Three days in Beijing might not seem like much, but you still have plenty of time to see the sights! This itinerary covers the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven, as well as some lesser-known spots you shouldn’t miss.
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China is a fascinating place to travel, even if it feels a little uncomfortable the first time you visit. I’ve done my fair share of travel all over the world, and I’ve never felt as out of place as I did in China. Prepare yourself for some culture shock!
I’ve included lots of pictures below, though a fair number of them had to be converted to black and white because the heavy pollution in the city washed out all of the color in the original photographs (for an idea of how bad it can get, check out these photos).
We all came back with nasty sore throats due to the air quality, so keep that in mind when planning your trip. I was told by several locals that people only wear face masks if they are sick (to avoid infecting others), but if I were to go back I’d wear a mask on heavy pollution days.
There’s one piece of advice I can’t recommend strongly enough: get a guide!
My travel companions (my sister, Emily, and her bestie, Paige) and I purchased our trip to China as part of a discounted group trip, but we didn’t want to participate in the huge group tours. We were able to secure a fabulous tour guide for less than what it would have cost us to be shuffled around in a group of 50 travelers!
Notes and Tips:
- This itinerary is for three days in Beijing, not including travel days. You’ll want to arrive the evening before day 1, and leave the morning or day after Day 3.
- The streets are confusing – I’m pretty sure that all of the street signs hanging in intersections only tell you what road you are on, NOT what the cross road is. This can be very confusing, as it’s the opposite of how we mark our streets here in the U.S. It’s very easy to get lost here, so do what you can to plan ahead.
- Bring your own toilet paper with you EVERYWHERE. You’ll thank me later.
Alright, without further adieu…
Three Days in Beijing
8:00am: Temple of Heaven – Get up early and eat a huge breakfast before you head towards the Temple of Heaven. Observe the local elders in the gardens leading to the temple.
You can witness traditional music performances, dance, exercise, and even a bit of gambling.
Be sure to walk through the courtyard near the Seven Star Rocks and take a look at the matchmaking market. I wouldn’t recommend taking pictures while you witness this exchange; you might get some nasty looks!
Once you’ve walked through the gardens you’ll reach the actual complex. Head inside the museums and read about the fascinating history of this site. Here’s a (not so) fun fact: I was told that ritual animal sacrifices were conducted here up until the early 1900s.
10:00am: Forbidden City – First things first: You MUST bring your passport with you when buying tickets. Our guide forgot to tell us this, and all three of us just happened to be carrying them with us that day so we could still get in.
There is a limit to the number of tickets sold each day, so get there right after you finish up at the Temple of Heaven. It’s closed on Mondays, so you might need to swap around this itinerary if your arriving at the beginning of the week.
Traffic is pretty nasty around this area, so I’d recommend being dropped off or taking the Subway. If you don’t bring a guide with you, skip picking one up at the entrance. Grab an Audio guide (available in 40 languages); they are cheap and reliable! You could easily wander around in here for hours upon hours, so try to remember to pack a few snacks in your bag because you’re going to have a late lunch. Don’t miss the Imperial Garden, it’s absolutely gorgeous!
Use the bathrooms here before you go – they are much nicer than the public restrooms available near Tiananmen Square and the Dashilan Hutongs.
1:30pm: Tiananmen Square – Have some lunch in a local restaurant, then walk through Tiananmen Square which is just a 20-minute walk south of the Forbidden City. Be sure to read up on the 1989 protests before you visit so you can appreciate what took place here. I wouldn’t recommend asking anyone you’re not very familiar with about the protests, as it’s a very sensitive and controversial subject.
2:30pm: Hutongs (Old Town) – For a glimpse of old Beijing, take an hour or two to walk through the tree-line alleyways of a “hutong.” If you’re in a hurry, or you’re just tired of walking, you can hire a rickshaw to cart you through a neighborhood.
Head towards the area of Dashilan, which is just southwest of Tiananmen Square or try the imperial hutong courtyards if you’re looking for something more regal (head northeast from Jingshan park, just north of the Forbidden City.
Evening: Peking Duck – If you’re a meat-eater, you can’t leave Beijing without chowing down on some Peking Duck! It seems like there are hundreds of establishments boasting the “best” Peking duck, but ask a local where they eat Peking duck and they’ll be sure to help you out.
Warning! LOTS of photos ahead.
All Day: Trip to Jinshanling (Great Wall of China) – Many visitors to Beijing visit the Badaling section of the Great Wall (about 50 miles from the city), but I think it’s worth the day trip to visit the Jinshanling gate. We only saw two other people on the wall the whole day!
It’s about two hours outside of the city, and the hike itself takes 4 hours, so bring snacks and be prepared for a long day! There will likely be two or three vendors selling snacks and drinks along the wall, so bring some cash with you if you think you might need something along the way (like a beer!).
The hike can be very intense, so wear comfortable shoes with non-slip soles. Some parts of the wall were so steep we had to get on hands and knees to crawl up!
Many parts of this section of the wall are in disrepair, so use caution!
Personally, I loved seeing the crumbling parts of the wall, but if you’re looking for a more well-maintained section you might be better off sticking to Badaling.
(Had to throw this cheesy picture in here… you might recall that is the same pose we did when we went on Safari in Kenya!)
Summer Palace – The Summer Palace is a large garden complex located just outside of Beijing.
There are lots of beautiful views to check out, and on a non-polluted day (which my guide continuously referred to as “foggy”) you can see for miles from the top of the palace structures.
Lama Temple or Beijing Zoo – You’ll have some time to explore this afternoon, and many people like to go to the Beijing Zoo to see the pandas. I had planned to go while I was there, but after reading reviews about the zoo conditions and animal treatment, I decided to boycott it. Do your own research and follow your gut!
Another option is to visit the Lama Temple, which is the biggest Zen Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. You can burn incense, explore the shrines, and spin a Tibetan Prayer Wheel. I loved this experience, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Tibetan culture.
Donghuamen (Wangfujing) Night Market – Besides hiking the Great Wall, this night market was my favorite experience in Beijing. This is a great place to pick up some souvenirs and gifts, provided you’re prepared to haggle over prices. Try some of the candy-coated strawberries for a sweet treat, or any of the various “creatures on a stick” if you’re feeling a bit more brave. I saw scorpions, centipedes, and even seahorses! The stalls are open from 4pm-ish to 10pm-ish.
Whew! That is one exhausting itinerary. You’ve probably worked up an appetite just reading through this post, so why don’t you check out my Spicy Sichuan Cabbage and Vegan Potstickers – they were inspired by my trip to China!
Until next time!