When we think of the Great Wall of China, we know it’s a long snaking wall that extends for thousands of miles, yet 90% of tourists go and see the same crowded part! This article will cover the main sections from Beijing, how to get to them (including public transport) and which is best.
So there are actually four main areas of the Great Wall of China which are most accessible to tourists from Beijing. The most popular and easiest to reach are Badaling and Mutianyu. There are also Jinshanling and Simatai sections but it is harder to see those because they are further away.
There are other sections as well, but as these are further from Beijing you would need an overnight stay somewhere else to reach them, and this guide only covers sections of the wall you can do in a day trip starting from Beijing.
Overview of the four sections of the Great Wall accessible from Beijing in 1 day:
|1 hour||1.5 hour||2.5 hour||3 hour|
|Reconstruction?||In 1957||In 1569AD||In 1570AD||In 1987|
|Busy?||Very!||A bit.||A bit.||No.|
|Length of a day trip||4-5 hrs||5-6 hrs||8 hrs||8+ hrs|
Picture this: You are standing on a four metre wide section of wall, elbow-to-shoulder with dozens of other tourists. You try to take a selfie of you on this once-in-a-lifetime experience but someone knocks your arm and when you get back, you have one blurry shot and a couple more pics of the hundreds of tourists surrounding you, all chattering away on Wechat to their families telling them that they have visited the Great Wall.
That’s basically what Badaling section of the Great Wall is like. Most organized tours of the Great Wall will take you here as part of your itinerary and it is so crowded. Every photo I’ve ever seen from any trip to Badaling is the same. It’s just packed with people in every direction. After ten or fifteen minutes, you go back onto a big bus and are whisked to the next sight for more of the same.
It is also a very recent reconstruction from the 20th century, so mostly what you are seeing is a re-visioning of what it originally looked like.
Having said that, if you’re interested in heritage studies, you might like to visit Badaling because it was the first section of the wall to be opened to tourists in 1959.
If you shuddered at the thought of being stuck in such a big crowd, you’ve come to the right place. Now picture this instead:
You climb a hill to some ski lifts which slowly propel you to the base of the Great Wall, where you disembark and climb the steps to the top. There are watchtowers ahead and behind you. Free to move, you look out at the view. You climb to the top of one of the watchtowers and look out from its roof. Although there are plenty of other tourists around, when you take a photo, with a little effort, you can get pictures with no one else in the shot.
That’s better, right? I think so, too. That’s Mutianyu section of the wall. If you get to choose which part of the wall to visit, and it’s your first (or only) trip to China, I absolutely recommend Mutianyu over Badaling.
For our trip, we hired a car, driver and tour guide via our hotel’s travel agency. We were staying at the Marriott hotel in Central Beijing so they offered a range of different day trip itineraries and they organized everything, all we had to do was show up and pay at the end of the day.
Our guide discussed the history with us on the way to the wall, and he came on the wall with us. We spent about an hour up there, and he also took us to the Ming Tombs, which were about an hour’s drive away, and the Sacred Way Dongbeikou.
It was a full day out of Beijing and we started at 8am and returned to the hotel at about 6pm, although there were a lot of road closures and very heavy traffic around the edge of Beijing that day because Donald Trump was doing his presidential visit (we had bad timing).
Getting back to the car from the Great Wall of China, we had another surprise. Remember we got here by ski lift? Well to get back down again, there was a fun slide which you go down on some sort of kart! It would have been a lot more fun if this middle aged Spanish woman in front of us hadn’t got scared and kept hitting the brake on her slide kart.
Getting to the Great Wall of China by public transport:
Badaling has a very easy-to-get tourist bus which will take you there. Currently, it is the bus 877 which leaves from Deshengmen Bus Station. If you miss the last bus back you may have to get a Didi (taxi) back, so be sure to download the Didi app.
The Mutianyu direct bus departs from Dongzhimenwai bus station in the city centre at 8:30am. However this is difficult to find and the 916 from the main Dongzhimen transport hub (easy to spot–subway, buses etc) takes you almost all the way, then you can get a second bus or a Didi to the wall. Overall, getting to Mutianyu by public transport relies on you being able to follow a multi-step process with lots of chance of failure (and apparently, so-called “black” buses wait around near Dongzhimenwai, “black” not being the colour, but named from the black hearted people who tout these fake tourist traps, aka scammers), so personally I would try to book onto an organized trip instead unless you either speak and read good Mandarin or are really broke; if it’s the latter, you would be better going to the Badaling wall in my opinion as it’s easier to get to.
Jinshanling wall is accessible by tourist bus from Beijing during the summer. It is at the same bus stop as the Mutianyu tourist bus so I’m not sure how you would know which bus to take to which section of the wall, except this bus departs at 7:40am. There is technically a train, but it’s a 5 hour ride which is a 10 hours round trip! There’s also a way to get there by public bus but it’s frankly complicated.
I would honestly not recommend taking the public bus to Jinshanling out of season unless you speak and read good Mandarin because there’s too much chance of something going wrong, which would leave you stranded quite a distance from Beijing where you will struggle to even get a Didi home. However, if you are braver than I, and quite competent at Mandarin, the lure of being able to walk this 10km stretch of wall unaccompanied is strong.
Simatai is the same tourist bus as Jinshanling and you just go east instead of west when you get off the bus as these two sections are side-by-side. Next time we go to China, I look forward to hopefully taking my Chinese driving test (foreigners may not use or transfer their driving licence to China) and being able to drive to the Simatai and Jinshanling sections of the wall so we can spend a day there on our own itinerary.
The advantage of the Simatai section of the wall is that most people travelling out there are actually going to see Jinshanling section of the wall, meaning Simatai is almost empty.
Best time to see the Great Wall of China
Beijing is still quite warm in November and I would recommend September-November to see the Great Wall as there’s a lot of walking (and if you take the bus, a lot of waiting around and sitting in a bus) and I can’t imagine it’s comfortable in the height of summer’s heat.
It’s also the time of year when there will be the fewest tourists, although if possible, you should avoid the Mid-Autumn festival as Beijing city is quite busy at this time (Golden Week is fine, though). Other times to avoid are Chinese New Year as all of China is busy that fortnight, and all of July/August, as that’s when most westerners come to China.