How to Spend the Perfect 24 Hours in Beijing

zhangshuang/Getty Images

After seeing the Forbidden City, the 798 Art District, and a whole lot in between, you’ll leave Beijing planning your next trip back.

Departures is published by Meredith Corp. and owned by American Express. While American Express Card Member benefits are highlighted in this publication, including through the links indicated below, the content of this article was independently written by the editorial staff at Meredith. Other Departures content paid for by American Express is explicitly marked as such.

The first thing that you’ll likely notice when you exit the expansive Beijing airport is the roses: they’re everywhere. Lining the highway meridian, filling the many lush parks that elegantly border the city streets, dotting the sidewalks. The abundance of color is such that it looks as though the city was painted in bright pinks, yellows, and oranges—and you’ll come to find that color is bountiful in Beijing, as is the opportunity to discover a rich culture, traditional and modern art, amazing food, and dynamic architecture. The mix of old (very, very, very old) and new creates an allure unlike any other city in China; it’s this wedding of eras that perhaps marks Beijing as one of the world’s most fascinating cities. In the heart of town, you’ll find the Forbidden City (home to 24 emperors in its 500-plus years of activity), not too far from the Central Business District, which is the hub of modern architecture.

All of this is to say: you’ll have no shortage of things to do in Beijing; rather, choosing how to best fill 24 hours will be your greatest challenge. So, we’ll do it for you. Our top picks for a culture-packed day in Beijing, below.

7:00 a.m.: You’re up early, we know—but you won’t regret it. Before delving into the capital’s varied neighborhoods, we’re taking you just outside of the city to see one of the world’s most incredible architectural feats: the Great Wall of China, which extends just over 13,000 miles. Located about an hour and twenty minutes from central Beijing, the Great Wall (named a World UNESCO site in 1987) is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that is well worth the short morning trip. Check with your hotel concierge for information about the best tour guides to take you there, so you can learn about the site's timeline and creation, while enjoying the stunning views.

12:00 p.m.: Back from exploring the Great Wall, you’ll be ready for lunch. Head to Huajia Yiyuan (located in Dongcheng), where you’ll enjoy award-winning Peking duck at a Beijing institution. Opt to sit in the naturally-lit, elegant courtyard.

2:00 p.m.: A trip to Beijing wouldn’t be complete without a stop at one of the most well-known city squares in the world, Tiananmen Square, known for the tragic student-led demonstrations regarding political freedoms in 1989. The square also marks the entrance to the Forbidden City, which you’ll visit next.

2:30 p.m.: Home to 24 emperors over the course of roughly 500 years, the Forbidden City is one of the most iconic and important existing landmarks in China. Again, check with your hotel concierge to set up a guided tour of this iconic landmark to get the most out of the experience.


Tom Lau/Getty Images

3:30 p.m.: Next up: a visit to one of the city’s coolest neighborhoods. On your way to explore the 798 Art Zone (more on that below), stop for a craft brew and a snack at Ram Brewpub, one of the coolest up-and-coming microbreweries in the city.

4:30: p.m.: Take a couple of hours to meander through the buzzing 798 Art District, a modern neighborhood of former Bauhaus-style military factories turned creative spaces, thanks to trailblazing local artists. The area is home to a thriving art culture; here, you’ll find street art, bountiful galleries and studios, boutiques, cafes, and bars.

6:30 p.m.: Enjoy a craft cocktail on the terrace at MO Bar. Each drink on the bar’s signature list is inspired by local landmarks—pro tip: try the World Famous. Watch the sunset behind the iconic rooftops of the Forbidden City, and make sure to check out the especially chic and design-forward interior of the bar.


Courtesy of The Peninsula Beijing

7:30 p.m.: After a day packed with walking, sight-seeing, and absorbing all that this concrete jungle has to offer, head to American Express Fine Hotel & Resort Property The Peninsula Beijing (where you’ll stay the night) for a traditional Cantonese dinner at Huang Ting, which replicates the setting of a Beijing nobleman’s courtyard home.

Located in the upscale Wangfujing neighborhood (not far from the Forbidden City), the Peninsula is opulent both inside and out. This all-suite, five-star hotel offers the kind of luxe accommodations that you will truly never want to leave; a well-trained staff work hard to deliver award-winning service, and the hotel’s interior is tastefully appointed with a striking balance of traditional Chinese antiques and modern art.


Courtesy of The Peninsula Beijing

If small, boutique accommodations are more your speed, opt for the chic Orchid Hotel, where you can enjoy one of the private residences for an intimate experience, with the hotel staff just minutes away. You’ll find that the residence interiors are homey and chic, with dark wood accents, white-brick walls, and beautiful interior plants.