While it can be a bit intimidating, Beijing is a great starting point to your family’s travels in China.
With a population nearing 23 million people, Beijingis one of the most populous cities in the world. As China’s capital, the city is the country’s political, cultural, and educational center. It can be entirely overwhelming but still worth a two- to three-day visit to see UNESCO World Heritage sites like the Forbidden City and Great Wall before moving on to other parts of the country.
KidTripster Tip: Air pollution in Beijing is real. If you or your child suffers from severe asthma, you may want to reconsider a visit here.
What to do?
Located in central Beijing, the Forbidden City was the imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty for nearly five centuries (1420-1912). The complex is enormous; know that you won’t see it all, especially with kids in tow. But do take time to appreciate the intricate details, like the red door with 99 knobs and the ornate roofs with hand-painted design work. Visitors can only enter through the Meridian Gate (Wumen) and leave from the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwumen) or East Prosperity Gate (Donghuamen).
The palace allows 80,000 visitors per day; there’s typically 20,00 to 30,000 tickets available on the spot to independent foreign tourists not traveling with a tour group. Go early in the morning with your passports. Even then, expect painstakingly long lines. Cost: $9 (April to October) and $6 (November to March).
KidTripster Tip: Don’t get taken. If a friendly “college student” strikes up a conversation while walking or in line and ends up inviting you to his “art show” just down the street, don’t go.
Across from the Forbidden City’s entrance, you’ll find Tiananmen Square, Beijing’s public gathering spot surrounded by the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China. In the center, you’ll find the mausoleum of Chairman Mao Zedong (where you could see his preserved corpse in a crystal coffin, if you were willing to wait in line for hours) and other monuments. To be honest, it’s not all that interesting, especially to kids. Fortunately, we brought pocket kites along with us from the U.S. We pulled them out and threw caution to the wind. The boys garnered the attention of some young Chinese children playing nearby. They stood and watched, and the kids exchanged friendly smiles. It was a nice moment.
KidTripster Tip: If you happen to be blond, be prepared to get stares. Even today, fair-haired Westerns attract attention and even request for photos. Best advice? Be friendly and accommodating.
In the evening, consider taking in an acrobatic show. It’s mind-blowing to see what these performers can do with spinning plates! Just know that these shows can run long, so if the kids start to lose interest, simply get up and leave. Wait to buy tickets, until you see how your kids recover from their jet lag; ask your hotel concierge desk for assistance.
KidTripster Tip: Spitting in public is a socially-accepted practice in China, even spitting inside a crowded, indoor theater. We never quite got used to that.
On a separate day, head to the awe-inspiring Great Wall, but be smart. Don’t go to the overcrowded Badaling section; instead have your cab drop you at the Mutianyu section about 40 miles from Beijing. It’s far less crowded and far more interesting. Opt for the cable car up and the luge-like slide down. As you may have guessed, it was my boys’ favorite part of the visit. Granted, as you inspect the slide and the sled with a single handbrake prior to shove off, you may be a bit nervous; the track isn’t passing an OHSA safety inspection in the States! But take it slowly, and you’ll be fine. Cost: Youth $4; Adult $7. Cableway: Youth $8; Adult $15 (round trip); Cableway + Slide: Youth $9; Adult $15.
Where to stay?
Within walking distance to the Forbidden City, Grand Hyatt Beijing offers welcomed familiarity. It boasts huge family suites with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a finely-decorated living space. And sitting on the boys’ beds when we arrived were two child-sized robes and two stuffed pandas that traveled with us throughout China. The hotel also sports a large indoor pool. Rates for 2-bedroom suites start at $491/night.
Where to eat?
Eating in China is an adventure. And I’m not even talking about the scorpions on a stick at the Wangfujing Night Market! Dining in a sit-down restaurant can be a bit intimidating, too, but don’t shy away from the challenge!
Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant is famous for its Peking duck. When you arrive, you’re presented with the menu; it measures 20-inches tall, 15-inches wide, and more than an inch thick. I’m not joking! No English, but there are pictures. I think the boys would have been amused, if they hadn’t fallen asleep on the menus from severe jet lag just minutes after arriving.
From San Francisco, it’s about a 12-hour flight to Beijing.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels with her husband and two sons. While they have dark brown hair, Shellie was quite the novelty in China with her blonde locks and politely posed for many photos.