Places to travel – Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi-inari, Tofuku-ji, Nara, Nanzen-ji)

This is the last post in my short blog series on our week long holiday in Kyoto last September. It really is a beautiful place and well worth a visit if you’re able. In the first post I covered the practicalities of visiting Kyoto, and the next post outlined the things we saw and did on our first three days there. Now for the final three days!

Day 4

On this day we wanted to hit some of the main tourist attractions in Kyoto so we started with Kiyomizu-dera. We took the 207 bus from Omiya to the bottom of the hill up to the temple (I think this was the Kiyomizu-michi stop) and then followed the crowds up the hill to the temple. It’s actually quite a climb, especially when you are carrying children! We had left the stroller at home for ease, but there is a disabled route within the temple grounds so you could bring yours.

This was possibly the busiest place that we visited in Kyoto, even though the weather was not good that day. We found the crowds a bit much, although the bad weather did mean that our children got free run of the main verandah of the temple for a bit while it was raining!

Verandah at Kiyomizu-dera Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

The temple comprises a few outer buildings, the main temple, the view of the temple from the opposite path, and a few extra attractions such as a waterfall with healing water. The main view of the temple is quite nice (apparently it’s pretty spectacular in spring and autumn – imagine the trees below covered in blossom or bright red leaves) but otherwise we found the temple too busy and didn’t bother exploring much of it.

Main view of Kiyomizu-dera Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

We then walked back down the hill and caught the bus back to Gion where we had lunch (in an Indian restaurant on Shijo Dori) and had a little wander down nearby Hanamikoji Dori, a beautifully restored traditional Japanese street.

Next we took the metro south from Gion-Shijo to Fushimi-Inari and followed the signs from the station to Fushimi Inari-taisha. This is one of the most distinctive attractions in Kyoto with its thousands of orange prayer gates.

Orange prayer gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Again it was pretty busy despite the terrible weather (it rained the whole time we were there!) but we felt that this was a bit more unique than Kioymizu-dera and enjoyed it a bit more. I would say that this is a definite must-see in Kyoto. And the further you go along the path of prayer gates, the quieter it gets. We got some cute photos of my daughter running along the path :)

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N.B. Fushimi-Inari is not at all stroller friendly! There are lots of steps on the path, so I would suggest you leave the stroller at home when you go here.

After spending about an hour at Fushimi-Inari, we went back to the metro and headed a couple of stops north to Tofukuji where we walked to the temple of the same name. It was a little hard to find the temple so our offline maps app was useful here. We were glad we made the effort though because it was lovely and quiet after the previous two places we visited! We started off in the gardens but in the end we didn’t make it into the temple itself because it was closing time. The gardens were so lovely though, and because it was quiet our children could run about freely and enjoy the space.

Gardens at Tofuku-ji Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Temple view at Tofuku-ji Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Day 5

On this day we took a day trip to nearby Nara. After some research we found that the quickest way to get there was to take the Kintetsu Ltd. Express train from Kyoto Central Station to Kintetsunara Station, which is very close to Nara-Koen park. The first temple that you come to in the park is Kofuku-ji, which we didn’t go in because there was a lot of construction going on, due to be completed in 2018. Instead we headed to nearby Isui-En gardens (again, I’d suggest you take a map to find your way round the park as it’s a little bit hard to navigate). Given the size of the gardens, we thought it cost a little more than other attractions to enter, but the gardens are absolutely beautiful (not stroller friendly though, but you can leave your stroller outside). Just look at this view!

Isui-En gardens Nara - The Little Koo Blog

For lunch, we tried to find a restaurant called Silk Road, in Yume-Kaze Plaza (near to Todai-ji), which was recommended in our guide book as a great restaurant for children, but we failed – I’m not sure if it is still open? Anyway, whilst in Yume-Kaze Plaza we chose Ten Ten Cafe instead, and we were very glad we did! It was very child friendly, with a specific area for families, high chairs and benches with toys on. The menu was small but all three main dishes that we ordered were very yummy, and they do delicious waffles too! (which of course we also had to try…)

After lunch we headed round the corner to Todai-ji, possibly the largest wooden structure in the world (which impressed my engineer husband!), which houses a very large Buddha inside. The temple is very impressive and well worth a visit, although it doesn’t take very long to go round. It has good stroller access, but (as the guard told us) you need to go into the ticket office, buy your ticket and then come out again to the disabled entrance on the side. It was quite busy but the temple is large so the amount of people wasn’t overwhelming.

Todai-ji Nara - The Little Koo Blog

Big Buddha at Todai-ji Nara - The Little Koo Blog

An imposing sight inside Todai-ji Nara - The Little Koo Blog

After visiting the temple we wandered around Nara-koen a bit more. It is a very extensive and beautiful park and you could spend a long time exploring. Deer roam freely everywhere, and there are many people selling biscuits to feed the deer. I bought some biscuits and was immediately mobbed by some deer who were loitering nearby and keeping an eye out for people with biscuits! They were a little aggressive so it wasn’t quite the beautiful experience I hoped it would be!

Feeding the deer at Nara-koen - The Little Koo Blog

But I was very pleased to get this photo of the deer (below). They were so tame and not at all bothered by all the people walking around.

Deer in Nara-koen park - The Little Koo Blog

Day 6

On our last day we had initially planned to go to Himeji to see the castle, which only takes 45 minutes from Kyoto on the bullet train. The castle is apparently the most impressive castle in Japan, but some research suggested that it would be likely that we’d have to queue for an hour to get in (as it was a Saturday and it gets very busy at weekends) and by that point we were quite tired and the thought of travelling there and queuing with our small children was too much!

So instead we stayed in Kyoto, and took the metro from Omiya to Keage. From there it was a short, stroller-friendly walk to Nanzen-ji. We enjoyed the grounds of the temple, although we didn’t go in the temple itself. We did go up the sanmon gate instead, which has nice views over the temple complex and further afield over Kyoto.

View from the Sanmon gate at Nanzen-ji Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Nanzen-ji from the Sanmon gate Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

From there it was a short a walk to the Philosopher’s Path. This was a very quiet and pleasant stroll along by a river (but for those of you with strollers please note that there is quite a bit of gravel which was a bit hard to push the stroller through!). A nice getaway from the busy-ness of some of the tourist attractions.

Philosophers Walk Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

For lunch, we went to Omen restaurant which was near to the end of the Philosopher’s Path. This was surprisingly busy, given how quiet the area was, but once we put our name on the list we didn’t have to wait too long for a table since the restaurant is quite large. It’s a noodle restaurant and is very delicious, a little more pricey than most but worth it in my opinion.

After lunch we took a bus to the top of Kyoto Imperial Palace Park and quickly found a children’s playground within the park. This had a sandpit filled with toys to play with and kept our children occupied for quite a long time! A nice bit of respite for those of us with young children.

Playing in the sandpit at the Imperial Palace Park Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

After that, we wandered through the rest of the park (LOTS of gravel, not good with a stroller!) and then east along Marutamachi-dori to the Kyoto Handicraft Center where we purchased some souvenirs (this is not the place for tourist tat, but a lovely place to visit if you want some beautiful handmade items) and had dinner at an Italian restaurant on the same road. All in all, a nice way to end our holiday!

As you can see, we managed to fit a fair amount into our time in Kyoto, despite being limited by what we could do with our young children. And we only scratched the surface – there were many attractions we didn’t visit! We loved the city, it was so quiet and peaceful and there was so much to see. I’d totally recommend that you head over there for a visit!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

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Places to travel – Kyoto (Nijo Castle, Arishayama, Osaka)

Last week I started a short series on our week long holiday in Kyoto last September. It really is a beautiful place and well worth a visit if you’re able. In the last post I covered the practicalities of visiting Kyoto, but this week I’ll start telling you about what we actually did and saw while we were there – this is the fun part!

Our twins were less than two years old when we went to Kyoto, which made sightseeing a little difficult. For some reason they just weren’t interested in zen gardens and temples! But having said that, they did enjoy running around lots of new places, and they did allow us to drag them around quite a lot, so we did manage to see quite a few different things.

Day 1

We wanted to break ourselves in gently so on our first morning in Kyoto we wandered over to Nijo Castle, which was about a 20 minute walk from our townhouse. As a castle, I wouldn’t say it was particularly impressive, it was actually more of a place for visiting dignitaries to stay. However, it was a great introduction to traditional Japanese architecture and beautiful gardens. There were very few people there too so it was very peaceful! One of the key attractions is an area of squeaky floorboards in the main building (to prevent unwanted visitors) which we read about in a guidebook but wasn’t even mentioned in the building itself! But they were quite squeaky :)

View over Castle Nijo in Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

One point to note for other visitors with small children is that Nijo Castle isn’t very stroller friendly. There are a few steps into the buildings and around the grounds. Also, you can’t take your stroller into the main building, but there is a place to leave it.

After Nijo Castle we headed back down the quiet streets in search of somewhere for lunch. (As an aside, these streets were so lovely to walk down, you could just do that all day – traditional style shuttered houses, narrow lanes, and so quiet!) We had spotted a restaurant with some English outside(!) on our way to the castle so we headed in that direction and managed to find it again – it was called Noodles Near Nijo (cute name!) and I think it was on Kuromon Dori. We both had udon noodles in soup and they were delicious.

After a break back at the townhouse we headed to Omiya station and took the metro to Kawaramachi. We were heading to the traditional Shinbashi area so we left the station by exit 5 (which doesn’t have a lift), went over the bridge and turned down the 3rd left turning which takes you to Shinbashi Dori. This is a very beautiful area and apparently very strongly protected so the houses here cannot be updated. The peace was slightly ruined by the presence of a large Chinese tour party but otherwise it was very quiet. It’s not very big so it won’t take you long to walk around.

Shinbashi Dori Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

We then headed east to the end of Shinbashi Dori, crossed the road and kept going until we got to the entrance of the Chion-in temple complex. Unfortunately by this time of day it was shut (we got there after 5pm) so we turned right and went into Maruyama Park instead. This is a lovely park with small winding lanes in every direction. We had a wander round and then headed back to Kawaramachi in search of dinner.

Maruyama Park Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

We had heard that there were some nice but not too pricey restaurants on the 7th floor of the Takashimaya department store so we went there. We picked an Italian restaurant (I can’t remember the name) and very much enjoyed our dinner. They had high chairs which was a real bonus for us!

Day 2

We took a very old fashioned train from Shijo-Omiya to visit Arishayama, which is at the other end of the line. It’s a nice, slow ride through the neighbourhoods of Kyoto, but it doesn’t take too long (maybe half an hour). When you come out of the station you really get a sense that you’re on the edge of Kyoto! It’s very green and quiet. It also feels quite touristy, with lots of tourist shops and restaurants. But having said that, it was pretty empty when we got there, at about 10am and it had a lovely atmosphere.

We turned right out of the station and took a very short walk to Tenryu-ji. We’ve seen a lot of temples in our time so we just bought a garden ticket. The garden was very nice to walk around, with this stunning view in particular…

Tenryu-ji Gardens Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

…although the twins were more interested in playing with the gravel!

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The garden wasn’t particularly big so it didn’t take long to explore. (N.B. the garden is not very stroller friendly!) Once we were done we went out of the North gate, which just happened to coincide with the entrance to the bamboo grove. This is a pretty awesome sight and not one to miss if you can help it. Having said that, it isn’t that huge and you can walk through it in about 5 minutes (just in case your expectations were like my husband’s, who was a bit disappointed when we came to the end!).

Arishayama Bamboo Grove  Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

At the other end of the bamboo grove is the entrance to Okochi-sanso. If you like gardens or beautiful scenery, I think you will like this, it was so beautiful. It’s the house and grounds of a film actor (although you can’t go in the house) and is landscaped in a really lovely way.

House at Okochi-sanso gardens Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

It’s a bit pricey to enter (compared to most of the other attractions we visited) but you do get tea and cake included in the price! It is very hilly so if you don’t like hills or have a stroller or a wheelchair, this isn’t for you – but otherwise I’d really recommend it.

View from Okochi-sanso gardens Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

After exiting Okochi-sanso from the same place we entered it, we went back through the bamboo grove and just kept following the path (round a few bends) until we came to the main road again. Then we turned right and went back towards the station, stopping for lunch at one of the restaurants (standard Japanese food) before catching the train home.

The train to Arishayama Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

In the evening, we went back to Kawaramachi and turned north up Kiyamachi Street (the last turning on the left before the bridge, which has many restaurants on). At the end of this street, we turned right onto Sanjo Dori and our destination, Genko Sushi, was very close by on the other side of the road. We read this article which suggested it would be quite a child friendly restaurant, and it did have a children’s menu but disappointingly no high chairs. Having said that, the food was pretty good and the children were fairly well contained in our booth. And you can’t come to Japan without having some sushi!

Day 3

We headed to Osaka for a day trip on the metro which runs from Kyoto right to the centre of the city. We got on the Hankyu line at Omiya station and stayed on until the end of the line in Osaka (Umeda station). From there we took the underground to Osakako station, and then a short walk to Osaka Aquarium. We found the underground fairly easy to navigate, although as before, it’s best to plan your journey before you go so that you know when to change.

The Aquarium was really good fun and our children loved it (actually their favourite was the otters which was the first thing they saw!). My husband was most impressed by the massive main tank with whale sharks in. It’s a large aquarium, and we spent a couple of hours inside even though we rushed through the last half as the twins were getting restless. One thing to note is that the Aquarium is fairly stroller friendly (there are lifts), but we found it easiest to check in the stroller at the entrance and just wander round on foot.

Penguins at Osaka Aquarium - The Little Koo Blog

Whale sharks at Osaka Aquarium - The Little Koo Blog

For lunch, we went to the nearby Kuma Cafe (it’s on the same road as the Aquarium, not far away). We chose this place as it’s highly recommended on Tripadvisor and whilst I would question whether it really has the best food in all of Osaka, if you’re looking for some yummy comfort western food in a very friendly, relaxed environment I’d recommend it too! The brother and sister who run the cafe were really lovely and very tolerant of our young children. They recommended that we visit the animal petting zoo in the mall opposite (which also houses Legoland Discovery Center Osaka), but we had already planned to visit somewhere else so we didn’t try it. But you might want to take a look if you have young children!

Instead, we headed back into central Osaka on the metro and went to Kid’s Plaza, which we heard about here. If you’ve got fairly young children (I think it’s mainly aimed at under 10s) then it’s a great way to pass an afternoon. When we went, it was a weekday and it was pretty quiet. The middle area is a Gaudi-inspired feature that our children loved climbing and exploring.

Tree house at Kids Plaza Osaka - The Little Koo Blog

On the two floors around the outside are various educational areas such as a street of shops to play in, one area with instruments from around the world, and another hands-on science area. Even though our children were a little young to really understand the educational areas, they had a great time trying out all the different things, and the staff were very friendly and helpful too.

Playing instruments at Kids Plaza Osaka - The Little Koo Blog

Days 4-6 follow in the next post!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

Places to travel – Kyoto (Introduction)

Last September we went on holiday to Kyoto for a week with our young twins. I have to admit that Japan wasn’t very high on our list of places to visit for a long time, but we kept seeing friends’ photos of Kyoto and it looked so nice that we thought we’d go and see for ourselves. I’m so glad we did! It was absolutely beautiful. There is so much to see in the area and we didn’t see half of it, but we loved what we saw and really enjoyed our time there. I thought I’d share with you some of the things we saw and did and hopefully encourage you to go for yourselves!

House at Okochi-sanso gardens Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

So let me start with the time of year – we went in September as I already mentioned, which is a fairly low season in Kyoto. We chose that time because the flights were pretty reasonable from Hong Kong, and it was warm but not too hot (I hear July and August are pretty hot). However, some days were a bit wet too. If you want to see Kyoto at its best, you should go in March, April or May to see the cherry blossoms in bloom, or in October or November to see the fall (autumn) colours. I’ve seen photos of both and they are spectacular. However, it does get really busy in those periods.

One of my main concerns was that I had heard that there is very little English (spoken or written) in Japan, despite so many people going to visit. I had wondered how they managed but actually there was enough English to get around. Most people that we came across spoke a little (including, separately, two old men on trains who were very pleased to have an opportunity to practice their excellent English!), and most restaurants had English menus – or you could just point to the plastic food that you like the look of (see below)!

Plastic food display in Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Whilst on the subject of restaurants, we found that most restaurants were fairly child friendly. I think all of them had plastic bowls and spoons, and our children are happy eating noodles, rice or dumplings so we could find something for them in most places. However, very few have high chairs and in fact many don’t have chairs at all (you sit on tatami mats) so if your children (like ours) are not used to the freedom of unrestrained meals they will probably want to run around a lot!

One thing that I thought was quite neat was that there were drinks vending machines everywhere on the streets – so handy if you’re out and about all day.

Street drinks vending machines in Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Japan is not so expensive at the moment because the Yen is quite weak and we were actually surprised by how affordable it was. Eating out was pretty cheap and none of the tourist attractions cost more than a few pounds to get into. I think the Yen is even weaker now than it was when we went so it makes for a fairly cheap holiday if you can get cheap flights to Japan!

Getting to Kyoto

Kyoto has no airport so we flew to Kansai (Osaka) and took a train to Kyoto. This was fairly straightforward – we just followed the signs from the airport to the train station and bought a ticket in the JR ticket office for the Haruka train to Kyoto. It takes about 75 minutes. While buying the train tickets we also bought ICOCA cards which are the equivalent of Oyster cards in London or Octopus cards in Hong Kong i.e. you use them to pay for travel. That made it very easy to get around in Kyoto and the surrounding area.

Where we stayed

We stayed in a traditional Japanese townhouse, run by a company called Machiya Residence Inn (the specific house we stayed in was Konruri-An). As a young family of four, it worked out very nicely for us. It was a small house but was very well equipped with a kitchen, living room, bathroom and two spacious bedrooms. They were able to provide two cots for us which easily fitted in one of the bedrooms. The townhouses are traditional in style with low furniture and not all are equipped with a sofa or a proper bed, which is why we picked the one we did! They are great to stay in though and (in my opinion) more fun than a hotel!

Konruri-An Machiya Residence Inn Kyoto - The Little Koo Blog

Getting around Kyoto

Our townhouse was a 10 minute walk from Omiya station, which made it very easy to get around. We mostly used the metro system but occasionally ventured onto buses as well. My tip for you if you want to use buses is to download or print a bus map before you leave so that you know which buses go where since most of the bus stops do not have any information in English. Once on the buses, the stops are announced in English so you will at least know where to get off!

We actually found that Google maps was a great way to find out how to get from A to B. It was accurate for everything we used it for and always gave a few options to choose from. We also downloaded this offline maps app of Japan, which was useful for getting around when we were out and about.

The metro is great, although a little more dated than we were expecting, given Japan’s high-tech reputation. The trains are a little confusing though, since not all of them stop at all the stations on a given line. Maps like the one below which can be found on the platform show which train types stop at which stations, so when a train comes along you have to check if it will stop at the one you want. Thankfully, the trains are colour coded so it’s pretty easy to spot which is the one you want. I think that all the metro stations we went to had information in English.

Kyoto metro line map showing the different types of trains - The Little Koo Blog

One further complication of the metro system is that it is run by multiple companies, so not all the intersecting rail lines join up. You may find that you have to exit a station, walk a few minutes down the road and go into another station to get to where you want to go! In cases like this, I felt that taking a bus would have been quicker, but we didn’t have a bus map which made it impossible for us (hence the tip for you!).

For those of you with strollers (or wheelchairs) we found Kyoto pretty accessible. All the metro stations we used had lifts, although only one exit per station had a lift so you couldn’t choose where you came out. There were lifts in buildings and ramps on most stepped areas.

What we did

I wrote about all the things we did and where we ate in these two posts:
Kyoto (Nijo Castle, Arishayama, Osaka)
Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi-inari, Tofuku-ji, Nara, Nanzen-ji)

Check them out if you’re looking for some inspiration!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

A weekend in Kuala Lumpur

We recently spent a lovely weekend in Kuala Lumpur. We’ve been before but that was before we had the twins. I have to admit that our desire to travel has been quite curtailed by having the twins, especially after visiting the UK earlier this year! However, one of Tom’s friends invited us to their wedding in Kuala Lumpur, so of course we couldn’t miss it.

I think the flights were what we were most apprehensive about. While they were nowhere near as long as if we were going to the UK, they were still about 4 hours each, and we knew that our plane would be smaller and wouldn’t have bassinets this time. In an attempt to create a little bit of room for the twins to roam around we booked seats on the front row, but when we got to the airport we were told that we couldn’t sit on the same row because there weren’t enough oxygen masks per row for the babies, so one of us would have to sit on the row behind. We were pretty dismayed by this, but then they said that they would block out a seat next to each of us. I wasn’t sure if this would actually help, but it was great. I sat on the second row with Isobel and she had a whole seat to herself to sit and play with toys on. I put the table down and she seemed in no risk of falling out the chair. It also helped that the lady sat next to us loved her and had 2 beautiful girls sat nearby who also enjoyed playing with her! I think Tom had a similar experience with Jack. Neither of the babies slept much on the flights but we were expecting that.

On the way back, they didn’t book extra seats for us but there were loads of spare seats around us so we had plenty of room to let the twins roam :)

We had booked rooms in the hotel that the wedding was being held in, the Renaissance Hotel. It’s a pretty nice hotel! (although, between you and me, I think the Traders is a little bit better!) We booked two adjoining rooms so that the twins could sleep in one room in the dark and we could have the other one. I don’t know how you’d cope if you were all in the one room. You’d have to sit quietly in the dark every evening! I guess some people take their babies out in the evening and the babies sleep in the stroller, but ours wouldn’t sleep so I don’t think that would work for us. As it was, we ended up having a lot of room service as we couldn’t go out for dinner once the babies were asleep. The hotel offered a babysitting service, so we thought we might go to one of the hotel restaurants one evening, but when we called up they were fully booked :(

Anyway, there were two things I particularly liked about this hotel: (1) the lovely landscaped outdoor pool (we went twice and the babies loved it!), and (2) the amazing buffet breakfast – yum. I do love hotel breakfasts! It was also a great opportunity to try new breakfast things for the babies – they enjoyed eating omelette and trying a few new fruits!

Here are the babies all ready to go to the pool…

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Because we had been to KL before, we didn’t feel the need to go out too much. I think this made the holiday quite laid back because we could easily work round the babies’ naps and just go out when it suited us. We visited the Petronus Towers and the KLCC park (which was very close to the hotel), Chinatown and Central Market.

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One highlight (other than the wedding itself, which was lovely and included a 9 course Chinese banquet) was the lunch we had in Hutong food court in Lot 10 shopping centre next to the Bukit Bintang monorail station. It’s really stylishly decorated and has great food vendors. We went with a large group and just got loads of yummy food to share! Tom bought the biggest BBQ pork bun I’ve ever seen!

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So all in all, it was a great weekend. I think the babies enjoyed themselves too! As I said last time, KL is a fun place to visit but you don’t need to spend too long there to see the highlights.

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

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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!

Rachel