Beijing (北京) is one of those cities that you need at least a week to explore, if you want to become at least a bit familiar with it. It is so rich of culture, history, entertainment, even nature (although it is not built in a beautiful mountain, island or valley). Being a capital of China, it is a proper destination to get a glimpse of this country if you visit it for the first time. But not everybody has the opportunity to stay long time in this amazing city. So, what if you have only 24 hours to spend in Beijing? Let’s see how could you spend your time best there.
Introduction to Beijing
Beijing is not only the political, but also one of the most important cultural centers of China. With its 3000 years of history, it has passed through bloom and decline many times. And this fortune remained a lot of sites, landmarks and symbols in the city. Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, as well as its splendid parks and its colorful neighborhoods are only some of its worth to visit places.
This city has been a capital of China several times. But its peak was during the Ming and Qing dynasties, from the 15th to the 20th centuries, when most of its landmarks were built. Then, after a short period of decline, it returned to its glory again after the Communist revolution and the recent reforms by Deng Xiao Ping. And now it reached a good balance between the old and the new, so it can offer everything for every taste.
24 Hours in Beijing
So, with such a great variety of things to see and do, if you have only 24 hours and want to explore, feel and touch Beijing and its atmosphere, you need to build your itinerary wisely. In general, there are some places that are better to visit in the morning. Other places are more proper for the evening. And there are places suitable for most of the day. Let’s draw a quick plan for such an itinerary.
Beijing In The Morning
It is the beginning of a new day. And Beijing greets it in its most central spot- Tiananmen Square. So, I suggest- get up early in the morning (really early- around 6:30 am, depending of where is your hotel located), and first have a local breakfast. Most of the hotels offer breakfast, but I would suggest you to try the local “baozi” (包子)- a bread-like dumplings, filled with various kinds of meat or vegetables.
Then you get the subway to Tiananmen Square. I would advise you arrive there earlier, so you can eventually see the Chinese flag raising ceremony. The time of flag rising varies depending on the time of the year, from 7:36 am in January, to 4:45 am in June (you can see the exact timetable here: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/beijing/tiananmen/flag-raising.htm). And this is not the only thing you can do in Tiananmen Square.
Tiananmen Square (天安门广场)
It is known as “the largest square in the world”. But actually you can’t feel that, because there are several emblematic buildings in the middle of the square, which hide the view to the entire square. The square is located exactly in the center of Beijing, and one of its buildings (which is one of the main gates) called Zhengyangmen (正阳门) is rising at its southern side.
From Zhengyangmen, you can see an axis line, from south to north, passing through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (in fact, in the south this axis starts from Yongdingmen gate, but it is far from the square). Everything nearby is situated symmetrically on the both sides of the axis line, including your trip in this important landmark of Beijing.
So, in the morning you can take some photos around the square, and you can even visit the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, located in the middle of the square. It is free, but you have to put your luggage in a special place outside. Then you pass through the Mausoleum silently. You are not allowed to take photos inside, as well as to wear your hat. A bit strange, but worth experience. The you proceed northward around the central axis (crossing the Chang’an Avenue through a subway, where you luggage will be scanned) to your next site- the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City (故宫)
It is one of the most important and famous landmarks of the whole China. Built in the 15th century, it has been a home of the two last dynasties of the Chinese empire- Ming and Qing. The Forbidden City is built in a form of rectangle, and the central axis passes through its center on its length.
When you cross the Chang’an Avenue. First you enter through the most famous gate in the area (and in the whole China)- Tiananmen Gate, from which the square name is derived. It is the well-known building with the portrait of Mao and the words in Chinese: “Long live the People’s Republic of China” and “Long live the world’s unity of nations”. And this is the first gate to the Forbidden City.
From there you proceed northward on the main axis, passing through Duanmen Gate and a prolonged square, where you have to buy your entrance ticket. It is 60 CNY, and with it you enter in the actual Forbidden City, through the next, Meridian Gate.
Now you enter in the world of the Chinese Emperors from the last 5 centuries. Following the main axis, you see the main halls of the palace complex- the Hall of the Supreme Harmony, which is the most emblematic, and all the other halls behind it. There are large squares between the halls, surrounded by other splendid historical buildings, and inside the halls- a lot of relics, including the Emperor’s throne.
Proceeding hall after hall, finally you reach a small garden with pavilions and artificial mountains. There is also a symbolic double tree, forming a heart-like shape, which is a favorite place for photos of couples. Finally, you reach the northern gate of the Forbidden City and go out, in front of a hill called Jingshan Park.
At this point it should be almost noon, but if you are quicker, probably you would have time to climb the historical Jingshan Park and see the Forbidden City from above. It is really worth. But if you have spent longer time in Tiananmen and the Forbidden City, it is time for lunch before you proceed to your next destination.
Lunch In Beijing At Noon
I would suggest you take one of the many rickshaws waiting at the north gate of the Forbidden City and tell the driver to take you to South Luogu Alley (南锣鼓巷). Normally, the driver would cross through one of the old Hutong neighborhoods of Beijing, so you would have an opportunity to feel the specific atmosphere of this area.
You will arrive at the Di’anmen Avenue, at South Luogu Metro Station. From there, you can walk on South Luogu Alley- a pedestrian street in “old town” style, full of souvenir shops and local fast food restaurants and stalls of various kinds. There you not only can have your fast lunch (yes, for 24 hours you would not have too much time) and buy some souvenirs, but also you can enjoy the specific atmosphere of this alley. And after your lunch you back to South Luogu Station.
Temple of Heaven or Summer Palace
Now is time to spend meaningfully your afternoon in Beijing, and you have two options: the Temple of Heaven or the Summer Palace. Both of them are famous and important symbolic landmarks. And it would be difficult to visit them within an afternoon, because they are located far from the center, especially the Summer Palace, and far from each other. So again, I suggest you choose one of them and fully enjoy it.
And no matter where do you go, I would advise you go by metro, not by taxi. First, the chance to be stuck in traffic jam is quite high. And second, metro is much cheaper.
Option 1- Temple of Heaven (天坛)
The Temple of Heaven is closer to South Luogu Station. You can take the metro to Tiantan East Gate station, which is the closest station to this site. When you arrive there, you can buy the entrance ticket to the whole Tiantan Park. The entrance fee is 15 CNY. And with this ticket you enter the park area of the Temple of Heaven.
This is a special landmark, unique in the whole China and the world. It is made for reference to the oldest religion existed in the China, which has been monotheistic. Many details of this religion have been lost long ago, but what remained is a worship to the Heaven. And that’s what the Emperors of Ming and Qing dynasties used to practice here- once a year they held a special ceremony around the fundamental prayer, the prayer for good harvest.
The whole complex consists of two main round buildings, a round altar platform, and several additional buildings. The main round building, called Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is one of the most famous symbols of Beijing. It is build with a three-layered rood, and is located in the northern side of the complex. The other round building has one-layered roof and is called The Imperial Vault of Heaven. And south of it is the altar platform, called The Circular Mound Altar, built on three levels. All these three constructions are built on an axis, connected by a large alley. Then, several additional halls are built around the axis, some of which turned into a museum presenting artifacts, related to the harvest prayer ceremonies.
So, when you enter through the East Gate of the park, the best is to go to The Circular Mound Altar and start your exploration on the axis northward. You will pass around The Imperial Vault of Heaven, and before reach the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, you have to buy another entrance ticket. The entrance fee is 20 CNY. Finally you can go out from the north gate of the park. The whole visit of the Temple of Heaven normally is at least one and a half hour.
Option 2- Summer Palace (颐和园)
A visit of Summer Palace from South Luogu Station is longer than a visit of the Temple of Heaven. You take the metro to Beigongmen Station, buy your entrance ticket and enter the Summer Palace site from its northern gate. Entrance fee: 60 CNY for full access to all attractions, or 30 CNY for walk inside the Summer Palace without access to some of the attractions.
The Summer Palace has been a residence for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty, but in fact its beginning is long before Qing. It consists of two main parts- Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, both artificial, built and formed gradually during the various dynasties. But the complex reached its glory during the Qing.
So, if you enter the Summer Palace from the north gate, the best route is first to ascend to the top of the Longevity Hill. It is full of historical buildings in old traditional style- pavilions, halls, pagodas, walls and many other. On the top you can visit the highest building in the complex- the Tower of Buddhist Incense.
Then you can descend to the northern coast of Kunming Lake, where you can see more historical buildings, of which the most significant is the Long Corridor- a construction of a covered alley, 700 m long, richly decorated.
From there you can make a short cruise on Kunming Lake to one of the islands, and to enjoy the nice views of the lake and the Longevity Hill behind it. Finally, you can back to the northern gate, but on the western side of the hill. On your route, you can see a magnificent Marble Boat- a great place for photos, and on the northern side of the hill- the „Suzhou Street”- a Suzhou style artificial street with a river canal and some small buildings on its both sides. Then you go out of the site, to the same metro station.
Normally, the whole visit of the Summer Palace would take at least 2 hours, maybe even more. So, if you choose this option, you would back to the center of Beijing in the evening. If you choose the Temple of Heaven, you can back earlier. But no matter what would you want to visit in the afternoon, the evening is coming, and it would be a great time for other things to do.
Beijing In The Evening
The best place to spend the evening in Beijing, especially for those who come to the city for the first time is Wangfujing. And Wangfujing Station will be your starting point.
Wangfujing Street (王府井)
This is the main pedestrian street of Beijing. If you like shopping, this is a good place. In general, there are two areas for shopping. The first one is the big malls along the street, which are just like every mall in China. But the second area is much more attractive. It is the small “Wangfujing Snack Street”- a side alley with a lively local evening market. There you can find a huge choice of small things- souvenirs, gifts, toys, art pieces, everything. And there you can enjoy plenty of local exotic things to eat, including such things like roasted scorpions and bugs on sticks.
Then, it would be time for dinner. If you are too impressed by the variety of small things in the „Wangfujing Snack Street”, it would be your dinner. But another option is to try Beijing Roasted Duck (北京烤鸭)- a famous Beijing meal, made by duck meat, pancakes, onions, cucumbers and other products. And the best place to eat it is the nearby Quanjude restaurant, behind the other side of Wangfujing Street.
After your dinner and joyful walk in Wangfujing area, you can go to a night club. The nearest good night club is Sunshine Club, located at Wangfujing Street, north of its pedestrian section. But if you are tired, you can just go to your hotel earlier.
Beijing At Night
Being such a large city, and capital of China, you can expect a great variety of options to sleep. There are splurge and budget hotels, guesthouses and hostels. You can choose your accommodation in Booking.com or Agoda. But there are two important things that you have to consider.
The first thing is that not every hotel accepts foreigners (as everywhere in China). Many hotels, especially the cheaper ones, don’t have a license to accommodate foreigners. So, if you make a reservation, I would advise to send a message to them in advance to confirm that they can accept you.
And the second thing is the location. Try to find a hotel which is near a metro station, so no matter which part of the day you come to Beijing and leave it, you could have a convenient access to all these sites for visiting, as well as to the airport or the railway station, from where you will leave Beijing.
Of course, if you come to Beijing at noon and leave at noon, you can change the order of the places to visit. Same if you come and leave at evening. But no matter what is the time of your arrival and departure, visiting these places would be a good way to experience Beijing for 24 hours. And since it is a really interesting and impressive city which has much more to reveal, you would fall in love with this city and would definitely like to make a new, much longer trip to Beijing.