Updated on September 4, 2016
Updated on September 4, 2016
A quarter of the world’s population are Chinese and the capital for these 1.6 billion people is Beijing. Everything from the ancient history to the sheer crowdedness and authentic Chinese flair makes Beijing a worth-while place to visit.
Having been to many parts of mainland China, I was quite surprised how easy getting around was and, maybe as a result, how touristy things were in Beijing. The sites recommended by the concierge of every hotel we stayed at (although I don’t think we ever really asked) included shopping in Wangfujing, visiting the Forbidden City, and visiting Tianamen Square.
In this post I’d like to give some more personalized tips on what to do in Beijing, some insight about what hotels are in the area and also some tips for getting around in general.
The Forbidden City, definitely felt like an obligatory stop. It’s enermous, built in the early 1400s to be the new capital and is nestled right in the center of downtown. When you look at a map and see all the circles of roads, and subways around beijing, the circle in the center is the Forbidden City.
Tianamen Square is directly south of the Forbidden City. And the People’s Square is directly south of that. I found people’s square to be incredibly scenic, and a mix of all kinds of China. The buildings surrounding it represent ancient China but there are of course the giant communist-looking buildings of China as well.
The Summer Palace was quite possibly my favorite place in the city. Like every other day it was a lot of walking but incredibly scenic. Imagine an old temple on a hill overlooking a scenic lake. And a causeway lined with beautiful blooming trees. It was beautiful and reminded me of a smaller version of Hangzhou. (I believe it was in fact designed to replicate a causeway in Hangzhou). It’s gives a traditional Chinese look with these temples on the lake surrounded by Chinese weeping willows.
But we went on Sunday, and like everything else it was incredibly crowded. Not sure how it would have been on a Monday but despite the crowds, it was well worth it. Although the subway ride is at least half an hour from downtown, add a connection and it can take an hour. Still only cost us 6 Yuan.
Take Line 4 out to the Beigongmen Station stop and follow the crowd either way to the gate.
This is going to sound like odd advice, but I mean it. While in Beijing, if you pass a street that looks sketchy, and it has lots of people on it… walk down it. The crime rate in China is low, and the people are friendly. If there are a ton of people on a street, you have absolutely nothing to fear. But if you’re like me and grew up in the US, your definition of sketchy may be too sensitive anyway.
Anyways, I found that these rough-looking alleys had some interesting local hotspots at the end. One had a little market. Another had a ton of cool local restuarants. Walk east of Wangfujing or if you’re south of the Temple of Heaven just follow the crowds.
There are two main areas of the great wall you can go to. The tourist attraction, “Disney” version of the great wall is Badaling. We went here because it’s incredibly easy to get to and it’s the closest part. As far as alternatives, the spots that are further out and harder to get to sound like they are much less touristy obviously.
How to get to Badaling
But the reason why Badaling is so appealing is because you can get there easily with train or bus. We did the train because Drew has an irrational fear of buses. The train leaves from the Beijing North Railway Station which is reached via exit A of the Xizhimen Station stop. The subway stop is the northwest loop part of Line 2, which just circles downtown.
There are two reasons not to take the train. The big reason is that there are few trains in a day. I’m not quite sure what the schedule is but there was one at 9:20 and the next was at 10:50. So if you miss the 9:20 by 5 minutes… you wait an hour and a half.
The other reason is that during busy times they oversell the train and a seat isn’t guaranteed. It’s actually kind of an entertaining experience to see how everyone literally races to the train in an attempt to grab a seat before they fill up. Even an hour before the train departed, a thick crowd of people formed a disorganized line in the station. And when the doors opened, it was like a competition had begun. Since we were some of the last to board in the retun we ended up sitting on the floor/standing. Luckily the ride was just over an hour though- not bad at all.
It costs 6 Yuan ($10) per person each direction. Oh, and btw, they sold water on the train for 2 Yuan, and at the gate they sold it for 5. So we bought 5 waters before getting there and I got another one at the wall (but the one at the wall was gate-priced).
There are a number of buses you can take as well but 877 leaves from Deshengmen Arrow Tower, and it leaves constantly. And you’re guaranteed a seat. It’s a little pricey for China public transit. 12 Yuan ($2) per person, each direction. Just show up and go. Though, the bus station is apparently not as close to a subway station as the train station, (Jishuitan Station (subway line 2, Exit A)).
Understand that both of these are overall not confusing public transit experiences. They are direct trains/buses and everyone on there will also be going to the great wall. It takes you to the little shopping mall outside the gate and, though touristy, is easy.
Why not to do Badaling?
The other part of the wall we wanted to go to just didn’t look very feasible for such a short week in Beijing. Or maybe we just didn’t have the patience for it. From the same bus station I would have to take a 2 hour bus to take another bus/minibus or taxi. Much longer, a few more working parts, and we didn’t have the energy to deal with it.
But Badaling is… a circus. Barely exaggerating. At the base where the buses are, there is a mini zoo with the most depressing pen of Sun-bears I’ve ever seen. Just there to entertain tourists who might want to buy carrots to throw at them. There are camel and yak rides. There’s a roller coster ride that is loud and goes to the top.
The wall itself is amazing but at one point near the end, all I could hear was the roller coaster and a megaphone with a recording blaring. I was grateful to leave the crowds behind as tourists dropped off at the steeper parts of the hike, but even past the crowds, the sound of the roller-coaster persists.
We hiked north from the entrance near the train, but I wonder how far we could have gone south. The South route looked much quieter. Away from the circus and all the people were going the direction of the chair lift anyways. So no crowds and no roller coaster.
So if you do Badaling, and the south isn’t walled off after half a mile… do that portion instead.
We hiked as fas as you could on the south end, and it looped around, exiting at the base of the roller coaster. Over all it was a great experience. But lots and lots of people. Like Disney. And the bear zoo was absolutely depressing. First of all, what the heck? An ancient wall and there’s a bear zoo and a roller coaster? Totally ruins the aura of the hike. Terrible idea. I watched one little sun bear chewing on a piece of plastic bottle and I swear he had given up on life.
Stefan from RTC always has this thing about how you shouldn’t use all your points for fancy hotels in western Europe because they give you nothing and in Asia they give suites and stuff. This was not my experience in Beijing. But that’s probably my fault for being loyal to IHG.
We first tried the Radisson Blu and besides the terrible location, the internet was actually unusable. Internet in China is already slow but this was pretty much non-existent. Skip this hotel and in fact, skip the business district in that area all together.
Then we went to the Crowne Plaza Wangfujing. There are a number of hotels in the area of Wangfujing and this is the tourist area. Malls, touters and the whole nine years. But it was great for us to be so close to the Forbidden City area, just because I like being able to walk everywhere.
Next we went to the Holiday Inn Temple of Heaven. There’s a Holiday Inn Express even closer to the Temple of Heaven and near to the sites. I like the local residential area, and it’s a short Uber ride from the downtown area. Although the south side is the opposite direction of the Summer Palace and the Great Wall trek.
The Holiday Inn Central Plaza was nearby too. The Holiday Inns and Crowne Plaza were nice but came with no benefits for Platinum members. They all had lounge access and breakfast and we got none.
If you have status elsewhere that gives lounge access or free breakfast, that’s nice. But I can’t imagine paying the price in points or cash for something like the Park Hyatt or Conrad. The Holiday Inns were actually nice hotels and only 10,000 to 15,000 points (the CP is 20,000 but cash rates can be as low as $90 after tax). Everything in Beijing is super cheap.
The best hotel we stayed at by far, was the DoubleTree Beijing, and it was only 10,000 Hilton points. The hotel is right next to the subway and apparently has a free shuttle to many of the sites (although we didn’t use it). As an HHonors Gold we didn’t get lounge access (which in my experience is rare, or used to be at least), but we did get free breakfast.
The subway in Beijing is probably nicer than Hong Kong. In the morning going into the city, or evening going out of the city, it’s very difficult to get a seat. But during all other times it’s not crowded. But the cleanliness and ease of getting around is top notch.
Every hotel has a subway map and the directions are clearly indicated in english, plus on the train there is an electronic indicator of what stop you’re at and which ones are ahead. Super easy. Plus, the cheapest fare is like $0.30 and the most is $1.
We didn’t bother using the bus because I find figuring out on your own which bus you need to be rather difficult. When there’s such an easy subway system, why bother?
The real gem we found was Uber. Im sure taxis are cheap, but Uber is cheaper. I couldn’t believe that our early morning drive to the airport from the otherside of Beijing all the way out to the airport was $7. It took an hour and a half. Wow.
Another time we switched hotels from outside to downtown and it was 20 Yuan ($3.30) using Uber. Rushhour as mentioned above can be brutal, and thus I stick to subways quite often, but you could use Uber the entire time if you don’t mind paying a little more.
The problem with Uber is that all their maps are off in some way. So screenshot on your phone the address (in chinese) and the phone number for getting to a hotel. For pick up actually look up the hotel address and put it in. If it’s not where your GPS dot is, then move the pin. (A sidenote since we’re talking about maps: someone suggested that non-google map systems work fine- which is good to hear because google maps was weak.)
But what we did every single time is this: once the driver was a few minutes away Drew went to the concierge and pulled up the driver’s number (by hitting contact and then text message) and asked the concierge to call with a local phone to make sure the driver had proper directions. They are used to doing this, and trust me, it helped a ton. Before adopting this strategy, cars would be circling nearby.
Hopefully anyone who caught that great fare to Beijing will find some of the tips in this post helpful!