If you travel to Asia with Air China, you may find yourself with a few hours' layover time in Beijing. It used to be that strict visa requirements would make it tricky for passengers in transit to leave the airport; but that changed when, earlier this year, a new policy allowing citizens of 45 countries, including the U.S., up to 72 hours of visa-free transit was enacted.
Even if you can't stretch your layover to the full, allowable 72 hours, we have suggestions for what you can do in a much shorter time.
If you are on a tight schedule in Beijing, and really do only have four hours, take a taxi from one of the stands outside the airport, which should be able to get you into the city in around 30 minutes. If, on the other hand, you have a substantial amount of spare time, you can save some some money and experience Beijing's public transportation network by taking the Airport Express train to Dongzhimen and then transferring to the subway lines. Take Line 1 to Jianguomen Station for Tian'nanmen Square and the Forbidden City, Line 5 to Tiantian Dongmen Station for the Temple of Heaven, and Line 1 to Yongali Station for the Silk Market and Ancient Observatory.
Tian'nanmen Square and the Forbidden City
Tian'nanmen Square is one of the world's largest public spaces and has witnessed some of the most significant events in China's history: from the 1919 protests of the May 4th Movement, to the proclamation of the People's Republic in 1949, and the student-led uprising of 1989.
Probably the most recognizable sight here is Tian'anmen, the gate for which the square was named, and from where a 20-foot tall portrait of Chairman Mao hangs. At the center of the square, you will find Mao's Mausoleum in which the body of Mao, encased in a crystal casket and draped in a red flag, lies. The mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage for many Chinese tourists, as is the 10-story high Monument to the People's Heroes, which commemorates the dead of China's 19th and 20th century revolutionary struggles.
To the north of the square lies China's spiritual center. The Forbidden City was the exclusive domain of the imperial court from the early 15th century through the end of empire in the beginning of the 20th. Visiting the Forbidden City demands time; a few hours' layover is not nearly long enough to do it justice. If you are determined to see at least something, though, take a walk around the moat into the outer yard at the Wumen gate, the traditional entrance to the palaces, and the biggest of the Forbidden City's gates. It was from the top of the gate that the emperor would make his announcements at the start of each lunar year.
The Temple of Heaven
If you arrive here early enough, you will see groups of people practicing their early morning tai chi and exercises in the park that surrounds the Temple of Heaven. The park is a calming place to spend some time away from big crowds, surrounded by greenery, and thuja and juniper trees.
The temple complex itself is even bigger than the Forbidden City. If time is tight, head straight for the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, it was here that the emperor would make sacrifices and pray for the year's harvest at winter solstice. The hall is one of the most beautiful sights in Beijing and features three conical roofs covered with blue tiling (representing the color of heaven) and a gold finial. A gilded dragon and phoenix decorate the ceiling, which is supported by 28 pillars representing the constellations – reinforcing the concept that the Temple of Heaven connects heaven and earth.
The Ancient Observatory and Silk Market
The pretelescopic Ancient Observatory was built in 1442, during the Ming Dynasty, and is one of the oldest observatories in the world. The observatory hosts exhibits on astronomy throughout Chinese history, and examples of astronomical equipment. Up on the observatory's roof, you can see eight giant bronze astronomical instruments, such as armillary spheres, that are adorned with dragons and lions.
Among the piles of counterfeit designer clothes and handbags at the huge Silk Street Market, a 10-minute walk from the Ancient Observatory, you will also find traditional Chinese handicrafts, paintings, and jewelry. A branch of Quanjude restaurant is located on-site. Once you've bought your souvenirs, you should have just enough time to sample their famous Peking Duck before heading back to the airport.