3 Days in Beijing: The Ultimate Itinerary

Beijing Skyline

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Beijing, brimming with people, bikes, pollution, and culture, offers visitors a sense of the grandeur of both ancient and modern China. Huge and imperialist, China’s capital entertains many kinds of travelers. The Forbidden City, Tian’namen Square, and Summer Palace can keep history buffs occupied for days. The unrestored parts of the Great Wall await for epic adventures to hike them. Lovers of beauty and art can see tea ceremonies and Chinese acrobatics shows. Businessmen breezing through get foot massages at its 24-hour spas. There is something for you in Beijing, whoever you are. To figure out what it is, start with our sampling of some of the cities most famous, enduring, and characteristic sites and activities.

01 of 09

Day 1: Morning

Street Food

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8 a.m. From Beijing International Capital Airport, head straight to the hutongs to Fly by Knight Courtyard Hotel. Tucked deep into the hutongs (alleyways lined with long courtyard-style houses), Fly by Knight offers a courtyard to sit in and lounge, helpful staff, and tour bookings. Drop your bags, freshen up, take your passport, grab a taxi card as a backup (even if you have the address on your phone), and hit the streets for Wangfujing Snack Street, about a 25-minute walk away.

10 a.m. Staying in the hutongs will give you time to explore these twisting alleys and the hidden world of culture within them. Enjoy the sites of everyday Beijing life as you make your way to Wangfujing Snack Street and order a jianbing, an eggy crepe with green onions and cilantro. China has a strong street food rep and half the fun of eating it is watching the preparation itself. Wander the street and observe the cooks in action—they sell everything—scorpions, dumplings, and tanghulu (candied hawthorns).

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02 of 09

Day 1: Afternoon

The Forbidden City

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12 p.m. After the smells and sounds of Wangfujing Snack Street, get ready to view your first major attraction: the Forbidden City, (also known as the Palace Museum), a short 20-minute walk away. Walk from plaza to plaza, seeing gardens and pavilions throughout, with treasures from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Walk where Chinese emperors themselves walked for over 500 years, when the royal families of China called this palace home. Make sure to buy your ticket in advance (as a limited number are sold each day) and bring your passport to claim it. Bonus: you get to skip the line by purchasing in advance. Note this site is closed on Mondays.

2:30 p.m. Take a 20-minute walk to Dong Lai Shun Restaurant to eat authentic Beijing-style hotpot for lunch (especially great if you are traveling in a group).

4 p.m. With your belly full and feet rested, take another 25-minute walk (or 7 minute cab ride) to one of Beijing’s most iconic sites: Tian'anmen Square. Most famous for the pro-democracy protests of 1989, Tian’anmen Square is a giant plaza now mostly filled with cyclists, tourists, and police keeping order. Though flanked by giant monuments such as the Chinese Revolution History Museum and Great Hall of the people, simply walking around the square will give you a strange since of vastness and a feeling that important events have transpired on these grounds. A testament to the lasting cult of personality of Mao Zedong in China, Tian’anmen also contains the embalmed body of the polemic leader which you can view if you bring your passport and are wearing closed-toed shoes.

5 p.m. Take a cab back to your hotel and rest. Enjoy its courtyard while drinking a cup of tea or a bottle of the national beer, Tsingtao. Ask reception to call Siji Minfu ( 四季民福烤鸭店) to make a dinner reservation for you for 8:45 p.m.

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03 of 09

Day 1: Evening

Chinese Acrobats at Chaoyang Theatre

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6 p.m. Take a cab from Fly by Knight to Chaoyang Theater to see the Chaoyang Acrobatic Show. (You will need to purchase your tickets in advance some days before through their website.) Tickets need to be picked up by 6:30 p.m. from the box office.

7 p.m. Enjoy the show—full of juggling, hand balancing, partner acrobatics, and contortion. Chinese acrobatics dates back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 24), and was documented in tomb etchings, as well as temple paintings. Now, you can see what it has become—a modern visual feast of colors and costumes, full of mastery, and the stretching of the abilities of the human body. Prepare to be awed.

8:30 p.m. Take a cab back to the heart of Beijing to try Peking Duck at one of the city’s best restaurants: Siji Minfu! Order your duck and watch as expert chefs cut it tableside. Place a bit of the crispy sweet skin, the succulent tender meat, and the crunchy fresh vegetables together in the flatbread it comes with and take a satisfying bite after a long day of exploring. Siji Minfu also serves other Beijing classics like zhajiangmian (fried sauce noodles). Order several dishes and wash it down with a pot of Chinese red tea. Order some baijiu, a Chinese spirit make from sorghum if you’re feeling a strong sense of culinary adventure.

10 p.m. Take a short cab ride back to the hotel or it’s another 18 minutes by foot if you want to walk off the duck. Go to bed with dreams of seeing the Great Wall bright and early the next morning.

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04 of 09

Day 2: Morning

Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall

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7:30 a.m. Have breakfast at the hotel or ask the staff if there is a nearby place to buy youtiao (fried dough) and dou jiang (fresh soy milk), a Chinese breakfast staple. Also, buy some dumplings (jiaozi) or steam buns (baozi) for the long ride to the wall.

8 a.m. While doable (especially if you speak a little Chinese) to visit the Great Wall on your own and cheaply using public transport, we recommend booking a private car if you only have 72-hours in the city. You can book reasonable transportation with a basic English-speaking driver here . It will take about an hour and a half to get there, so eat your street food snacks or take a nap during the ride to the Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall.

10 a.m. Walk, take a chairlift, or hop a on cable car to the top of the wall. Walk the 1.4 miles (2,250m) of this section of wall and admire its watchtowers, blockhouses, and the surrounding forests. (The colors in autumn are particularly vibrant.) Staying within the restored area offers plenty of photo ops and fairly steep bits to hike. However, those wanting more adventure can go to the unrestored part of the wall, past tower 23, but do so at their own risk.

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05 of 09

Day 2: Afternoon

The Sacred Way to the Ming Tombs

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1 p.m. Meet your driver and head to lunch. There are two solid options for lunch near the wall: the Brickyard with locally-sourced ingredients and made from scratch meals, or one of the local trout restaurants along the road out from the wall’s entrance. The Brickyard is attached to a spa, glass-blowing studio, and hotel and offers both Chinese and international food. The trout restaurants are fairly cheap, tasty, and somewhat gimmicky—they have you catch your own fish before preparing it for you. Let your driver know which one you prefer and enjoy a hot meal after your wall escapades.

3:30 p.m. Arrive at the Ming Tombs. Head down Spirit Way, a giant walkway flanked on either side by giant stone animals. This UNESCO World Heritage site was chosen as a place of burial by the Ming emperor Yongle for the feng shui properties of the valley in which the mausoleums rest. The tombs number 13 in total, with the Changling and Didnling Tomb being the most popular.

5:00 p.m. Leave the Ming Tombs and rest during the hour-long ride back to the hotel.

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06 of 09

Day 2: Evening

Foot Massage

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7 p.m. Eat dinner in the hutong’s at Tan Hua Kao Yang Tiu. Here the specialty is roast leg of lamb, which you cook over your own spit grill at the table. Err on the side of caution when ordering your meat, the portions are large and the meat is fragrant with cumin, garlic, and taro root.

9 p.m. After walking all over Beijing, as well as up and down two historic sites, treat yourself to a foot massage. Chinese foot massages are cheap and spas are plentiful throughout the city. Ask your hotel for their recommendations or go over to Dragonfly Therapeutic Retreat for a guaranteed high-quality massage. Their location in Dongcheng District is midway between dinner and the hotel. Choose the foot rub (one hour for 150RMB) or one of their larger spa packages, if you need a full body massage, facial or Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment, like cupping.

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07 of 09

Day 3: Morning

The Temple of Heaven

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8:30am Now that you have a sense of your bearings, you can give public transport a try as you head to breakfast near the Temple of Heaven. Hop on the metro to Chongwen Men metro stop (209, exit B), and then hop on bus no. 807 or no. 812 to the east gate. Still tired from scaling the wall? Just take a cab to Yin San Douzhi, a mere 150 meters north of the Temple of Heaven.

9am Order a big bowl of bean juice, douzhi, a Beijing breakfast classic. If not for you, there’s always street food and warm baozis or soup-filled wontons waiting from eager early morning vendors.

9:30am Head through the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven and observe the groups of locals practicing Tai Chi, dancing, and playing chess before you make your way to one of the temple’s entrances. The Temple of Heaven was the most important temples for Ming and Qing emperors. Once a year, the emperor came to worship the heavens and pray for a bountiful year. An architectural rendering of heaven (round) and earth (square), the temples are circular with square bases. Key attractions within it are: the Round Altar, Echo Wall, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.

11 a.m. Take a 15-minute cab ride to Alice's Tea House to experience a tea ceremony (RMB50 per person). Alice will teach you how to prepare different types of Chinese teas, give you samples of them, and provide a little background on each tea she shares with you. You’ll also learn about the importance of the tea ceremony in Chinese culture, as well as have an opportunity to buy some tea to take home. Make sure to try the Pu’er tea, generally a favorite among Chinese tea aficionados.

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08 of 09

Day 3: Afternoon

The Summer Palace

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12:30 p.m. Dumpling time! Head to Mr. Shi’s Dumplings in route to the Summer Palace. With an English menu full of options, take advantage and eat your fill as the food inside the Summer Palace is pricey and lackluster.

2 p.m. Arrive at the Summer Palace, the former imperial summer getaway palace complete with gardens, temples, and Kunming Lake. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Summer Palace was famously renovated by Empress Dowager Cixi with money she embezzled from the navy. After the Boxer rebellion, British and French troops destroyed the palace and forced China to concede to opening up for trade. After 1949, renovations again took place and now the place can be seen in much of its original grandeur. Take a boat ride on the lake or check out the Long Corridor with its 14,000 paintings depicting ancient Chinese history and literature. Hike up the hill to the main temple for picturesque views of the lake. The grounds are extensive, plan a good 3-4 hours to explore.

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09 of 09

Day 3: Evening

Spicy Chinese Fish

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8 p.m. For dinner, head to La Shang Yin for kaoyu, a Chongqing-style whole grilled fish simmered with chilies, cilantro, green veggies, and mushrooms. If you’d like something healthy with both Chinese and Western options, then Element Fresh will be your best bet. If you want something classic and chill in the hutong’s there’s also Little Yunnan serving regional fare from Yunnan Province with meat and veggie options, as well as homemade rice wine.

9:30 pm Head over to known foreigner hangout Sanlitun for some last night bar-hopping. For craft beer and big outdoor tables, go to Jing-A Taproom. For rooftops and feeling fancy, go to Migas. If you want a well-mixed cocktail with creative ingredients, the Infusion Room will be your place. All will be solid options to toast your last night in town and the end to a full trip.