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Beijing Starts Here

Beijing Starts Here

The first time I visited Beijing, I’d been living in Shanghai for almost a year—and if I’m honest, I was deeply cynical about China. I didn’t expect much.

Yet as I emerged from Beijing South Railway Station and into the city for the first time, I immediately knew that a long love affair was starting. A decade-and-a-half and many trips later, it’s still going strong. Beijing is my favorite city in China, and one of my favorites in the world.

To be sure, this Beijing itinerary is an evolving document, one I’ve returned to many times as my knowledge has grown and will continue to update well into the future. I hope you find it useful as you plan your own trip.

Need help planning your trip to China? Hire me as your Travel Coach!

Where to Stay in Beijing

It’s often hard for me to decide which Beijing hotels I want to stay at—there are too many great ones to choose from. Do I want to stay in a restored hutong near the shores of Houhai Lake, or in a luxury high-rise overlooking Beijing’s modern CBD? Then, there’s the question of class: There’s an argument to be made that you’ll enjoy greater “luxury” at a local-owned guest house than in a big-box hotel.

Another advantage of choosing a slightly less opulent hotel? You get more space for your money. While this doesn’t necessarily equate to something like NSA storage – self storage units in terms of the real estate you get, it does allow you to unpack and spread out more. Which, for me, is essential to feeling at home when I’m on the road.

My Favorite Things to Do in Beijing

Start amid the Hutongs


Whether or not you sleep in one, I do think the historical hutongs around Houhai Lake are a great place to begin exploring Beijing. After all, before a few decades ago, these traditional water houses made up the majority of Beijing’s cityscape. Come in the morning and line up for jian bing egg crepes with crowds of locals, or in the evenings when neon lights and live music add color and sound to the gorgeous lakeside landscape.

Explore ancient Beijing


The most essential part of a Beijing itinerary is diving into the thousands of years of history that have gone down in the city. I personally love starting at Jingshan Park, which overlooks the Forbidden City, before going down into the storied structure. From there I usually ride the subway to Lama Temple (and have a vegetarian lunch nearby); the Temple of Heaven is also an absolutely diving place to clear your head and get some peace.

But don’t miss the modern part


While Beijing’s skyline isn’t quite as world famous as Shanghai’s or Hong Kong’s, it has some interesting buildings (namely, the CCTV Headquarters) that make it iconic, at least in my mind. While the Beijing CBD itself likely won’t take up a ton of your time, I do recommend exploring other modern parts of town, namely expat-filled Chaoyang and Sanlitun, a popular gathering place for local youth.

Escape to the Summer Palace


Even if your Beijing trip is in the depths of winter—and many of mine have been—the Summer Palace of the former Empress dowager is very worth an excursion from the city center. It’s often crowded these days, but I love to explore its spacious grounds and imagine myself recharging or even convalescing there, as if I owned the place. It has a way of taking you back in time, one way or another.

Savor the Great Wall


Another great way to go back in time? Make a day trip to the Great Wall of China. Although I personally prefer to visit the more distant Simatai compared to somewhere like Badaling (which is convenient, but extremely crowded), the reality is that you can’t go wrong with a trip to Changcheng, as the structured is called in Mandarin.

How Many Days is Enough for Beijing?

Beijing is one of the largest cities in China, and in the world. I’ve been coming back for almost two decades—albeit usually just for a few days at a time—and I often feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. On the other hand, you may or may not be a full-time traveler—it likely isn’t realistic for you to contemplate spending weeks here, or returning multiple times in your life.

The answer to the question of how many days in Beijing to spend, for most travelers, is somewhere between 3-5 days. This will depend first and foremost how long you’re staying in China. If you only have 2-3 weeks and want to see many other areas of the country, 3 days might be more realistic than 5. On the other hand, if you’re coming for an à la carte weekend trip from elsewhere in Asia, a longer stay suddenly makes more sense.

Other FAQ About Visiting Beijing

Is Beijing worth visiting?

Forget what you’ve heard about smog or surveillance—Beijing is absolutely worth visiting, particularly if you currently have a bad impression of the city. In fact, whether I’m exploring millennia of history or enjoying the view from futuristic skyscrapers, I usually feel nothing short of elated when I’m in Beijing, which is one of my favorite cities in the world.

Is 4 days enough for Beijing?

With 4 days in Beijing, you can cover a lot of ground. You can spend a full day exploring historical attractions like the Forbidden City and Lama Temple, a full day in chic Chaoyang and the futuristic CBD and take day trips to both the Summer Palace and the Great Wall of China.

What is the best month to visit Beijing?

“Shoulder” months like May, October and November tend to be the least crowded and most pleasant, with skies in October and November the least likely to be impacted by Beijing’s infamous smog. November is also when autumn colors in Beijing reach their peak, adding (literally) different color to your visit.

The Bottom Line

I’ve been pruning and perfecting this Beijing itinerary for almost 15 years (and counting)—I hope it serves you well. Beijing gets a bad rap for various reasons, but in spite of all of them, it remains one of my favorite cities on the planet. This is true whether I’m going back in time at the Forbidden City or Summer Palace, or exploring the futuristic Beijing CBD and feeling like I’m in “Blade Runner.” Likewise, the Great Wall of China is a place that never gets old, even if it often gets crowded. Need personalized help putting your China itinerary together? Consider hiring me as your Travel Coach!


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