An airport layover doesn’t have to mean that you’re stuck in the airport. In this series, local experts in the world’s most popular hub cities recommend sightseeing itineraries for every time frame.
The great thing about an airport layover in China is that the country now offers 72-hour, visa-free layovers so that you can get out of the airport and into a few major cities for short sightseeing stints. Since Beijing is where many travelers to Asia first touch down, we talked to Context Travel’s Beijing experts to find out how to make the most of a PEK airport layover, no matter how short it is. Turns out that even just a few hours can give you the chance to check out Beijing’s art scene, food offerings, or historic attractions.
How to exit the airport: Beijing immigration has a lane set aside for 72-hour, visa-free stopovers. When you arrive at immigration, be sure to have the boarding pass from your first flight and an onward plane ticket to (or airline confirmation for) a third destination—not the place from which you just came.
Taxi: Beijing traffic is notoriously terrible, but gridlock isn’t too bad outside of rush hour (7:30–9am, 5–7pm), especially coming in from the airport. Expect to queue for a cab for 15 to 20 minutes; the ride to the city center can take 40 to 50 minutes. Expect to pay around ¥70–¥80 (approximately US$11–$13) outside of rush hour; during rush-hour, the ride can take up to 80 minutes and cost up to ¥150 or so (about US$25). For your return to the airport, if you’re staying overnight and in a quiet area, have your hotel call a cab ahead of time.
Train: The Airport Express runs from Beijing Capital Airport to downtown Dongzhimen station in about 20 to30 minutes. You can find a train schedule here. Tickets are ¥25 each, and you’ll need to hang on to them to swipe out of the station. If you have an overnight layover and your hotel is walking distance from Dongzhimen or from a line 2 or 13 metro station, this is a quick and inexpensive way to get downtown. If you have heavy baggage, suffer from claustrophobia, or are not staying near Dongzhimen or metro lines 2 and 13, you’d do better to take a cab—even in rush hour. If you take the train to Dongzhimen during rush hour, you are unlikely to be able to find a cab once you exit the station.
Private tour: Context Travel has introduced a Beijing layover package. The five-hour package includes a scholar-led walking tour of both the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square and lunch at a local restaurant with one of Context’s docents—all Beijing residents and experts in their academic fields. The price includes round-trip airport transfers, but you’ll still need five hours plus travel time to and from the airport. If your inbound flight is delayed, Context will do its best to adjust your tour schedule accordingly. Contact Context through Wendy’s WOW List to ensure VIP treatment and get the best possible experience.
What to do with your luggage: Stow your luggage either by checking it through with your airline company or leaving it at the Left Luggage service between T1 to T2 (¥20-¥50 per bag/day depending on the size).
If You Have a 6-Hour Layover
Save time and a headache by taking a cab to the 798 Art Zone. This pedestrian-only complex of former military factories-turned-galleries is only a 20-minute drive from the airport (about ¥25–¥30). For the return leg, be sure to leave yourself 20 extra minutes to flag down a cab on the main road outside the entrance to 798. Peruse the dozens of art studios and galleries, making sure to stop at Long March Space (4 Jiuxianqiao Lu; +86-10-5978-9768) and at Ullens Center (UCCA) (4 Jiuxianqiao Lu; +86-10-5780-0200) for its exhibitions and fantastic gift shop. Browse the books and grab a bite at Timezone 8 (4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, directly across from UCCA), tuck into vegetarian Chinese dishes at the delightful Buddha’s Bite (798 Art District, 2 Jiuxianqiao Lu 2 Jinxiangqiao Lu; 86-10-5762-6193), or kick back with a glass of wine in the courtyard of boutique hotel Grace Beijing (798 Art District, 2 Jiuxianqiao Lu, 706 Houjie; +86-10-6436-1818).
If You Have an 8-Hour Layover
Start off at the Temple of Heaven, which dates back to 1420. Surrounded by an enormous park, this is a good place to stretch your legs and get some fresh air. Particularly in the early morning, Temple of Heaven Park is a hive of activity, and you’ll see locals exercising and practicing tai chi. In the afternoons, you’ll find more locals dancing, singing, playing chess, and flying kites. From the Temple of Heaven, it’s an hour’s walk north to the Forbidden City (the subway takes almost as long; a cab will take 15 minutes). Spend an hour or so in the Forbidden City—more and you’re likely to fall asleep on one of the benches—and then get a bite to eat before heading back to the airport. The restaurants within walking distance of the Forbidden City are upscale; there’s continental cuisine at Capital M (3/F No. 2 Qianmen Street, Pedestrian Area; +86-10-6702-2727)—whose terrace view includes the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square—and at Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard (95 Donghuamen Daji; +86-10-6526-8883), where McKenna dabbles in molecular gastronomy. If you have enough time and energy, walk 30 minutes along high street Wangfujing to Peking Duck purveyor Da Dong (5/F, 88 Jinbaojie). It’d be a shame to pass through China without eating its national dish, and this could be your only chance.
If You Have a 9-Hour Layover or More
After the Forbidden City, head to Gulou (literally, the drum tower) and meander through Beijing’s hutongs. These ancient narrow alleyways, between courtyard houses, have been heavily gentrified over the last few years, saving them from certain destruction. Though they remain charmingly local, the hutongs are now dotted with boutiques, cafes, restaurants, bars, and even a boutique hotel—The Orchid (65 Baochao Hutong; +86-10-8404-4818). Go for dumplings at Mr. Shi’s(74 Baochao Hutong; +86-010-8405-0399), a craft beer at Great Leap Brewing (6 Doujiao Hutong; +86-10-5717-1399), and then retire to Zigzag (52 Wudaoying Hutong; +86-10-8404-0020) for a much-needed foot massage.
If You Don’t Have Time to Leave The Airport
Take advantage of the facilities at one of the nearby airport hotels. The Hilton (Terminal 3, 1 Sanjing Road; +86-10-6458-8888) can be reached on foot. It has a spa, indoor pool, gym, and Chinese and Western restaurants—significantly better than the few options you’ll find inside the airport. The restaurants are open to the public, and if you make an appointment at the spa you’ll have access to the pool and gym too. Depending on availability, the Hilton also offers day packages that allow you to check into a room between flights. A less expensive alternative, though one that requires catching a shuttle, is the Ibis (No. 2 Tianzhu ; +86-10-6456-7799), which has rooms for around $30; it doesn’t offer day packages, but early check-in and late check-out are possible. The Ibis has few entertaining amenities, but there’s free Wi-Fi in the lobby and hourly airport shuttles (the roads right around the airport are traffic-heavy and not ideal for pedestrians).
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