Beijing, the capital of the People's Republic of China! We've actually never really thought about visiting Beijing before. As we already said in our previous post about the Great Wall of China (check it out here), the idea came up when planning our trip to Australia. We found some flight options allowing us to stop and spend some hours in the city.
Beijing is one of the biggest city in the world, so needless to say that there is plenty to do! There, you can find over 3.000 years of history which makes it hard to experience it all in just a day! However, if you are lucky to stop in Beijing, take the opportunity to get a glimpse of this gigantic city. In this post, you will find all you need to plan a perfect 12-hour layover in Beijing.
GO THROUGH A TOUR AGENCY OR DO IT YOURSELF?
We basically chose the easy way and booked a tour through a tour agency. We thought it was the best option and we absolutely don't regret it! After a flight of almost 12 hours, we were exhausted and wouldn't have had the patience to deal with all the logistics required. Don't forget that most Chinese people do not speak English fluently and that most signs are written in Mandarin.
However, it is possible to reach the city center of Beijing via taxi (cost is around 100-120 CNY (around 12-15 EUR)). We do not advise you to reach the city center by subway as it will probably be more complicated and will also take you longer.
DO YOU NEED A VISA?
China has established a good and fairly easy system of visas for long layovers. Indeed, different categories of visas exist depending on how long your layover is: 24-Hour Visa-Free Transit, 72-Hour Visa-Free Transit and 144-Hour Visa-Free Transit. The steps to get these documents are relatively easy: upon arrival at Beijing Airport, you need to go to the "24/144-Hour International Transfer" line, there you will be asked to fill in a form and a visa application as well as to show your passport and the boarding pass with confirmed seats for your next flight as a proof that you are on a transit in China. For more information about visas, please check here this useful website.
HOW MUCH TIME IS RECOMMENDED?
Our flight landed in Beijing at 11.30 a.m. and departed that same evening at 11:30 p.m., allowing us to have 12 full hours there. The Forbidden City & Jingshan Park & Hutong Tour itself lasts around 6 to 7 hours (depending on how long you stay at each site). It takes around 1 hour by car to reach the center of Beijing from the airport, which means a total of two hours drive with the way back. Thus, we recommend going on a tour only if you have at least a 8 or 9-hour layover.
LAYOVER TOUR INFORMATION
WHICH TOUR AGENCY TO CHOOSE?
We booked our tour through Layover Tour Beijing. The tour we chose was based on the "Mutianyu Great Wall & Forbidden City & Hutong Layover Tour" (check it here) except that as we got to Beijing airport around noon, we were not able to enter the Forbidden City. Instead, we asked to go to the Jingshan Park to get a view of the Forbidden City from up the hill. Therefore, we advise you to visit either the Great Wall or Beijing.
The agency is very flexible so don't hesitate to tell them what you'd like to visit, the staff will create a tailor-made program for you. Everything is taking care of, so you have nothing to worry about!
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
For the Forbidden City & Jingshan Park & Hutong Tour, the price is 240 USD per person. But keep in mind that the more you are, the cheapest it becomes (276 USD for two people)! In order to book and confirm the tour, half of the total amount must be transferred via PayPal; the other half must be paid at the end of the tour, preferably in Chinese Yuan (CNY). So pay attention to the conversion and do not forget to withdraw cash at the airport before you leave (you'll need some extra cash).
WHAT'S INCLUDED/EXCLUDED IN THE PRICE?
The price includes the admission fee for the Forbidden City, the English-speaking tour guide and a vehicle with a professional driver. However, the price does not cover meals, personal expenses, gratuities and tips to guides and drivers.
Beijing is an ancient city which was established over 3.000 years ago and which was at the time called the Jin City during the Zhou Dynasty (XXI century B.C. - 771 B.C.) It is one of the four ancient cities of China (together with Xi'an, Luoyang, Nanjing) and is the best preserved. Beijing is well-known for being the cradle of humanity.
Since the moment Emperor Qin united China (in 221 B.C.), the city of Beijing has played a fundamental role in the northern region of the country. During over 800 years, Beijing hosted more than 30 Emperors who all lived and ruled there. It is during this period that the Forbidden City was built.
At the end of the Qing Dynasty, the First World War broke out and Beijing became one of the focus of the war, causing many disruptions for its people. A lot of palaces occupied by Emperors were robbed and destroyed. The People's Republic of China was founded on 1st October 1949. On that day, Beijing was occupied by the Communists and became the capital city of the country.
1. GATE OF THE HEAVENLY PALACE (FORBIDDEN CITY)
The Forbidden City is the most emblematic place of Beijing. We wished we had time to explore it and visit its many palaces. As we didn't have much time, our guide showed us the Gate of the Heavenly Palace, which is the main entrance of the Forbidden City.
The construction of the Forbidden City first started at the beginning of the XV century. Back then, it was built as the Palace of the Ming Emperors. The Forbidden City encompasses hundreds of buildings and around 9.000 rooms, these constitute the Imperial Palace complex in Beijing. It hosted 24 Emperors during the Ming and the Qing Dynasties for almost 500 hundred years (from 1368 to 1911).
The Gate of the Heavenly Palace is the symbol of modern China and is also the emblem of China. It measures 66 meters long, 37 meters wide and 32 meters high. The largest of the five gateways, located at the center, was used as the entrance passage for the Ming and Qing Emperors, while the smaller ones located on the sides were used by ministers and officials. Above the central archway hangs a large portrait of Mao Zedong (former President of China).
Opening hours - daily from 8.30 a.m. - 5 p.m. (4.30 p.m. in winter) | Admission - between 40 and 60 CNY (6-9 USD)
2. TIANANMEN SQUARE
The iconic square of Beijing is the 7th largest square in the world (4.7 million square feet). On this square, several monuments and buildings can be visited: the Monument to the People's Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, as well as the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. It is on the Tiananmen Square that on 1st October 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China.
A large number of events took place on this gigantic square. Perhaps the most notable event is the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 which occurred after the death of Hu Yaobang (the then General Secretary of China). His death was one of the triggering element of this demonstration. In fact, pro-democracy protesters peacefully called for political reform in the country. Military units were deployed to the Tiananmen Square and thousands of protesters were killed. As of today, the government of China never acknowledged this massacre and the exact number of people who lost their lives is still unknown.
Opening hours - daily from 5 a.m. - 10 p.m. | Admission - free of charge
3. GATE OF DIVINE PROWESS (NORTH GATE)
The Gate of Divine Prowess is located at the northern side of the Forbidden City (facing the Jingshan Mountain) and measures 31 meters high. It was created in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty and was at the time called Xuanwumen. Xuanwu was known to be the divine animal of ancient time which traditionally was the master of the north. This is why many gates located at the north of palaces were named Xuanwu. This gate suffered some major destruction but it is during the Qing Dynasty that it was rebuilt and renamed finally as Shenwumen (Gate of Divine Prowess).
4. JINGSHAN PARK
Jingshan Park is a beautiful royal landscape garden which is located in the center of Beijing, at the northern end of the Forbidden City. The top of the hill is the highest point of Beijing, thus from there, you can get a stunning view of Beijing and more particularly of the Forbidden City.
During several dynasties, the park served as an imperial garden. A lot of fruit trees were planted and many palaces were built for Emperors to make sacrifices to their ancestors. The main hill of Jingshan Park consists of five different summits on which a pavilion was built. In each of these pavilions, a Buddha statue was placed and represented one of the five tastes: bitter, sour, sweet, acrid and salt.
Opening hours - Summer: daily from 6 a.m. - 9 p.m. - Winter: daily from 6.30 a.m. - 8 p.m. | Admission - 2 CNY (0,30 USD)
5. DRUM TOWER
The Drum Tower is part of a complex of towers which comprises the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. "These towers were built in 1272 and they both represent the symbol of the old city of Beijing. At the origin, there was one big drum and 24 other smaller ones but today, only one drum remains.
Opening hours - daily from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. | Admission - 30 CNY (4-5 USD)
6. HUTONG (YANDAI XIEJIE)
First of all, you might wonder what "hutong" means? "Hutong" is a Chinese word referring to narrow alleys or a small streets between rows of single-storey houses built in the past by the people of Beijing. The Yandai Xiejie (Yandaixie Street) is one of the oldest hutongs of Beijing. For decades, it has been a famous cultural street in Beijing.
From the Qing Dynasty to the late 1930's, this street was known to be the place where people could buy smoking pouch sets and pieces of art. Life in the hutongs is rather hard and, truth be told, not really hygienic. Indeed, the hutongs are generally not equipped with good sewage system and toilets.
Our advice is to get lost in this crazy maze! There are many different stores, restaurants, street food trucks. You'll see how everything seem different from the western world and you'll even wonder what this store sells.
7. SHICHAHAI & HOUHAI LAKES
Shichahai is a well-known area located in the northwest part of Beijing. This scenic area includes three lakes (Qianhai, Houhai & Xihai). Houhai, one of the three lakes (which literally means "Black Sea") is a large artificial lake. At the time of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), it was exclusively reserved to the Royal family. Back then, it was already a prosperous commercial area (including wine shops, opera stages, etc.) but these were also reserved to the Royal family. Today, it is open to the public.
The Silver Ingot Bridge gets its name from its shape of a silver ingot. This bridge has a great reputation in China and constitutes one of the eight mesmerizing sceneries ("Viewing the Western Hill at Yinding Bridge"). It was originally built during the Ming Dynasty and was listed as a key cultural relics protection unit of the city.
8. DINNER AT KAROUJI - A TRADITIONAL CHINESE RESTAURANT
To finish the day on a food note, we advise you to stop at the Karouji restaurant, a traditional Chinese restaurant which was recommended to us by our guide. Do not leave Beijing without trying its main specialty: the Peking Duck.
This dish dates back to the imperial era. It is a duck meat dish; the meat is really thin and has a crispy skin. Our guide showed us how to eat the Peking Duck like a real Beijinger: the first step is to get the duck meat and to place it in the middle of a steamed pancake. Then, you must add some spring onions, thin sticks of cucumber and sweet bean sauce. Voilà! You are now ready to enjoy this delicious dish!
We had such a nice time having a sneak-peek of Beijing! We wished we had more time to enjoy the many different sites Beijing offers and not having to rush from one place to another. As previously said, we had chosen a tour combining both the Great Wall of China and iconic places in Beijing, but if we had to do it all over again, we would chose only one.
If you are on a layover in Beijing and are undecided about what to visit, you can also check out here our post about the Great Wall of China to get more ideas.
And now it's your turn to share with us how your layover was in Beijing What did you think of the Capital City of China? What else would you recommended doing when on a layover in Beijing? We look forward to reading your comments in the section below.