Places to visit – Beijing

Last year, Tom and I were fortunate enough to be able to spend 9 days visiting China. Our first stop was Beijing, where we spent 4 days. I was pretty apprehensive about visiting the place – I had heard so much about the smog and traffic and busyness. However, I knew it would be a great experience so I tried to go with an open mind… and I loved it!

First of all, I need to say that 4 days is only enough to skim the very surface of what Beijing has to offer. We only had time to see some of the main attractions and didn’t explore very much. I think 5-7 days would be ideal if you want to feel like you’ve really seen Beijing.

Also, we were REALLY lucky with the weather. Most of the time we were there, the air was really clear and it was sunny. This is not often the case!

We stayed at the Jade Garden Hotel, a mid-price hotel situated very centrally located, only one block from the Forbidden City (although the blocks in Beijing are enormous!) and also one block from the nearest metro station. We were very happy with the hotel – it was very comfortable and the staff spoke a decent level of English.

On our first day, we woke late (our plane had arrived very late the previous night – not uncommon in China!) and went for lunch at a nearby dumpling place called Niuge Jiaozi (牛哥饺子) at 85 Nanheyan Dajie (南河沿大街85号). Our guidebook says they have an English menu but we weren’t given one! Luckily, Tom knows a few Chinese characters and was able to order some yummy dumplings :)

After lunch we headed to the Forbidden City, which was amazing. It’s massive for a start! You could easily spend the whole day there – we didn’t get round the whole thing before it shut. We hired an audio guide each, which was actually really useful for telling you what you were looking at. The Forbidden City got its name because ordinary people weren’t allowed in for centuries, and it was occupied by Emperors and their servants. Walking around it, you can picture Chinese servants and important people moving around the massive squares and the Emperor and his family lounging around in the buildings!

This is the first thing you see at the South entrance – the Gate of Heavenly Peace – which isn’t actually part of the Forbidden City, you haven’t made it there yet!

Gate of Heavenly Peace, Beijing

Inside the Forbidden City are large squares and beautiful Chinese-style buildings

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden Palace

On the corners of all the buildings roofs are a line of small animals (this is true for most traditional Chinese buildings). Our audio guide told us that the more animals there are, the more important the building is – the Hall of Supreme Harmony above had 11 which is the most you can have. This building below has 5 (there are always an odd number).

Forbidden city rooftops

After exploring the Forbidden City for several hours, we left by the North entrance and crossed the road to Jingshan Park (景山公园). This park is mainly made up of a large hill, which I believe was created from the earth they dug out to make the moat around the Forbidden City. From the top of the hill you get great views across Beijing and especially over the Forbidden City (all the red roofs you can see in the picture below).

Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

We started our second day by visiting the Temple of Heaven Park (天坛公园). This is a beautiful park with several interesting structures in, the most striking of which is the round Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Once a year there would be a ceremonial procession when the emperor and a large entourage would come South from the Forbidden City to this park for prayers and sacrificial rituals. Today it is a lovely place to explore and to sit in and escape from the busyness of the city.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Temple of Heaven Park

Temple of Heaven Park

In the afternoon, we headed north to the Lama Temple (雍和宫) (right next to the Yonghegong Lama Temple metro station), which is a sizeable and ornate example of a Chinese Buddhist temple…

Lama Temple, Beijing

…and then moved East to Gulou Dajie metro station and walked South through the hutongs (more about those in a minute) to see the Bell Tower (钟楼) and Drum Tower (鼓楼) which lie on opposite sides of a square. I think you can probably guess what lies in each tower! The drums in the Drum Tower used to be beaten to tell the time. You can go up each tower, but we didn’t. Instead, we went to the nearby Drum & Bell bar and sat on the rooftop with a cold beer, taking in the views over the square.

This one is the Bell Tower:

Bell Tower, Beijing

And this one is the Drum Tower:

Drum Tower, Beijing

On our third day, we headed to the North-West side of the city to visit the Summer Palace (颐和园), where the Emperors and their families spent the summers. To get there, I think the closest metro station is Beigongmen station but we went to Xiyuan station and had to walk for approx. 15 minutes to get to the entrance. I have to admit, by this point we were flagging a little so we didn’t see as much of the site as we could have done but it was very pretty and enjoyable nonetheless. Highlights include the beautiful lake which covers most of the park…

Kunming Lake, Summer Palace

…and the buildings on the North side of the lake…

Summer Palace, Beijing

Summer Palace pagoda

Summer Palace buildings

I think it would have been nice to walk all the way round the lake, but we couldn’t be bothered! We got a little way round though and enjoyed sitting in the parkland. It was very easy to avoid the crowds just by walking a little way round the lake.

Our fourth and final day was spent visiting the Great Wall, which is a must for every visitor to Beijing. It certainly lived up to its reputation! There are different sections of the Great Wall that you can visit, which have been restored to a greater or lesser extent. We chose Mutianyu (慕田峪长城), which is a little further away and not as busy as Badaling (八达岭长城). We went on a Tuesday and it actually wasn’t that busy, which was lovely. The most convenient way to visit the Great Wall is with a tour group – we were recommended one that is run by a hostel and not too pushy (details to follow) and were very happy with them. They took us by minibus to the car park and showed us how to buy tickets. There is a cable car up to the top of the wall (you can hike for an hour uphill, if you prefer!) and we had 3 hours before we had to be back at the bottom of the wall for lunch. The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is quite long and I think you would struggle to do it all in 3 hours, we certainly didn’t! But as you can see, it’s breathtaking.

Mutianyu Great Wall 1

Mutianyu Great Wall 2

Mutianyu Great Wall 3

Despite all this, one of Tom’s favourite parts was the toboggan run that you can get to take you down from the wall! It was quite fun ;)

If you really yearn for peace and quiet on the Great Wall (although as you can see, it wasn’t that busy when we were there), I heard that the afternoons are quieter than the mornings because all the tours go in the morning so you could do it yourself and get a taxi there and back instead.

Our tour included lunch (very tasty, mainstream Chinese dishes) and a stop-off at the Olympic park on the way back. I get the impression that it’s not used very much any more, which is a shame, although they do still hold some events there. Tom very much enjoyed looking at the structure of the Bird’s Nest Stadium!

Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium, Beijing

At the end of our tour, we were dropped off near the hostel, which was situated in the hutong area around Nanluogu Xiang (南锣鼓巷). Hutongs are areas of low-rise traditional style buildings with narrow alleyways criss-crossing them. They are prevalent in the area around the Forbidden City and give the area a very different feel than I was expecting from Beijing – much older and quieter. They are nice to walk around in but I’m not sure whether I’d like to live there in such confined quarters, without running water. I believe the government is gradually destroying the hutongs in favour of more modern buildings, which will change the nature of central Beijing irrecoverably. In the meantime, some areas have been ‘smartened up’ to make them more of tourist attractions, which is a little fake but also really nice to visit! The area around Nanluogu Xiang is now host to a plethora of little boutiques, eateries, tourist shops and restaurants and is a great place to pick up some slightly above-average souvenirs and snacks. We went to a nearby restaurant for dinner and ate in a beautiful courtyard – a lovely way to end our time in Beijing!

Beijing hutong

There were many things that we didn’t have time to do while we were in Beijing. Some friends of ours recommended hiring bikes and cycling around the hutongs and different areas, which must be a really nice way to see the city – it’s so huge that it’s hard to get around on foot. Also, we didn’t go to Tiananmen Square which is such an iconic part of Beijing.

All in all, we loved Beijing. Yes, it is big and smoggy but it has so much history and there is so much to see. If you ever have the opportunity to visit, I’d highly recommend that you do!

Thanks for reading!