Beijing travel: 72 hours in the Chinese capital

Beijing travel: 72 hours in the Chinese capital

Some travelers can now visit the city visa-free for up to 72 hours. Here's how to cram the best of Beijing into three days
For delicious, handmade noodles, Beijing's Noodle Bar is a solid choice.

Travelers looking to visit Beijing without the hassle of obtaining a visa are in luck: at the beginning of 2013, the Chinese government lifted visa requirements for tourists laying over in Beijing or Shanghai for up to 72 hours.

Are three days enough to take in the best of Beijing? It's a tight squeeze, but here’s how to make the most of a 72-hour trip to one of the world’s most vibrant cities.

More on CNN: Visas waived for Beijing transit travelers 

Day 1

 Lama templeLama Temple was the residence of Emperor Yongzheng before he was enthroned in Forbidden City during the Qing Dynasty. Occupying more than 66,000 square meters, it's the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in the city.

3 p.m.: The best way to settle into Beijing after checking into a hotel is with a long walk from the city's Lama Temple to Houhai Lake.

Most choose to begin the trip with a quick temple visit, then a walk west through Wudaoying Hutong, a street that captures the spirit of the city’s hipster scene.

You’ll find quirky shops selling everything from fixed-gear bicycles to succulent plants, and even a cat cafe.

If you turn south until you hit Gulou East Street, and continue west through the hustle and bustle of endless vendors and cafes, you'll reach the Drum and Bell Towers. There's a 4:30 p.m. drum performance, worth checking out before heading to Houhai for a lakeside stroll.

We suggest skipping Houhai’s bars and restaurants, which tend to be underwhelming tourist traps. And have fun trying not to get coerced into a rickshaw ride by the notoriously pushy drivers.

Lama Temple, 12 Yonghegong Dajie; Bell and Drum Towers, north end of Dianmen Dajie

iReport assignment: What are your favorite spots in Beijing?

7 p.m.: No need to leave this happening neighborhood for dinner. Dali Courtyard offers some of the city’s best Yunnan cuisine, a region of China that takes culinary cues from neighbors Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

Flavorful dishes such as crispy shrimp with lime leaves pair well with a mug of Dali beer and the intimate traditional courtyard setting.

For a restaurant that hits closer to Beijing, Mr. Shi’s Dumplings offers homey and typical but tasty Chinese dishes such as kung pao chicken and delicious pork and chive fried dumplings.

Dali Courtyard, 67 Xiaojingchang Hutong; +86 (10) 8404 1430
Mr. Shi’s Dumplings, 74 Baochao Hutong; +86 (10) 8405 0399

9:30 p.m.:  For a few drinks, there's nearby Modernista, where you may be able to catch live music or dance performances. The bar has a Parisian jazz age feel, a lively crowd and reasonably priced drinks. 

Modernista Old Cafe & Tapas Bar, 4 Baochao Hutong; +86 (0)13 6712 74747

More on CNN: For Beijing's best food, hit the hutongs

Day 2

For a less crowded Great Wall experience there's "wild" Jinshanling, about 125 kilometers outside of Beijing.

8 a.m.: If you're only in China for a brief visit and a trip to the Great Wall is on your gotta-do list, the best way to get there is to hire a driver or join a group tour.

The trip should take two to three hours, depending on which section you visit. Sections in the “wilder” parts of the Wall, such as Jinshanling or Jiankou, are unrestored and have fewer crowds.

Athletic types may want to join expat hikers for the day; Beijing Hikers frequently offers all-inclusive trips to the Wall at competitive prices.

Beijing Hikers; +86 (10) 6432 2876

4 p.m.:  The best way to relieve achy muscles after climbing the Wall is a Chinese massage. Dragonfly and Hummingbird spas are dependable and clean with Western facilities and English-speaking staff.

Dragonfly Retreat, 60 Donghuamen Dajie; +86 (10) 6527-9368 
Hummingbird Retreat, Tower 26, Central Park, Chaoyangmen Wai; +86 (10) 6533 6922

6 p.m. One of the top places to pick up traditional Chinese knickknacks and other fun souvenirs is the Silk Street Market. This is the place for handbags and inexpensive pearl jewelry, Chinese costumes and iPhone cases. Be prepared to bargain hard.

Silk Street Market, 8 Xiushui Dongjie; +86 (10) 5169 9003

8 p.m. Tonight's the night to feast on Beijing’s most celebrated dish, Peking duck.

Tourists and locals alike flock to Da Dong for some of the city’s best crispy-skinned, juicy duck accompanied by delicate pancakes. Other top dishes here include a delectable pork belly and hearty chestnut and chicken soup.

Da Dong, 5/F, Jinbao Place Shopping Mall, 88 Jinbao Jie; +86 (10) 8522-1111

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Day 3

Who says the best views have to be sky high? Even on smoggy days -- there are many -- Capital M doesn't disappoint.

9 a.m. For a Chinese-style breakfast off the street, widely available favorites include steamed buns and jian bing, a tasty crepe with fried egg and sauce. Next stop: the Forbidden City.

You can spend all day at this Beijing icon without coming close to seeing it all. If viewing imperial art from the Ming and Qing dynasties is a priority, spare a bit of time for the Palace Museum

Forbidden City, 4 Jingshan Qian Jie

Noon: One of the best places in Beijing to sit back and people watch is Tiananmen Square, where throngs of Chinese tourists visit from all over the country and vendors bustle around.

For lunch, at the south end of the square there are many cheap and cheery restaurants in the hutongs.

Karaiya Spice House, a Beijing hotspot. 2 p.m.: Contrary to popular belief, there are green spaces in Beijing. Jingshan Park has lush scenery and traditional architecture.

It's also quotidian China at its best: retirees dancing and singing, doing water calligraphy and exercising their caged birds. A climb up the park’s hill to Wanchun Pavilion offers sweeping views of the Forbidden City.

Jingshan Park, 44 Jingshan Xi Jie

More on CNN: Insider guide: What to do in Beijing

5 p.m.: Time for a drink. The terrace at Capital M in Qianmen offers some of Beijing's best views and the beautifully decorated restaurant is a great place for an evening aperitif  -- even on a smoggy day.

Capital M, 3/F, 2 Qianmen Pedestrian Street; +86 (10) 6702-2727

7 p.m.: The best place to experience Beijing’s modern, flashy side is Sanlitun, a highly developed area popular for its bars and restaurants such as Karaiya Spice House. This trendy, super spicy, Hunanese restaurant serves up incredible chili-crusted ribs.

Carb lovers can hit up the Noodle Bar for delicious, handmade noodles.

Karaiya Spice House, 3/F, Bldg. 8, Taikoo Li South, 19 Sanlitun Road; +86 (10) 6415-3535
Noodle Bar, 1949- The Hidden City. Courtyard 4, Gong Ti Bei Lu; +86 (10) 6501-1949

9 p.m.: When the weather is nice Beijing's fine young things head for the rooftop of Migas, a trendy lounge and restaurant. The rooftop patio has space-age touches, like egg-shaped cabanas.

Another popular place is Apothecary. Offering homemade infusions and bitters, it's arguably the best cocktail bar in Beijing.

Migas, 6/F, Nali Patio, 81 Sanlitun North Road; +86 (10) 5208 6061
Apothecary, 3/F, Nali Patio, 81 Sanlitun North St.; +86 (10) 5208 6040

More on CNN: Beijing's 'big 4' sites

Day 4

The Tower of Buddhist Incense, at Beijing's Summer Palace. 9 a.m.: Last day in Beijing. You didn't think we'd leave out Beijing's Summer Palace, did you?

It's a great place to spend a few hours exploring the massive gardens and pavilions. It's also home to Kunming Lake and Empress Cixi’s infamous marble boat.

If you're looking to splurge on a final luxurious lunch before you leave the city, the Aman Hotel’s Cantonese restaurant is the place to relax over dim sum before you head to the airport to catch your flight.

Aman at the Summer Palace, 1 Gongmenqian St., Summer Palace; +86 (10) 5987 9999