a taxi from wherever you are (the easiest option). Take the Subway to the JiangTai station (line 14) and grab a taxi from there (12-15RMB fare as of 2015). I went for the second option.
Day 4 – The local life
The Hutongs exploration
I know, we started with the idea of visiting Beijing in 3 days, however one day more may help in your trip. If you cannot stay for more than 3 days, check what is most interesting to you. If art is not your highlight you can probably skip the 798 Art zone
Day 4 started with a different color of the sky not as blue any more, and getting whiter and whiter. The pollution was settling in. I guess it is part of the experience.
What are the hutongs?
A copy and paste from Wikipedia can explain better than I can do
“The hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences.Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighbourhoods.
Since the mid-20th century, the number of Beijing hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, some hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history”
Select a couple of them and have a wonder around. The most famous and touristy is probably Nanluoguxiang. It is quite preserved and as soon as you move out from the main street you will still experience how was the hutong before the tourism arrived.
This is a great place also for shopping local handicrafts (made in China) and restaurants. It can actually get quite busy and you may have to wait for a free table. Go during the day for a site exploration, after the sunset to enjoy the night and few drinks. This is the place where I met the most of the western tourists.
Take the the Subway number 6 till the stop Nanluoguxiang, walk up exit A and cross the main street. On the other side you will find the main alley of this hutong (Nan Luo Gu Xiang)
Lanes in the hutongs
The Hutongs from above on sunset
Rooftop at Kellys Courtyard
The second hutong I ventured out was the LingJing Hutong, the broadest in the city. The main reason was that my short stay in Beijing was based there, in a small traditional courtyard accommodation called Siheju Courtyard. You won’t find touristy shops here, just local shops, mini-markets, fruit and veggie shops and what you would expect from a small village. This is what a hutong is, a village in the city.
And if you need, there are also public toilettes, very clean however they share the place, no walls. Another way to socialising, being Facebook not available in China LOL
Around lunch the day was almost grey and foggy. Pollution effect. You can’t see more than few hundred meters from you and you can feel it in your lungs. It’s not a big issue if you have a short stay in Beijing but I feel for the people living in the city, not great, isn’t it?
Time to go to the last two sites I had in my list : The National Centre for Performing Arts and Tiananmen Square (these could also be done on Day 1 being so close to the forbidden city)
The National Centre for Performing Arts
They are not too far away and on the main Subway circle line, easy to access. The National Centre for Performing Arts is definitely an impressive building to see from outside, a futuristic project which deserves absolutely a visit if in Beijing. I was unlucky with the timing as access to the inside was closed (mistake # 2: check the opening time of the planned attractions!)
Reflection at the National Centre for Performing Arts
The National Centre for Performing Arts
A short walk and you are in Tiananmen Square, just in front to the entrance of the forbidden city. This square reminds everybody the protests of the 1989, the famous student in front of the tank. I thought there could be something remembering that piece of history but there was not.
Tiananmen Square unusually empty
It is here that you have access to the Mao Mausoleum. Again a long queue, longer than expected. I therefore decided to omit the visit. It was already late afternoon and I was tired for the long day. Time to go back to my courtyard and take the last shots of the hutong on sunset
Beijing transportation system
I had a great time in the city and I would definitely spend another long weekend in Beijing. The 798 Art Area was the highlight and I was definitely impressed by the Great Wall of China. I must admit that it is easy to be impressed by this incredible structure LOL.
The Beijing transportation system is great however a little bit of Chinese may help
- the subway is great, both chinese and latin letters and in few lines you can also hear English spoken. With a bit of attention you can easily move around the city. Very cheap
- the bus system is spectacular, based on what the locals told me, but without a basic knowledge of the Chinese language, well, forget about it. Too complicated
- can you trust taxi in Beijing? I like to answer with another question, can you trust a taxi in any other big capital city? I took only two or three of them and they were all honest, no bargaining, just the taxi meter and you have the receipt at the end. From the airport I suggest to take the train, just easier. Take with you always the business card of the hotel written in Chinese (I mean Chinese symbols). Many people can’t read pinyin (Chinese written in latin letters). Remember also the phone number of your accommodation, you never know
- scooters/motorbikes, they approach you offering a lift and you need to agree a price. I did it once because I was quite tired (mistake # 3) and I agreed 10RMB for the ride. Once arrived the guy asked me 100RMB. He said I misunderstood the number of zeros. He was happy to meet half way at 50RMB. I gave him anyway 10RMB and I walked away saying I was going to the police and I wrote down his registration number. He screamed at me and he drove away. If you decide to take a motorbike ask to be left in a main street and not in a small lane. You will feel less intimidated. Anyway I definitely DON’T suggest to take one (same thing happened to another friend).
Scooters/motorbikes, they approach you offering a lift
Where to stay in Beijing
As you expect from a bit city, there are more options that you may think of. I categorised my options in two classes. Either a modern hotel with swimming pool (nice to have in summer) or a family run courtyard in a hutong.
I went for the second option because I love traditional houses. Cost wise both options are very similar. You can find good ones and less good ones. I can only suggest Siheju Courtyard, the traditional house I was in my long weekend in Beijing.
If you are after an hostel head to Nanluoguxiang, a good area with few alternatives. In this district I saw also similar Hutong style accommodation as Siheju Courtyard but I did not visit any (already too busy with the many attractions 😀 )
In all cases try to stay as close as possible to a subway station. It will be the main form of transportation.
Travel & Photography Tips
- Visit to the Great Wall of China
- for the best photography result try to go on your own by taxi before sunrise (this can be expensive though and only few sections do not have a gate) otherwise select a tour that leaves as soon as possible in the morning
- if in the middle of the day try to shoot 3 exposures for any photo and post process them in either HDR or layer blending
- use the wall as lead-in lines (see more in this free tutorial)
- travelling wise, you will experience the fewer people the farer from the city you will be (read more above on Day 2)
- either section of the wall you will travel to, ask if the tour will stop in any handicraft shot/factory/family/etc. If so, you will end up stuck along the drive to the wall visiting places that will want to sell you stuff. You may actually spend more time in shops than at the wall.
- if the trip price is too low, most probably it is because the wall is just an excuse to take you to the many shops that will want to sell you the impossible
- The best place for a panoramic photo of the forbidden city is the top of the hill in the Imperial Garden
- Organise your short stay in Beijing in a hutong. At sunset time walk around the area for few portraits photo, a great opportunity close to your accomodation
- The pollution level can change the experience of your long weekend in Beijing. As a general rule plan the forbidden city on a sunny day, the Great Wall of China, if 100km away from the city, is less affected by the pollution. For the day at the 798 the weather is not a major player
- The best local food is around the hutongs. Most probably they will not talk English however they will most likely have an English menu. If you have any allergy or you just do not like something, take a photo of it on the phone and show it before ordering (as an example, if you do not like spicy food, take a picture of a chilly and add a big red cross on it)
- Add a fifth day if possible 😀
The Great Wall of China walk. We were said it was 10km walk and it did feel like however the Strava app is reporting just a touch over 5km