I’m making a habit of these quick two-day trips, it seems, so I’ve figured out how to max the jaunts, seeing, eating and experiencing everything I can in the time allotted.
On my last trip to China, I was in Shanghai for work and then took the weekend to spend in Beijing to see the Great Wall and get a taste of more ancient China. All things considered, including the fairly little money I spent, this Weekend Away was a win.
Here’s how I think two days in Beijing are best spent. (All spots outlined in the map, click icons for info).
Rest your head at the Grand Hotel Beijing | 8:00 p.m.
Many things with “grand” in the name don’t tend to be all that grand at all, but that wasn’t the case with the Grand Hotel Beijing. I found it on Hotels.com for a deal, picking it because of the prime location since I was going to be short on time and wanted to be most efficient. When I drove up, even in the dark of night, my mouth dropped a little in awe of the grandeur. You’ll drive through an ornate arch to pull into the place before walking into the lobby, where you’ll be met with interior decor that screams traditional Chinese—furniture hand carved out of pear wood, art from ancient Chinese calligraphy and a floral garden atrium. It is stunning. And the rooms don’t disappoint, either. I slept in a four-poster, intricately carved bed with a Chinese silk bedspread with ancient hand-painted vases in the little sitting area. But enough gushing about how pretty it was, the hotel was also practical. It’s about a 4-minute walk from the famous shopping on Wangfujing Street and about a 6-minute walk from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, which you kind of can’t beat.
Begin the day tour of all day tours | 7:00 a.m.
To be honest, the only reason I booked a tour was because I didn’t have a clue how else to go to the Great Wall and wouldn’t have had time to figure it out, because I’m typically not the biggest fan of tours. So, I found this Great Wall tour on Viator, which turned out to be kind of excellent. I thought they’d just take me to the wall and call it a day, but the $65 adventure had a lot more included than that. First, and most conveniently, because the Grand Hotel Beijing is located in the city center, the tour guide collects you from your hotel lobby in the morning. Score. So en route to the Wall, there’s a stop at a jade factory (which could all have been a big ploy to get sucker tourists to spend money on real or not real jade—we’ll never really know). Either way, you’ll see old men carving intricate patterns on the stone and all the various forms and colors and creations that can come from it. Then we went to the Wall, walked it for a little more than an hour, and tobogganed down (the price of taking the cable car up and the toboggan down was not included in the tour package, but it was only 100 yuan ($14.80). After the Wall, you’ll chowed on a delicious Chinese meal, which was part of the tour and no additional cost. The next stop was at a traditional Chinese tea house for a tea ceremony before heading to a silk factory to see how worms become the sought after fabric. All for $65 dollars. If you’re short on time, I’d say there’s no better way to see more of Beijing’s highlights.
Shop Wangfujing Street | 5:00 p.m.
When you’re done with the tour, and if you haven’t already spent all of your money at the jade factory/the tea house/the silk factory, go to Wangfujing Street to shop for the real Beijing bargains. Don’t be confused when you see Prada, Nike and McDonald’s. Keeping walking until you see the familiar ornate arches and the seahorses skewered and waiting to be fried. Go that way. That’s where you’ll find pandas, chopsticks, fake jade Buddhas, “silk” robes and everything else you could imagine for a steal. Bargain hard or you’re doing yourself a disservice. My friend wanted a backpack and the first quote was 500 yuan and she haggled and haggled until the lady agreed to give it to her for 100 yuan.
Dine on duck at Quanjude | 7:00 p.m.
If you only eat one thing in Beijing, let it be the Peking duck. And the place to eat it is Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. There’s one right across the way from the entrance to the bargain shopping on Wangfujing Street. Depending on when you get there, you may wait a while for a table, but it will be worth it. Make sure you ask the hostess to please announce your number in English, otherwise, you might be out of luck and left wondering why all the people who came after you aren’t sitting in the waiting room anymore (this didn’t happen to us, fortunately.) When you’re seated, you’ll get a menu that has almost no English on it and you’ll be helped by a host that very likely knows almost no English. You pretty much want the duck that everyone else has, so you can either point to it, or point to the picture on the menu that looks like slices of duck shaped into a rose. That will come with everything else you need. If you want something besides that and you don’t speak Chinese, I can’t help you and the people in the restaurant may not be able to either. This. duck. was. so. damn. good. Put it this way—I don’t even eat duck and I am still having dreams about this meal weeks after being back in New York.
Head to the Forbidden City | 8:00 a.m.
On Sunday, it’ll be time to make your way to the Forbidden City. Now, you’ll want to make the short walk from the hotel fairly early because there’s a daily limit of 80,000 visitors, and I don’t kid when I say the tickets sell out. Ticket sales begin at 8:30 a.m., so if you leave the hotel at 8:00, make the walk and the seemingly endless journey to where the ticket booths are, you’ll be right on time. The ancient imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty, also called the Palace Museum, was home to emperors and their subordinates from the 1400s to the early 1900s. It’s made up of 980 buildings that stretch more than a half mile from entrance to exit. It’s exquisite and ornate, (a little repetitive at some points, if I’m being honest) but it’s beautiful. The best part, to me, was the Imperial Garden toward the back. It was the imperial family’s private retreat and where I imagine glamourous empresses lounging in rich silk gowns sat for hours on end. *Fun fact: it’s called the Forbidden City because regular folk weren’t allowed in without permission.
See Tiananmen Square | 10:30 a.m.
Across the street (though it won’t really be across the street once you’re forced to exit the Forbidden City at the side and walk the not-too-short way back to the front), is the notorious Tiananmen Square.
In simple terms, Tiananmen Square is a big city plaza in the center of Beijing, where the city’s National Museum of China, Mao Zedong mausoleum and parliament’s meeting place, the Great Hall of the People, sit. Interestingly enough, the square’s name, Tiananmen, means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.”
In less simple terms, Tiananmen is where pro-democracy protesters were massacred. Because of its history, it’s odd to see Chinese citizens jumping for airborne photos and throwing up peace signs in smiling selfies. But it’s a part of history nonetheless. I was only there for five minutes.
Eat soup and dumplings for lunch | 12:00 p.m.
Everything I ate in Beijing in the less than 48 hours I was there, was first rate, but the lunch I had at the Beijing International Hotel was among the best. The lunch was by no means easily gotten, however. I entered the hotel from the Wangfujing Street entrance and walked toward where I saw food. First, I came upon hot pot, but wasn’t looking for that. The woman at the front said there were no English menus, and while I calculated my next move, they shuffled me to a different, cafe-like eatery a few steps to the left. They seated me and gave me another non-English menu. With no pictures on it. And no one spoke any English. And no one was seated near me for me to point at their food. I finally walked over to an area where about 10 pictures of food where hanging above the kitchen. Likely feeling my pain, one waitress could count in English and pointed to each picture saying “1…2…3…” So I chose #3 and #8, and let me tell you, numbers to which the ingredients I have no idea about have never tasted so good. Either I got lucky, or everything at the place tastes good. Whichever it was, I’d go back just to eat that. Vegetarians, good luck, because you never know.