Day trips from Beijing take you to some of the most iconic sights in the world. Sections of the Great Wall, imperial gardens, gorges, bridges, and even the Chinese cradle of civilization await those willing to venture outside the city limits. Plan to climb lots of stairs, bring plenty of water, and arrive early to avoid crowds.
Hike, ride a cable car or take a chairlift to the top. Once on the wall, it takes about two hours to walk the 1.4 miles of this section and explore its 23 watchtowers, replete with photo ops and views of the surrounding mountains and forests. If you go beyond tower 23, the wall is not restored, has no guardrails, and tourists are responsible for their own safety.
Come down via hiking, chair lift, cable car, or jump on a sled.
Getting There: From Dongzhimen station, walk upstairs to the North Bound Platform. Take the Express Bus 916 towards Huairou. Get off at Beidajie. Take bus H23 to Mutianyu or share a car with other tourists going there. Travel time is two and a half hours.
Travel Tip: Check out The Brickyard at the bottom of the wall. A restored tile factory turned restaurant, spa, and glass blowing studio, it offers made-from-scratch meals with local produce.
Marco Polo Bridge: Hidden Lion Sculptures
Constructed in 1189 A.D., Marco Polo Bridge (Lugou Qiao) was later trod upon and written about by Marco Polo. Pillars line either side of it with a stone lion atop each. Carved into the lions are smaller lions hidden in their manes, backs, and bellies, with over 400 lions in total. The lions were carved throughout different dynasties in China, and each is unique. The bridge was also the site of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident with Japan, beginning the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Getting There: A taxi or Uber will get you there in about 12 minutes from central Beijing.
Travel Tip: Marco Polo Bridge is a manageable day trip, but does not combine well with other day trips.
Longqing Gorge: Cruise the River or Attend the Ice Festival
Hop on a boat and glide down the gorge’s green waters full of jagged karsts, then ride a cable car for aerial views. Hike to the summit, view the Longqing Dam, see a fantastical (though rundown) dragon escalator, or bungee jump.
In winter, the Beijing Longqing Gorge Ice & Snow Festival houses more than 100 ice and snow sculptures of animals, people, and lanterns, all beautifully lit up at night. Play in the snow, see a dance performance, ice skate, or watch fireworks.
Getting There: Take bus 919 or 919 Express from Deshengmen Station to Yanqing Dongguan Station. Catch bus Y15 and get off at Longqingxia (Longqing Gorge) Station (two to three hours).
Travel Tip: The flower cave is kitschy and best avoided.
Ming Tombs: Good Feng Shui with Chinese Emporers
The Ming Tombs Scenic Area comprises the mausoleums of 13 emperors from the Ming Dynasty. This UNESCO World Heritage site was chosen as a place of burial by the Emperor Yongle for the feng shui properties of the valley. To reach the tombs, walk through the giant arch at the entrance, then head down "Spirit Way," a road with giant stone animals on either side.
To see the largest and most well-preserved tomb, go to the Changling Tomb. To explore the underground marble palace, head to the Dingling Tomb.
Getting There: Hire a private car (one hour) or take the subway to the Changping Xishankou station. There are private cars for hire outside to take you to the entrance.
Travel Tip: The Ming tombs are extensive (46.3 square miles), plan to spend at least three hours here.
Tianjin: Famous Street Food and a Ferris Wheel
Head over to the Ancient Culture Street or Nanshi Food Street to sample authentic street food, like the warm Goubuli steam buns and the cinnamon-tasting guifaxiang fried dough twist. Hop aboard the Eye of Tianjin, a giant Ferris wheel straddling the river. See European architecture and impressive skyscrapers at the Five Great Avenues or The Bund, and go to Chifeng Street to see the China House, bejeweled with gems and porcelain pieces. Want afternoon tea? Go to the Astor Hotel.
Getting There: From the Beijing South Railway Station, take the bullet train to Tianjin (30 minutes).
Travel Tip: In the winter months, befriend locals at the river to try “chair skating.”
Summer Palace: Largest Imperial Garden in the World
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Summer Palace contains lakes, gardens, palaces, and temples. Rent a boat on Kunming Lake, then head to the Long Corridor (the longest corridor in the world), and marvel at the 14,000 paintings depicting stories from ancient Chinese literature and history.
Allow at least a half-day to explore the massive grounds, and take a picnic lunch, as food options inside can be limited.
Getting There: Take subway line 4 to Beigongmen station.
Travel Tip: Many Beijingers go here to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival.
Badaling Section of the Great Wall: The Most Famous Part of the Great Wall
Everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to South African President Nelson Mandela has walked Badaling's ramparts. It's famous not only for celebrities, but also for its direct access from Beijing by public transport, amazingly restored wide walkways, and steep terrain. Like the Mutianyu section, it offers a cable car and toboggan rides for those who want to save their energy and feet.
Plan for one and a half hours to visit this section of the Wall and walk the 2.3 miles (3.74 kilometers) of its restored path.
Getting There: From the Huangtudian Railway Station in central Beijing, take the S2 train to Badaling Railway Station (90 minutes).
Travel Tip: If you purchase a roundtrip ticket for the cable car, a photo is included.
Nangong Scenic Area: Soak in Hot Springs and Catch Some Waves
Though Nangong Scenic Area encompasses several amusement parks and Buddhist shrines, the most relaxing thing to do here is to unwind at the Nangong National Hot Spring Health Park. However, those wanting a real Chinese water park experience can go to Nangong Hot Spring Water World to hit the wave pool, pirate ship, or Hawaiian beach.
Getting There: You can take an Uber or taxi for around 100 yuan (around $14) from central Beijing.
Travel Tip: Brace yourself for crowds in the water park areas.
Gold Mountain: Rural Hiking
Nearly 5 miles (8 kilometers) long with a fairly gradual incline, Gold Mountiain Trail allows hikers to experience Beijing's more tranquil ouskirts. In winter, the grass withers, making the mountain appear gold. Enterprising locals had tiny gold mines along the mountain, but they have since been closed. There is a temple at the top of the mountain with scenic views.
Getting There: From either Tiaoqiao or Liuliqiao stations, take bus 917 to Bancheng village. Walk west towards the mountain, then hike to the top. Head down the opposite side of Golden Mountain until you arrive at Manjinyu village near the bottom. From Manjinyu, take bus 917 bus back to Beijing.
Travel Tip: Be careful of thorns.
Zhoukoudian: Fossils and Caves
Known as the Chinese cradle of civilization, Zhoukoudian became famous for discoveries of fossils of teeth, skulls, and tools from the Paleolithic Era. The most well known of these was called, “The Peking Man,” and sparked controversy and mystery in the years to come, even after its disappearance in 1941.
Tourists can see original fossils, observe replicas of others, and go into the caves, which were part of the ancient village there.
Getting There: From Beijing West Railway Station, take bus 616 to Liangxiang Ximen, then change to Fangshan Bus 38. You may also take an Uber or taxi, as the site is only about 27 miles (43 kilometers) from central Beijing.
Travel Tip: Though it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s not very crowded compared to others in the Beijing area.
Shilinxia Glass Viewing Platform: 360 Degree Gorge Views
Surrounded by mountains, this glass behemoth looks like a giant UFO touched down in Shilinxia Scenic Area and decided to stay perched on the highest cliff of the Shilin Gorge. This viewing platform measures 246 feet high and 197 feet wide. Made of glass panels and titanium alloys, it ensures amazing (or perhaps terrifying) 360 degree views.
Visitors can hike (about one and a half hours) or take a cable car to the top.
Getting There: From Dongzhimen Transportation Hub, take bus 852 to Pinggu district. From there, grab bus 25 to the Pinggu Stone Forest Gorge or Valley, about two and a half hours travel time.
Travel Tip: Go when pollution levels are low for better views.
Old Dragon’s Head (Laolongtou): Where the Great Wall Meets the Sea
See the beginning of the Great Wall and walk along the ocean. The wall extends into the sea, looking like a dragon’s head drinking water, hence its name. Visitors can explore a museum, castle, and go into a giant maze. You can also check out the Temple of the Gods of the Sea and walk along the top of the Wall.
Getting There: It’s about 190 miles (305 kilometers) from central Beijing and is best reached by hiring a private car.
Travel Tip: Go to the window of the dragon’s head and make a wish at the wishing area.