I spent five days in Beijing, China with a dear college friend that was living in Hong Kong. This was my first trip to Asia and I wanted to see everything. The final itinerary focused on Southeast Asia, but we were able to spend the first few days in Beijing, a city I’ve always wanted to visit. Unfortunately, the logistics of including Hong Kong forced me to drop it from the itinerary. Beijing exceeded my expectations. The city is very crowded, but it wasn’t as smoggy as I’d heard. It was March and the weather was colder than we anticipated. After buying some wool hats and gloves, we were ready to explore the city. I think three or four days is the right amount of time to see the highlights of the city.
Day 0: fly from New York to Beijing via Detroit, late arrival in Beijing, overnight in Beijing
Day 1: Forbidden City and surrounding areas, overnight in Beijing
Day 2: Arts District, Olympic Park, Summer Palace, overnight in Beijing
Day 3: Jinshinlang section of Great Wall of China, overnight in Beijing
Day 4: Temple of Heaven and other temples, overnight in Beijing
Day 5: Planning museum, afternoon flight from Beijing to Hanoi
- Delta (economy): JFK-DTW-BEI
- China Southern (economy): BEI-HAN
Park Plaza Beijing Wangfujing – moderate+
Good modern hotel in central Wangfujing area near the Forbidden City. Great location for visiting sights in the historic center.
Day 1: Forbidden City
Our first day in Beijing we visited the Forbidden City, Beihai Park, and Jingshan Park. We also tried to visit Tiananmen Square, but it was closed off both times we tried to visit for some special occasion. We were the only ones smiling in our photos with Mao at the main entrance to the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City/Palace Museum is the most famous landmark in Beijing. Even though it was below freezing in Beijing, the site was packed with tourists – mostly from other parts of China. The site is 720,000 square meters or 178 acres and has 980 buildings. The site consists of an inner courtyard flanked by outer courtyards. The main palaces and the most crowded areas are along the main axis of the inner courtyards. The outer courtyards contain beautiful palaces and pavilions. They also have very nice architectural details and quiet spaces.
After spending several hours covering maybe half of the Forbidden City site, we visited Jingshan Park, which overlooks the city. The park is almost entirely on a hill, but there are several temples and pavilions throughout the park, which help distract you and offer breaks from the uphill climb.
Next to Jingshan Park is Beihai Park. The park is an island in the middle of a lake, aka the North Sea in Beijing. For a small park, there are a lot of steps to reach the highest points. At the top of the park is a large stupa.
Day 2: 798 Arts District, Olympic Park, and Summer Palace
Our second day in Beijing, we used taxis to visit some of the sites that were located outside the city center. Our first stop was the 798 Art Zone. This former industrial area is now a thriving arts district with cafes, free galleries, and tons of public art.
Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics and built an entire sports district north of the city. The Beijing National Stadium or “The Bird’s Nest” by Herzog and de Meuron at Olympic Park was the centerpiece of the Olympic Village. As a modern architecture enthusiast, it was worth the minor detour.
The Summer Palace is the former imperial gardens . The large site contains several palaces, temples, and gardens. This was on of my favorite sites in Beijing due to the variety of buildings and structures and the scenic location built into Longevity Hill and overlooking Kunming Lake.
Day 3: Great Wall of China, Jinshinlang
On the third day we took a group van to the Jinshanling/West Simatai section of the Great Wall of China. There are several sections of the Great Wall that can be visited by tourists. We choose Jinshanling because it’s considered one of the most beautiful sections of the wall, but is more than two hours drive from central Beijing. We booked our tour with backpackingchina.com. Our original itinerary was a longer hike from Jinshanling to Simatai, but most of Simatai has been closed for the past few years for renovations – so our hike was reduced to a 6km route covering 22 towers between Jinshanling and West Simatai. There was some snow on the ground and the air was chilly, but it was very sunny the entire day. The hike was a little strenuous with several ascents and descents.
The further west towards Simatai, the Great Wall gets more”natural” aka not restored. This is the most challenging section of the wall due to the elevation changes and uneven surfaces. Throughout the hike, we were rewarded with incredible views. The entire hike took around 3 hours.
Day 4: Temple of Heaven + other temples
On our fourth day in Beijing we used the relatively new Metro system to visit some of the city’s most famous temples. After a very crowded subway ride we arrived at Temple of Heaven park and complex. There are many temples and ceremonial buildings within the park, but the large multi-tiered circular temple is the park’s famous namesake. The Temple of Heaven complex is huge and we walked all over the park discovering more interesting buildings, including a unique double pagoda.
After spending most of the morning being enjoyably overwhelmed with Temple of Heaven, we made our way back towards central Beijing to visit a trio of smaller, beautiful temples – Lama Temple, Confucius Temple, and Wanshou Temple. We then ate and shopped our way through hutongs (alleyway neighborhoods) to the Bell Tower. After a very full day of walking around the city, we arrived back at our hotel as the sun was going down. We rewarded ourselves with Peking duck for dinner.
Day 5: Beijing
The last morning we attempted to visit Tiananmen Square again, but large sections of the city were closed for government purposes. The detour took us past the National Centre for the Performing Arts that’s affectionally known as “the Egg”. Eventually we arrived at the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, which has a massive model of the city that can be viewed from above. That afternoon we said goodbye to China and flew to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Great Wall of China
The Jinshinlang section of the Great Wall is considered the most beautiful. It’s a farther away from the city center than other section, but worth it for the views and lack of crowds
I thought the Forbidden City would get monotonous after a few minutes, but each courtyard has enough variety to keep the architecture interesting. Walking through the site just kept producing interesting vantage points. Walk to the top of nearby Jingshan Park for a bird’s eye view of the entire complex.
Smaller temples in Beijing
Temple of Heaven is the most famous in Beijing, but we really enjoyed visiting some of the smaller temples, like the Lama Temple and Confucius Temple.
798 Art Zone
This area is fun to explore for a couple of hours. The former industrial site is a nice backdrop for the new galleries and fun, quirky public sculptures.
WHAT I MISSED
Modern architecture – Many of the new buildings, like the CCTV Headquarters, are located outside the historic center in the new business districts.
Tiananmen Square and Mao’s Tomb – the main square was closed every time we tried to visit.