As Korean hagwon teachers with little vacation time, we take even a 3-day weekend as an opportunity to jump ship. So, when Chinese New Year came around and we learned that we’d have 5 days off IN A ROW, we pulled our giddy selves together and thought what better place to spend Chinese New Year than China itself (and where better to start than in its capital, Beijing)? Visiting China for the first time over Chinese New Year was a refreshing, energetic blur—a fantastic introduction to this beautiful country.
So, what was our trip to Beijing over Chinese New Year like? There are a few things that define the trip: red lanterns, an empty Great Wall, and a citywide fireworks extravaganza that we’d never experienced anything like before.
Here are 5 things you should do in Beijing if you visit for Chinese New Year:
Go to the Great Wall
Shocker, guys. While any first time trip to Beijing must include a trip to the Great Wall, one of the best times to visit this famous landmark is over Chinese New Year. During this time, many people from Beijing travel to their hometowns to visit their families. This means that many places in and around Beijing, including the Great Wall, will probably be emptier than normal. When we went to the Great Wall at Jinshanling on the eve of the Chinese New Year (Badaling is closer to Beijing but typically much more crowded!), we encountered no more than 10 people over the 4 hours we were there. There were huge sprawls of time when we had every visible inch of wall to ourselves.
Directions to Jinshanling: Take subway lines 13 or 15 to Wangjing West Station, then take exit C. After exiting station, cross the road to the bus station. During high tourist season (until around November), there is a direct tourist bus from the station that goes to the wall at Jinshanling, leaving at 8 AM. Our trip was outside the high season, so it wasn’t clear if it was running or not. Instead, we took the bus from this station going to Luanping—it will say “滦平” on the front window. The bus leaves every hour starting at 7 AM. When you board the bus, pay 13 RMB in cash, and, if you have a Beijing Metro Card, scan it on the card reader for another 7 RMB (20 RMB total). If you don’t have a card, you’ll have to pay a bit more (32 RMB). After about a 90 minute ride from Beijing, get off at the first stop: the Jinshanling Service Station. When you get off, there will be people offering to drive you to the wall, saying it’s a 2-3 hour walk from there. If you decide to pay them, it should cost no more 40 RMB for a one-way trip. If you’re going around Chinese New Year, the closer entrance to the wall from the bus stop will probably be closed, and the shuttle bus won’t be running, so it’s a safer bet to just have someone drive you. If you want to walk, just follow the road under the highway for 2 km to the closer eastern entrance, and 5-6 km to the further main entrance.
Join Beijing’s massive street fireworks celebration
Locals set off fireworks constantly over the Chinese New Year holiday, particularly on the eve—with all the explosives, Beijing sounded like a warzone at times. Even on the Great Wall, the constant boom and bang of fireworks, though muffled by distance, could not be escaped. We happened to be on Beijing’s Ghost Street (Gui Jie) when it struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, proving a lucky turn of fate as each restaurant owner on the street collaborated in a grand orchestra of flash and boom, setting off a constant string of fireworks, fire crackers, and sparklers for hours straight. Fireworks sequined the entire sky. It left us dazed and giddy, with ears ringing, hair ashy, and hands with sores from stray shrapnel. We have never been able to stand so close to fireworks, nor have we ever seen such an extravagant firework show set up on the sidewalk. It was definitely one of our favorite experiences from this trip.
Wander down Beijing’s hutongs
Beijing is known for is its labyrinthine collection of hutongs. Hutongs are old, narrow alleys that crisscross the city’s central historic area—great places to experience Beijing’s local culture. During Chinese New Year, you can see many traditional Chinese homes decorated with red lanterns and, if your timing is right, people setting off fireworks a few feet away from you as you wander.
Our accommodation in the hutongs was the Super 8 Dong Si Motel. This motel is located within 10 minutes’ walk of the Dongsi subway station. It’s well placed for exploring the hutongs and visiting many of Beijing’s attractions, including the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. The motel is nothing special, but our room was clean and seemed recently renovated. Super 8 also has 24-hour reception, which makes for easy coming and going at any time of day or night.
Watch a New Year’s Day Parade
Watching a parade on Chinese New Year’s Day in Beijing marks a great way to cap off your celebrations from the night before. You can catch beautiful floats and traditional dances, as well as music from local bands. Catch the parade starting at Qianmen Street near Tiananmen Square before it spreads through the whole city.
Visit a Temple
On the first day of the Chinese New Year, we visited the Temple of Heaven and the Yonghegong Lama Temple. Both temples host ceremonies featuring traditional costumes and music. While other times it’s nice to have a temple all to yourself and enjoy the solitude, the Chinese New Year holiday is a fantastic time to visit a temple and enjoy the spectacle of the local crowds. The Yonghegong Lama Temple, unique for its Tibetan influence, was kept open later than usual for the holiday and was absolutely packed with people ringing in the New Year with incense and prayer.
Directions to Temple of Heaven: Take subway line 5 and exit at Tiantan Dongmen station. Leave from Exit A and you’ll be right next to the eastern entrance to the temple.
Directions to Yonghegong: Take line 5 to Yonghegong Lama Temple station and leave from exit C. Walk 400 meters south and you’ll find the temple on the east side of the road.
Any trip to China’s capital during the Chinese New Year will be a great one, as the festive spirit will pervade your entire experience. Just remember that some restaurants and stores will be closed, and others may have different operating hours. If you’ve got your heart set on a specific restaurant during this time, you should research in advance if it will be open. Restaurants on Ghost Street are a safe bet, but they may close early to set up their firework show. However, it will be well worth it to be able to participate in one of the most massive and incredible holidays in the world. A trip to Beijing over Chinese New Year is unforgettable, and we’d highly recommend it!