One day in Beijing (twice)
October 10, 2018 11:09 PM   Subscribe

Thanks to long layovers, I will have most of a day in Beijing, twice, in early January. What do you recommend I do in the city in a day?

I have two long hour daytime stops in Beijing this January. I understand that it's possible to get a visa to enter the city whilst on a long layover, and that is what I intend to do. However, I've never been to Beijing, will not be used to the cold, and will probably be exhausted between long flights.

The two stops are:
Wednesday, 2 January: very early morning to mid-afternoon (10 hours total)
Monday, 14 January: mid-morning to late night (15 hours total)

It seems to me that this is enough time to drop off my luggage in a locker, do some leisurely sightseeing, have a nice meal or two, and get back in time to catch my onward flight.

I am a fairly experienced traveller, but would like to take it easy on these stops. I like food, culture, history, beautiful places, interesting people.

My questions:

1. For a first time visitor to Beijing with limited time, what do you recommend I do on visit 1 and visit 2? I am not a completist so I don't want a hectic itinerary, but it seems like a good opportunity to see the Forbidden City on one stop and Tiananmen Square on the second, perhaps adding a museum to one of the two stops. Or perhaps visit the Great Wall on one of the trips? What do you think?

2. I'll be flying to and from warm climates, so I will almost certainly be under-dressed and unused to the weather. Is there an easy way to pick up a warm, cheap, more-or-less disposable (or rented) jacket or coat from the airport or near one of the main sites? Any other tips on staying warm, eg cafes, restaurants or museums to dive into?

3. FOOD. What do you recommend that is near the sites? I don't know Chinese, but have travelled a lot in East Asia so am reasonably confident in my ignorance.

4. Any other matters of logistics that you can advise on? Eg - it would be crazy to go to xyz place the day after 1 Jan, or the museums are all shut on Mondays.

5. Normally I eschew organised tours, but in this case I am willing to consider it if it'll make one or both trips much easier. I see there are many day tours available from the airport - if you advise a tour, do you have experience of a tour provider or guide whom you can recommend, and who will not subject me to jade shops etc?

6. Is the Mutianyu section of the Wall, which I understand is nearest the airport, nice? I'm especially interested if you have visited more than one section.
posted by tavegyl to Travel & Transportation around Beijing, China (6 answers total)
With that kind of time constraints, I would recommend the forbidden city/tiananmen area one day (there is more than enough to see there; temple of heaven, drum tower, coal hill etc etc) and a Great Wall trip on the other day. The Great Wall is unbelievably cool but the touristy areas like mutianyu are a bit much. Try to get a bit away from those places.
posted by banishedimmortal at 1:20 AM on October 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

It took me a long time (~2 hours) to queue and get the transit visa. Also, getting to the wall by car from central Beijing took a long time tho perhaps is quicker from the airport - the tourist bit at mutianyu was restored so didn't really have much charm or interest, also very busy. The wild wall section further on was amazing and well worth a visit.

Walking around central Beijing is great, lots to see and good food. I went at Xmas so was -2c or so but very dry so didn't feel to cold if you kept moving. Fairly sunny too. Have a great trip!
posted by JonB at 1:36 AM on October 11, 2018

I am not sure about the actual logistics of time, but Culinary Backstreets, which is a food tour that I love (and recommend all the time on the green), has a Beijing option. A friend did it in the spring and said it was incredible.
posted by something_witty at 6:32 AM on October 11, 2018

Great Wall for sure. In 2016, I had an eleven hour layover in Beijing and arranged a car and driver to meet me at one of the coffee shops in the Arrivals Hall. My luggage was checked through, so I only had a carry on with me. It took me a while to confirm that I was in the right place, but getting the visa stamp was easy (there was signage in English) and the line wasn't too long. My driver spoke English and drove me the 90 minutes or so to Mutianyu.

Yes it's a tourist trap, but I loved it. I was there in mid-February and we arrived in the morning, so perhaps before the onslaught of busses, but it was nearly empty. It was cold and windy and I was coming from SE Asia. Despite wearing every piece of cold weather clothing I had, I was still freezing. We took the gondola up, walked around for a couple of hours, took lots of pictures, and then headed back to the airport. I caught a snooze on the trip back.

Whole thing took maybe 6 hours and I got back to the airport in plenty of time. It would have been nice to see some of the un-restored parts, but I don't regret it at all. I think I paid my driver $125 or so. Found him through research on FlyerTalk. I was happy to pay extra to not deal with a stop at the jade store or to be part of a group. It was well worth it.
posted by jindc at 11:04 AM on October 11, 2018

PS I forgot to add, we got off the bus and walked right through the tourist shops and restaurants at the bottom of the Wall without stopping. Was no worse than walking down any touristy street in any city in Europe. Used the bathroom at the ticket booth, but otherwise avoided the t-shirt vendors and tchotchke shops completely. In retrospect, I wish I had bought something cheesy as a momento, but I was able to basically ignore the tourist trap aspects and just enjoy the walk up the hill to the gondola and spend the time strolling on the Wall itself.
posted by jindc at 11:11 AM on October 11, 2018

Go to the Summer Palace. It's spectacular -- even more than the Forbidden City. Don't miss the Tibetan-style palaces on the back side of Longevity Hill, and the Souzhou Street area. There's such a variety of structures and scenes, you could easily spend an entire day there, and I have. Unlike the Wall, hawkers aren't allowed in the Summer Palace, although there are shops in Souzhou Street.

The Great Wall is a trip, in both senses, but it's kind of monotonic. The Forbidden City is a better experience, but once you get used to the architectural style, you need to seek out some of the indoor exhibits, like the Clock museum. The FC and Tiananmen Square are in the same place. You can stand on Tiananmen Gate, where Mao reviewed mass demonstrations in the Square, across Long Peace Street. The Gate is the front entrance to the Forbidden City.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:24 PM on October 11, 2018

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