The Great Wall of China stretches 13,000 miles over mountains, forests, reservoirs, and desert. It took a millennium to build, involved multiple dynasties, and pissed off a lot of Huns. Inextricably tied to the history of the country, to visit China without seeing it would cause you to be remiss not only with your friends and family at your homecoming, but somehow within yourself as well. To stand on its ramparts gives one simultaneously a sense of experiencing something collectively epic and individually infinitesimal.
Before you visit, decide if you want to go to an unrestored section, wild section or both. (“Wild” is a popular way to refer to the unrestored sections of the wall.) Consider physical ability and whom you’re traveling with (old people, kids, your sister who hates walking) when choosing a section.
This will be a workout. It’s not strolling on an elevated side walk. The Great Wall is stone waves steep and undulating. Grab your hiking boots and prepare for the walk of a lifetime.
How to Visit the Great Wall
Most visitors go to the Great Wall as part of a half or full day trip from Beijing. Visitors can choose from over 12 well-known sections and access them through a group tour, private driver, private tour, public transportation (sometimes combined with taxis), or by driving their own car. While the travel time from Beijing varies depending on section and traffic, it can take anywhere from one to three hours to get to there.
Worthwhile sections to visit in other provinces are the famous packed-earth Jiayuguan section in Jiayuguan, Gansu Province. It's a mere 4 miles (6 kilometers) from the city and easily accessible by public transport or a short taxi ride. Also, Ningxia Province’s Sanguankou section with its three passes is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the province's capital city of Yinchuan. It can be reached by hiring a private car.
If you want to hire a tour operator for a section near Beijing, Beijing Wonder Tour has affordable rates and English-speaking guides. Beijing Hiker’s offers hiking tours to the wild wall. If you want to hire a private car with an English-speaking driver but explore the wall on your own, you can choose from a number of options here. If you want to hire your own car, Hertz rents cars from the Beijing airport.
Best Parts of the Great Wall
The Great Wall spans nine provinces. The sections most commonly recommended are all close to Beijing. However, for less touristy and wilder parts of the wall, you can head to Gansu, Ningxia, or several other provinces less frequented by visitors. All of the ones listed below can be accessed from Beijing.
Popular among foreign tourists and easily accessible from Beijing, Mutianyu offers a well-restored wall with 23 watchtowers, replete with photo ops and views of the surrounding mountains and forests. You can hike, take a chair lift or cable car to the top, and toboggan down. It takes about two hours to walk the 1.4 miles of this section. If you go beyond tower 23, the wall is not restored, has no guardrails, and tourists are responsible for their own safety.
To get there hire a private driver or take the subway to Dongzhimen station. Walk upstairs to the North Bound Platform. Take the Express Bus 916 towards Huairou. After about an hour, get off at the Beidajie stop. Take bus H23 to Mutainyu or share a car with other tourists going there. Travel time is two to two and a half hours.
Simatai's main draw is night tours. Though Badaling is also open at night, Simatai has more ambient lighting and fewer crowds. You can take the cable car up and walk this 3-mile section for about one and half to two hours. Be aware that its grade increases rapidly (from 968 to 3,235 feet) and is super steep. The Simatai wall cuts through the Simatai Reservoir, and those who want to can zipline over it. For the day hikers, Heavenly Ladder and Sky Bridge are two extremely narrow and high parts of the wall with incredible views of mountain ridges.
To get there hire a private driver, or hop on the Airport Express subway line to Dongzhimen station. Take Bus 980 from Dongzhimen Long Distance Bus Station to Miyun Town and then take a taxi.
This section's surrounding countryside boasts a sea of yellow flowers in spring and summer. Other distinguishing features of Huanghuacheng include: boat rides on Haoming Lake, and fewer crowds than Mutianyu and Badaling. It can also be combined with Mutianyu for a day trip, as the two sections are only a 40-minute drive apart.
To get there hire a private car, or take the 916 bus or 916 express bus to Dongzhimen to Huairou Bus Station. Hop on the H21 bus to the Small West Lake (Lakeside Great Wall) Station, and walk north to the scenic area. By public transport, it will take at least two hours from central Beijing.
For those who can’t decide if they want to see a restored or wild section of wall, Jinshanling offers a beautiful mixture of both. Ideal for hikers, this section stretches 6.5 miles, runs along the Jinshanling Mountains, contains 67 watchtowers, five mountain passes, and very few tourists. If you hike in this section by itself, plan for two to five hours. You can also hike from this section to other sections, such as Simatai or Gubeikou.
To get there, hire a private driver or take the subway to Wangjing West Station. Hop on the bus to Luanping, and get off at Jinshanling Service Area. This bus will take about two hours to get to Jinshanling Service Area. Once you alight, you can take a free shuttle to the wall.
If you want to see the section of the wall closest to Beijing and can handle huge crowds, this will be your option. Though super touristy, Badaling has amazingly restored wide walkways and guardrails for its steeper parts. 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 of its restored path. Check out the 19 watchtowers along the way and be prepared for tons of hawkers.
To get there hire a private driver or take the subway to Jishuitan station. Go out exit B2 and hop on the 877 bus, a direct bus with a travel time of about one and a half hours to get there.
Tips for Visiting the Great Wall
Use these tips to make the most of your visit.
Tour or Solo
You do not need to book a tour to the Great Wall, though it can eliminate the stress of trip planning and language barriers. If you are traveling solo or with one or two other adults, hiring a driver or using public transport will most likely be your best options.
If you are traveling in a large group or with children or with elderly family members, a tour or private driver will be your best options. Some tours will take you to a government sponsored tea house or jade museum during the trip. Know what you’re buying if you go the tour route, and look for tours that state they do not do commissioned stops.
Weather-wise, spring and fall are the best times to see the Great Wall. Spring will provide beautiful verdant greens (and yellow blossoms around Huanghuacheng). In the fall, the rolling forested hills on either side of the wall will be dappled with red, orange, and yellow leaves. However, the best time to go to avoid crowds is winter.
Wear layers. It gets windy and most of the sections are exposed. Even the watchtowers have giant open window frames. If you go in the summer, take a hat and sunscreen.
How Long to Spend
Spend at least three to four hours on the wall, this is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site after all. Take some time to enjoy it. Sections can be steep (even if restored) and ascents slow. Stroll through the blockhouses and watch towers, sip water as you admire the surrounding hills, and zip down to the base in a toboggan (if you go to Badaling or Mutianyu).
Where to Stay
If you want to experience the Great Wall early without leaving Beijing in the wee morning hours, consider staying at a hotel by the section you want to see. For Muitanyu, The Brickyard offers comfortable rooms, a restaurant, and a spa. Alternatively, if you want to go to the wall during the day, but also see it lit up at night, go to Simatai. Stay at Gubeishui Town Hotel and splurge on a luxury room with great views.
For intrepid explorers, it is possible to camp on the wall. However, you will need to do your own research and take all of your gear and provisions with you. There are no vendors in the wild sections. If you want to camp in a group tour, Great Wall Hiking offers what is sure to be a memorable experience of a night on the Great Wall.