Exploring Beijing in 4 Days: Tips for the trip & first day itinerary

Beijing - Forbidden City

Beijing, capital of the People’s Republic of China and the second most populous “city proper” in the world. With its urban area of 1,368 km2, it may discourage many from venturing to such a far distant place for a couple of days only.
If you’re one of those unfortunate souls who can’t have more than 5-6 days off and you’re planning on exploring Beijing in 4 days, this might be the right article for you!
The only requirement you need is being open to less conventional flight times and to a full-day itinerary with just a few breaks.

Before talking about my recommended itinerary, however, here are 4 things you should all consider before planning your trip to Beijing!

Beijing in 4 days: tips & tricks!

Tip 1

No matter where you’re from, try to get a flight that lands super early in the morning. This will save you one full day. Same goes for your returning flight: if you want to enjoy one more day, secure a flight leaving around 8/9 pm. Beijing Capital Airport is conveniently located just one hour away by taxi from the city center. The ride is very cheap too, no more than ¥100-120 (about $15), depending on the traffic, so a late departure means another full day to explore the area.

Tip 2

Beijing is gigantic and, although public transport and the subway are super efficient and easy to use, you still have to be careful in considering your time.
If you’re thinking of taking a nice walk from one area to the other, don’t let the map trick you, as what might seem close is actually further than you think. I don’t mind walking around, since, in my opinion, this is the best way to get to know the place I’m visiting but, when you’re on a tight schedule, this option could be inconvenient, especially when you’re in a foreign country for the first time and you have no idea where you are. (Yes, on my trip I got lost a couple of times!)

Tip 3

Forget Google maps. Google doesn’t work in China and, even if you had internet access (through an international SIM card or portable wifi), you would still be lost.
For those lucky people who own an Apple or who usually use other browsers such as Yahoo, there’s no problem at all. But if you’re unlucky just like me and the VPN app you downloaded doesn’t really do its job, then you’re left stranded. So, here’s a brief list of what you can do about this:

  • Safari works perfectly fine (though I’m not a big fan of Apple Maps).
  • In case your phone runs on Google, download a different browser/map app in advance
  • Download a more efficient VPN than what I got (here’s a link to a good article)
  • In case nothing else works, don’t despair, a good old map will still do good.

Tip 4

While parks are usually open until late, most monuments set the last admission time between 3:30~4:30 (depending on the time of the year you visit). Make sure to check in advance and plan your schedule accordingly.

Beijing in 4 days: where to go and what to see

Now let’s talk about the best itinerary you should follow when exploring Beijing in 4 days!

Beijing is immense and having just 4 days to explore, it might seem hard to be able to see everything you want. Hard but not impossible! In our case, we opted for a very busy schedule. It was at some points exhausting but definitely worth our fatigue. And at the end of our 4 days, we had managed to see all we wanted to see. The secret? Prioritize and follow an intense schedule.

Here is the itinerary that we followed while exploring Beijing in 4 days.

Day 1

(Start at 9.00 early but not too early)
Whether you just landed in Beijing or you arrived the day before late at night, save the first day for Beijing’s famous Forbidden City. But before venturing into the amazing secrets of China’s great imperial palaces, start off the day with a big breakfast to boost off your energy for a full day tour!

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square

(20 minutes – free)

Make a quick stop at Tiananmen Square, the 7th largest city square in the world. Here you can take some awesome photos of China’s monumental Gate of Heavenly Peace, from where the picture of Mao Zedong watches over the square. In the area, you will also find the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People (where the Chinese National People’s Congress holds its meetings), the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. The square is also known for the “Tiananmen Square Massacre”, a violent suppression of a pro-democracy student-led movement which occurred in 1989.

Worker’s Cultural Palace

Worker's Cultural Palace

(1 hour – park admission ¥2 / Sacrificial Hall ¥15)

Cross the Heavenly Gate and then enter the Imperial City precincts. Before venturing into the main attraction, the Forbidden City, take some time to explore the Worker’s Cultural Palace. Despite being magnificent (just as much as the Forbidden City), most tourists ignore this area, which makes it the perfect spot to escape the crowds and enjoy the beauty of Chinese architecture quietly.

Worker's Cultural Palace

Let’s not forget also about all the nice shots you can take here! Besides us, the only other people we encountered were Chinese couples having their wedding photos taken in such a beautiful and quiet location.

Forbidden City

Forbidden City Gate of Supreme Harmony

(About 3/4 hours – Nov-Mar ¥40/Apr-Oct ¥60)

Now you’re set to join the masses and visit the huge complex of palaces whose entry was once forbidden to mere commoners: the Forbidden City.

!!!Attention: to enter the premises you are required to show your passport so make sure you’re carrying it with you! Last entry is about an hour before it closes.

Although spectacular and majestic, I have to say I found the Forbidden City quite repetitive. Especially if you walk the path connecting the main halls located in the central area. What I really enjoyed was, instead, the imperial garden right before the north gate.

But let’s go in order!

South gate area

Right after entering the Meridian Gate, go up towards the Meridian Gate Gallery, which usually hosts some cultural exhibition. More than the gallery itself, I loved the view over the Gate of Supreme Hall and the outer part of the area, the so-called Imperial City. From here you can also enjoy a short walk on the walls protecting the complex of palaces from the rest of Beijing.

Walls of Forbidden City

Before heading to the central complex, stop by the Hall of Literary Glory to enjoy a gallery displaying Chinese finest ceramics.

The Three Great Halls and central area

Cross the Gate of Supreme Harmony, and head towards the three main halls: Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Middle Harmony and Hall of Preserving Harmony. Don’t miss the two Guardian Lions, guarding the entrance of the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Guardian lions

Also known as “Foo dogs” in the west, these bronze statues watch over the entry to important buildings. The male, on the right side, has its right paw placed on a globe, symbolizing the imperial power extending throughout the entire globe. The female, on the left, has her paw on a lion cub, symbolizing the cycle of life and fertility.

Treasure Gallery & Imperial Garden

Head east towards the Treasury Gallery (additional ¥10 required). Admire the Nine Dragon Screen located just right at its entrance. This is one of the three only left in the entire country and it was meant to protect the palace from evil spirits.

Walk to the north and then head back west towards the Imperial Garden.
Once here, you could either go back to the central area to see the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, or you could stop there to better explore the garden, and relax.

Imperial Garden

As I mentioned before, the garden was what I enjoyed the most in the entire complex. This classical Chinese-style garden will amaze you with its many pavilions, ancient cypresses, and rock formations. At the center of the garden, the Hall of Imperial Peace clearly reflects the function this area held: a place for peace and tranquility, where the imperial dynasty used to spend their free time.

Elephant at Forbidden City

The main attraction here is the two bronze kneeling elephants, a symbol of strength and power. What will strike you about these two statues is their unrealistic way of kneeling.

Once you’re satisfied with your visit, you can exit the complex from the north gate (Gate of Divine Prowess – exit only).

Jingshan Park

(1 hour – ¥2)

Now it’s time to enjoy the beautiful Forbidden City from the top of Jingshan Park.
After exiting from the north gate, you can find this beautiful hill park right on the opposite side of the road. Before entering the park, get a snack from one of the street food stands around you. Why not try a delicious caramelized sweet to recharge your batteries with a lot of sugar?

Chinese sweet
Tanghulu – traditional Chinese snack of candied fruit

Walking around the park, we come across some old ladies practicing the traditional Chinese ribbon dance. It was such a pleasant and enchanting spectacle! I’d suggest you enjoy this delightful view while you take a break.

Ribbon Dance

After a bit of a rest, walk up to the top of the hill, to enjoy the amazing view over Beijing. This was the best view over the Imperial Palace that people could have at the times of the great Chinese empire. I’m sure you’ll get struck by how huge the Forbidden City is, just like I did!

Beihai Park

Beihai Park

If you still have energy, head towards Beihai Park. The last entry to see the Tibetan style White Dagoba and the Yong’an temple is around 4.30 but the park is open until 9.00 and, even without entering the temple, it’s definitely worth walking around the lake. During summer, you could also cross it by boat to get to the northern part of the park. Take your time there to relax after a long busy day of walking.

Qianhai Lake areaQianhai lake

From Beihai Park north exit, walk to Qianhai Lake. Here you’ll find restaurants and lively bars where you can enjoy the rest of the evening along with locals. It’s definitely a nice area to walk around after the long day. A lot of bars with live performances, and a super cool atmosphere. I have to say prices are not that cheap here, considering the average prices in China, but I guess it’s probably because the area is one of the centers of Beijing’s Movida, where young Beijingers start the night before moving to other areas, like the famous Nanluogu Xiang Hutong.

Time to rest!

This is the end of your first day exploring Beijing. After walking around the whole day with only a few breaks, it’s definitely time to head back to your accommodation, enjoy a nice shower and get some rest. Next on the list of places to see is the amazing Great Wall of China. Be ready for a magical experience on your second day exploring Beijing!