A trip to China really isn’t complete without a visit to Beijing, the country’s capital. I’ve always been obsessed with Chinese history so I knew we needed to stop in Beijing on our latest visit to China to see some of the iconic historical sites. The pollution and traffic in Beijing were definitely not fun, but we still had a wonderful time. We used the company China Highlights to plan a few day trips around Beijing and we were so pleased with our tour guide and driver. Having a private guide and driver made everything easier with kids and it made it so we could fit a lot more into our visit. Below I’m sharing with you our favorite spots from our visit — next time we want to get back to visit the Summer Palace and a few other places. We spent three days (one day was a travel day, so we fit all of our activities into just 2 days) in Beijing and these are all of the spots we visited!
Our guide picked us up in a minivan and drove us around Beijing to start off our first day! Considering the traffic (the President of North Korea was visiting at the time), it was so wonderful to have someone else navigating for us. We did have a bit of excitement when our van was pulled over by Communist Guards as we were getting ready to exit to Tiananmen Square, but our driver got the situation resolved quickly. Our driver dropped us off at Tiananmen Square and then picked us and our guide up later for lunch and our Hutong tour.
We only spent a few moments walking through Tiananmen Square on our visit on our way to the Forbidden City. We didn’t visit Mao Zedong’s mausoleum, because we thought our kids might be too young for it this visit. I had visited it before as an 11 year old, and we may take our girls in the future. We stopped to learn about the Monument to the People’s Heroes and talked quietly about the many political events that have occurred at the square over the years. The square is impressive and a great place for kids to run around after being cooped up in the car! We wouldn’t suggest planning much time here with young kids, but definitely a stop if you are headed to the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is huge. It is a lot of walking for kids. We brought our stroller, but you definitely need a stroller that is easy to carry or collapsible because there is uneven pavement and a lot of stairs to go up. Our guide walked us through the Forbidden City in a very kid-friendly way. We stopped to look at various dragon statues, carved walkways, and the Hall of Supreme Harmony (which was very crowded). Our kids enjoyed seeing some of the art galleries throughout the Forbidden City and just running around in open courtyards while my husband and I took turns looking at art/paintings/jade accessories. We also learned about who lived at the Forbidden City in the past and what it is used for now. Our kids loved wandering the gardens in the Forbidden City and looking at some of the ancient trees and statues. You could spend hours at the Forbidden City, but we probably were only there for two hours — it was just right for our kids. Next time we’ll head to Jingshan Park (where you can get a good view from above the Forbidden City) but on our visit the air was too polluted to see much from above. Behai Park nearby is also supposed to be a good place to relax with kids after a visit to the Forbidden City.
Hutong Tour by Rickshaw
One of our favorite activities in Beijing was a Hutong tour by rickshaw. The courtyard-style houses, preserved old neighborhoods, and alleyways of Beijing are called hutongs and they are a great place to catch a vision of Beijing’s history and see how locals live even today in Beijing. The hutongs are maze-like and our rickshaw drivers biked through the alleys to give us a glimpse of just a small area on our way to our calligraphy workshop. You can rent a rickshaw (without being part of a tour) or you can also take a walking stroll of the hutongs. Some hutongs are full of shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes or you can wander away from the crowds and find hidden gems. In the midst of an overcrowded city like Beijing, the Hutong visit provided us with a relaxing experience to slow down and see what life might actually be like for some people in China. You will want to make sure to have money to tip your rickshaw driver after your ride, it is expected and appreciated.
Our guide with China Highlights arranged a calligraphy class for us in the Hutong district while we were on our rickshaw tour. So we stopped our rickshaw and entered one of the ancient buildings and proceeded to learn calligraphy for an hour. This activity was great for a range of ages — even our four year old could do it. Our guide translated for us while the teacher spoke Chinese and taught us calligraphy. At the end of our time we got to keep a few calligraphy brushes. This activity was one of the highlights of our time in Beijing!
Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant
You can’t visit Beijing without trying Peking Duck, it is a delicacy and it is known as the first dish to taste in China. We visited Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant for lunch, it has been around for almost 150 years, and it is one of the most famous Beijing Duck restaurants around the world. We tried a variety of side dishes to accompany our duck and the average cost per person was $30 USD. Our kids loved the thin pancakes that you are meant to put the duck in with condiments (like cucumbers, scallions, and sauce). Luckily our guide helped recommend food to try, and we ended up liking our meal better than we thought we would. The restaurant had a fish tank that our kids were obsessed with visiting anytime there was a break in eating and of course they enjoyed spinning the lazy Susan in the middle of the table every chance they got.
After our first day of travel we were exhausted and returned to the hotel for an early night. We stayed near Wangfujing Street, so that night we wandered around the shopping area and looked for dinner. Wangfujing Snack Street (formerly called Donghuamen Night Food Street) is a pedestrian street with hundreds of snack stands and shops, which mainly sells nationwide snacks, tourist souvenirs, and folk crafts. For adventurous diners, it is a food paradise with such unique snacks as centipedes, lizards, and deep fried crickets available to eat on a stick. There is nowhere to sit, so you are meant to just stand and eat your food and walk around. We tried the crickets (or at least my husband did). It was definitely a unique experience. Our kids weren’t feeling particularly adventurous though, so they ate dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken nearby.
Our second day in Beijing started with a long drive to the Great Wall. Because we chose to visit the Mutianyu section of the great wall, our drive was about two and a half hours (70 km). We enjoyed seeing the outskirts of Beijing as we rode in the van with our guide and driver. It was a long drive — but it was worth it!
The Great Wall (Mutianyu)
We chose to visit the Mutianyu section of of the Great Wall because it is one of the best preserved sections of the wall and least crowded. Also, this section has a lot of watchtowers that are well preserved. But, most importantly, this section of the Great Wall had a toboggan! We arrived at the Great Wall and parked and walked to pick up our tickets. Then we got in line to ride what looked like a ski lift (called a cableway) up to the top of the Great Wall. This was a great way to enjoy the scenery and not have to hike/climb steps to the top. Once we arrived at the top of the wall we wandered along the wall and took pictures. We stopped at the various watchtowers to take pictures and climbed onto the roofs to enjoy the view. This area of the Great Wall is much more enjoyable and less crowded than other areas of the wall that I’ve been to. After we finished visiting the wall, we waited in line to ride the toboggan down from the wall. This activity was one of the highlights of our entire time in China. The views as we slid down from the wall were breathtaking and the activity was very safe and fun for kids. It was a little chilly at the top of the wall, so we brought jackets and sweatshirts with us. After we finished at the wall we wandered the gift shop and stopped for a snack.
Xin Shuang Quan Restaurant
For lunch near the Great Wall we stopped at westernized-Chinese restaurant and it was one of our kid’s favorite meals in China. This restaurant had some of the Chinese food we are more accustomed to eating in the U.S. and was in a greenhouse/garden setting. This is a popular restaurant for tour groups, so you will see a lot of foreigners, but we quite enjoyed the ambiance and the variety of food available. The average cost was $14 USD per person.
Temple of Heaven
After our visit at the Great Wall we braved a lot of traffic to make it back to Beijing to enjoy the Temple of Heaven. The drive was quite long but our kids were awesome. The Temple of Heaven is where originally the emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) held the Heaven Worship Ceremony. It is the largest and most representative existing masterpiece among China's ancient sacrificial buildings. The Temple of Heaven is even larger than the Forbidden City, so we didn’t try to see everything but our kids enjoyed being out of the car and able to run around. We wandered through the Temple of Heaven stopping at whatever looked interesting and letting our kids run wild. The sun was starting to set, so the view was spectacular. The area around the Temple of Heaven is like a park with trees and various people doing exercise, dancing, playing chess, etc. It was a peaceful place to take kids. We also got stopped repeatedly to take pictures with Chinese families and their children throughout our visit.
Beijing DongTu Theatre Acrobatic Show
The final activity for our second day in Beijing was a stop at the Beijing DongTu Theatre Acrobatic Show. We had heard how amazing these shows were, so when offered the opportunity we decided to check it out! We would definitely recommend fitting in an acrobatic show if you get the chance. This acrobatic show was created by the China National Acrobatic Troupe and has many award winning acts and features a combination of Chinese national music, dance, opera and martial art. We sat near the front of the stage and our kids sat in awe the entire show. — but since the theater is small, pretty much any seat is good. The ticket prices average around 100 yuan ($15 USD) and prices depend on where you want to sit. You can find discounted tickets online.
Our two days in Beijing were action packed and exhausting. There was a lot of traffic and driving between places in Beijing but we loved the fast pace that having a driver allowed us. We don’t always use guides and drivers, but Beijing seemed harder than some cities we have visited to navigate and it took a lot of the stress out of our visit. We would definitely recommend using a private driver if you are able to, as it will allow you to see much more in a shorter time. After our visit to Beijing we headed to Yangshuo (more to come soon on that).
At the very end of our trip to China we returned to Beijing for one night before we flew out to the U.S. We mostly just wandered around Wangfujing Street on our last night in China and found a local restaurant to eat some noodles and rice. Below I’ve included some details about the hotels we stayed at in Beijing.
Lee Garden Service Apartment
Our first three nights in Beijing we stayed at the Lee Garden Service Apartment, a wonderful serviced apartment hotel near Wangfujing Street. This area is popular with tourists and is a safe/walkable area close to a lot of other hotels and restaurants/shopping. Serviced apartments provide more space than traditional hotels rooms but often have many of the same amenities. This serviced apartment hotel had options for variety of size rooms (we had a two bedroom deluxe suite) and it also had a fully-equipped kitchen, TV, washer/dryer, high speed internet, swimming pool and sauna, fitness center, children’s play room, and restaurants. We enjoyed the breakfast buffet the first morning. We would definitely stay at this apartment hotel again and it was the perfect place to be as we adjusted to the time change and recovered from jetlag.
Novotel Beijing Peace
On our last night in China we stayed at the Novotel Beijing Peace before flying back to the U.S. This hotel is modern and had all of the necessary amenities travelers need. This hotel was also located in the Wangfujing neighborhood and we enjoyed exploring this area again. The highlight of this hotel was the adjoining rooms and the swimming pool. One of the bedrooms had a king bed and the other had two twins and the rooms and bathrooms were quite spacious.
We loved our time in Beijing! We didn’t stay long, but we were able to fit in quite a few important sites and activities during our visit. While a lot of people told us that our kids would be bored in Beijing, we had a wonderful time and our kids appreciated the history and cultural aspects of our visit as well as the opportunity to do unique activities. We hope you will find this basic itinerary useful as you plan you adventures in China!