Of all the places on our big trip this year, China’s the one that made us most nervous. We’ve been there before, but 12 years ago pre-kids, and we were with people who spoke the language. This time, it’d be just us in most places, and we just weren’t sure we could hack it.
The big cities, like Beijing, felt like the biggest threats to our travel prowess—huge throngs of people, pollution, unpredictable driving on sidewalks… it’s enough to make a parent of a curious four-year-old fraught with stress. Turns out that Beijing is pleasantly easier than we thought.
We were only there a week, mostly serving as a landing spot for jetlag recovery—but while we’re there, we might as well see some stuff. Beijing is surprisingly expensive, a change from our time there in 2002. We found cheap street food and noodle shops, of course, but it quickly added up.
Here are the things we’re glad we did with our one week in Beijing, the capital of one of the world’s biggest powers, home to 21 million (twenty-one!) people.
1. The Temple of Heaven
A little slice of green space for the kids, the Temple of Heaven was great because it’s a peaceful green space, for the most part, a welcome spot in the hubbub of the concrete Beijing metropolis. It’s still unavoidably touristy, but at least it’s lovely on the eyes.
If you go, do a little reading about the temple’s history before you arrive and skip the audio tour—it wasn’t worth the money and didn’t work half the time. Bring water, since the temple itself is planted in unshaded sun, but you can find little stands selling cheap bottles if you need to refuel.
The Temple of Heaven is actually an entire park that includes the main temple and a few other surrounding buildings, but there are also walking paths nestled in the threes (albeit still on concrete—Beijingers aren’t big on walking on grass). The rose garden is lovely.
2. The Great Wall
Ask the kids about their favorite Beijing adventure, and they’ll tell you the Great Wall. It’s mine, too, mostly because it’s outside the city (I crave green and smaller towns, having now lived in Bend the previous three years). It was a literal breath of fresh air to get outside the hub of high-rises and walk among the green.
There are throngs of tourists, of course, but a Great Wall visit can be customized easily—a traveler can stay an hour or stay all day (or overnight—camping is allowed on some spots). As for us, we visited the Mutianyu base, trekking up via ‘cable car’ (though ours was a ski lift) and venturing down via a toboggan slide. Our kids loved this. So did us grownups.
I’m a bit height-averse, so it was admittedly stressful with a wandering four-year-old on the Wall. There’s actually very little risk, but with all the old stairs, watchtowers, peepholes, and little nooks and crannies, I didn’t let him wander far. Two hours was plenty for us.
We chased our morning with lunch at the nearby Schoolhouse, a newish hotel-restaurant-ecotourism combo. Sitting on the Wall’s same mountain, we dined on their patio and enjoyed the green. The Schoolhouse offers both western and eastern dishes; charming desserts and coffees.
3. Wangfungjing Snack Street
After an afternoon wandering our neighborhood, playing a family tournament of UNO in our tiny studio apartment, and quiet solo reading time, we felt the need to venture out one last time before flying to Xi’an the next day. Our youngest, Finn, was still crashing around 6:30 p.m., and we needed him to power through the jetlag.
So, to Wangfungjing Snack Street we went, home of fried almost-anything-on-a-stick.
Crowded, pungent, and chaotic, remind the kids to stay near and to watch where you step. it’s worth the cacophony, and as cheap as you make it.
We’re admittedly biased against Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, since that was the day our oldest got sick and threw up all over line 2 of the Beijing Metro, but it just felt overwhelming for kids.
She even looks like she’s about to throw up… poor girl.
It was fine when Kyle and I explored it on our own 12 years ago, but it was chockablock with tourists. Blinding light bouncing off the concrete, throngs of vendors shouting their wares, packs of people pushing with no clear signage of where, exactly, to go… it wasn’t our favorite.
Chinese breakfasts are the meat-veggie-rice variety, and our kids just weren’t in the mood at 7 a.m. Their parents were gracious and sought out a western-style breakfast since it was our first week in Asia. Hotel restaurants are reliable bets, but we happily unearthed a gem named The Rug, thanks to a follower’s tip via Twitter.
Respectable kids’ play area, tranquil aesthetics, puffy pancakes fit for kings—we mistakenly ordered one dish per person, but four would have sufficed for the five of us (dishes are served family-style).
As is our custom in exploring big cities, we don’t stress seeing everything possible—we’d rather enjoy few things well. We stuck to one outing a day, padding our slower mornings with school and work, walks around the neighborhood; movie and game nights in the evenings.
We’re satisfyingly surprised by Beijing’s friendliness and ease of mobility. Even with kids.