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Our Trans Mongolia railway trip kicked off with 4 days in Beijing. We saw some of the top sights, ate a lot of good food and sweated a LOT in Beijing’s extremely hot and humid conditions. TMI? Sorrynotsorry. If you’re planning a trip to Beijing, China for a vacation or on a layover, then check out this Beijing itinerary for 4 days.
Beijing is the capital of China and is split between a glorious, notorious past and its race towards the future. In just one city you can find 6 Unesco World Heritage Sites, temples, mazes of hútòngs (the ancient alleyways that are home to thousands as well as bars and restaurants), then there’s the Great Wall of China to the north of Beijing city which is accessible on a day trip.
On top of this, there’s some extremely delicious food to be found from Peking Duck to bowls of steaming noodles, dumplings and street food eats. There’s food from every corner of China in this city!
Beijing air pollution is a well-known fact about the city. I think we got pretty lucky (or we’re just used to the forest fire pollution Vancouver gets in the summer). Beijing pollution really wasn’t that bad when we visited. It was a bit misty the first 4 days and super misty the morning we arrived back from Russia but it had cleared up a few hours later.
You can see the air quality index in Beijing here on AQI Beijing
Where is Beijing?
Beijing is in the north of China and the Beijing municipality makes up its own province. The city is surrounded by the Hebei Province.
How to get to Beijing
There are multiple ways to get to Beijing but the two main ways are by booking flights to Beijing or getting there by train.
Flights to Beijing
Beijing Capital International airport receives flights from all over the world. From Vancouver, we were able to fly direct and this will be the case from most major cities.
We flew with Air China who I wouldn’t exactly recommend. They were fine but the food left much to be desired and the plane on the journey out felt very old and uncomfortable. But hey, they were the cheapest and I can’t argue with that!
I always book my flights through Skyscanner as they make it super easy to find cheap flights. They’ve been my goto for as long as I can remember!
If you’re not sure what dates you want to fly I highly recommend signing up to Dollar Flight Club. They’re experts in finding incredible flight deals and by signing up to their emails you’ll be the first to know about cheap flights to Beijing! I’ve seen some for about a 1/3 of what we paid (unfortunately we’d already booked!).
Getting from Beijing airport to city
The easiest and cheapest way to get to downtown Beijing from the airport is to get the Beijing Airport Express. This train costs 25¥ each way and goes to 2 big stations in Beijing from which you can get the subway to nearer your hotel.
Getting the train to Beijing
We started our Trans Siberian railway experience in Beijing but many people do it the other way round and get the train to Beijing from Moscow, Irkutsk or elsewhere.
China’s high-speed trains are great. They’re super reliable and super fast; it’s how we travelled when we went to China before. Train travel is great and watching the world go past from the comfort of your seat (and they are pretty comfy too) is way more fun than a plane!
Getting around Beijing
We found getting around Beijing incredibly easy. Their public transport system is great and I know I always say I’ve never found anywhere as good as London’s but I think Beijing is at least equal (maybe better!).
The Beijing subway is extensive and covers all the main destinations you’ll want to visit during your Beijing trip. They also have easy to use buses and it’s all quite cheap.
The subway network is easy to use even as a foreigner and non-Mandarin speaker. The maps have the names written in Latin characters and the ticket machines can all be switched to show instructions in English.
Prices range from 3¥ t0 9¥ and vary depending on how far you’re travelling. Pretty much all of our journeys cost 3¥.
You can see a Beijing map of the subway network here.
Beijing transport card
The Beijing travel card like is an even easier way of getting around the city. Known as a ‘Yikatong Card’ it’s valid for Beijing’s buses, subway and the Airport Express Train, S2 trains and public bicycles.
Any visitor can get this card and it’s available at the customer service centre of all subway stations as well as some bank branches and at the ticket windows of the Airport Express Train. Customer Service Center of all subway stations.
The card doesn’t get you discount on the subway but it will get you 50% off on the buses.
Every card needs a 20¥ refundable deposit. It’s recommended to top up with 50¥ for a 2-3 day visit and 100¥ for a week. Return the card when you leave Beijing to get your 20¥ deposit back.
Where to stay in Beijing
We stayed at Nostalgia hotel where we got a nice room with a private bathroom. It was also super cheap costing 315 CAD for 4 nights.
It was within walking distance of the Temple of Heaven which is one of my Beijing must sees. The only downside was that it was a 15-20 minute walk from the nearest subway station. This doesn’t seem that bad at first but when you’ve spent the day wandering around Beijing this walk was a bit of a downer!
However, I’d still recommend it!
Other places to stay in Beijing
If I was going to go back to Beijing, I’d book a hostel closer to places like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square since this area (or line 2 of the subway network) is where we found ourselves spending most of our time.
Here are a few recommendations for accommodations in Beijing based on reviews on Booking.com
- Budget accommodation in Beijing (under 100CAD): Red Lantern House | Simple Family Beijing | Yue Xuan Courtyard Garden Hostel
- Mid-range (100-150CAD): Sunworld Dynasty Hotel | Happy Dragon City Culture Hotel | Beijing Prime Hotel | Hotel Kapok
- Luxury over (150CAD): Jingshan Garden Hotel | Pan Pacific Beijing | The Peninsula Beijing | Mandarin Oriental
Itinerary for four days in Beijing and things to do in Beijing
If you’re looking for what to do in Beijing, China then check out this list of the top Beijing attractions for when you visit Beijing. This Beijing travel blog includes all of the best things we did in Beijing as well as a few more Beijing sites that were on our list but we didn’t quite get time for!
Map of Beijing attractions mentioned below
Use this as your Beijing tourist map to help you plan your trip. Note that Google Maps doesn’t work in China unless you have a VPN. If you don’t have a VPN download Baidu maps (China’s equivalent to Google) and saves the points on there before you head out exploring for the day.
Forbidden City, Beijing
The busiest of all the Beijing tourist attractions we visited, the Forbidden City is a must do despite the fact its crowds are almost off-putting. Every westerner we spoke to about the Forbidden City said they got the point where they just had to get out of there due to the insane amount of people.
Yes, it’s busy, even at 8.30am when it opens, but you can also get away from the worst of the crowds by wandering off to the sites of the city. Most of the main buildings to see go down the middle. But, walk off to the righthand side and explore the lesser-known buildings, and things get a lot quieter.
The halls here are very impressive and I’d recommend visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing to all visitors.
The Lonely Planet, Beijing guide has a great walking tour that takes you to some of the best areas and gives you a bit of background.
The Temple of Heaven
One of my favourites of the places to visit in Beijing was the Temple of Heaven. It was our first stop after leaving our bags at our hotel so we were there just after 8 am. From the reading we’ve done, this is one of the best times to go. In the morning is when the locals are up and practising Tai Chi, doing keepy-upys with a large shuttlecock, dancing and playing cards at this Beijing landmark.
The park area around the temple is huge and the buildings are beautiful – even in the thunderstorm that was in full force during our visit!
Beijing food tour
We took one Beijing tour during our trip and it was a highlight of our whole Trans Mongolian railway trip!
Our Beijing food tour took us through the hutongs and we ate SO much food! There were 5 sit down stops as well as some snacks picked up along the way. We visited one of the best rice wine bars in Beijing as well as a chicken wing shop in a hutong with a great backstory.
Tours aren’t something we usually spend money on but this one was awesome and has to be one of the best tours in Beijing.
Beijing 798 Art District
If you’re an art lover and are looking for art in Beijing then be sure to visit the art district in Beijing. If you’re looking for what to see in Beijing that’s a bit different then this is it.
The 798 art district in Beijing is full of art galleries, cute coffee shops and restaurants. There are also sculptures all over the 798 art zone in Beijing.
We went here the morning of our Beijing layover and enjoyed wandering around an area that’s so different from the rest of the city.
Just across the road from the north exit of The Forbidden City is Jingshan Park. This Beijing garden is without a doubt one of the prettiest and most calming places to see in Beijing.
We loved stopping here after the craziness of The Forbidden City and then climbing up to the top of the park to soak in the views from above.
It costs just 2¥ to enter.
Visit the Great Wall of China
You can’t visit Beijing and not do a trip from Beijing to the Great Wall of China. It’s without a doubt one of the main things to see in Beijing! There are so many sections to visit and picking which one to see can be difficult.
I’d urge you to stay away from the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Yes, it’s one of the easier day trips from Beijing since it’s the closest and easy to get to by train but it’s also incredibly busy. The sheer amount of people can easily ruin your experience. We heard from others that the Mutianyu section, which is often said to be less busy, is now basically just as bad.
We visited the Gubeikou section of the Great Wall of China and hiked at sunrise and then a little later in the morning. On either hike, we didn’t see anyone which is quite amazing!
Whilst we chose to stay overnight so we could visit the wall at sunrise, you can also do a day trip to this part of the Great Wall from Beijing it’ll just be a long day since travelling there takes about 3 hours each way.
This is where we stayed and you can even see the wall from the bedroom!
Beijing Great Wall tours
We travelled independently, getting the public buses and fending of taxi drivers who tried to tell us the bus was no longer running. If you’d rather take a tour and not have to worry about transport, check out these Great Wall tours from Beijing.
- Beijing: Jinshanling Great Wall Group Tour with Lunch
- Jinshanling wall hike
- Simatai Great Wall and Gubei Water Town
- Jinshanling Great Wall Group Tour from Beijing
There are even more Great Wall of China tours from Beijing to some of the busier sections that are a bit closer. You can see them all here.
We were both keen on learning some calligraphy and so booked a lesson one afternoon.
Richard has been learning calligraphy for decades and he taught us the basics from how to hold a brush, draw straight lines and then put it all together to create a dragon symbol.
It was such a fun thing to do in Beijing! This is the calligraphy lesson we did.
Wander the hutongs
The hutongs in Beijing are traditionally courtyard residences and nowadays they’re one of the top attractions in Beijing. Besides the food tour we did, wandering these narrow streets full of shops, cafes, bars was one of my favourite things to do in Beijing.
While a lot of the hutongs have been gentrified, there are still many that retain their original buildings it’s these that make the top of Beijing’s best places to visit.
A hutong tour in Beijing is the ideal way to discover what the hutongs have to offer. Take a look at this Beijing hutong tour by bike.
Eat Peking duck
One of the best activities in Beijing is eating! There’s so much good food and setting an evening aside to go and eat Peking duck is a must-do!
We were recommended Siju Minfu by a couple we met when staying by the Great Wall of China and it did not disappoint. We went to the branch in Dashilar Hutong.
Drum and Bell Towers
After exploring some of the nearby hutongs, we visiting the Drum and Bell towers simply because we liked their architecture.
We found them surprisingly quiet, especially when compared to the Forbidden City and the surrounding area.
It costs 30¥ to visit the pair. We’d read you could get a ticket for just either one of them but that wasn’t an option when we visited. It was only possible to buy a ticket just the Bell Tower (20¥) or both.
One of the top places on the list of Beijing sightseeing is Tiananmen Square. You could argue there’s not a huge amount to see here as in a way there isn’t.
It’s a massive square, the world’s largest public square in fact. The main attractions are really what’s nearby. There are the Forbidden City and multiple museums.
If you arrive early int he morning you can watch the flag-raising but be aware that it gets SUPER busy!
Discover Wangfujing Snack Street
One of the best places to visit in Beijing for those keen to see some more strange food on offer.
The street gets super busy and yes, it’s very touristy but it’s also quite fun to walk around.
There are all sorts of meats on sticks (seriously, you’ll have to watch your eyes here), as well as souvenirs and more traditional foods such as málà tàng (a spicy soup from Sìchuān) and zhájiàngmiàn (Běijīng noodles in fried bean sauce. Most portions cost 10¥.
Things we didn’t quite get time for but were on the list
Below are even more of Beijing sites and they’re definitely worthy of being defined as some of the best things to do in Beijing.
The Summer Palace
Of all the places to go in Beijing, The Summer Place was the one we were recommended the most by everyone we spoke to after we’d left the city.
It looks stunning and we’ve heard it’s a great place for a picnic. If we ever return to Beijing then this will definitely be top of our list of places to visit in Beijing.
Cycle around Beijing
There are a lot of bicycles in Beijing. While most of them may not be push-bikes nowadays, lots are electric, the city is well set up for cyclists. The cycle paths are super wide and often well-separated from the roads.
You can take cycle tours past some of the main sights, or just use a bike in Beijing to get from place to place.
Visit the Lama Temple
The Lama Temple, also known as The Yonghe Temple, is a popular Beijing attraction and is the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.
The temple is still an active place of worship and is well worth visiting. There are beautiful roofs, frescoes, arches, tapestries and carpentry as well as Tibetan prayer wheels and a pair of Chinese lions. Oh, and of course there’s incense in the air!
Wander around the Houhai Lakes
Also known as Shíchàhǎi (什刹海), the Hòuhǎi Lakes are comprised of three lakes: Qiánhǎi, Hòuhǎi and Xīhǎi.
This area is one of Beijing’s favourite outdoor spots. During the day you’ll find seniors using the exercise machines along the lake, or just hanging out, then at night it actually becomes a popular nightlife spot.
You can rent pedaloes and boats here and in the winter the lakes freezer over which is quite the sight!
See the Beijing Olympic Park
You can visit the Olympic Park where the 2008 Olympics in Beijing took place. The stadium looks super cool which amazing architecture and it was on our list to visit but we simply ran out of time!