I've been to China quite a few times now, but I had always stuck to Shanghai or the Shenzhen area and I'd never had a chance to make it to Beijing. Beijing is what most people think of when they think of China and it's chock full of history and amazing things to see, so I was anxious to visit. I was finally able to make it happen back at the end of June and spent two days exploring the city and fitting in as many of the sights as possible.
First off, I'd recommend not visiting Beijing in the dead of summer. It was incredibly hot and humid and it was so insanely crowded at every sight we saw. That being said, summer was my chance to go, so I went.
I was traveling by myself and didn't want to deal with the hassle of trying to get to farther sights like the Great Wall at Mutianyu and the Summer Palace on my own, so I decided to book a two day small group tour. This was truly the best option for me and I'm so glad I did it, because I ended up with a really great group and we were able to take photos of each other and keep each other company on some of the longer car rides. The other best part was the guide we had for the tour. Her name was Sunny and she was excellent. She spoke perfect English and she had clearly been doing this for a long time, so she had all the tips and tricks and so many stories and facts to tell us, so she was really invaluable. You can contact her here (and I swear I wasn't paid to say this, but she really was awesome and truly recommend her as a guide).
On our first day, Sunny and our driver picked everyone up from our hotels and dropped us off at our first stop - Tiananmen Square. The square is truly massive and interestingly is the most important location for Chinese tourists to visit. There's a flag raising ceremony every morning at sunrise and people will camp out for hours to get a good spot to watch the ceremony every day. It's truly amazing. From the square, you can see the entrance to the Forbidden City/Imperial Palace and it's quite the sight to behold. The square is surrounded by government buildings and also the National Museum of China, which I didn't have a chance to visit, but I heard it's amazing.
From the square, we walked through the first gate into the Imperial Palace. The Palace is often called the Forbidden City because ordinary citizens were forbidden from entering the palace unless they had been invited by the Emperor. The city was full of incredible detail and continued on and on and on. It was also so full of people and nearly impossible to navigate at times, but was definitely a place you can't miss in Beijing.
After visiting the Palace, we had lunch and then headed out to the Great Wall. The Great Wall has multiple locations that you can visit, but I was told over and over to make sure I went to the Mutianyu section and I'm so glad I did. The most popular section of the wall is Badaling, but if you go there, you'll likely be surrounded by people. Mutianyu is farther outside of the city (about 1-1.5 hour drive depending on traffic) and therefore a bit trickier to get to, but it was so worth it. We were able to take a tram up to the wall and then you have the option of either taking the tram back down or taking a toboggan. The Wall was incredible and it was amazing to think about where you were standing while you were there. We were so lucky in that there were very few others around and I was able to get plenty of pictures free of other tourists, which was a very special treat.
After finishing our treks along the wall, we headed back in to Beijing and dispersed for the night. I took the opportunity to head over to one of Beijing's famous snack streets - Wangfujing. These snack streets are not for the faint of heart and I went over there not to actually eat anything, but more to just take in the spectacle. You'll find live scorpions still moving on sticks and any manner of crazy street food over here. There were starfish and whole squid and all kinds of meats all on sticks and I couldn't help but worry that one of the live scorpions might escape and find its way to sting my feet! It was crazy and there was no way I'd eat anything, but I'd definitely recommend checking out any of Beijing's many snack street areas.
Our first stop on day two was Jingshan Park. Jingshan is a beautiful park located just north of the Forbidden City. It does require a small entrance fee, but once inside, you can climb the man-made mountain all the way to the top for a spectacular view of Beijing and the Forbidden City laid out before you. Unfortunately, we visited on a very smoggy day, so our view wasn't as great, but it was still a great opportunity to take in the scale of the Forbidden City and Beijing around it.
After Jingshan Park, we made a brief stop at the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics and grabbed some photos of the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. The architecture of these buildings stunned me during the games and I was happy to be able to see them in person, but it's not a must-see sight in Beijing.
Next up was the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is located on the outskirts of Beijing and is full of lakes and gardens. The Emperor and his family would use the palace to escape the heat of Beijing and it was such a beautiful place to visit. The only thing I disliked was the fact that it was completely packed with tourists. Once again, it was difficult to move since there were so many others around and we had a hard time hearing some of Sunny's stories as a result. We were able to walk through and learn more about the Palace and the Long Corridor, which is a 728 meter long walkway covered in more than 14,000 paintings depicting different stories and bits of history. After walking through half of the corridor, we took a very cute dragon boat out across the lake. I definitely wish I had had more time at the Summer Palace to explore, but if I'm ever back in Beijing, I know where to go.
Our last stop was the Temple of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven is essentially a large park full of different buildings which were used by the Emperor each year to pray for good harvest. The buildings were beautiful and extremely detail oriented and I enjoyed walking through the park. I hadn't heard of the Temple of Heaven before visiting, but I do agree that it's something you shouldn't miss in Beijing.
Overall, Beijing was impressive. There were so many sights that I've heard about throughout my life (Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Great Wall) all in one place and it was amazing to be able to see them in person. If I were to do it over again, I'd try to spread out these sights over three days rather than two, which would allow for more time at the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City and I would definitely go in the spring, fall or winter. I'd also hope to be able to visit when there were less tourists, because it was pretty overwhelming with the volume of people when I was visiting.
Just a twenty-something with a full-time job and a full-time obsession with traveling. It's best to LiveTraveled.