Three days in Beijing
A comprehensive itinerary and travel guide for China’s capital
With all eyes on Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, The Norwegian American has turned to globetrotter Megan Arzbaecher to introduce us to China’s capital in her travel blog Traverse (traverse-blog.com). While pandemic restrictions and recommendations may delay your travel plans, we think you may want to consider putting Beijing on your bucket list.
Located in the northern part of the country, Beijing is the cultural and political capital of China. No first-time visit to China would be complete without a stop in Beijing, because it is full of important and iconic sights—the Great Wall of China, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and more.
Beijing is a natural place to start a longer itinerary in China, thanks to its new and massive airport. There are daily direct flights from cities around the world, including Europe and North America. There is enough to do and see in Beijing to fill more than a week of travel time, but I would recommend starting with three days to hit all the major highlights.
The Forbidden City is a massive UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it will take a minimum of two hours to walk through and see everything. I would recommend hiring a local guide to give you more history and information about this site, since there is a lot to take in. You’ll essentially walk through the complex, which is laid out in a progressive line. When you reach the end of the tour, you’ll head out the gate and up the hill to Jingshuan Park, which offers a stunning view of the Forbidden City, especially at sunset.
End your first day in Beijing with a ride through the old city in a traditional bicycle rickshaw, called a hutong. You will see the traditional one-story single-family homes that used to be characteristic of Beijing, and many of them offer home-hosted dinners, so you can eat with a local family. There are also dumpling-making lessons in this area where you can make (and eat!) handmade Chinese dumplings.
Day 2: Great Wall of China and Peking Duck dinner
I would not recommend visiting Beijing without a stop at the Great Wall of China. This is one of the eight wonders of the world and is absolutely a must-visit location in China! Of the six wonders that I have visited thus far, I think the Great Wall of China is the most impressive because it just goes on and on and on. It is massive and when you see the terrain that it is built on, you will be in awe of its scale!
The Great Wall of China doesn’t actually run through Beijing, and you will have to drive at least an hour or two outside of the city to reach one of the designated access points. Badaling is the most well-known of the access points, but I personally recommend the Mutianyu section of the wall instead.
A few reasons why I thought it was better are:
It is newer and the surrounding infrastructure is better
There are significantly less crowds here
You can ride a toboggan off the wall at the end!
Once on the wall, you can simply hike and walk along it as much or as little as you like. There are watch towers every couple hundred feet, and they offer sweeping views of the landscape. However, be warned that with the poor air quality in China, your views may be limited because of smog.
It is also important to know that the wall is built on mountains so, it is steep at some points! This isn’t the easiest hike in the world, and you will probably work up a sweat climbing the various stairs on the wall. There are also no vendors allowed on the wall, so bring your own water and snack supplies if you plan to be out hiking all day.
After your adventures on the Great Wall, drive back to Beijing and end your day with a Peking Duck dinner. This is one of my favorite experiences in Beijing and it is a super fun meal to enjoy after a long day of hiking. Peking Duck dinners are popular with tourists, but you’ll also see plenty of Chinese people celebrating family occasions or birthdays at these restaurants.
Day 3: Summer Palace, Beijing Zoo and Olympic Park
For your final day in Beijing, head back outside of the city to explore a few final icons of China —the Summer Palace and the Beijing Olympic Park. Both are located on the north side of the city and can be accessed by car or public transportation.
Start with the Beijing Olympic Park. I was lucky enough to be in China during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 for their inaugural usage, so I have a special appreciation for these incredible structures. The Olympic Center is a sprawling area consisting of several buildings and a park that you can leisurely walk through for an hour or two. The highlights are probably the opening ceremony stadium, affectionately named the Birds Nest, as well as the Aquatic Center, whose walls are glass bubbles of LED lights that light up in different patterns and shapes at night.
Following the Beijing Olympic Park, head west to the Summer Palace. This gorgeous complex was the summer location for the emperors of the Qing dynasty and consists of ornate buildings, elaborate gardens, and beautiful curated natural scenery. If you take in the palace at a leisurely pace, it will probably take about half a day to see the major attractions. You could probably hit the highlights in about two hours if you were short for time.
On your way back into Beijing, make a stop at the Beijing Zoo. I am not normally one to recommend zoos, because I don’t really agree with the ethics of them, but the Beijing Zoo is one of the few places in the world where you can see pandas. I happened to be in Beijing following the Sichuan earthquake, and there were almost 20 pandas at the zoo during that time as part of a rescue and restoration effort. It’s pretty incredible to see them in person, and the zoo is worth it even if you only go to that exhibit.
What to know about Beijing before you go
Before arriving in Beijing, it is a good idea to mentally prepare yourself for what Beijing is like. Beijing is considered a “tier one” city in China, with about 22 million people in the metropolitan area, so things simply take longer here because of the sheer density of this place.
Beijing is also not a particularly picturesque or beautiful city. There is a utilitarian sense to life here that you’ll probably notice right away. The air quality is quite poor, and traffic can be a nightmare. There are times when it is quite frustrating to travel in Beijing, and it is a good idea to set your expectations accordingly. Flexibility is the name of the game when traveling here.
When to travel to Beijing
Tourism is busy in Beijing throughout the year, so crowds are fairly unavoidable. Summer is definitely the busiest time, but the weather is also pretty unpleasant then, too. It can be frigid in Beijing in the winter, but crowds will be the smallest, as long as you avoid the Chinese New Year. The best times of the year for weather are mid-spring or early fall.
Have more questions about what to do in Beijing or what it’s like to travel in China?
Visit Megan’s website at traverse-blog.com/3-day-beijing-china-itinerary and leave your comments or questions.
For current travel recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/map-and-travel-notices.
All photos courtesy of Megan Arzbaecher.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.