If you’re wondering what to do with 24 hours in Beijing, look no further! I visited the Chinese capital many times, both on layovers when I used to work as a flight attendant, and also during my personal travels. You can still see a lot of Beijing in just 24 hours, including the iconic Great Wall of China and The Forbidden City!
24 Hours in Beijing
If you only have 24 hours in Beijing you may want to hire a driver for the day or do a tour. You should also plan to only visit a few places, ideally ones that are close to each other as getting around the city can be very time consuming. A good 24 hours in Beijing itinerary would be:
- visit The Great Wall of China first thing in the morning
- visit The Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City in the afternoon.
The Great Wall of China
Sections of The Great Wall of China run just north of Beijing and for this reason seeing The Great Wall of China is the number one thing travellers want to see when they are visiting Beijing. I would definitely recommend it to anyone even if you only have 24 hours in the city! Plus, due to it’s close proximity to Beijing it is totally possible to spend half a day visiting The Great Wall and the rest of the day seeing some of the sights in Beijing.
Walking along The Great Wall is high on many people’s bucket list of places to visit in Asia. In fact it is one of the 7 New Wonders of the World and is extremely impressive. It was built across the northern borders of China as a wartime defence to protect Chinese states and their Empires against nomadic groups in the north. The Great Wall spans over 21,000 kilometres and can even sometimes be seen from space!
How to visit The Great Wall of China
You can either do a day tour to The Great Wall of China (check out some popular day tours here) or you can hire a driver. Hiring a driver will be a lot more time effective as often the tours last all day (around 8 hours), they spend a lot of time picking up all the passengers and they often include a tea ceremony or something. If you get a driver you can be done in half the amount of time, plus you can leave at whatever time is convenient for you. Of course the earlier you arrive the less busy it is.
Which section of The Great Wall should you visit?
There are many different sections of The Great Wall you can walk along. Popular sections of the wall close to Beijing include Mutianyu, Badaling and Jinshaling. The Mutianyu section is probably the most convenient section to visit from Beijing and is the one pictured in this article.
Mutianyu is the section of The Great Wall you often see in pictures as it is the most authentic part of The Great Wall and the views here are particularly stunning! It is also is the longest and best preserved intact section of the wall with 70% original wall. It is a popular section of the wall to walk along as there are several fun options to get up and down the wall. However first you need to get up to the wall from the car park, as it is located up in the mountains.
Getting up the wall – Cable Car or Chair Lift!
To reach The Great Wall you can either take the cable car or the chair lift up or you can climb the 1,000 stairs to get to the wall. It is definitely advisable to take the cable car or slide rail up though, as even when you do get off at The Great Wall there is still a lot of stairs to climb as you walk along the wall and it can be quite strenuous! Therefore take the cable car or chair lift (slide rail) to save energy (and time!) and enjoy the views from a different perspective! A single cable car or chair lift ride costs 100CNY (£11) and a return costs 120CNY (£13.60). My advice is to buy a return for the slide rail.
Getting down the wall – TOBOGGAN!
To come back down you can either go by cable car or chair lift again, or for the more adventurous of you – a toboggan ride! The toboggan slide takes you all the way down to the car park (1580 metres down) in about 5 minutes and is so fun! It goes in a zig-zag pattern, is quite steep and it actually goes quite fast too (top speeds can reach 30 km/h)! This is definitely the way I recommend to get down, providing you are fit and able! It is not recommended for elderly or for young children, in which case the cable car may be more suitable. Note the toboggan is only available on the way down. It costs 60 CNY (£6.80) for the ride down, but if you bought a return for the slide rail you can use that to go down the toboggan.
Prices for Mutianyu Great Wall:
Mutianyu Great Wall admission: 40 CNY
Mutianyu Cable Car: 100 CNY single, 120 CNY return.
Mutianyu Chair Lift: 100 CNY single, 120 CNY return (can use it on toboggan down).
Mutianyu Toboggan: 60 CNY single.
*Money saving tip*: if you buy a return ticket (120CNY) for the chair lift, you can go up on the chair lift and use the same ticket to go down on the toboggan. If you go up on the chair lift you will have to buy a separate ticket for the toboggan.
It will take almost 1.5 hours to reach Mutianyu from Beijing (around 65 km). The airport is closer to The Great Wall than the centre of Beijing is and it will save you a lot of time in traffic if you stay at an airport hotel.
You’ll find several souvenir shops and snack shops at The Great Wall. They do have a tendency to overprice things so definitely barter and negotiate a good price before you buy anything! Bring cash as the shops here don’t accept card. I always tend to use cash in China as I had many friends who had their card details cloned in China.
Top tips for seeing The Great Wall of China:
- book a driver instead of going on a tour as it will give you more flexibility and will save you a lot of time.
- get there when it opens to avoid the crowds (Mutianyu is open from 8am-5pm). By midday it will be heaving with people.
- visit the Mutianyu section if you want to experience going on a cable car or chair lift up and a toboggan ride down! It is so fun!
- bring cash for any gifts/snacks as the shops here don’t accept card!
What to bring to The Great Wall of China
- Wear suitable shoes. I am comfortable hiking in sandals, but you may want to bring more appropriate footwear as there is a lot of climbing and the stairs can often be uneven.
- Pack your outfit accordingly! In the colder months of October to May it gets bitterly cold here (but the wall looks beautiful covered in snow and is less crowded), and in the summer it gets very hot! Bring sun cream and a hat in summer (plus a light jacket as it can still get windy!), and a coat and gloves in winter! It often snows here in the winter which can sometimes lead to sections of the wall closing, so if you are visiting during this time make sure to check the wall is not closed before you set off. Don’t worry though: there isn’t just one best time to visit The Great Wall of China, it really depends on what experience you are after.
The Forbidden City
You should be finished at The Great Wall and back in Beijing by lunchtime. Head to The Forbidden City in the centre of Beijing. The impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site The Forbidden City is the world’s largest palace complex. It spans 250 acres, has a moat to protect the walled city and has almost 1,000 buildings! It contains many fine examples of traditional Chinese art and is an absolute must see during your layover in Beijing!
A maximum of 80,000 visitors can enter The Forbidden City each day and most days all tickets are completely sold out (especially on weekends and Chinese public holidays!!). The Forbidden City is an extremely popular tourist attraction not only for international tourists, but for Chinese tourists and locals as well. For this reason it is strongly recommended to buy tickets online beforehand! Click here to see how.
Opening times for The Forbidden City are 8.30am – 5pm (but 8.30am – 4.30pm in the winter months of November to March). Last entry is 50 minutes before closure but I would allow 2-3 hours here. Tickets cost 60 RMB (40 RMB in winter). And it is important to bear in mind The Forbidden City is closed on Mondays!
When to visit The Forbidden City
Aim to visit first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon. Whilst The Forbidden City gets extremely busy during the day, if you are there at the end of the day at closing time it will be almost empty so it is possible to get pictures without people in. Some popular places for taking photographs inside The Forbidden City include Yuqinggong, the Historic Palace and the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
However if you won’t be visiting first thing in the morning (because you will have been to The Great Wall first), you don’t want to risk turning up and not being able to purchase a ticket so I advise to book it online beforehand. If you do visit first thing in the morning, line up at the “Passport window” at the Southern Gate. The Southern Gate is the only entrance to The Forbidden City and is also known as The Meridien Gate.
Whether you book tickets online or buy them that morning, you MUST bring your passport to be allowed in the The Forbidden City!
Top tips for visiting The Forbidden City
- To avoid the crowds go either first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon, staying until closing time when it becomes a lot emptier.
- Also avoid weekends/ Chinese public holidays as it gets extremely busy then.
- The Forbidden City is closed on Mondays.
- Buy tickets beforehand online, or line up at the ‘Passport Window’ at the South Entrance before opening.
- You must bring your passport to enter.
- Nearest metro stops: Tiananmen West or Tiananmen East Station (line 1) or Qianmen Station (line 2).
Tiananmen Square is right next to The Forbidden City and is a must see when in Beijing. Many consider Tiananmen Square to be the symbol of Beijing. It is an enormous square at 100 acres and is able to hold 1 million people, making it China’s biggest square. Tiananmen Square is where the People’s Republic of China was established by Chairman Mao.
Temple of Heaven
You can choose to visit either The Forbidden City or The Temple of Heaven first. It will take you a lot less time to go round The Temple of Heaven than The Forbidden City (an hour as opposed to 2-3 hours) as even though is a big park it is still a lot smaller than The Forbidden City. Therefore if you want to see both it is probably wise to visit The Temple of Heaven first to ensure you don’t overrun at The Forbidden City. Hopefully you will be able to see both of them, but it may be possible that you will only be able to see one of them if you take a long time to go around, in which case pick which one you want to see as they both close at 5pm. Whilst The Forbidden City is more famous, personally I prefer the Temple of Heaven.
The Temple of Heaven is open from 8am-5pm. The actual gardens are open from 6am until 10pm but you can only access the historical buildings from 8am. The Temple of Heaven entrance ticket is 15 RMB. To enter The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (pictured) you will need to pay an extra 20 RMB on top of this. It is definitely worth it as in my opinion this is the most impressive and beautiful building here. In the past this is where Emperors prayed for good weather for the crops by sacrificing animals and burning incense.
Much like The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven gets extremely busy. Either get here first thing in the morning or an hour before closing to avoid crowds and get pictures without other people in. If you want to visit The Great Wall, The Forbidden City and The Temple of Heaven all in one day you will have to accept that you will visit one of them during the middle of the day so it will be crowded.
What to eat in Beijing
Finish the day off with dinner at a Peking duck restaurant, for which Beijing is known for. When you are in Beijing you MUST try the Peking duck! Peking duck is named after Beijing (Peking is the old name for Beijing). Qianmen Street is a popular pedestrianised street right next to Tiananmen Square where you can find plenty shops and restaurants.
If you have longer than 24 hours in Beijing:
Jingshan Park is located right next to the exit of The Forbidden City. It is a really nice park and if you climb up the stairs to the little tower at the top you’ll be rewarded with incredible views looking out over The Forbidden City and Beijing. Entrance is 2 RMB.
Visiting the hutongs is one of my favourite things to do in Beijing as it is relatively unknown to many tourists. The hutongs are ancient neighbourhoods in the city centre that epitomise the real everyday and authentic life in Beijing. Little has changed in the hutongs in the last few hundred years – the houses and streets here are centuries old!
Despite being extremely close to the city centre you will feel a million miles away from the hustle and bustle, the noise and the traffic.
I like to visit the Hutong that is just to the north of The Forbidden City and Jingshan Park. It is very quiet here despite being so central, and you can visit the Drum Tower (Gulou) and Bell Tower (Zhonglou) as they are also in the Hutong.
The Summer Palace dates back to 1153 and is another must visit if you have more than 24 hours in Beijing. The Summer Palace is beautiful, full of palaces, Chinese gardens, pavilions and lakes.
Also known as Yonghegong – this is Beijing’s largest Tibetan Buddhist temple. It was built in 1694 as the residence of Emperor Yongzheng before he succeeded to the throne. Yonghegong means “Palace of peace and harmony”. In 1744 it was converted into a lama temple and opened up to the public again in 1981.
Accommodation in Beijing
If you are only in Beijing for 24 hours and will be flying in and out I recommend staying near the airport. The Great Wall can be accessed fairly easily from the airport hotels without having to drive through town, plus there is an express metro line from the airport to the city so it is very convenient to reach.
Do you need a visa for China?
Applying for a Chinese Visa can be quite a headache, not to mind it is very pricey! But luckily China currently offers a FREE VISA EXEMPTION known as a visa-free transit for many nationalities. This means if you have a layover in China before heading onto another country you don’t need to apply for a visa and you can stay in China for up to 144 hours (6 days) visa free! This is a great way to be able to visit China without the hassle of sorting out the visa, and it is a good way for China to get tourists that otherwise may bypass China.
You can use these days to visit many cities in China or just stay in Beijing, it’s up to you! Click here to read more information about the 144 Hour Visa Exemption Transit Policy including which passport holders qualify.
Important things to know before visiting Beijing
- Beijing is a huge sprawling city. It is incredibly busy, full of people and traffic and is very, very polluted. Aim to visit places early to avoid the crowds as much as possible.
- Card cloning and ATM’s swallowing cards seems to be very common in China. To avoid situations like this it is best to always use cash in China.
- English is not widely spoken in China.
- The metro is the cheapest and most efficient way to get around (even quicker than a taxi more often than not as traffic in Beijing can be very bad).
- Beijing can be extremely cold in winter and very hot in the summer. Check what the weather will be like and dress accordingly.
Related reading: Hong Kong itinerary
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