Beijing is one of those cities that you just have to visit – like Paris, New York, Tokyo, and Bangkok! It has so much to offer because it’s one of the oldest capitals in the world. China is also one of the fastest-growing, rapidly-developing countries. While many of the ancient parts of Beijing have been destroyed over the years, the Chinese government has kept many crucial structures alive.
Beijing has 72-hour visa-free policy, which means that citizens of 50+ countries can enter Beijing for 3 days without a formal China visa before going somewhere else. If you’re just passing through, this might be a good option.
However, Beijing has so much more to offer! My recommended visit time is one week. Only with a longer visit can you truly appreciate the city! Beijing is one of the largest cities – land- and population-wise, so seven days will give you just enough time to see the highlights.
Each day is organized thematically, but also to ensure that the attractions are in the same area. You can easily get between places listed on the same day with public transportation.
[Last updated: January 2018]
Day 1: The Must-Visits
Tiananmen Square + National Museum
Before you go to the main attraction of Beijing, look around Tiananmen Square and the National Museum! They are just across the street on the South side from the Forbidden City, and are both free. During holidays, the Square overflows with flowers and people, but it’s such a key space in Beijing history that it’s worth a visit.
The UNESCO Forbidden City
At the heart of the city is the Forbidden City – if there’s just one place you have to go, it’s there! It has thousands of artifacts collected from ancient and more modern history, and the intricacies of Chinese architecture line every inch of it! It’s an enormous space literally built for an emperor, so you’ll have an easy time getting lost in the culture and beauty there. Explore just the main parts in a couple hours, or walk through all of it the entire day.
A lesser-known park, it’s just across the street on the North side from the Forbidden City. It costs less than a cup of coffee to visit, and you can climb to the top of the central hill to look down on the entire Forbidden City! It’s a breathtaking view in itself, and you can walk around and explore the full forest and detailed architecture around the park.
Day 2: The UNESCO History
Beijing has a total of seven UNESCO sites, but none are as iconic as the Great Wall of China. To miss it on a trip to Beijing is like buying a camera but never taking any pictures – why would you even do that?
The UNESCO Great Wall of China (Badaling and Mutianyu are most popular)
The Great Wall is not a single continuous line; it’s actually several different sections, broken up. The closest section and easiest to get to with public transportation is Badaling, but AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS on weekends and national holidays. On those days, you are lucky to be able to get there and have enough room to walk around.
If you’re not as familiar with Chinese history, these tombs may be unknown to you. However, they are also a must-visit! These tombs are located relatively close to Badaling – a reason to visit Badaling instead of other sections of the Great Wall. They were built by Ming emperors (1368–1644) and hold the bodies of 13 emperors and their most trusted family members and advisors.
The tombs are a giant network of interconnected mausoleums, and are guarded by intricate statues and majestic buildings.
[Recommended Read: The Complete Guide to Beijing’s UNESCO Ming Tombs (In Pictures)]
Day 3: Summer Year-Round
Beijing doesn’t get very warm in the summer (average temperatures around 80°F or 26°C). This might feel weird for you if you’re from a warm place, like I am! Luckily, these places will help it feel like summer no matter when you visit.
Of all the gorgeous parks in Beijing, this is one of the biggest and best! The Summer Palace was built in the 1100s for royalty, and the giant lake and magnificent architecture make for a great place to visit. Don’t make the mistake of setting aside only 2 hours to visit; a circle around the whole park will take you at least 3, and if you want to see the 17-Arch Bridge, Stone Boat, or take a boat yourself, you could end up spending a whole day here.
[Recommended Read: A Complete Guide to Beijing’s UNESCO Summer Palace – In Pictures!]
While all the history around the city is amazing, Beijing does have modern attractions. Olympic Park, with the iconic Bird’s Nest and Water Cube from the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, is a must! It’s one of the few ultra-modern and sleek places in Beijing.
Take a tour of either facility, and see how all the lights dance at night! You will see a ton of tour ticket scalpers trying to get you to buy their tickets, but it’s always best to buy official tickets from the various ticket offices.
Day 4: Relatively-Hidden Gems
Because Beijing has so much to offer, these three sites are often overlooked. However, they also have great views and a lot less people than the Forbidden City or other places!
Beihai literally means “North Lake”.
If you want to relax somewhere, Beihai Park is a fantastic option. It’s a former imperial garden, so it has a massive lake in the center and splendid architecture all around it. It has many pagodas, pavilions, and halls that you can get lost in, and art like the Nine-Dragon Wall to showcase the best of Chinese culture.
Across the street from Beihai Park is Prince Gong’s Mansion, a former mansion worthy of the closest of the emperor’s friends. It has a vast living space and garden, and even has small Chinese acrobatic performances!
It has a large fu stele rumored to grant you wishes if you touch it, and a small bamboo park reminiscent of Japan’s Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
[Recommended Read: A Complete Guide to Beijing’s Prince Gong’s Mansion – In Pictures]
Houhai literally means “Back Lake”.
The large lake next to both Beihai Park and Prince Gong’s Mansion is Houhai, and is surrounded by a multitude of restaurants, bars, and small shops. In the summer you can take a boat; in the winter you can ski across it.
Houhai has a number of great restaurants with outdoor seating facing the lake, so you can grab a bite to eat and see street artists perform, especially in the spring and summer.
Day 5: The Local Religion
As with any culture, religion played a large part in ancient China. The remnants of such beliefs are all grouped together, making it easy to visit them on one day!
The most important and often-visited temple in Beijing is the Temple of Heaven. Ancient Chinese emperors used it to make sacrifices in hopes of great harvests for the people. A large park/walkway surrounds the buildings of Temple of Heaven, so you will also see a lot of locals walking and exercising. The symbol of Heaven is a circle, so most of the buildings and layouts here are circular.
[Recommended Read: A Complete Guide to Beijing’s UNESCO Temple of Heaven – In Pictures]
The “opposite” of the Temple of Heaven is the Temple of Earth. It is home to the Fang Ze Tan altar, which is square and low to the ground in contrast to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven. The Chinese emperor would also come here for sacrificial ceremonies to ensure good harvests.
It has a lot of historical significance and is much less crowded than the Temple of Heaven.
[Recommended Read: Complete Guide to Beijing’s Temple of Earth – In Pictures]
The Lama Temple
Across the street from the south entrance of the Temple of Earth is the Lama Monastery, or YongHe Gong. It is the major site for Tibetan Buddhism in Beijing. You can get a taste with the free incense sticks for you to use if you choose. Most of the time you will not meet real monks, but there are things such as prayer wheels that you can spin and interact with.
The road right outside YongHe Gong is filled with shops. You can find people selling everything from snacks to cheap but well-made scarves (I got two for just ¥10 each!) to postcards. If you don’t expect things to be extremely high quality, you can find some great trinkets all around this area.
Day 6: The Really Hidden Gems
Most people who visit Beijing for the first time never even think of visiting these places. They’re where locals and expats go! Visit these to experience modern Chinese culture.
Qianmen and the Dashilar Hutong
Qianmen, literally meaning “Front Gate”, is one of the only remaining gates of ancient Beijing’s city wall. It sits at the south entrance of Tiananmen Square, but security and traffic usually means that it’s difficult to walk from it to Qianmen. (One of the cons of Beijing is that there are so many people that there are barriers everywhere to prevent them from walking everywhere.)
Walk out from Qianmen and you’ll see ads for guided Great Wall tours and the entrance to the shopping lane in front of it. The Dashilar Hutong shopping lane is usually bustling with people, but you can get the best Beijing traditional desserts here! The candied fruit skewers are worth a try, but I’m not a huge fan.
If you want to see how the urban working class live, visit a hutong (胡同). They’re narrow alleys where lots of people live – you’ll often see community bathrooms rather than single bathrooms, and can live in one of these neighborhoods if you’re interested.
The one I liked best is near the Subway Station on Line 6: Nanlouguxiang (南楼鼓巷). Go out either exit, turn left if you go out A and right if you go out B. The entrance is just a little bit in, across the street! Try the local desserts, including churros and ice cream, and even check out one of the several cat cafes nearby.
Day 7: The Arts Day
No visit is complete without a glimpse of the local art, is it?
As a result of several historical events, there were few places for modern artists to create and display their art (read: Cultural Revolution). The Central Academy of Fine Arts created the 798 Art Zone; it’s now a safe haven for artists dealing with avant-garde and unorthodox styles and content. It’s a truly wonderful place to visit, though a little out of the way. Still, there are now plenty of restaurants and cafes to pass time if you make the trip to northeast Beijing on the way to Beijing Capital Airport.
The great thing about the area is that it is now home to several different art exhibits, museums, workshops, and other projects!
[Recommended Read: Guide to Urban Art in Beijing, China’s 798 Art Zone]
If you are a big fan of the gang of 6 from the ’90s, you’re in luck! Visit the cafe that was inspired by Central Perk, and order drinks and cakes that are mentioned from the show. You’ll also be able to watch an episode or two from the classic couch, or hug Hugsy!
[Recommended Read: Beijing’s Friends Cafe: A Visit to Central Perk!]
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below!
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