Zigzagging more than 3,852 miles (6,200 km) past deserts, plains, and oceans, the Great Wall is a breathtaking wonder that spans the northern edge of the ancient Chinese empire. From carefully trekking desolate parts of the 'wild wall' to taking a cable car to restored sections to taking in panoramic vistas from ancient watchtowers, there are many ways to experience one of the most impressive structures ever built.
Most travelers access the Great Wall via Beijing due to its close proximity to many sections of the Great Wall, each offering a unique visit. If you wish for the least strenuous visit to the Great Wall, head to the heavily restored (and arguably the most touristy part) Badaling, which has a cable car to take you to the wall.
Less crowded than Badaling is the Juyongguan section of the wall, which welcomes visitors with dozens of steep stairs to climb. Some 90 minutes from Beijing is Mutianyu, which is another restored part of the wall that boasts majestic views of the Chinese countryside. Visitors can take a cable car or chair lift up to the Mutianyu section of the wall and take the chair lift or an adrenaline-fueled toboggan ride down from the wall.
Another option is Huanghuacheng, a refurbished section of the wall that is punctuated with watchtowers. Also within a few hours' drive from Beijing is Simatai, a quieter section of the wall that affords weary hikers the option of ziplining off the wall after a challenging hike, and Jinshanling, an often-hiked part of the wall that has dozens of watchtowers and unbeatable scenery. No matter which part(s) you visit, you will want to return to explore more of this wild wonder.
While there are many bus routes to the Great Wall from Beijing, it's best to book a day tour or hire a driver and guide so you can go at your own pace. Expect a full-day adventure, from early morning to late afternoon/early evening; however, it is possible to visit the Great Wall in half a day if you are already in Beijing and you are pressed for time.
Duration: 90 minutes by private transfer
It is possible to take tourist buses to different sections of the Great Wall, but for a stress-free and quicker route that doesn't include testing your Chinese skills, hire a private driver for the day to take you to the Great Wall. Beijing's traffic is unpredictable, so driving times are approximate. It's best to set out early in the morning to avoid rush hour traffic and enjoy some peace along the wall before the charter tour buses arrive. Many visitors combine a day trip to the Great Wall with a visit to the nearby Ming Tombs, where 13 of the 16 Ming emperors are buried.
From Hong Kong
Duration: 3.5 hours by plane (+ 90 minutes by private transfer); 9 to 24 hours by train (+ 90 minutes by private transfer)
To get to the Great Wall, travelers must first go from Hong Kong to Beijing and then travel another 90 minutes or more to the Great Wall.
In addition, a tourist visa may be required to travel from the former British colony of Hong Kong to China, which has separate immigration and customs procedures from Hong Kong. Depending on your country of citizenship and your itinerary, you may be eligible to travel in China for up to 72 hours without a visa via China's 72-hour Transit Visa Exemption or for up to six days without a visa via the 144-hour Travel Visa Exemption.
Once in Beijing, it's best to book a day tour or hire a driver and guide. Flying affords the quickest travel time to make the 1,221-mile (1,965-kilometer) journey from Hong Kong to Beijing and is the most convenient and preferred option. There are more than a dozen nonstop flights from Hong Kong International Airport to Beijing Capital International Airport and the new Beijing Daxing International Airport.
Budget options include the once-daily high-speed train from Hong Kong West Kowloon Station to Beijing West Railway Station, and the slower classic sleeper train from Hong Kong's Hung Hom Station to Beijing West Railway Station, but it's a long, 24-hour journey that departs every other day.
Duration: 2.5 hours by plane (+ 90 minutes by private transfer); 4 to 15.5 hours by train (+ 90 minutes by private transfer)
There aren't any sections of the Great Wall near Shanghai, so most travelers combine a visit to the Great Wall with a trip to Beijing. The high-speed train is the most efficient option between Shanghai and Beijing even though the travel time along the 819-mile (1,318-kilometer) route can be twice as long as air travel. More than 40 trains run daily from Shanghai Hongqiao Station to Beijing.
If you're looking to travel on the fastest high-speed trains, book the "G" category trains. The overnight trains, which take the classic route from Shanghai to Beijing are the budget option, saving travelers the expense of a hotel night. Booking a soft sleeper (there are four beds in each cabin) is more comfortable and secure as there is a door that locks.
Duration: 4.5 hours by high-speed train; 12.5 hours to 19 hours by regular train
Lengthy airport security screening, travel time to and from each airport, and flight schedule delays make train travel the preferred mode of transport between Xi'an and Beijing. There are more than a dozen high-speed trains that travel daily along the 756-mile (1,216 km) route from Xi'an North Railway Station to Beijing West Railway Station.
As with China's most popular train routes, there are slower overnight trains. This budget option not only saves travelers the expense of a night's accommodation and frees up a travel day but also provides a decently comfortable option to travel from Xi'an, China's ancient capital for 13 dynasties, to Beijing, the current capital.