3 Days in Beijing; The Perfect Itinerary

18 June 2013

Planning a trip to Beijing can be daunting. The city is massive and likewise there are so many things to do. With a city that has thousands of years of history, how does one plan a trip?

Hopefully this itinerary will help you organize your scattered mind and allow you to get an idea of what to see and do. The activities I've listed are some of the top highlights of Beijing and are also grouped together by districts of the city that they are in for ease of travel. Feel free to mix and match things as you like!

Day One: Palaces & Pandas

Don't get confused; there are two summer palaces! They're located right next to each other but differ vastly. There's the Summer Palace which was used throughout the Qing dynasty as a residence for royalty and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then there's the Old Summer Palace which is equally historic but now lays in ruins after being bombed during the Second Opium War.

So which one should you go to? Luckily, this itinerary I've prepared allots time for both! Start in the morning at the Summer Palace and ascend the hill to watch an amazing sunrise over the lakes and temples. Then head back down and check out the living quarters to get an intimate feel of the lives of Chinese royalty. Truly, the buildings and gardens are so beautiful- like a Chinese version of Versailles. My favorite sites were the Long Corridor, The Hall that Dispels the Clouds, and The Sea of Wisdom Temple. Take a couple hours to enjoy the scenery.

Next head over to the Old Summer Palace for a quick jaunt around the complex. Admittedly, this isn't going to be as visually stunning as the Summer Palace but it still warrants a visit for its cultural and historical significance. Plus, there are way less tourists here!
After that, grab some street food for lunch and head over to the Beijing Zoo because you can't go to China without seeing a panda bear! I've already mentioned my unpleasant experience at the Wuhan zoo but luckily Beijing's zoo is completely opposite! This zoo receives much better funding and that is reflected in the exhibits. Pandas look much more adorable when you're not looking at them through prison bars!

Then wind down your day with a stroll down Nanluogu Xiang which is located among historical hutong style homes just east of the zoo. Here you can experience an authentic (notice all the locals in the photo?) evening in Beijing. Go shopping in the boutiqes and galleries or just enjoy the traditional as well as international foods. Either way, everything in this alley is extremely cheap and the atmosphere is great. I stumbled upon Nanluogu Xiang on accident during my first night in Beijing and I ended up going back there every evening because the bar scene was so cool!

Day Two: Great Wall & Bird's Nest

Taking a trip to the Great Wall of China is an absolute must if you're in Beijing but it should be understood that this is no quick trip. The bus ride itself takes around 2 hours each way and you'll also want to spend several hours hiking and enjoying the wall.

When it comes to the section of the wall you visit, I recommend Mutianyu. It happened to be misty the day we visited which worked out great because we were able to hike more and not die from heat exhaustion. Plus, I adore my photos of the wall covered in mist- it's so moody and atmospheric! I loved visiting the Mutianyu part of the Great Wall because a) you can buy some really cool souvenirs on your hike up to the wall b) you can explore the "wild wall", or the part of the wall that isn't maintained c) after you finish hiking the wall you can ride a toboggan back down! Just make sure you get back on time to get your bus back to Beijing because lots of people will be trying to get on the same bus. Be early and fight to the front as soon as the bus doors open or you'll be left behind!

Mist over the Great Wall
After you get back from your trip, catch a subway train and spend the evening relaxing by the 2008 Olympic Stadium. Not only is it stunningly beautiful when lit up at night but it's also a rather happening place to hang out. I was surprised to find children running around the plaza with sparklers and vendors selling traditional foods. I even saw fried cat ears! I, however, decided to get some candied crab apples and they were amazing! Also, don't forget to have fun and use this opportunity to take some pictures striking your best Olympian pose in front of the stadium!

Day Three: Temple of Heaven & Tian'anmen Square

Hope you're not tired of historical buildings because this day includes even more! Start at the Temple of Heaven and enjoy the complex which has been in use for centuries. The temple itself was used by Chinese emperors as a ritualistic space for praying for a good harvest each year and the grounds around it reflect the spiritual nature of it. Nowadays locals enjoy this space as a place to play tennis and practice tai chi.

Next, catch the subway and go a couple stops to Tian'anmen square. After getting your picture at the gate with Mao, head in to explore the mind-blowingly enormous and beautiful Forbidden City. The complex is vast and will take you several hours to explore all of its nooks and crannies. From throne room to bedroom, every inch is elaborately decorated and drenched in opulence. I was surprised to find that there is actually a museum within some of the buildings showcasing art and ceramics from several different dynasties of Chinese history.

For a view that looks over the entire complex, go to Jingshan park. Not only does it has a beautiful Buddhist temple, but it also offers a great view of the city.

Then in the evening- after working up an appetite with all that walking- treat yourself to some Peking duck!  Many people have asked me if Peking duck is really that good and my response is, "OMG yes, I wish I could have some now!" The skin is crispy, the meat juicy, and the taste reminded me slightly of bacon. It's something you've got to try for yourself. There are a couple restaurants around Beijing that are "famous" for their duck but in reality you can go to just about any restaurant and get duck of the same quality for a fraction of the price.

If you get through these activities quickly and still have time, consider doing...

Donghuamen night market: So what if other people consider this touristy? If you wanna go to China and try a fried scorpion, that's your choice.

Yonghe Temple: I'm a big proponent of having some cultural experiences while traveling so a stop at this Tibetan Buddhist temple is a great idea if you have some time. The complex is small and should only take an hour to be explored.

Peking Opera: Admittedly, most Westerners do not enjoy Peking Opera but that doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a try. This art dates back thousands of years and is a cultural pride of China.

Have you ever been to Beijing? What would you include on your perfect itinerary?

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  1. Ok well this was just saved in my 'travel links' folder for that hopefully sooner then later day I eventually get over to Beijing ;)

    1. Haha awesome! I hope you can go soon!

  2. Excellent itinerary! You`re getting great stuff in for those 3 days. If I could squeeze in one more activity it would have to be the night market.

    1. Yeah, I wish I had done that! Next time I guess, haha!