What To Do With 72 Hours in Beijing

by Sasha Savinov

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 guide to 72 hours in Beijing.

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Day One

Itinerary

  • *Temple of Heaven
  • Qianmen Street for breakfast
  • Tiananmen Square
  • Planning & Exhibition Hall OR National Museum
  • Forbidden City
  • Jingshan Park
  • Drum & Bell Towers
  • Hou Hai
  • *Olympic Park
  • Roast Duck at Da Dong
  • Drinks at a local brewery

Temple of Heaven

Start your morning at the 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

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

72 Hours in Beijing

Panoramic view of the Forbidden City from atop Jingshan.

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

View of the Drum Tower and old Beijing ‘hoods.

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.

Go see our friends at 4 Corners.

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

Go boating on Hou Hai.

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.

Olympic Park

The Bird’s Nest at night.

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

Eat the royal bird at Da Dong.

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.

Craft Beer

Craft beer 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:

Day Two

Itinerary

  • Great Wall
  • Wangfujing
  • Chaoyang Acrobats
  • Dinner on Ghost Street
  • Massage
  • Drinks in SLT

Great Wall

The Great Wall is a must when visiting Beijing.

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 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.

Wangfujing

Shopping and scorpions in Wangfujing.

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

The amazing acrobats at the Chaoyang Theater.

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.

Hot pot dinner on Ghost Street.

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.

Sanlitun

Rage all night in SLT.

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:

Day Three

Itinerary

  • Summer Palace
  • Lunch in the Wu
  • Lama Temple
  • Hutong walk
  • Dinner on Wudaoying or Fangjia
  • Live music/bar hopping

Summer Palace

A great place to be on a clear day in Beijing.

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.

The Wu (Wudaokou)

Some of the best Chinese food in Beijing.

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.

Temple Hopping

Check out the massive Buddha here.

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

Chill out in the hutong.

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.

Rock out in the hutongs.

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!

Have you been to Beijing? What were your favorite things to do in the city? Best places you ate/drank? Let us know!


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things to do in Beijing | travel China | Beijing travel guide
14 comments

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14 comments

Liana November 11, 2019 - 7:47 pm

Hi guys: Awesome site, and very helpful! Hubby & I will be going on a tour of Beijing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. You’ve given us some ideas for when we are on our own on this trip. We are going early Dec so likely a lot less tourists, and maybe not so brutal for us as we live in Western Canada and are used to much colder winters. We must be a pretty good risk as we only asked for a 3 month, single entry, 30 days visa and they gave us a 4 year, multiple entry, 60 days visa instead. Looking forward to this trip, and if it’s that good, to a few more places in China. Following your Facebook as well since we have been to Mexico (on our own) many times and it brings back great memories.

Reply
Sasha Savinov November 12, 2019 - 12:28 pm

Hi Liana, Thanks for the kind words! That’s great that they gave you such an awesome visa. After all, China is HUGE and needs more than one visit! Early December can be cold for sure but I think you guys will be just fine. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions as you go along. You picked some pretty good spots for a first time visit! Have a great time… we miss China and can’t wait to go back! Cheers, Sasha

Reply
johane spada April 24, 2019 - 8:17 pm

Thank you so much for this itinerary. We are going for 3 days in June, on our way to Indonesia. We will follow it, having the feeling that we will have seen so much in 3 days. Incredibly helpful

Reply
Sasha Savinov May 1, 2019 - 3:08 pm

Thanks a lot! I’m sure you’ll have a great time, as June is a pretty nice month to be in Beijing. It can get a bit hot but not too bad, so you should be able to enjoy exploring all the places I put on this itinerary. Have a great trip!

Reply
Kelli February 22, 2019 - 1:10 am

Hi Sasha,

I really enjoyed this itinerary & would love your help loosely planning the rest of our trip to China. My friend & I are both 30 year old females from California who will be visiting China 2/27/2019 – 3/12/2019 (SOON!!). We fly in/out of Beijing. What would be your ideal itinerary (places to travel to/things we must see & do) for the 2 weeks we are there? We are very very interested in traveling to Zhangjiajie but it seems to be difficult to get to (& flights are $$$). Any recommendations are very much appreciated 🙂

Reply
Rachel Story February 28, 2019 - 3:52 pm

Hi Kelli.. sorry for the delayed response. We’ve been off the grid the last week. I wouldn’t recommend trying to do Zhangjianie with such a short time. You might want to go to Xi’an to see the warriors and then maybe go to Luoyang for the Longmen Grottoes. That would take a few days. There’s a freaky mountain called Huashan but I’m not sure how rough it would be in winter. Pingyao is a nice ancient city and you could combine that with a visit to Datong for the Hanging Monastery and the other grottoes.. sorry forgetting their name. There’s so much to do around Beijing you can easily spend 5-6 days there too! Hope that helps.. enjoy your trip! Feel free to message us with other questions.

Reply
Damara September 3, 2018 - 11:35 am

Live this post. It’s so helpful. What time of year do you recommend visiting China???

Reply
Rachel Story September 5, 2018 - 9:13 pm

Hi, Damara! Thank you!

I’d say that spring (April-May) and fall (September-October) are the best times of year to visit China.

Reply
Timmy Castillejos August 18, 2018 - 9:27 pm

It was the most by far thorough travel information that I read. I love the very small information that you put up to create a detailed guide. I’ll be traveling to Beijing on December and I wish you can send me your 72 hours budget and hostel information. Thank you and more power.

Reply
Rachel Story August 24, 2018 - 11:02 am

Hi Timmy! I’m so happy that you found the post to be helpful! I’m unsure about a 72-hour budget as prices have been changing in Beijing over the last few years. There are lots of hostels available in Beijing. I would suggest looking at HostelWorld.com or Agoda to find the best one for you. Let me know if you have any other questions!

Reply
John Widmer January 10, 2018 - 7:30 pm

Wow, great guide! So glad I came across this. We have exactly 3 full days in Beijing and this post basically just planned our itinerary for us. Thank you for that! Seems like the perfect mix of the must-see cultural sights yet with some great food highlights and even craft beer too! This is just the type of info I try to research about a place and it’s all right here in one nice post. Awesome! And great to get this from someone who’s lived there for as a long as you have. Am now totally stoked hit the ground in Beijing – cheers!

Reply
Sasha Savinov January 11, 2018 - 8:48 pm

Thanks a bunch! I’m glad it’s useful for you guys. Beijing is such an awesome city. If not for the brutal winters and awful air I would have had no problem just staying there! Hopefully it’s not too bad for you guys on your visit. Either way, it’s such a fun place you guys are going to have a great time. Feel free to reach out with any questions about Beijing or anywhere else in China. We can give you plenty more recommendations on places to eat, drink, and see live music! -Sasha

Reply
Eric March 28, 2017 - 9:25 am

Love the detailed itineraries … might haver to use this for when I visit China for real!

Reply
Sasha Savinov March 28, 2017 - 1:11 pm

Thanks for the comment, Eric! We spent over 4 years in Beijing, so cramming the highlights of the city into 3 days was tough. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions about traveling in China. It’s not the easiest place to visit, but the juice is definitely worth the squeeze! Cheers, Sasha

Reply

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