If you’re planning a trip to Beijing, you should definitely plan to spend a day visiting the Great Wall of China. Before going to China I had heard a few mixed reviews about it being worthwhile. Some people were all for it, labelling it as something not to be missed, while others weren’t too fussed by it. The deciding factor for us was that we were going all the way to China and didn’t know when we’d get the chance to go back, so, why not see it while we’re there?
Turns out, we both loved it. It’s a beautiful part of China and it was really nice to see some wide open spaces after spending a week in Beijing. The wall itself is awe-inspiring, it’s impossible to grasp just how big it is until you see it. When you do, you can’t help but think about the process of building it, a process which took some 200 years to complete, during the Ming Dynasty. Sure, it’s just a wall, but it’s pretty damn impressive and one of those travel bucket-list things you do because it’s just… awesome!
If you’re staying in Beijing and want to visit the Great Wall, here are my tips on where to visit, when to visit and how to get there.
Where to visit
There are different sections of the wall you can visit and which one you visit will depend on what you want to see and how you plan on getting there. If you like maps, you can find some Great Wall section maps here.
There are four main sections of the wall which are the most popular, they are Badging, Mutianyu, Jinshanling and Simatai. There are also a few other sections open to visitors, but unless you’re planning on doing the entire length of the Great Wall, your best bet is to choose one of the main four sections as they’re easier to arrange to visit and cater for tourists.
This section of the wall is probably the most famous and the section you’ll recognise from most photographs of the Great Wall. It’s considered to be the most stunning section of the wall and the closest to Beijing, which makes it convenient for tourists. As such, they’ve made it easier to climb by undertaking a lot of renovation and maintenance. However, this does mean that it’s very popular with tour groups and hawkers. Read more about Badaling here.
The Mutianyu section of the wall is the one Matt and I visited and is probably the second most redeveloped and well-maintained section. The views at Mutianyu are of dense forest coverage and are absolutely spectacular, offering great vantage points of stretches of the wall and seemingly endless greenery. As it’s much steeper than Badaling and further away, there tends to be fewer tourists and hawkers, though it is the second closest section of wall to Beijing. Read more about Mutianyu here.
This section of the wall has not been restored at all so it attracts fewer crowds due to how steep it is and that it’s more difficult to access and climb. It’s also further away so it will take you longer to get there. If you’re looking for an experience that’s more challenging, remote and removed from the tourist crowds, Jinshanling could be the ticket. Read more about Jinshanling here.
The Simatai section of the Great Wall has had some restorations and upkeep but is pretty well preserved. There are much fewer tourists who visit the Simatai section, despite it having a completely intact section of the wall. It is quite far away, so this deters tourist groups. Many people believe that these things make Simatai the best section of the wall to visit, though it really does depend on where you’re coming from and what you’re climbing abilities are. Read more about Simatai here.
The overall feel is that the best two places to visit are Mutianyu and Simatai, with Badaling and Jinshanling being the less preferred options. We found there weren’t many tourists at the Mutianyu section and loved the views. It was steep, so we didn’t climb too far, but loved the climb we did.
When to visit
Probably the best times to visit are during Spring and Autumn when the sun is out but the temperatures are still cool. The Months of October, September and May are your best bet.
The high season for tourists runs through June and August, which is also when the weather is hottest. Because there isn’t much shelter on the wall, it may be a good idea to avoid these times as it’s very hot and the sun is very harsh, making climbing difficult and issues like sunstroke and dehydration possible.
November through to April is the cold season and you could come up against very cold winds. This is, however, a good time to visit for those eery winter shots of the wall covered in snow, with nobody on it.
How to visit
There are a few different ways to visit the Great Wall, here are a few of the most popular.
Budget travellers may want to catch public transport from Beijing to Badaling, which you can do by bus or train. Matt and I decided we’d try catching the train, but it didn’t work out for us. We got up early, got to the train station and found all the tickets had been sold out and we couldn’t get another train for a really long time. Meanwhile, there was a hoard of hawkers following us and screaming at us over and over again about tours. It was confusing, frustrating and really, really annoying. I don’t recommend public transport as the best and easiest way to see the wall, if you can, avoid it at all costs. But if you’re on a budget, and need to do it, just brace yourself.
If you do want to go by public transport, there’s a lot of information on the Travel China Guide website here.
There are a LOT of tour groups that organise group tours out to different sections of the wall. Your best bet, to find one you like, is to look at reviews on somewhere like TripAdvisor and see what other people thought of them. We researched a lot of tour groups after our failed public transport attempt but found they were pretty costly just to be part of a group tour. I also found that the tours included things I didn’t want, like side trips, and took a really long time. I don’t like the idea of being bound by a group time schedule, I much prefer to be able to spend as long as I like somewhere and leave when I’m ready. That said, if you’re keen to book a group tour there are a lot of great companies out there, just do your research.
This is the option we ended up going with. While it may seem like it’s going to be the most expensive, it actually ended up being the mid-range option. We found a company called Mark’s Guide & Driver Service – Day Tour on TripAdvisor and contacted him at 5pm the day before we wanted to go, asking if we could go the following morning at 8am. He got back to us really quick and organised it for us!
I loved this option because it was so easy, the driver came to where we were staying, we jumped in the car and drove straight out to the Mutianyu section of the wall. He sorted out the tickets, lift passes and toboggan ride passes for us. He told us where to go, walked us up to the wall and then waited for us until we were ready to go, then drove us back to our hotel door. It was so easy, stress-free, we didn’t have to deal with any vendors or tourist crowds and because he spoke Chinese and English, it was really, really easy.
It cost us RMB700 / AUD$157 for the day with an English speaking driver plus the costs at the wall, which were: Mutiyanu Wall entrance fee RMB60 /AUD$14 per person and the cable car or Toboggan return ticket RMB100 / AUD$22 per person. ** It’s important to note that these were the prices for our trip and Mark’s prices and the Great Wall prices may vary depending on your location, where you visit and when. Please use these prices only as a general guide and not as definitive costs **
You can find Marks’ Guide & Driver Service Day Tour here on TripAdvisor. We contacted Mark by email.