Just a short subway journey or bike ride can take you from towering skyscrapers to centuries-old residential lanes dotted with courtyards and temples. The latter, in particular, make Beijing a good destination for budget travelers, as some of the city’s best experiences can be found simply by wandering in and out of its quiet alleys.
*Hotels, airfare and spontaneous brunching not included
Day 1: A truly great wall
In China, there is a saying that goes “he who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man” and whether or not that’s true, it’s still fair to say that no trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to the Great Wall. Several sections of the impressive structure, both restored and unrestored, are accessible from Beijing, of which one of the easiest and cheapest to get to is Badaling (US$6). This can also make for some major crowds, especially around the Chinese public holidays, but crowds or no, it’s hard to detract from the experience of seeing the Great Wall in person.
To get to Badaling, take bus number 877 (US$3.60 each way) from Deshengmen bus station, a 10-minute walk east of Jishuitan subway station on Line 2. Buses leave every 10 to 15 minutes and take around an hour to get to Badaling station, from where it’s a quick walk to the entrance and the cable car. Take the cable car (US$14.90 one way) up to the highest point of the northern section and then wind your way down (the path is steep in parts but well maintained), stopping for photo opportunities along the way. On a clear day, the views of the surrounding hills are spectacular.
After a long day at the Great Wall, treat yourself to dinner and drinks in the Sanlitun area. This is where Beijing’s young and restless come to see and be seen — if you fancy yourself a natty dresser, don’t be surprised if you get papped by a street-style photographer. Sanlitun also serves as a sort of cultural touchstone for food and beverage trends across the rest of the city. Basically, if it’s hip, it’s here. Case in point is 27 Khosha, a trendy, minimalist noodle joint specializing in the cuisine of northwest China. Grab a seat at the communal table and order a bowl of saozi noodles (US$3.90) — thick, springy wheat noodles in a sour and spicy broth topped with minced pork — and niunai jidan laozao (US$3.30), sweet fermented glutinous rice pudding.
Sanlitun is also home to many of Beijing’s best bars, including several popular local craft breweries. Up until the early 2000s, beer in China was largely limited to local lagers like Tsingtao and some imported brands, but thanks to these local breweries there is a now a vast array of beer styles available. Find your favorite at buzzing Slow Boat Brewery just south of Sanlitun, which is always packed with locals and expats sipping pints of anything from lager to IPA to stout. A popular brew is the Monkey’s Fist IPA (US$6.70).
- Day 1 costs: Badaling Great Wall entry fee US$6; One-way cable car ticket US$14.90; Round-trip bus tickets US$7.20; Dinner at 27 Khosha US$7.20; Beer at Slow Boat US$6.70; Total: US$42
Day 2: At the center of the capital
Unusually for a major city, admittance to several of Beijing’s most recognizable attractions is free. Kick off your second day at one of the best — the National Museum of China. The museum offers a sort of whistle-stop tour through thousands of years of Chinese history, spread across dozens of exhibition halls. There’s a lot to get through here, so don’t feel bad if you don’t see everything. For the highlights, keep an eye out for the Houmuwu Ding — the heaviest piece of ancient bronzeware in the world — and the burial suit made of jade pieces sewn together with gold thread, which dates back to the Han dynasty. Remember to bring your passport for free entry.
The National Museum is on the northeast side of Tiananmen Square, and as you walk to the entry point, you’ll get a sense of just how huge this giant public space really is. The square is the literal and symbolic center of the city and is a must-see for both domestic and international tourists.
a welcome change of pace; the perfect places to wander in and out of boutiques and coffee shops. Many of the streets have a fascinating mix of traditional Chinese architecture and Western architecture dating from the early 20th century. Head to Berry Beans in Zhujia Hutong and grab a seat on the terrace for a view over the surrounding tiled rooftops,
while you refuel with their signature brown sugar cinnamon latte (US$5.70).
You can’t leave Beijing without eating its eponymous Peking duck. Skip the so-called “time-honored brands” like Quanjude and head instead to local favorite Deyuan Roast Duck, also in Dashilan. The duck here (US$25) is more accessibly priced compared to some of the fancier restaurants around the city. And the atmosphere is lively and unpretentious, making it a great place to kick back and enjoy a few local Yanjing beers.
- Day 2 costs: Coffee at Berry Beans US$5.70; Dinner at Deyuan Roast Duck US$25; Total: US$30.70
Day 3: Art old and new
Having spent the past couple of days exploring Beijing’s history, it’s about time to bring things back into the present. Not quite yet, however, as your third day starts with a visit to Panjiayuan Antique Market. Located in the southeast of the city, Panjiayuan is home to a daily market selling everything from tiny, ornate vases to giant stone carvings, but it really comes alive during the weekend morning flea market. You can easily spend a few hours browsing the makeshift stalls for old propaganda posters, vintage jewelry and other fun curios — but be sure to bargain hard if something does catch your eye.
From Panjiayuan, ride the subway north to 798 Art Zone (US$0.60), Beijing’s first and most visited modern art district. Housed in a complex of decommissioned military factories, 798 is home to dozens of galleries, studios and boutiques. Many of the galleries are free, and you can spend a happy afternoon hopping in and out of them or even just wandering around the industrial architecture (look out for the disused train), before stopping for coffee and a snack (US$14.90) at one of the many boho cafés. Several of the galleries that do charge an entry fee are well worth it. For example, contemporary art museum M Woods (US$11.90) has a varied permanent collection of works from Chinese and international artists including Ai Weiwei, Tracey Emin and James Turrell, as well as an ongoing exhibition of the works of noted American Postminimalist artist Richard Tuttle.
A short walk south, Indigo Mall offers better value dining options than 798. For some people, the idea of “mall dining” may conjure up images of plastic tables and reheated fast food, but some of Beijing’s best restaurants can be found in its malls. At Indigo Mall, families and young couples pack into restaurants serving everything from ramen to spicy Sichuan cuisine. The latter, in particular, is a favorite of Beijing diners and you can try it for yourself at Yuxiang Kitchen, whose minimalist décor lets the chili-laden dishes speak for themselves. Order their authentic version of kungpao chicken (US$5.80) and a bowl of spicy dandan noodles (US$2.70), wheat noodles tossed with minced pork and sesame-chili sauce.
- Day 3 costs: Transport US$0.60; Coffee and snack at 798 US$14.90; Entry to M Woods US$11.90; Dinner at Yuxiang Kitchen US$8.50; Total: US$35.90
. . .
Beijing’s vast and ever-expanding subway network is the most convenient way for tourists to get around the city. Station and ticketing information is all available in English and most major landmarks and tourist sites (including all of those mentioned here) are no more than 10 to 15 minutes’ walk away from a subway stop. Fares are distance-based, starting from US$0.35, and will rarely exceed US$1. The Airport Express (US$3.70) takes passengers from Beijing Capital International Airport to downtown in 25 minutes, stopping at Sanyuanqiao and Dongzhimen stations, from where you can transfer to the subway. Note that trains are crowded but you can avoid the worst of it by traveling outside of the morning and evening rush hours. You can buy a transport card (including a refundable US$3 deposit) to save time — rather than buying a ticket for each journey — but note that using it doesn’t get you a discount.
Three hot hotels
Templeside Lianlian Hutong Guest House. Recently refurbished, this cute family-run guesthouse is in the heart of a hutong neighborhood in the west of Beijing, just around the corner from the picturesque Miaoying Temple White Dagoba.
Lu Song Yuan Hotel. Located just a few minutes’ walk from the popular Nanluogu Alley, Lu Song Yuan Hotel is set in a historical courtyard and decorated with traditional Chinese-style furnishings. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to old Beijing.
Beijing New Oriental Suites in Seasons Park. This condo hotel is conveniently located within walking distance of Sanlitun, making it a great choice for those who want to be close to restaurants and nightlife. Rooms also have kitchenettes for you to prepare your own meals.
Cebu Pacific flies to Beijing from Manila. cebupacificair.com
This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of Smile magazine.