If you’re a frequent traveler, then there’s probably nothing you dread more than a long layover. Spending hour upon hour in a soulless airport terminal, eating at overpriced, generic chain restaurants and searching for that all-elusive seat comfortable enough to bear your weight for a few hours. It has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares.
But what if you could turn that nightmare into an adventure? What if opting for that cheaper flight with an uncomfortably long layover provided you with the opportunity to explore UNESCO World Heritage sights and sample world-class international cuisine? What if you finally broke free of the shackles of the airport and headed out into the great, wide beyond?
On a recent trip from Mongolia to the US that’s exactly what I attempted to do. I turned a 9-hour Beijing layover into a bucket list-worthy escapade. And with minimal pre-planning and a sense of adventure you can too!
So, what exactly did the planning entail? What’s achievable within a layover timescale? How difficult is Beijing to navigate when time is short, and expectations are high? What’s possible on your own and when might you need to look to organized tour companies? Read on to find out!
Beijing Layover Pre-Planning
A few years ago, I’d have never had the stomach to attempt to leave the airport on a Beijing layover. The visa process was too arduous and costly. The potential for delayed flights, crap weather, or a bad case of Beijing’s notorious smog often meant I couldn’t justify the effort.
As of December 2017, that all changed.
Amongst several Chinese entry points, Beijing adopted a ‘transit without visa’ policy for a whopping 53 countries. The new policy, which has since been updated, permits citizens of those 53 countries to spend 144 hours in Beijing without having to apply for a visa. Just make sure you read the conditions before assuming that you qualify.
Suddenly, I could indulge myself on a Beijing Layover without spending hours at the Chinese Embassy filling in forms. I could explore the city without spending a fortune on visas. It’s an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.
So, with entry to China covered, what pre-planning is needed?
The answer is not much or, arguably, none at all.
Admittedly, I’ve visited Beijing before on more than one occasion. But even if you haven’t it’s possible to make your Beijing layover decision whilst you’re on the flight – which is awesome because it means you can judge how tired you are, and how good the weather is, before you pull the trigger.
What makes this possible?
- 144-hour visa-free pass desks are easily identifiable upon arrival. Simply fill out an arrival card, hand over your passport and onward journey itinerary and away you go! Just be aware that the lines at the visa-free desk can get busy. I was fortunate enough to only have to wait 5 minutes, but I’ve heard rumors of people waiting over an hour to be served.
- ATMs and currency exchange desks are in the arrival’s hall. You don’t need to arrive with Chinese Yuan (although this will undoubtedly save you some time if that’s in short supply).
- Left luggage storage is available (for a price) in all three terminals. So even if your checked baggage isn’t checked through to final destination, or if you have rolling hand-baggage, you’ll still be able to enjoy your Beijing layover without dragging everything around the city with you.
- The Beijing Capital Airport Express Train runs directly into the city in twenty minutes and connects directly with the subway. It runs from both Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 every 10 minutes. Beijing’s downtown sights can be reached in a mere thirty-minutes. Express train tickets can be purchased at the automated ticket machines in the terminal. Printed subway maps are also available in the Express Train boarding area (or you can print them before you go from here). You’ll need to buy separate subway tickets when you arrive at one of the two subway interchange stations (Dongzhimen or Sanyuanqiao). Although it might at first seem a little daunting to the uninitiated, everything can be found in English and is easily navigable after a few deep breaths!
What can be Achieved on a Beijing Layover?
The answer to this question depends on two things:
- How long your layover is; and
- How much pre-planning you’ve done.
How long is your Beijing Layover?
If you plan to use your entire 144-hour allowance then the world (well, all of Beijing at least) is your oyster. Everything from the Great Wall of China to the Summer Palace can be visited in that amount of time.
But what if you only have a few hours?
Well, to ensure that you have enough time to make your Beijing layover an enjoyable one I’d suggest you need a minimum layover time of 6 hours.
How Organized Are Your Plans?
With no pre-planning you’ll need to focus your efforts on central Beijing.
Your best bet is to hop on the Airport Express Train to Dongzhimen Subway Station. From there, a quick couple of interchanges from the blue to red line and you’ll find yourself at the Tian’anmen East Subway Station. With this as your self-guided tour starting point, you’ll be able to visit at least 2-3 of the following sights (and more if you’re being really efficient or hopping between places in rickshaws rather than walking):
- Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City: Tian’anmen is arguably the most famous (and infamous) square in the World thanks to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The square itself isn’t much more than a ginormous concrete monstrosity jam-packed with selfie-obsessed tourists. Am I not selling it? Well, the square itself isn’t the main attraction. It’s what flanks the northern side of the square that’s the main reason for starting here; the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is the one thing I would suggest you don’t miss on your Beijing Layover. Dating back to 1420 the ‘city’ is a collection of templates, gardens and palaces that can take hours to truly explore. South of the square you’ll also find the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the impressive Zhengyang Gate which, when constructed in 1419, formed a part of the city’s wall.
- Jingshan Park: Directly north of the Forbidden City (easy to reach if you take the north exit) you’ll find this small park. Head to the man-made summit of the park for phenomenal views over the Forbidden City. Well worthwhile.
- Dongxijiaomin Hutong: If you’re looking to experience a slice of traditional Beijing then make sure you visit a hutong. Hutong’s are districts of narrow alleys filled with single-story homes, courtyards and gardens. Although not one of Beijing’s best hutongs, Dongxijiaomin has one big advantage for anyone on a short Beijing layover – it’s convenient location directly adjacent to Tian’anmen Square (on the south side).
- The Temple of Heaven: A short 5km rickshaw ride south of Tian’anmen, the Temple of Heaven is a religious complex where Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties historically held annual ceremonies of prayer for good harvest.
- Wangfujing Food Market: If you’re looking for a bite to eat, and a bit of a cultural experience, then head straight to this food market located 2km north of Tian’anmen. My only advice is to take it easy on some of the more adventurous street food options unless you’re happy to have the shits for the entire duration of your connecting flight!
If you had enough foresight to engage in a little pre-planning, and don’t mind spending money on booking a guided tour, then there are two other Beijing layover options:
- The Great Wall of China: Need I say more? The chance to visit the longest man-made structure ever built, and one of the modern seven wonders of the world, may just be enough to force you into a little pre-planning. With six hours available you’ll find that guided tours focus on the preserved and renovated sections of the wall: Badaling, Mutianyu, Juyonguan, Jinshanling and Simatai.
- The Summer Palace: Located to the north-west of Beijing, the Summer Palace is the largest and best-preserved royal park in China. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998, it’s best described as a huge collection of palaces, lakes, and gardens spread over a whopping 3 square kilometers.
If you’re interested in booking a Beijing layover tour, then a great place to start is here.
Do you have any more recommendations for a great Beijing layover? Make sure to add them in the comments below.