By 2020, China is set to become the largest travel destination in the world and will welcome more than 137 million international travelers. Of all the cities to see when you visit, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau, Beijing stands out as a must-see. Iconic structures dot the skyline while historic palaces add an air of mystery and culture to lure visitors in. If you’re planning to visit China and spend some time in Beijing, follow this itinerary to make sure you visit all the must-see monuments and cultural locations in the city.

Forbidden City
The Forbidden City in Beijing.

Morning: The Forbidden City

One of the most iconic locations in Asia is Beijing’s Forbidden City, a must-see for anyone in the area. The third Ming Emperor, Yung-lo created the Forbidden City, which served the emperors of China from 1421-1911. There are more than 9,000 rooms, vast courtyards, and endless stairways. The bright colors reflect strength and harmony and draw in any visitor.

Try to avoid visiting the Forbidden City on weekends of Chinese holidays, when families and large groups of tourists are likely to pack the courtyards. The Forbidden City is also closed on most Mondays, so check your calendar to make sure it’s open when you want to visit.

Guests will enter the Forbidden City through the southern gate (or Wumen Gate). This entrance was built in 1420 along the meridian line of Beijing and is also the tallest part of the palace. This entrance is also linked to Tiananmen Square. Guests exit from the northern gate (or Shenwu Men, the Gate of Divine).

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Mid-Morning: Tiananmen Square

While you’re near the Forbidden City, set aside some time to walk around Tiananmen Square and understand the historical significance of the location. In 1989, thousands of students gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of ousted General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang. Some of the protests attracted more than 1.2 million people.

After several weeks of demonstrations, Chinese troops entered Tiananmen Square and fired on civilians. Death toll estimates range from several hundred to thousands and more than 10,000 protesters were arrested. After the arrest, several dozen protesters were executed for their behavior. The last known protester related to the Tiananmen Square was released in 2016.

These protests created iconic cultural imagery, like the Tiananmen Square Tank Man, who was photographed as a single man standing in front of a line of tanks, blocking their way.

Tiananmen Square was iconic before the protests in 1989 and is an important stopping point for any visitor in Beijing. Tiananmen means “gate of heavenly peace,” and is home to Tiananmen Tower, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the Memorial Hall for Chairman Mao, and the National Museum of China. While you might visit the square for a few minutes to take in the history and context of the people’s relationship with the government, Tiananmen Square is a part of Beijing you will return to several times during your trip to continue learning about Chinese culture.

Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing.

Lunch: Wangfujing Snack Street

After spending the morning exploring the history of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, head to Wangfujing Street in the Dongcheng District for lunch. This is one of the busiest streets in Beijing and sells all kinds of food, souvenirs, and goods.

As you walk along this street, you can find traditional Chinese food to please picky eaters along with more adventurous fares for travelers with iron stomachs. You can find almost anything on a stick, which can then be fried or eaten directly from the stall. Pick a few of your favorites and sit down for a lunch of sea star, scorpion, and grasshopper. The salty crunch as you break through the outer shell will give way to juicy meat and give you the energy to keep touring throughout the afternoon.

You don’t have to eat meat to enjoy some of the best food in China. The large Buddhist and Taoist population means there are more than 50 million vegetarians living in the country today. Asia as a whole doesn’t eat a lot of dairy products, which means vegans also won’t struggle to find food they can eat. Noodles are in abundance throughout the country and you can find tofu in various forms (especially fried) as you walk through the markets.

Badaling Great Wall
The Great Wall of China in Beijing.

Early Afternoon: The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is 13,171 miles (21,196 kilometers) long. The total length was recorded after a five-year archaeological survey and announced in 2012, with the final number almost twice as long as previously estimated.

Construction of the great wall lasted through several dynasties, including the Ming Dynasty, which contributed more than 5,500 miles (8,852 kilometers) to its length.

The Great Wall of China is longer than the distance between New York and California, which means visitors only visit sections of it during their time in the country. The most popular section is the Badaling Great Wall, which is also the best-preserved and most complete option. The Badaling Great Wall has handrails and isn’t very steep, making it a popular choice for seniors and young children who aren’t able to hike.

The Badaling Great Wall is located an hour outside of Beijing, and most visitors sign up for tours to help with navigating the traffic, entrance fees, and a map of the Great Wall. More adventurous visitors can sign up for multiday hikes along the wall or take excursions to one of the more remote sections with fewer tourists.

Yonghegong Lama Temple
Yonghe Lama Temple in Beijing.

Late Afternoon: Yonghe Lama Temple

After a hectic day of hiking, touring, and learning, step away from the bustle of Beijing and visit the Yonghe Lama Temple. This Buddhist temple has more than 300 years of history and is home to the largest wooden Buddha in the world.

The Yonghe Lama Temple might look different from some Buddhist temples because it was originally built as an official residence of the Ming Dynasty. In 1693 under the Qing Dynasty, it was converted to a royal court and then elevated to an imperial palace in 1725. This lasted until 1744 when the Palace of Eternal Peace was dedicated for use as a temple.

Walking through the temple, you can feel the royal history along with the Buddha’s Zen. There are five courtyards to walk through with murals and carvings along the way. Trees provide shade to guests as they make their way to the main halls. Guests can visit the Palace of the Heavenly King, the Eternal Blessing Hall, and The Hall of Boundless when they visit the Yonghe Lama Temple. You might even hear monks chanting as you walk through the grounds.

Early Evening: Tuck into Hot Pot or Dine with Monks

While the street food alone makes Beijing a Foodie’s Paradise, there are plenty of restaurants to explore to better understand Chinese food and culture. Some restaurants specialize in traditional cuisine, following recipes passed down by generations of cooks, while others apply a modern twist to their fares and excite the palate with avant-garde flavors.

Haidilao Hot Pot is a popular restaurant choice for visitors who enjoy the traditional form of Asian dining where guests cook their meals in boiling broth or on a grill in front of them. Guests choose different broth options and have a variety of meat and seafood choices to add to your plate.

One popular option for vegetarians is Pure Lotus, an upscale restaurant owned by a former monk. Most guests visit this restaurant for the ambiance and presentation, as the restaurant is built around a courtyard and visitors sit on plush cushions that make you feel like royalty. You are also served by Buddhist monks and can enjoy fresh ingredients prepared with care.

798 Art Zone
The 798 Art Zone in Beijing.

Late Evening: Visit the 798 Art Zone

As night falls on Beijing, the party’s just getting started. Visitors can enjoy modern art and Chinese culture in the 798 Art Zone, located in the Dashanzi area just north of central Beijing. Factory 798 originally produced electronics, and the Dashanzi area is still home to many state-run factories. However, in 2002, artists and cultural organizations started renting out parts of these spaces for creative expression.

Today, 798 has expanded to the point where more than 75 million visitors spend time walking through the galleries and pathways each year. Featured artists and musicians change regularly, including Ai Wei Wei, Jiang Yousheng, and Tik Shiro.

The 798 Art Zone has been described as “Soho-esque” because it’s home to restaurants, bars, and clubs to compliment the live music venues and art exhibits. Even visitors who aren’t art connoisseurs are sure to find something interesting in this location.

Where to Stay in Beijing

If you want to be in the center of the action, look for hotels in the Wangfujing neighborhood. Not only is this area full of culture and food, it’s also conveniently located next to Tiananmen Square, which means you can walk to some of the top sites in Beijing.

The Hilton Beijing Wangfujing boasts 255 rooms and more than 58 suites. This hotel also boasts some of the largest rooms in Beijing, making it worth the cost. There are three restaurants and two bars at the Hilton in case all of your sightseeing adventures from the day have worn you out. Located near the Forbidden City, the Hilton is close to metro and bus stops, or the friendly staff can call you a taxi that will take you to your next destination.

Nanluoguxiang is another area you should consider when looking for hotels in Beijing. While Wangfujing is known for its street food, Nanluoguxiang is known for its trendy restaurants and bars that push the limits of modern cuisine. Both neighborhoods are in fantastic locations, which means the lodging options fill up fast and are pricier than locations in other parts of the city. However, you should be able to find a hotel, hotels, or guesthouse within your price range.

Located in Nanluoguxiang is the Beijing Traditional View Hotel. Consider this option if you want to stay in a more traditional setting with a courtyard style an architecture celebrating the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Forbidden City is located to the south of this hotel and the Lama Temple can be found to the north. If you want to be close to some of Beijing’s top sites but not necessarily right next to them, this accommodation is a great choice.

Wherever you choose to stay in Beijing, you’re sure to enjoy the bustle and culture of this vibrant city.

Flying Into Beijing: An Airport Guide

The main airport in the area is the Beijing Capital International Airport (airport code: PEK), located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Beijing city center. The Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA) is known as “China’s Number One Gateway,” and is one of the top airport options for entering the country.

BCIA is roughly 60 years old (built in 1958) and processes more than 86 million passengers each year. BCIA has routes all over the world, servicing more than 66 airlines. The airport boasts flights to more than 88 domestic and 69 international cities, including exclusive locations like Pyongyang, North Korea.

Choosing The Right Terminal

Travelers through BCIA will go through one of three terminals. A modernized version of Terminal One was opened in 1980, while the upgraded Terminal Two debuted in 1999, and Terminal Three was put into use in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics. These upgrades make BCIA one of the top airports for travelers to fly into, even if they’re just connecting to other cities in China or different Asian countries.

Terminal One is known as the Domestic hub, and you’re likely to arrive in this section of BCIA if you’re connecting from Shanghai or Hong Kong. This is also the main hub for Hainan Airlines, the largest civilian-run airline and fourth-largest airline (by fleet size) in China. Guests who are connecting to or from international flights should easily be able to access the other terminals from Terminal One, as each section is only a five-minute walk away. However, while it’s possible to move between terminals, it’s important for travelers to know which terminal their flights depart from to ensure they board on time.

Terminal Two is the busiest terminal and is home to Air China. Along with domestic flights, this terminal also houses 30 international carriers, which means you’re likely to fly out of here if you’re leaving the country. Terminal Three also carries 26 international airlines and is the second largest airport terminal in the world. Only Dubai International Airport boasts a bigger terminal. The sheer size of Terminal Three means it can accommodate the same traffic levels as Terminal Two without the bustle and crowds.

Getting To and From the Airport

One of the biggest worries travelers experience is getting to the city center when they arrive in a new location. There are multiple options for guests arriving at BCIA, depending on your budget and how quickly you want to arrive.

If you prefer to travel by train, board the Airport Express which departs from Terminals Two and Three. This line also opened in 2008 ahead of the Olympics and transports visitors directly to the city center in roughly 30 minutes. If you’re familiar with airport express shuttles like the Gatwick or Heathrow Express in London or the Narita Express in Tokyo, then you should feel comfortable taking this form of transportation. When you arrive in Dongzhimen station, you can switch to the local metro or bus lines or hail a taxi to your hotel.

Another option for travelers is the airport shuttle bus, which offers nine routes to different parts of Beijing. If you’re not staying close to the city center, this might be a better option for you. Before you arrive, ask your hotel concierge for the best way to reach them, so you can board the right bus or shuttle for prompt arrival.

If you don’t want to travel on public transit with your suitcases, a taxi from BCIA to your destination will cost between $15-30 USD. A trip to the city center (if your hotel is near the Forbidden City) will only cost about $15 USD, but longer trips to the Great Wall will be closer to $30 USD. These numbers tend to fluctuate with currency valuations, so you might have to pay a little extra if the dollar is weaker during your visit.

While Beijing Capital International Airport is one of the busiest in Asia and the world, the organization and layout make it easy to navigate when you arrive. The multitude of ground transportation options available to visitors can make it easy for anyone to find their hotel quickly and start their Beijing adventure.

Whether you’re a history buff looking to embrace the various dynasties that built China into the mammoth nation that it is today, or a foodie planning to eat your way through the markets of Beijing, you’re sure to find more activities and options than you can fit into one day. This itinerary is a great start, but there’s so much more to see.

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