A Travel Guide for How to Visit Beijing on a Budget

The Great Wall of China is among the most popular attractions for budget travelers in Asia.
••• China Photo Press/Getty Images News


Welcome to Beijing:


A visit to Beijing can involve a large investment. These tips will demonstrate how to visit Beijing on a budget. As with most major cities, Beijing offers plenty of easy ways to pay big money for things that won't really enhance your experience. 


When to Visit:


Many North Americans don't realize that Beijing winters can be quite cold and snowy. If you go in winter, be prepared for the cold and air pollution.

Summers tend to be muggy and smoggy. Autumn is probably the most comfortable season for a visit (especially if you have respiratory problems), followed by spring.


Where to Eat:


Restaurant food tends to be relatively inexpensive here, so you can afford to splurge a bit. Definitely don't be so cost-conscious that you leave yourself open to illness. It's best to eat hot meals and well-cooked entrees. Avoid raw vegetables and water that isn't bottled. In fact, if you buy bottled water from a street vendor, be certain the seal is unbroken. Some have made an industry of retrieving discarded water bottles from trash cans, refilling them from a tap and reselling them.


Where to Stay:


Beijing added hotel beds to accommodate the rush of visitors the city expected for the Olympic Games. This works to a budget traveler's advantage, because Beijing needed more mid-priced hotel rooms (what city doesn't?) to offset the low-cost guest houses and the opulent grand hotels.

BeijingHotelChina.com offers price ranges, pictures and maps to help with planning.


Getting Around:


Unless you have a good sense of Beijing's layout or a firm command of the local language, it's probably best to avoid mass transit for anything but very short runs. Taxi drivers in Beijing have a somewhat deserved reputation for taking advantage of tourists, but you'll also find many who are very friendly and will charge reasonable fares.

It pays to have someone write down your destination in Chinese characters on the back of your hotel's business card. At day's end, use the front of the card to help another cab driver get you back to home base.


The Great Wall of China:


Badaling Pass is about 55 miles from Beijing and is therefore the most convenient place to view The Great Wall. Badaling is a bit touristy, but it's easy to ignore that fact when you're confronted with one of the world's most incredible sights. Badaling has a cable car that will save you the walk to the top of the wall. There is a fee for the ride, but it's a great time saver, and the spectacular views as you rise will inspire photographers of all skill levels.


The Forbidden City:


There is a modest entry fee here, but even budget travelers will quickly forget what they paid for the privilege of seeing this walled wonder. It's also known as the Palace Museum or Imperial Palace. Emperors and their families lived here for centuries shrouded in mystery and 33-foot walls. Commoners were not admitted here for 500 years, and even now, no one is admitted to the half-mile maze of passages after 4:30 p.m. They close promptly at 5:00 p.m. North to south, try not to miss the Imperial Garden, the Hall of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Each is situated directly on the sightseers' route.


More Beijing Tips:




  • Don't be in a hurry. Beijing is a city of 13 million people. Roads are crowded with cars, trucks and bicycles. Allow plenty of time to arrive at appointments or the airport terminal.


  • Be careful with pedicab operators near Tiananmen Square. They'll sometimes lure you onto their foot-powered cabs (also called rickshaws) with reasonable prices, then try to take you --both literally and figuratively -- for a ride. Sometimes the effort to increase the fare is modest and charming. Other times it's a ridiculous scam. Use your best judgment, and skip the ride altogether if this causes you concern.


  • Tiananmen Square is a paved park as well as a place where protests were quelled. In 1989, the world watched as pro-democracy rallies in this square mile area were brutally crushed. But travelers usually find a very different atmosphere upon arrival. Families will enjoy a day of casual fun as you'd expect in any city park. Children fly the most beautiful and elaborate kites you're likely to see anywhere, and a few will approach you to practice their English if they sense you are a native speaker. It's one of the few places on earth where feelings of regret and unbridled joy can overcome you almost simultaneously. It might be one of China's greatest free attractions.


  • Only one day? Here's a plan: It's possible (but not recommended) to see the Great Wall at Badaling, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square in one long day. Simply have someone write "Great Wall Badaling, cable car entrance" and "Forbidden City, Shenwu Gate" in Chinese characters on your hotel business card. Have that same hotel helper negotiate a day-rate with a cab driver. Most drivers are happy to have one guaranteed fare for the day. By western standards, these rates are frequently quite reasonable. The driver will wait for you at the Great Wall (it's customary to pay half the fare so the driver can buy lunch while you're away). Back in Beijing at Shenwu Gate, you leave the cab at the northern entrance to the Forbidden City. Touring from north to south brings you out not too far from the famous Chairman Mao portrait, then to the edge of Tiananmen Square.


  • Check out a proposed three-day itinerary and enjoy! If you have about 72 hours in Beijing, consider advice from About's China for Visitors Guide, who suggests booking a few guided tours. Even independent travelers can benefit from this experience.

    Tips for visiting any large city