When travelling to China for a holiday, making a pilgrimage to the Great Wall of China is a must. It’s a wall steeped in legend, myths and, well… shockingly steep inclines. It’s also one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world. We visit the historical icon to find the best stretches for hiking and soaking in the gorgeous countryside landscape, plus excellent places to stay in the area.
Popular sections of the Great Wall include:
• Badaling – the most visited section of the Wall. Just 80 kilometres away, it’s the closest to Beijing, completely renovated (for better or worse) and outfitted with wide, well-paved granite paths and handrails, making it easier to climb than most sections. It’s also the spot of choice for big tour operators (which are known to make frequent pit-stops at souvenir factories along the way).
• Mutianyu – Less crowded than Badaling, though still popular with independent travellers and smaller tour companies. Cable cars shuttle tourists from the base to the top of the mountain for spectacular views. To get down, you can hike, jump back on the cable cars or opt for a wind-in-your-hair toboggan ride, which will ruin forever the thrill of the luge on Sentosa.
• Simatai – The two-hour-plus drive from Beijing deters most tourists, as do the plunging cliffs, jagged ridges and super-steep watch towers. The charm of this section of the wall is that it’s largely un-renovated, though major parts of this section are now closed exactly for this reason.
• Jinshanling – Starting point for a steep 7km hike to Simatai that takes from three to four hours for the reasonably fit.
• Huanghuacheng and Jiankou – These sections are strictly for those with hiking boots and a healthy relationship with heights; stretches are steeper and bricks are looser along these unrestored parts of the wall.
• Other parts – a group called Beijing Hikers organises tours to more remote parts of the wall. This is a decent option for strong-backed tourists who loathe weak-backed ones.
If you have limited time, then a day trip is your only option. However, while you’ll check the box and get plenty of photos to splash across social media on a one-day visit, we recommend staying overnight at the Wall, if possible. This allows you to go to different parts of the structure at different times of the day to fully experience this great historic landmark.
If you decide to stay at the Wall for a few nights, round-trip transportation can be booked through companies like Violet and Kong, a husband-and-wife team of licensed tour guides with great English skills and a knack for promptly replying to emails. Round-trip transport from Beijing to Mutianyu starts at 800 RMB.
House: Opened in 2006, The School House is a sustainable tourism enterprise that provides employment for village residents, enabling them to stay put, rather than head to Beijing to find work. Long-term American expat Jim Spears and his enthusiastic business partners have transformed a former school (it closed when the local population shrank) into a glass-blowing enterprise and a restaurant that champions locally produced food. In March this year, Michelle Obama and her daughter lunched here and visited the Wall, amidst tight security.
They’ve also restored eight disused village houses into comfortable visitor accommodation that retains traditional features. Best explored on foot, the area offers numerous walks around Mutianyu, taking in the orchards and a new visitor centre. It also produces artisanal, natural and sustainable products.
There’s a steep track to a wild section of the Wall, which abuts the more touristy part. Here, a solitary experience on a crumbling, unrestored wall awaits. Depending on the time of year, you’ll experience spring blossoms, blazing autumn leaves or winter snow. Stay for the quiet that descends when the tour groups leave in the afternoon; by 8pm there’s not a sound to be heard nor a person to be seen on the streets of the village, in stunning contrast to Beijing.
Grandma’s House is a two-bedroom house with kitchen, laundry, two bathrooms and large enclosed garden, perfect for a family. Other houses are larger, and feature gorgeous interiors and views of the Great Wall. Houses start from 2,800 RMB per night.
Hotel: The Brickyard is a 25-room lodge and spa close to Mutianyu. Rooms have a modern rustic feel and feature a glass wall and outdoor terrace with spectacular views of the Great Wall. There is an onsite restaurant that offers free breakfast and coffee, tea and homemade cookies throughout the day. Transportation is available (though not at all times of the day) to and from Mutianyu, which is about ten minutes away.
Farmhouse: William Lindesay is a British Great Wall researcher who has been walking and writing about the Wall for decades. His company, Wild Wall, organises excursions to unofficial and remote sections of the wall through weekend trips (including guided hikes with two nights’ accommodation in a farmhouse and meals) to longer camping-style, point-to-point “extreme” hiking adventures.
Popular options include taking a public bus, booking a tour, dishing out a few more dollars for a private guide or seeking something offbeat, like travelling via chauffeured sidecar. We’ve heard rave reviews about Beijing Sideways; you’ll just want to make sure the air quality is good enough for your nasal passages to travel comfortably without a windshield.
Myth busted: The Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space
False! Debunked time and time again, this myth is so ingrained in popular culture that astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, have reported being asked this question ad nauseum. Recently, high-tech equipment has been able to detect the wall – and other objects – from low orbit, but the fact remains that the human eye cannot detect the Great Wall from space.
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