When you work full time, you know the struggle of making every second of vacation time count. With a city as massive and diverse as Beijing, designing your itinerary can be a challenge. Between 7 UNESCO World Heritage sights, The Great Wall, Peking duck, shopping, and endless culture to experience; picking and choosing how to spend your time well in Beijing is vital. Since there is so much to see and do and so little time to do it, here is a 2-day rough itinerary of China’s ancient capital.
DAY 1: ARRIVE AND EXPLORE
Depending on where you’re traveling from, the route may be more, or less tiresome. Flying in from Shanghai, it’s about a two-and-a-half-hour flight. Early flights suck, but on a short weekend trip you want to allot as much time as possible in your destination. From the airport, use the Airport Express (¥25, or $3) to quickly travel into the city.
pro tip — the express and all metro stations only take cash, so bring plenty.
Unless you’re fluent in Mandarin and feel comfortable taking the local bus, the fastest and safest way to get around see what Beijing has to offer is by subway. If you get stuck, don’t worry! The locals are super friendly. Beijing is a big city which means many people do speak English. If you’re stranded at a subway station with no cash and no sense of direction like I was, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
After arriving at your hotel or hostel and dropping your bags, explore the area around you. Navigate your way to the nearest metro station; take note of any cool sites, convenience stores, and restaurants close by. Search for hole-in-the-wall restaurants, rooftop bars, or free things to do near you.
DAY 2: THE GREAT WALL
If you don’t already know, China is crowded. It’s best to travel on the off season and not during a major holiday; but if you don’t have that luxury, getting up early is the best way to beat the crowds. Opt for a morning tour and you should arrive at the Great Wall 1.5-2 hours after your departure time.
There are several sections of the Great Wall to choose from. The most touristy is Badaling, which I do not recommend. For a more enjoyable experience, go with Mutianyu; or Jiankou for an unrestored, adrenaline junkie vibe.
You can either join a guided tour or take the shuttle bus only route. Not having to stick with a group was a big thing for me, but if you’re a history and culture buff, a guide might be right for you. When you arrive at the Great Wall, do yourself a favor and take the cable car up! It takes about 3 minutes, as opposed to the hike which is around 2 hours; then after that hike when you have finally reached the Great Wall, you must begin another 2-hour hike to explore all 20 towers of the wall. Save yourself the time and energy and buy a round trip cable car ticket. Plus, you can’t beat that view.
The Great Wall is exactly as breathtaking as the Google images section makes it seem. Enjoy the incredible view as you start your journey up and down the many, many stairs. Climbing the Great Wall is intense. So, come prepared with your walking shoes and as much water as you possibly can fit in a backpack; this way you don’t end up selling your soul for 500mL bottle of water on the wall like I did, twice. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to admire this ancient wonder of the world before beginning the trek back to the bus. There is a highly rated farmers’ restaurant at the base of the mountain, serving traditional Chinese cuisine. There is also a Subway and a Burger King, if that’s more your style.
By the time you arrive back in Beijing, it’s dinner time. This is where that exploring on the first day comes in handy. Take a load off and settle down at a restaurant near your hotel and have a hearty, Chinese meal. You’ll thank yourself for not venturing too far for some much-needed food.
DAY 3: YUYUANTAN PARK AND CCTV OBSERVATION TOWER
If you’re traveling during spring, you cannot miss the lovely Cherry Blossom Festival at Yuyuantan Park. During the festival, which runs from mid-March to late April, entrance fees jump from a whopping 2 RMB to 10 RMB (0.30 USD to 1.47 USD). No exaggeration when I say this park is huge. Complete with several trails, lakes, vendors selling fried foods on sticks and cherry blossom shaped ice creams. Be a tourist for a minute and join everyone else in taking selfies with the beautiful blossoms. Grab a snack and people watch or appreciate one of the many performers in the park.
As a lover of heights, I try to experience at least one observation deck everywhere I go. Take a short walk across the street to the CCTV Observation tower. Despite the late afternoon and holiday crowds, the line moved quickly, and I was flying high above the city in 15 minutes. It’s best to try and schedule your time so that you are looking out during sunset, but either way the view is incredible.
You can’t leave the remarkable city of Beijing without spending the night at one of the sundry dynamic rooftop bars. Anywhere you go, you’ll find a modern, trendy vibe; but if you’re looking for somewhere with an unforgettable view, you can’t pass up Migas Mercado.
Located on the 7th floor of China World Mall in Beijing’s downtown business district, this vibrant hidden gem boasts a breathtaking sight of the quirkily designed CCTV Headquarters. Go during golden hour and watch the skies mellow from bold evening blue to soothing sunset orange.
DAY 4: DEPARTURE AND DEPRESSION
Gotta hop on that 6 a.m. flight and return to reality. You can definitely spend more than 48 hours in Beijing, but it’s also perfect for a long weekend trip. Jam packed with sight-seeing, history, and culture; any time spent in Beijing will never disappoint.
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