The Italian priest Matteo Ricci arrived in Beijing in 1598. His efforts to understand the capital led him to stay until his death, 12 years later. You, on the other hand, have to get back home before the week’s out. But while you may not have the luxury of time on your side, you do have the advantage of something Ricci could only dream of: our handy guide to the best one-, three- and five-day tours. Hit the best; forget the rest.
Beijing in One Day
It’s impossible to see everything Beijing has to offer in a single day. Still, if that’s all you’ve got, you can cover a lot of the key sights if you go full steam. The geographical center of Tiananmen Square is on most people’s must-do list. Fundamentally, however, it’s just a big square. Make the trip worthwhile by being first in line for the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall at 8 am (early birds may want to take in the pomp of the flag-raising ceremony held each dawn, which takes place around 7 am during winter months). Within this stern-looking building, which dominates the center of the square, you’ll find the Chairman’s embalmed remains. Remember to take your passport (and deposit any bags at the designated storage facility before lining up).
Follow this curious experience by heading to the north side of the square to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which marks the entrance to the Forbidden City, a sight that needs no introduction. This may be the home of the emperors, but the mark of Mao remains. You’ll have to pass under his portrait to make your way in. Exploring this imperial palace takes hours. The peripheral courtyards provide a welcome escape if the crowds become too trying. Save some energy for the gentle hike to the top of the hill in Jingshan Park opposite the north exit of the Forbidden City. Too many run out of gas and skip the stunning views.
Reward yourself with a cracking good lunch deal at Temple Restaurant Beijing: fine dining in a 600-year-old temple. Take it easy in the afternoon with a stroll around Beihai Park—a former imperial garden—before renting a boat for a lazy time on its large lake. It’s then a half-hour walk (or short cab ride) to Wangfujing, a street made for shopping. The snack stalls here are particularly fun, especially if you’re brave enough to try the likes of starfish or scorpion on a stick.
Ride the subway two stops from Wangfujing to Tiananmen West to round off the night with some world-class classical music at the architectural wonder that is the National Center for Performing Arts (also known as the Egg).
Beijing in Three Days
Start with our one-day tour as above. But then what to do with your other two days? Well, it’d be foolish to come all the way to China and not visit the Great Wall. There’s no getting around the fact, however, that this requires a full day. The Badaling section is closest; the wall at Mutianyu is better—both are somewhat "touristy." If that bothers you then you may want to hike one of the "wilder" sections of the Great Wall. It’s possible, although not recommended, to do this independently. You’re better off hiring a guide. Our favorite is Tony Chen at Stretch-a-leg Travel (www.stretchalegtravel.com). Once you're back in town, dine on Peking duck for dinner. Take your pick from Da Dong Roast Duck, Made in China, or Duck de Chine—three of the best places in town to try Beijing’s signature dish.
For your final day get ready to explore the capital’s historical hutong—the fast-disappearing network of ancient alleyways that were the lifeblood of old Peking. Start at the atmospheric Lama Temple (easily reached via Line 2). This is the most important functioning Buddhist temple in Beijing and it remains full of life. Drop by the nearby Confucius Temple, dedicated to China’s great sage, before wandering through the area’s atmospheric hutong—Wudaoying and Guozijian are of particular interest. Wind your way through the area’s alleys en route to the Drum and Bell towers, which provided the city’s official means of timekeeping up until 1924. It should be a half-hour walk. But don’t worry if you get lost in the lanes, as that’s all part of the adventure. Climb either tower for a fabulous view. You’ll see the nearby Houhai lakes to the west—a good spot to rent a boat in summer or go ice-skating in winter. If you want to explore the area on foot, then head to the Silver Ingot Bridge instead, before finishing your day in the buzzing hutong around Nanluoguxiang (1 km [½ mile] east of Houhai), packed with boutiques, bars, and restaurants.
Beijing in Five Days
Lucky enough to have five days in the capital? Follow our three-day tour, then spend your remaining time taking in Beijing’s glorious mix of old and new, from temples and palaces to contemporary art and shopping galore. Kick off day four with an early start down south at the beautiful Temple of Heaven. This is where the emperors used to pray for prosperity. Today you’ll find it populated with the city’s older residents, who can often be found practicing tai chi or singing songs here.
Once done with this impressive imperial sight, hop into a cab for the 5-km (3-mile) journey east to the Panjiayuan Antiques Market, which is a great place to pick up presents and mementos. Traders here sell everything from Chinese chess sets and delicate porcelain to Mao alarm clocks and traditional instruments. Another cab ride will take you to the 798 Art District up in the northeast part of the city (a half-hour drive in good traffic; an hour in bad), which is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon—avoid Monday, however, when most galleries here are shut. Formerly a factory complex, the area is now a thriving arts hub. The best gallery to visit is the UCCA, but the proliferation of little shops, cafés, and bars make this a great place to hang out even if you’re not into art.
Head back to downtown Sanlitun for sundown. Shopaholics can squeeze in some last-minute spending at Yashow, an indoor market full of cheap clothes, bags, and such; bargain harder than you ever have before. Spend the evening soaking up Sanlitun’s bustling nightlife. Avoid the main "bar street" and check out the watering holes and eateries in Village Sanlitun instead. Get out of the city on your final day. Spend the morning back in imperial China at the striking Summer Palace up in Beijing’s northwest corner. Combine the trip with the ruins of nearby Yuan Ming Yuan, the Old Summer Palace. You may want to spend the afternoon at the Fragrant Hills Park—popular among residents escaping the urban grind—or the Beijing Botanical Garden. Both are even farther west than the Summer Palace and visiting just one will take the rest of the day.
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