Most people when they think of Beijing conjure up images of the Great Wall of China and those with small children quickly dismiss it as a suitable holiday destination. The thought of having to encourage little legs to climb the endless steep steps to the Wall can make most people quickly lose the will to live, and the sheer amount of people in this metropolis is enough to scare off anyone moving about with tiny humans in tow.
But there is a little known amazing alternative that speeds up the whole process of reaching the Wall and then making it back down to solid ground. Any thrill seeking child or adult will love it!
The great toboggan ride
Don’t make the common mistake of traveling to the part of the Great Wall that is nearest to the city, instead hire a driver to take you further afield to the Mutianyu section of the wall. Not only will you be rewarded with having to deal with fewer tourists, but most importantly you have the option of getting a cable car or ski lift to the top and a tummy-turning toboggan ride to the bottom.
As with most things in China if you do not speak Mandarin you rely quite heavily on hand gestures, a smart phone and sheer good luck when trying to communicate. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Unfortunately for us this was one of the occasions we lost. We thought we had secured tickets for a relatively comfortable cable car ride up to the Wall, for the whole family including my two children aged three and five and my much older than that parents.
To our horror we had, in fact, bought tickets for the significantly scarier ski lift. I am pleased to say that we did make it to the top in one piece and it was well worth it for the breathtaking views of the Great Wall itself and the surrounding countryside.
But what goes up must come down: for the kids the highlight of the whole trip was the toboggan ride to the bottom. Myself and my husband took one child each on tandem toboggans on which you can control the speed, depending on how adventurous you’re feeling.
My parents opted to go it solo. My dad made it down with no problems. My mother on the other hand had adopted a much more risk averse approach and proceeded down the hill at a snail’s pace. The people behind her who were hoping to whizz down the hill at the speed of light were left slightly disappointed when they got stuck in a traffic jam! So my advice is to check out the people in front of you and if you think they will be slow wait a while before you start you descent.
I think it is also only fair to warn you that it can be a few degrees cooler up on the Wall so bring an extra layer with you. There are shops there selling a small selection of clothing items to keep the cold at bay, but it is wise to plan ahead if you don’t want to force your image conscious teenagers into panda hats or see your parents sporting I heart BJ sweatshirts.
If you’re thinking that you can get to this part of the Wall without a driver you probably can, but there is a time and place to save money and take local transport -in my opinion this is not it. There are multiple drivers recommended on Trip Advisor that will take you there and back, which you will be especially grateful for if there is a big group of you.
The Forbidden City
Another main tourist attraction is the Forbidden City. Don’t forget to show your passports or they may not let you buy tickets, also take plenty of snacks with you to keep the kids from getting ‘hangry’ as there is nowhere to buy anything once you are inside.
I would describe the city with its ornate carvings as something like the Russian dolls that conceal lots of other painted wooden dolls inside. You go through one gate that reveals a beautiful palace in a courtyard. Then you go through the next gate that reveals what appears to be an almost identical palace and courtyard and the gates and palaces and courtyards seem to never end!
Where to walk, rest and play
When I visited Beijing with my family we walked what seemed like for miles to try and find a place to eat. I spoke to one mum who lived in the city for eight years with her young family and she gave me her insiders tips on what to do and where to go once you’ve crossed off your list the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City and where to rest your weary bones. Hopefully the following list will mean that you are not subjected to a steady stream of ‘Are we nearly there yets?’, like I was.
Once you have conquered the main tourist attractions, why not pick a park to potter around and soak up some of the local life. If you head down to Ritan Park you can see tai chi. In Chaoyang Park you can watch brides posing for their pre-wedding photos or take a boat out on to the lake. Alternatively if you don’t have teenagers in tow you could rent little animal shaped boats at Houhai Park, followed by a visit to one of the nearby quiche stalls. Also a walk away is Nanlou Gushang, where you can join the long line of locals queuing up to sample some street food.
As for places to stay, if it’s a familiar safe haven you are craving then you might want to consider the Hilton Wangfujing, Park Hyatt or Kerry Hotels that are all very conveniently located by the metro that takes you to the Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City.
The Shangri la is in the Haidien district which is considered to be of a student area but it is convenient if you want to be near the Summer Palace and maybe to go to Badaling (the very touristy part of the Great Wall).
However, most major hotels like the Westin, Kempinski, Four Seasons and Sheraton are all very strategically located close to the new metro line, which is a great way to explore the city.
Where to eat?
If it’s Chinese food you’re after then head to Din Tai Fung. You may be familiar with the name as they also have restaurants in KL but I have heard numerous people swear that the one in Beijing is the best in the world. It also has the added bonus of a kids playroom complete with TV.
Fancier food can be found at Da Dong Restaurant, situated near the East Gate of the Worker’s Stadium. If you ‘re only going to dine on the local delicacy of Peking duck once, then this is the place to do it.
Meanwhile, if your taste buds are feeling more adventurous you could delve into a hot pot at Haidilao, based in the Sanlitun area. Be warned the hot pots tend to be spicy, but on the plus side the restaurant staff are super friendly and will look after your kids in the play area whilst you take advantage of the manicure and pedicure service! Why have more restaurants not thought of this!
If it’s a snack you‘re after, head to Baoyuan Dumplings. It offers colourful dumplings with a huge variety of fillings to choose from. You’re bound to find something you like and they cost next to nothing.
After you’ve had your fill of Chinese cuisine join the expats at Annie’s Italian restaurant. They have various locations across the city and they will let the kids play chef and make their own mini pizza to keep them entertained while you wait for your food. And if you just can’t face leaving the hotel after an action packed day of sightseeing, then it is worth noting that they offer a delivery service.
If a local brewery is more your cup of tea, then you are spoilt for choice in Beijing. The particularly popular Jing A Brewing Co. is situated in a courtyard, that means the kids are free to run around whilst you get to enjoy your pint in relative peace. And if one pint is not enough, and let’s face it, it rarely is, you might jump at the chance to visit one of Beijing’s Great Leap Breweries or even the Slowboat Brewery Taproom.
However, if you really want to push the boat out whilst on holiday you could take advantage of an all you can eat Sunday brunch at either the Westin, Hilton or Kerry Hotels. They all offer free flow champagne and have pretty impressive play areas to keep the little people happy whilst you get your monies worth of food and fizz.
I have written another post on kid-friendly food in China, have a look!
Getting to Beijing from KL
It’s a six hour direct flight from KL with Malaysian Airlines and you will need to apply for a visa before you get there. You may also want to download a VPN to allow you access to some websites that will otherwise be blocked when in China due to tighter internet controls. Read more of our travel tips for China.
The best times of the year to visit Beijing are during the spring and autumn months, when you are more likely to avoid an airpocalypse as the ‘bad air days’ tend to be more frequent in the colder months. However, if you do find yourself there during the winter months the good news is that you could get your skates on and give ice skating a whirl on Houhai lake or at the Summer Palace.
Beijing can be busy and baffling, but I would go back again in a heartbeat, if only for another go on the Great Wall of China’s toboggan ride!