As the capital city of the most populated country in the world, Beijing is every part as crowded and congested as one would imagine, but it also means it’s jammed packed with things to do.
Unlike ultra-modern Shanghai, Beijing is a history traveller’s dream. The city is modern and efficient enough for everything to operate and function properly, but somehow, it’s able to maintain most of its original culture and traditional charm.
It might not seem like a lot, but let’s not forget Beijing is a massive city. Even with its many modes of transportation available, it can still take a while to get from destination to destination. Also, don’t underestimate the vast scale of some of the sights. I regularly heard of visitors spending a full day just at the Forbidden City alone!
There are numerous activities and sights to fill your hours, but for those first-timers who only have a few days, here are my top three must-sees.
Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China really is great. It’s easily one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen! I find sometimes notable sights and attractions around the world tend to be less grand or spectacular in person, possibly because of all the added elements such as crowds, the weather or just because some photographs are enhanced. But the Great Wall of China blew all my expectations away.
I did make an effort to visit a section of the wall that was further away from Beijing, resulting in nearly no crowds at all. And it paid off.
Here are some of the more popular sections of the wall you can easily visit:
This is one of the more popular sections of the wall. It’s close to Beijing and very easily accessible by public transportation. There are cable cars that bring you to the top of the wall and it’s one of the less strenuous sections. Some of the stairs are even equipped with handrails. It is, however, known to be extremely crowded and touristy, with lots of shops, a museum and even an informational cinema.
Another popular section of the wall, Mutianyu is a regular section offered in tours. Similar to Badaling, there is a cable car that will take you to the top of the wall. This section can still get quite crowded as well, but can simmer down the further you get away from the main gates.
This was the section I decided to visit. Close to 3 hours away from Beijing, this section is best known as a hike. Often tours will pair this with Simatai, a wilder and less restored section. The day will start at Jinshanling and visitors will spend it walking towards Simatai, where the bus will pick you up.
Similar to the other parts of the wall, there’s also a cable car taking you to the top of the wall, but be warned, this section is strenuous! The stairs are steep and in some areas, non-existent. This is definitely a section best for mobile visitors ready for a workout.
Aside from these three sections, you can also visit:
Jiankou – completely wild and untouched section
Huanghuacheng – situated right beside a lake, bringing a different element to the wall
Gubeikou – wild section of the wall, known as an area where many battles took place
Juyongguan – closest section to Beijing is known for one of the greatest forts
Huangyaguan – section where the annual marathon takes place
Shanhai Pass – section where it meets the sea
Temple of Heaven
Tranquil and impressive, this private complex was once a place where emperors of two dynasties prayed. The various buildings are hosted within a massive and perfectly manicured garden. When you visit now, you’ll regularly see elderly people just hanging out with their friends playing various games, creating a much livelier atmosphere.
Even if you know nothing about architecture, Taoism or Chinese history, the Temple of Heaven is still a very worthy sight to visit. The buildings are structurally beautiful, but also everything is so precise, symmetrical and perfected. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon to escape the chaotic city and refresh your mind and body.
The Forbidden City
Located pretty much in the center of Beijing, the imperial palace is every part as grand as it is intimidating. It’s high fortifying walls make it very exclusive and I couldn’t escape the haunting feeling when exploring the smaller ring alleys.
While I thought the palace was incredible, I was slightly disappointed that visitors are only allowed to see a small section of the palace, mostly the exteriors and gardens. I was hoping to get a glimpse of the smaller, more personal interior rooms.
Visiting the Forbidden City can be a bit stressful, as it’s closed on Mondays and is only opened until 15:30 on other days. There’s also a limit to the number of tickets sold each day. To prevent disappointment, visitors can purchase tickets online beforehand or arrive early. I arrived at 8am and the palace was already swarming.
Also don’t forget your passport when visiting. It’s required for purchasing tickets.