Terrifying glass sightseeing platforms, historical monuments, mysterious cave dwellings, serene nature and, of course, the unmissable Great Wall; Beijing is a day trip destination of dreams.
With the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the winding hutong lanes and countless cool restaurants, bars and museums to work your way around, you’ll never run out of things to do in Beijing itself. There comes a time, however, when even the most committed city slickers need a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown life, and there’s as much to do outside the city as in it. Snap envy-inducing photos of the Great Wall, discover the secrets of China’s long-gone emperors and walk stunning hikes through the hills all within a few hours of the capital.
A day trip to Mutianyu is the quickest and easiest way to see the Great Wall of China from Beijing. Just 75 kilometres (47 miles) north of the city proper, this well-kept but not overly restored section of China’s most famous landmark is surrounded by stunning natural scenery, which changes dramatically from season to season. The official ticketed area of the wall comes complete with a cableway up and a fun luge slide down, but those with a more adventurous nature can hike up the surrounding hills to explore the ‘Wild Wall’ for themselves. Multiple tourist buses run back and forth from the city centre, or you can organise a private car or tour.
Farther out but less crowded because of it, the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall is favoured by hikers and photographers. Around 140km (90mi) northeast of the city, this 10.5km (6.5mi) stretch boasts no less than 67 watchtowers, three beacon towers and five passes between steep stone staircases. Although the sections between the exit and entry gates are only short, the hiking is hard-going. Wear robust shoes and bring snacks, water and plenty of stamina. To get here from the city, take a shuttle bus from the nearby Wangjing West Subway station, book a private car or take a tour.
Easily combined on a day trip to the Badaling Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs lie at the foot of Tianshou Mountain, around 50km (30mi) outside of Beijing. Within a colossal area of 120 square kilometres (46 square miles) are the mausoleums of all 13 Ming dynasty emperors, set apart by distances of between 500 metres (1,640 feet) and 8km (6mi). Even the entrance to the complex, known as the Sacred Way, is long and grand. Seeing all the tombs in one go is naturally not an option, so plot a route and set aside a couple of hours or simply wander about until your legs give way. Bus 872 and the Changping subway line run from Beijing, or you can arrange a private car or a tour.
A trip to Gubei Water Town, set around two hours’ drive from Beijing, can also be combined with seeing the Great Wall — a particularly untouched section called Simatai, which has retained its original form since the Ming dynasty (1368-1664). The town itself is a beautiful water-wrapped community, fed by a reservoir and canals and backed by lush green mountains. Call in at the Sima Liquor Distillery, where you can sample all kinds of Chinese rice wine, and the Yongshun Dye House, where old style looms and spinning machines are on display. Tourist buses run from Dongzhimen in Beijing, or you can arrange a private car or a tour.
If you’re a nature lover with a head for heights, head for the Shilinxia Scenic Area, a 6km valley of ancient rock formations in Pinggu, around 80km (50mi) east of Beijing. Jutting out above the many stunning natural attractions here is the UFO-shaped Shilinxia Glass Sightseeing Platform, said to be the largest of its kind in the world. Sitting 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the bottom of the gorge (choose to hike up or catch a ride in a cable car), the stomach-dropping underfoot views will give jelly legs to even the bravest visitors. Buses run to Shilinxia from Beijing’s Dongzhimen Transport Hub and private tours are available.
Longqingxia Gorge provides a great day trip from Beijing any time of year, but is particularly popular in winter due to the Longqingxia Ice Lantern Festival. Situated north of the Badaling Great Wall, around 100km (62mi) from Beijing, the valley is an eye-popping expanse of emerald water, dramatic karst cliffs, ancient temples and modern attractions, the latter of which includes bungee jumping and a bicycle on a high-wire. While you’re in the area, make time to check out the Guyaju Caves, the ruins of a mysterious community that once lived in a compact carved rock face that has since been left abandoned. Longqingxia Gorge can be reached by a combination of trains and buses from Beijing or in around two hours by car. Tours of both the gorge and the caves are available.
It can be a bit of a schlep to get to Shidu (around two hours’ drive from Beijing), but don’t be put off – it’s worth the journey. The farthest of 10 river crossings (Shidu literally means 10th crossing), the crystal-clear Juma River and stunning karst cliffs here in Fangshan District look a million miles away from Beijing. Restaurants, kayaking, rock climbing and hiking can all be enjoyed here with relatively few tourists. By car is the easiest and most relaxed way to reach Shidu, but bus 917 or the Fangshan subway line to Suzhuang (and then a short shuttle bus or taxi) will also deliver those on a budget.
Laying just 30km (19mi) northwest of Beijing, Xiangshan – also known as Fragrant Hills – Park is a popular scenic area made up of forested hills, historic buildings and cultural relics first developed in the Jin dynasty (1115-1234). Choose to wander north or south from the entrance and take in a variety of peaks, temples and buildings while enjoying the fresh air and nature along the way. Avoid weekends or prepare for crowds if visiting between mid-October and early November, when the park is inundated with visitors keen to see its famous autumnal display of fiery red leaves. Taxis will happily take you from the city centre, or you can hop on the subway to Xiangshan Station, take bus 563 to Xiangshan Gongyuan Dongmen Station or buses 318, 360, 630 or 698 to Xiangshan Station.