Where to Visit the Great Wall
A visit to the Great Wall is an essential part of any comprehensive China tour. First built as a fortification more than 2,000 years ago, much of the wall is now in ruins, but at some locations you can both view and walk out on this massive monument, which snakes its way through northern China for some 5,500 miles from the east coast to the Gobi Desert.
As a result, there are multiple places to see the Great Wall. The most accessible areas are in the region around Beijing; the closest and most photogenic is at Badaling, 42 miles from the capital. These sections primarily date from the Ming Dynasty, 400 to 700 years ago.
Throughout its existence, The Great Wall (Chángchéng /channg-chnng/ 'Long Wall') withstood attacks from enemy lines and parts of it were destroyed during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). By 1987, the wall made the World Heritage List by UNESCO.
If you are visiting Northern China for the first time, The Great Wall is an absolute must see, and there are 10 different sections of the wall that caters to different travelers:
Badaling is 45 miles north of Beijing and is the most popular section of the wall for Chinese travelers to visit. Touring time usually takes about half a day and amenities include cable car rides, a museum, and wheelchair access. This section is perhaps the most consistently crowded.
75 miles from Beijing, Simatai is the section of the wall that became a World Heritage Site in 1987. Showcasing different characteristics, with the exemplary display of architecture juxtaposed with ruins that show the wall’s battle scars, the Simatai sections is a favorite among history buffs.
There are cable car services available in this stretch of the wall, and for more adventurous travelers, zip – lines, and boat services as well. Set aside a full day, If you plan to hike this section of the wall.
Mutianyu is 45 miles from Beijing and is the the most fully restored section of the wall. This makes it the most popular among foreign travelers (as this is also the most child friendly section). As the watchtowers have been fully restored at this section of the wall, sightseeing from varying heights is a favorite activity amongst visitors. Hiking along this section of the wall generally takes about half a day.
Jinshanling is 96 miles from Beijing and is the most popular hiking route. This section is of particular interest to many hikers because it is half restored and half in ruins, paving the way for a mix of terrain. For those who opt out of the hiking, there is cable car service. If you are planning to hike this section, plan for a full day’s trek.
Jiankou is about 65 miles from Beijing and is known to be the most steep and challenging section of the wall, a destination for avid hikers. This section of the wall has not been restored and hikers are warned to take extreme caution. If you are up for this challenge, plan for a whole day to conquer this stretch.
Gubeikou is 90 miles from Beijing and is most well known for being the pass that protected the city of Beijing from Northern Mongol invasions. It is said that over 130 battles occurred right at this pass which today lies mostly in ruins. This is also a popular trek for avid hikers. Be forwarned that no amenities, such as wheelchair access or cable car rides, are offered here.
Huanhuacheng is about 48 miles from Beijing and offers travelers a scenic view of the wall against the backdrop of a lake. At this juncture, parts of the wall are immersed in the water, and at the foot of the wall lay an ancient Ming Dynasty chestnut orchard. Cruise boats take travelers around the lake here and hikers can choose to set up camp (best months being May through September for the climate).
What to Do on the Great Wall of China
One of the simplest things to do at the Great Wall is to leave your mark by placing a padlock along the wall. The Chinese view the Great Wall as as symbol of eternity, and so leaving a love lock along the wall is believed to guarantee lifelong success for the couple.
At the Mutianyu section of the wall, generally the most touristy one, tourists can cable car up to the top of the wall. This is great on particularly hot summer days, and makes the wall accessible to older and physically handicapped travelers who otherwise might struggle to view the iconic structure. For the more adventurous, you can even take a toboggan ride down, which we highly recommend!
Hiking the Great Wall -- whether as a part of a longer multi day trek, or as a day long activity of your comprehensive tour of China -- is also a classic activity to do on the Wall. Steep slopes and stairs will leave you having gotten a good workout, and your reward will be incredible views away from the main tourist throngs.
Visitors to the Great Wall who seek a little more adventure might also be interested in paragliding over the structure to get a unique aerial view. Not only will get a much better sense of the incredible length of the Wall, you will also get to see the beautiful Northern Chinese countryside.