Getting a visa for China can be a giant pain, especially for Americans as it comes with a price tag of at least $140. This deters lots of people from visiting, and rightfully so. There’s good news, though – a visa is no longer necessary for short visits to China. Many cities in the Middle Kingdom now offer a 72-hour visa free visit if you can prove you’re flying in and out within that time frame. With three full days at your disposal, there’s lots you can do if you plan it right. Having spent four years living there, we’ve got you covered to ensure you make the most of your short time. Here’s a Gypsy Guide to 72 hours in Beijing:
*Temple of Heaven
Qianmen Street for breakfast
Planning & Exhibition Hall OR National Museum
Drum & Bell Towers
Roast Duck at Da Dong
Drinks at a local brewery
Temple of Heaven
It’s your first full day in Beijing, so you might as well make the most of it. As Beijing was planned on a south-north axis, your epic day of sightseeing will take you right along this path. Start your day off early in the morning at the Temple of Heaven, where you’ll spot locals doing tai chi and you can see the impressive temple, which was used in Imperial times to offer up sacrifices. It can be reached by subway on Line 5, by local bus, or of course by cab.
Around Tiananmen Square
From there, head to Qianmen Street and dip down some of the side alleyways. These are more authentic than the modernized main street, and you’ll be able to find a cheap Beijing breakfast – soybean milk, steamed stuffed buns, fried dough, and porridge. Next up, check out Tiananmen Square. If you’re so inclined, you can get there at sunrise to see the daily flag raising, or you can stand in line to see the body of Chairman Mao. Around Tiananmen, you’ll find both the National Museum and the Planning & Exhibition Hall. The former is free and is full of interesting exhibits; the latter costs 30 RMB to enter and features an incredible model of Beijing on a 1:750 scale.
Forbidden City and Jingshan Park
Across from Tiananmen, you’ll find the Forbidden City. Buy a ticket and head in to see where many emperors of China once called home. This massive compound can be done in around two hours, but if you try to see everything inside it might take three to four. Exiting out the north entrance takes you right to Jingshan Park, another great place to spot locals doing their thing – dancing, playing cards, flying kites, and more. It was here that the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, hung himself from a tree after fleeing the Forbidden City. At the top of the “Coal Hill,” you’re treated to a breathtaking view of Beijing, both new and old. Of course, this is only true on clear days – Beijing’s famous air pollution limits the view most of the time.
Explore the Hutongs
From the west side of Jinghsan Park, you can hop on local bus #5 and take it to the Drum Tower. Near the bus stop, you’ll find both the Drum and Bell Towers, Beijing’s ancient clocks. You might as well get the double ticket and see both towers. There’s a drum performance up in the tower a few times a day that is not to be missed, and from both towers you’ll get a nice view of old Beijing neighborhoods and the famous alleyways, called hutong in Chinese.
Since you’ll be tired, you should stop to relax, drink a cup of tea (or coffee), and get some lunch. There are plenty of places to do so around the Drum Tower, so take your pick. Sculpting in Time – a nice little café, and 4 Corners – a Vietnamese restaurant around the corner, both come recommended.
Hou Hai Lake
After lunch, a short walk will take you to Hou Hai, a man-made lake in the center of the city. In the warmer months, you can rent a boat to cruise around the lake, and in winter you can go ice-skating. Year round, bicycles are also available for rent. Cruise around the three lakes, take in the sunset, and get out of there before all the bars turn on their offensively loud music and send out their pushy and obnoxious workers to draw in customers.
With the sun down, it’s a good time to head north to take in the sights of modern Beijing at the Olympic Park. From the Hou Hai area, it’s best to just get a cab there. At night, the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube are both illuminated in a sea of neon light. Outside, it’s like the Olympics never ended, with hordes of Chinese tourists posing for pictures and plenty of touts selling knick-knacks and photography services.
Beijing Roast Duck
Having seen the emperor’s former residence in the Forbidden City and playground in Hou Hai, it’s time to eat like the emperor. Head to Da Dong, one of Beijing’s most famous restaurants, to eat the imperial bird – Beijing roast duck. While you wait for a table, grab a free glass of house wine and watch the master chefs at work preparing this fantastic fowl. The menu here is like a novel, so take your time and order up a few dishes to complement your duck. When the bird is ready, they’ll take it out to your table and carve it up right in front of you. It’s an incredible dining experience that is a must-do in Beijing.
Although Beijing has never been known as a city for craft beer lovers, that is changing rapidly. Over the past few years, a handful of local breweries have popped up, pouring tasty micro-brews for crowds of thirsty customers. Try a flight of five tasty beers at Slow Boat, sample a pint of Honey Ma Blonde at Great Leap, or try a really strong IPA at Jing A to wind down one hell of a day in the Chinese capital.
There’s no doubt that Day One is absolutely huge. That being said, you could scratch the Temple of Heaven and Olympic Parks off the list to make it a little less intimidating. Both are cool, but in my humble opinion they’re not worth burning yourself out for. Go ahead and do it all if you’re feeling motivated, but if you need to cut a few I would recommend those. You’ve got 72 hours in Beijing, so you need to save some energy.
Check out highlights of Day One in this short video:
Dinner on Ghost Street
Drinks in SLT
According to Chairman Mao, you aren’t a real man until you’ve climbed the Great Wall. Plus, no trip to Beijing would be complete without a stop at one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. From the city, you have plenty of options for visiting the Wall. If you’re looking for the easiest way possible, you’ll probably end up at Badaling. If you want a bit more of an adventure, you’ll most likely visit Mutianyu. If you want to see the rugged, wild Great Wall – and not hordes of tourists – you’ll check out one of the less restored sections, such as Jinshaling, Gubeikou, or Jiankou. If you really want to be a bad-ass, why not go ahead and camp on the Great Wall? Of course, you’ll need to add another day to your trip to pull that one off.
A trip out to the Wall will take most of your day and can be quite tiring, so when you get back to Beijing it’s best to relax for a bit. If you’ve got the energy to go back out, there’s plenty more to do. Start your evening with a stroll along Wangfujing, a huge pedestrian street full of shops and vendors. You can find all your souvenirs here, and you can also check out a wild night market that has tons of delicious snacks and plenty of weird ones, such as seahorse, lamb testicles, and even scorpions. It is incredibly touristy and overpriced, but you can put your haggling skills to the test and have a good time anyways.
Acrobats and Hot Pot
From there, you can check out the incredible acrobat performance at the Chaoyang Theater. Shows go on every day at either 5:15 or 7:15, and tickets can just be purchased at the door.
Get dinner under the red glow of lanterns hung along Gui Jie – also commonly known as Ghost Street – where you’ll find a ton of Chinese restaurants. We’d recommend hot pot, a very Chinese and very fun dining experience. Order up meat, seafood, vegetables, and whatever else you like, and cook it yourself in a pot of boiling oil and spices. If terrible Chinese liquor is not for you, you can have imported wine delivered right to your table from a local store called Cheers.
Since your dogs are probably barking from the hike on the Wall, it’s time for you to enjoy a cheap foot massage. These can be found literally everywhere in Beijing, and they vary from very good and expensive to mediocre and cheap. Head to Sanlitun, where you can choose to go big at a place like Dragon Fly or take the cheaper route in one of the many small salons. While you’re there, you might as well sample some of the nightlife. If you get there early enough, there are some great Happy Hours. If you get there later on, the party should be raging, with bars packed full of people and plenty more eating and drinking in the streets. It doesn’t matter what night of the week or what hour it is – Sanlitun is always a good time.
See what Day Two looks like here:
Lunch in the Wu
Dinner on Wudaoying or Fangjia
Live music/bar hopping
For your last day in Beijing, spend the morning wandering around the Summer Palace. You can get there by bus, subway, or taxi, so take your pick. On a clear day, there isn’t much that beats hanging out at the Summer Palace. Featuring gardens, temples, and a lake, this massive palace was where the emperor would escape the intense summer heat of Beijing. During the warmer months, you can even rent a boat to take a spin around the lake. Whatever you do, be sure to head to the top of the Tower of Buddhist Incense to take in the views.
Forego eating in the expensive restaurant inside the Summer Palace and instead jump on buss 331 or 375 and take it to Wudaokou, known by many simply as “The Wu.” This student hangout is home to China’s top universities, as well as plenty of great restaurants. For Chinese, we highly recommend a little spot called Lanzhou Old Horse Beef Noodles (兰州老马牛肉拉面), more commonly referred to amongst our friends as “Meat Table.” Don’t let our silly nickname throw you off – this place is cheap and delicious, and it’s definitely a legit local favorite. If you’re looking for something else, you can also find ½ price sushi at Isshin, sandwiches and burgers at Lush, pizza at Pyro, or burritos at La Bamba.
From the Wu, you can hop on the subway and take it to the Lama Temple station on Line 2. Head in and check out this impressive Tibetan Buddhist monastery, which features a 26-meter tall wooden statue of the Maitreya Buddha. From there, it’s an easy walk to the Confucius Temple. This is the second largest Confucian temple in China, behind only the one in Master Kong’s hometown of Qufu.
More Hutong Action
Around the temples, you’ll find plenty of traditional hutongs. Cruise down any of these and get lost in old Beijing for a while. If you get deep enough, it’s hard to imagine you’re still in the middle of an overcrowded, bustling metropolis. After a few hours of exploring, you’re bound to get hungry. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of great restaurants in the area. Should you find yourself on Wudaoying, you’ve got a great vegetarian spot in the Veggie Table, a quaint courtyard with the Vineyard, and some incredible Mexican food at Sand Pebbles Lounge. Over in Fangjia, you’ll find the amazing Aimo Town, a Yunnan restaurant that cooks up fantastic grilled fish and more.
Stay in the hutong after dinner, where wandering in any direction will eventually land you at a bar or live music venue. Any night of the week, you’re sure to find people hanging out with drinks or rocking out at a show. Beijing has a variety of venues large and small, and there’s always something going on in terms of live music. From rock, to jazz, to drum & bass, to folk, you’re sure to find a place to get down. Some of our favorite spots for live music are: Temple Bar, 4 Corners, Salud, Jianghu, and Yugong Yishan.
Another day, another video:
Thus ends an amazing 72 hours in Beijing, and you didn’t even need a visa for it! If you have the luxury of time and can spend a few more days exploring the city, there’s still tons to see and do. Consider checking out the 798 Art District, visiting a few more local parks, or even getting out of the concrete jungle on a day trip. Despite the smog, the traffic, and the crowds, Beijing is an incredible city with lots to offer and is well worth a visit – especially a 72-hour visa free one!