The Great Wall of China – Jiankou to Mutianyu

When planning our three week trip to China last year, some sights were an absolute given. The Great Wall of China was a must-see for both my boyfriend and I, and as we were flying into Beijing, it was one of the first things we would do on our journey across five cities. 

We soon realised, however, that it wasn’t a case of just ‘seeing’ the wall. The UN World Heritage Listed site spans more than 20,000 kilometres (12,427 miles) and comprises walls, watch towers and shelters. There are different sections ranging from a 40 minute drive from Beijing to more than two hours away, and the type of wall differs from fully restored to completely inaccessible. 

Which Section?

So you’re going to visit the Great Wall, but which section is best? There are at least 10 options from Beijing, but here’s an overview of the most popular parts: 

  • Badaling: the most touristy, completely restored. Avoid if you can, according to locals.
  • Mutianyu: restored, but slightly less crowded than Badaling. You can walk a distance then turn around, or continue to Jiankou. 
  • Jiankou: wild, unrestored wall with challenging hiking. Going from Jiankou to Mutianyu is a popular (but not busy) route.
  • Jinshaling: minimally restored, less crowds but further away.
  • Simatai: a mix of restored and wild wall, night tour options.

*Note: The path between Jinshaling and Simatai was closed when we visited in September 2017 and it’s not clear if it’s reopened. 

The section you choose will depend on how much time you have, your fitness and personal preference. Badaling is the closest to Beijing so great if you’re pushed for time – it’s also the best option for anyone with limited mobility. Mutianyu is a bit less touristy and well restored, but not for those wanting to see original wall. Jiankou has been dubbed the most dangerous section, completely untamed and requiring a hike through a village. Some say Jinshaling is the most beautiful but it’s two to three hours from Beijing so you’ll need a full day. Others say Simatai is the most peaceful. Tour company China Highlights, with whom we booked unrelated train tickets, has a good overview of the different sections.

My boyfriend and I read various blogs and Chinese tour company websites to try decide which section to choose. We wanted to avoid crowds, hike a section, we had a full day available and we wanted to see unrestored wall. As the Jianshaling to Simatai section was closed, we chose Jiankou to Mutianyu. 

Tour group, guide or solo?

When it came to the Great Wall, my boyfriend wanted a guide while I wanted to do it solo. I figured with enough research, printed maps and allowing lots of time, we’d be fine. My boyfriend, on the other hand, said it was the first day of a three week trip in a country neither of us has been to before. We’d chosen a wild section of the wall that was reportedly the most dangerous and if we got lost or injured, it could set us back for the rest of the trip. He had a point. I reluctantly agreed to a guide, although I resented the extra cost and sharing the experience of seeing the wall with a stranger when we were both fit and seasoned travellers. 

On the plus side, we would had a private vehicle, could choose our departure time and didn’t have to use our brains on the first day of vacation. After reading some TripAdvisor reviews, we emailed a few companies for quotes and availability before booking Beijing Walking. It cost US$300 for two people, payable in cash on the day. 

Hiking Jiankou to Mutianyu

Here’s what to expect specifically on the Jiankou to Mutianyu route. You could hike in either direction, but as Jiankou is higher, it’s easier to start there and go downhill. The path is about 9km (5.5mi) and can be broken into three sections:

  • Xizhazi village to Jiankou Tower 
  • Jiankou Tower to start of Mutianyu
  • Mutianyu to cable car/exit 

1. Xizhazi village to Jiankou Tower 

Our guide Joe met us at our Beijing hotel precisely at 7.30am. It took nearly 2.5 hours to reach Xizhazi village thanks to traffic, but we weren’t on a deadline. The drive was mostly highway, but became mountainous and jungle-like in the latter half. Both my boyfriend and I fell asleep at times, still recovering from our red-eye flight.

Our vehicle stopped at Xizhazi village, but there was no obvious town centre. We used restrooms next to some old exercise equipment before driving for another few minutes. We arrived at a small car park, although the area looked more like small farms than the start of a hike. Choosing the Jiankou to Mutianyu route for the least tourists, I was disappointed when another car pulled up next to us. It was a young couple with a baby and they didn’t have a guide. They set off while we got our backpacks ready and put on sunscreen. As soon as I got out of car, I noticed it was harder to breathe. It was a warm day too.

 Xizhazi Village: the start of our one hour walk to reach Jiankou Tower.
Xizhazi Village: the start of our one hour walk to reach Jiankou Tower.

From memory, we took off about 9.45am. We began our walk at good speed, following our guide along the zig-zagging, uphill path. It wasn’t long before we caught up to the couple, who’d stopped at a fork in the path. Our guide pointed the way and they continued, while I paused so we’d get some distance between us. My legs were fine but I was puffing and panting, and felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I was really surprised, as my fitness levels are good and I hardly felt like we were high up. But I was dripping with sweat within 20 minutes.

We saw the couple again, once more uncertain of the way. Their baby started wailing and they followed us for at least another 10 minutes. I was so mad! They’d saved a few hundred dollars by just hiring a taxi – then took advantage of the private guide we’d paid a premium for. Their child’s screams were destroying the serenity. My heart began to sink. 

 Hike from the village: the first glimpse of the wall feels incredible!
Hike from the village: the first glimpse of the wall feels incredible!
 Jiankou Tower: you'll need to pay a farmer to borrow a ladder.
Jiankou Tower: you’ll need to pay a farmer to borrow a ladder.

I was still stopping every 10 minutes or so to try catch my breathe. There were at least three times when the path forked with no signage about where the Great Wall was. It was getting increasingly humid in the trees and behind my knees was getting itchy. There were bugs too. But finally, we lost the couple and their screaming infant. And after 45 minutes, my boyfriend and I got our first glimpse of the wall! I was so excited! We wound our way up the steepest part yet, then we were suddenly at the base of tower. Exactly as we’d read in other blogs, there was a farmer with a ladder. We paid him 5¥ each and voila – we had reached the Great Wall! 

There is no way you could climb up the tower without the ladder, unless you maybe had a few people and could climb on each other’s shoulders. The farmer had a selection of beer, Red Bull and water for sale too. I was grateful to have a guide for this part of the hike only, as there really was little signage or clear paths to reach the tower. 

2. Jiankou Tower to start of Mutianyu

Standing on top of the tower was an extraordinary moment. After spending almost an hour hiking uphill in jungle, it was incredible to emerge in an open space and witness the Great Wall for the first time. I looked out in all directions, admiring the Chinese ingenuity and remarkable history before me. It became clear what an impressive defence structure the Great Wall once was. 

 Jiankou Tower: you'll have a 360-degree view on top.
Jiankou Tower: you’ll have a 360-degree view on top.

After a good amount of photographs, water and towelling down, we began hiking the Jiankou section. There’s only one direction you can go – towards Mutianyu – as the other way is completely inaccessible. The path, while overgrown and a bit uneven, is easy to follow. Trees and shrubs will brush you constantly. The wild section didn’t last long though. We weaved up and down but the wall was mostly downhill from Jiankou tower. That didn’t stop my legs quivering and turning jelly! There was no shade either, except in towers. For perhaps an hour, we had the wall largely to ourselves and I felt reassured we’d chosen the best route after all. 

 Jiankou: it's called 'wild' wall for a reason - it's unrestored and trees are unkept! 
Jiankou: it’s called ‘wild’ wall for a reason – it’s unrestored and trees are unkept! 

About halfway on the Jiankou section was the Ox Horn, a very steep part that goes up and down the side of a mountain. Our guide told us 10 people fall to their death each year, which I can only assume is fall and slip as there was no cliff face as such. Our guide took on a detour, saying the Ox Horn section was closed as the downhill part was too dangerous. We left the wall for the first time, heading slightly south then parallel to the wall through light forest. Again, there was no signage or paved path so this may be difficult if attempting to do the hike on your own. It was maybe 10 minutes before we resumed walking the wall. 

 Jiankou: the steep loop is called the Ox Horn - our guide took us on a detour slightly south and off the wall. 
Jiankou: the steep loop is called the Ox Horn – our guide took us on a detour slightly south and off the wall. 

3. Mutianyu to cable car/exit 

The end of the Jiankou section and the start of Mutianyu was marked by two men with umbrellas selling snacks and drinks. We’d hardly seen another soul for an hour but the crowds started here. Hilariously, tourists were posing with a sign that said ‘I Climbed the Peak of the Great Wall’ despite that spot not being the highest (Jiankou Tower is the highest point). From here, the walk was simply down a lot of steps. I felt for those who were travelling in the opposite direction to us, as the staircases were steep and still no shade. People were wearing fashion boots, sandals, jeans, and even summer dresses. I was still sweating just going down steps, and my legs shook whenever we stopped at a flat section. The last 10 minutes or so was particularly picturesque – it was every image of the Great Wall you’ve seen come alive! 

 Mutianyu: the restored path is much more even and clear than wild Jiankou. 
Mutianyu: the restored path is much more even and clear than wild Jiankou. 

Our party of three reached the Mutianyu cable car at 1pm, and I was surprised we’d gotten there so quickly.  We’d hiked quite fast, which I assumed was necessary to cover the distance but I didn’t expect our Great Wall experience to end so early. I would’ve rather have slowed down, and perhaps stopped for 10 minutes somewhere to have some water and take in the views. Our guide gave us the option to either take the cable car down down or walk another 40 minutes to the bottom. However he explained the local restaurant he intended for lunch wasn’t near the Wall and stopped cooking at 2pm. 

 Mutianyu: Our guide Joe said Chinese tourists were to blame for this trash, but I wasn't so sure. 
Mutianyu: Our guide Joe said Chinese tourists were to blame for this trash, but I wasn’t so sure. 
 Mutianyu: a restored section and the most popular with foreign tourists. This is near the cable car. 
Mutianyu: a restored section and the most popular with foreign tourists. This is near the cable car. 

Part of me was sweaty and thirsty, and my legs were stiffening whenever we went uphill. But I also hate taking shortcuts. My boyfriend felt the same. We decided to take the cable car down, given we’d covered a good distance, the rest of our holiday would be quite physical and also, we wanted to experience a good local restaurant on our first day! 

The cable car cost 100¥ and took three minutes. It was nothing special, convenience only. I was surprised to see how touristy the area was at the base was compared to the seemingly empty village where we’d started our journey. Here, there were restaurants, market stalls, even a Subway and Burger King. There were busloads of tourists, especially those who were older, likely retired, and had little desire to walk far. I cringed at the long line for the restrooms – only to realise the women were waiting for a Western toilet rather than use the squat toilets. I walked past all of them, shaking my head, used the bathroom, and remembered why I prefer independent travel. 

We took a shuttle bus down to the car park, met our driver, and then drove to our lunch venue for an incredible feast and a few beers. We arrived back in Beijing around 4pm, giving us enough time to shower before heading out in the hutongs that night! You can read more in My Must-Do in Beijing

It was absolutely surreal seeing the Great Wall in real life and the best thing is, I can do it all again with another section! While I don’t think a guide was necessary for the main Jiankou to Mutianyu route, there was no way we could’ve identified which paths to take from the village to the wall. The Ox Horn detour may have also been proved tricky, based on the lack of clear paths or signage. 

Was it Dangerous?

Not at all. The greatest dangers on the Jiankou to Mutianyu route were getting lost on the village trail, sunburn or chaffing. That said, we didn’t do the Ox Horn section and the September weather, although warm, was ideal as there was no wind or rain. If this was reportedly the most dangerous section, it’s a very tame wall indeed! 

 Jianko (immediately after the Tower): far from feeling like 'the most dangerous' section.
Jianko (immediately after the Tower): far from feeling like ‘the most dangerous’ section.

What to Bring

Bring sunscreen, water and a hat (I accidentally left mine in our vehicle). We visited in early September and it was 31°C (75°F). I’m not usually a big sweater and I’m from Western Australia, known for its hot climate, but I sweated! The only shade is in the towers and you’ll be walking steep hills, steps and/or long distances. I would also bring a small towel to wipe off sweat (a hotel hand towel would be perfect). By chance I had some baby wipes, and thank goodness because there was nothing else to soak up the sweat. 

What to Wear  

It was a warm day so we both wore active wear (okay, I wore a Lululemon runsie but it’s so comfortable!). Part of me wished I was in crops or a t-shirt to give better coverage from shrubs and branches but it was the trade-off to stay cool. If the forecast is cooler, bring layers. I had a light, long sleeve shirt but I left it in the car as it was obviously going to be a warm day.

 Mutianyu: you'll walk down this coming from Jiankou.
Mutianyu: you’ll walk down this coming from Jiankou.

While some blogs recommended hiking shoes, this was absolutely not necessary for Jiankou to Mutianyu . Given this was meant to be the most dangerous route, it’s safe to say you don’t need them anywhere on the wall. Sneakers were perfectly fine, although I’d avoid tennis shoes or Converse for example, as you want something that will absorb the impact of all those steps. 

Next Time? 

When I next visit China, I’d absolutely return to the wall! I would love to see some water or lake areas, see the wall at night or even camp there. I’m hoping the Jinshaling and Simatai sections will an option, as these are reportedly the most beautiful and peaceful parts (although I wasn’t at all disappointed with our views). It’s unlikely I’d do the Jiankou to Mutianyu route again, but only because I like to experience new things. However, as mentioned, I’d probably go slower and stop for water and snacks somewhere just to take in the views. 

QUESTION: If you’ve visited the Great Wall of China, please add your experience and tips below! 

My Must-Do in Beijing, China

My boyfriend and I’s arrival in China was far from glamourous. We’d caught a red eye flight from Perth, Australia, had a layover in Singapore and upon landing in Beijing, I raced to find a toilet due to – I suspect – some artificial colours and flavourings in the Singaporean Slings we’d had on our flight. Beijing Airport was hot and busy compared to the wintery scenes we’d left in Perth.

We reached our hotel in the central and touristy Wangfujing area via the airport train and subway, and took in the sunset from the rooftop club lounge. Sure, there was smog on the skyline – but we were pretty damn excited to start our three week adventure. I’ve travelled to Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and India but China was different. Its capital of 21 million people was modern, organised and clean. You can read more in 10 Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing

The city is also flat, meaning you can easily get around on foot or use the excellent subway system to explore. Even if you only have two days in Beijing, you can make a day trip to the Great Wall of China and then spend a day taking in the city. For a suggested plan, check out Our Three Week China Itinerary which includes four days in Beijing. Remember, you won’t be able to Google addresses, entrance fees or opening hours unless you have a VPN. I simply switched to Yahoo search and used the excellent offline map app Maps.Me.

Here’s my list of my must-see places in Beijing!

1. Tiananmen Square

This is probably the most well-known landmark in Beijing, the city square infamous for the student protests of 1989 dubbed the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre.’ When visiting the square, it’s hard to imagine the scenes that played out almost 30 years ago, as it was seemingly spacious when we were there on a warm autumn day. 

While the city square is public space and therefore open all the time, there was strict security and road blocks when we accessed Tiananmen Square from the southern point at Qianmen E St. It wasn’t always clear which line to join, there are large tour groups and I felt like we kept showing our bags and passports at various checkpoints. But once you reach the actual square, simply walk around and observe.

  • Cost: Free. 
  • Tip: If you see large lines and barricades, it’s people lining up to visit Mao’s Mausoleum. Check your bag before lining up at the facility across the street. We did it, and it’s pretty special – but be prepared for a 1-2 hour wait for just seconds of viewing time. 
 Tiananmen Square: the infamous site of the 1989 student demonstrations, facing the Forbidden City.
Tiananmen Square: the infamous site of the 1989 student demonstrations, facing the Forbidden City.

2. Forbidden City

You must see the Forbidden City when you visit Beijing! This world heritage listed site is an extraordinary testament to Chinese civilisation, spanning 130,000 sqm (32 acres). Now officially called the Palace Museum, it was an imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty (1368 – 1911). It’s literally like stepping into another world, and it’s incredible such a huge space survives unchanged in the heart of the city. 

If you arrive at Tiananmen Square from the south, simply head north and you’ll reach the entrance to the Forbidden City. While some reviews said to pre-purchase tickets and allow six hours, my boyfriend and I had two hours spare and decided to chance it. We reached the entrance on a Saturday about 3pm, kept walking and reached the ticket area at 3.15pm (yes, the site is that big). There was a sign saying to buy tickets using a QR code but it was no problem to buy tickets the traditional way, although you’ll need to show your passport (do this everywhere in China). There was a short line but it only took a few minutes. We also rented an audio guide at a separate station (to the north) for 40¥ (AU$8), which helped us learn about the significance of each building and notice some features we would’ve otherwise missed. 

 Forbidden City: it's truly like stepping back in time
Forbidden City: it’s truly like stepping back in time

We walked slowly, took photos and went into a gift shop, although we didn’t see the west palace as it was closed. The imperial garden is stunning and busy, but not shoulder to shoulder. Its greenery was a welcome respite from the barren concrete of the main areas. You could buy food and drink too and rest if you need, although seating may be difficult to come by. After an hour, we’d reached the end of the Forbidden City (4.15pm), although you could stay much longer if you have a particular interest in Chinese architecture and artefacts or stopped for lunch. Again, we didn’t rush – we just kept selfies to a minimum and didn’t study every single building and object.

  • Cost: 60¥ (AU$12) high season (April – October), 40¥ low season (November – March).
  • Opening hours: 8.30am – 5pm (4.30pm in low season), closed Mondays except July – August.
  • Website: The Palace Museum
  • Tip: go later in the afternoon if you can, for fewer crowds.
 Forbidden City: the gardens offer some shade and respite from the concrete areas, but are still busy.
Forbidden City: the gardens offer some shade and respite from the concrete areas, but are still busy.

3. Jingshan Park

Why must you visit this park in Beijing? To get panoramic views of the Forbidden City and beyond! If you’ve walked through the Forbidden City from south to north, the park entrance is literally across the road when you exit. The main lookout was signposted, and you’ll need to walk up a lot of steps but only for a few minutes. Then join the crowd and enjoy the views! The remainder of the park looked lovely too, but we’d skipped lunch and it was approaching 6pm so we left. We exited the less-busy west gate and got a taxi straight away (38¥ to Beijing Railway Station, as we had to collect train tickets). The image at the top of this post is the main lookout at Jingshan Park!

  • Cost: 2¥ (AU$0.40!)
  • Opening hours: unsure, but they were still selling tickets at 5pm. 
 Forbidden City: as viewed from Jingshan Park (the smoggy skyline is real)
Forbidden City: as viewed from Jingshan Park (the smoggy skyline is real)

4. Great Wall of China

I’ve done a separate post about hiking the Great Wall of China, but honestly – go there. It’s a day trip from Beijing, with many different sections ranging from 45 minutes away by car to more than two hours. We chose the wild Jiankou section to the restored Mutianyu path. It was like stepping into a photograph and having a 360-degree view! If you only have a day in Beijing, you could always visit the wall early, return mid-afternoon then explore the city in the evening. 

5. Hutongs

When I was researching Beijing, I read about ‘old laneways’ and knew I had to visit! My boyfriend and I were lucky that my sister had lived in China and organised for us to meet one of her friends. He suggested we visit the hutongs for dinner and drinks, and boy, did we drink! The alleyways were like a dark concrete maze of houses, eateries, bars and strong-smelling public toilets. While I can’t give any reliable details about where the hutongs start and finish, I can recommend heading to Peiping Machine Taphouse and The Tiki Bungalow to get your party started. The tiki bar isn’t easy to find, but just get to Jiaodaukou Street near Beixinqiao subway station and explore the area from there. For those who prefer, there are plenty of organised hutong tours too. 

  • Cost: Free.
 Hutongs: Houses, courtyards, restaurants and bars are hidden behind the walls. 
Hutongs: Houses, courtyards, restaurants and bars are hidden behind the walls. 

7. Wangfujing Street

Every city has its main shopping street and in Beijing, that’s Wangfujing Street. I love shopping – not so much buying as looking, exploring and people watching. I always dive into book stores and stationery shops, and shoe stores. On Wangfujing Street, you’ll find the usual international clothing chains like H&M, Zara and Gap, along with MAC Cosmetics. But there are also lots of Chinese confectionary stores (great for random snacks or to take home as gifts), a good food court in the ground floor of the book store and designer stores. It’s also home to the famous Wangfujing Snack Street – marked by a large gate and the smell of food wafting down to the main street. More for novelty than serious eats, you can find bugs on sticks, noodles and what I called ‘swirly potato sticks’ – essentially skewered, home style potato chips. If you need a SIM card, head to the small China Unicom stand inside the mall closest to the snack street. 

  • Cost: Free
  • Tip: The snack street closes at exactly 10pm – don’t be idle! 

7. Temple of Heaven

It was a rainy old morning when we walked from our hotel to the Temple of Heaven, but that meant less crowds. We reached Tiantan Park about 12pm and followed the signs to the temple. It was built in 1412 and I found the architecture so striking, especially when imagining royalty travelling from the Forbidden City to the site for ceremonies. The main attraction is The Great Hall of Prayer (north) with nearby buildings containing various artefacts and information, although from memory only some of it was in English. We walked south to reach The Circular Mound Altar before exiting. We spent just over 90 minutes there altogether, but you could take some time to explore the park surrounding the temple – it’s a beautiful place to read a book, do tai chi or have a picnic.

  • Cost: Park entrance 15¥ (AU$3), extra 20¥ for the temple (buy outside the temple).
  • Opening hours: Park 6am-10pm, Temple of Heaven 8am-6pm in high season (July – Oct).
  • Website: Temple of Heaven (map)
 Temple of Heaven: The Great Hall of Prayer is its most iconic structure 
Temple of Heaven: The Great Hall of Prayer is its most iconic structure 

8. 798 Art District

After being immersed in imperial culture, it was refreshing to see a vibrant, youthful side to Beijing in the 798 Art District. My boyfriend discovered the area when he was researching drone stores and it looked really cool. We had limited time so took a cab there from the Temple of Heaven. We showed the taxi driver the name in Chinese using Maps.Me, and the 40 minute journey cost around 50¥ (AU$10) with Sunday traffic.

 798 Art District: You'll find large sculptures throughout the streets. 
798 Art District: You’ll find large sculptures throughout the streets. 

798 is an old factory area that’s been converted to artist studios, cafes, galleries and stores. The neighbourhood is big – not quite Forbidden City size, but definitely big enough to spend a few hours walking the streets and admiring the art, grabbing some street food and going into studios. I highly recommend heading here to check out Beijing’s art scene, and even if you’re not into art, the huge street sculptures and people watching are sure to entertain you for a few hours. 

  • Cost: Free.
  • Website: 798 Art District
  • Tip: If you see bags of rolled up, wafer-like sweets, buy them. They’re delicious! 

Next time

While we saw a lot in our three days (including a day trip to the Great Wall), we couldn’t fit in the imperial garden Summer Palace, a Beijing brewery tour or visit Hou Hai (Back Lakes) which is meant to be most impressive at night I would also love to return to the hutongs and see more of Beijing’s neighbourhoods too. It’s no problem, because I know I’ll be returning to Beijing as soon as I can! 

Where to stay

We stayed at New World Beijing, a five-star modern hotel in the Wangfujing area, Chongwenmen in Dongcheng district. It was perfectly located in the middle of all the attractions we wanted to see, only 15-20 minutes to Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven and Wangfujing Street. The club room was excellent value at AU$210 per night, including a sizeable breakfast buffet, generous evening drinks and canapés and most of all, a spacious rooftop for drinks or relaxing. Staying in a club room means you can also request a 4pm check-out.

 New World: the club lounge is excellent, offering breakfast, evening canapes and drinks.
New World: the club lounge is excellent, offering breakfast, evening canapes and drinks.

At the end of our trip, we stayed at Park Plaza Beijing (AU$114/night). Located at the opposite end of Wanfujing Street to New World, the hotel was older but still perfectly fine. The area was much more business-like, surrounded by other hotels and high-rise buildings. If you can afford it, stay at New World! 

Getting there

Beijing is well served by air and train. The airport express train was 25¥ (AU$5) and took about 30-40 minutes to Dongzhimen, the main subway hub. From there, we took the subway to our hotel (Dongzhimen to Chongwenmen station, 20 minutes) followed by a short 10 minute walk. Our departure flight was early so we took a cab – from memory, it was maybe 120-150¥ (AU$24-30) from our Dongcheng hotel heading into peak hour.

There are five main train stations in Beijing, namely Beijing Railway Station, the West, North and South railway stations and Badaling station. Be sure to closely check which one you’re arriving or departing from! 

Getting around

  • Subway: It’s fast, reliable and cheap. It was just 3¥ (AU$0.60) for most of our short, one-way journeys. Note the subway isn’t 24 hours, with most services stopping at 11pm-12am.
  • Taxis: They’re cheap, plentiful and professional but communication can be difficult. Always have your destination in Chinese, even for a big hotel. I used Maps.Me for directions when our cab driver mistakenly took us to New World apartments instead of New World Hotel (thankfully only 10 minutes away on foot).
  • Foot: It’s really easy to get around Beijing on foot. We walked 7 to 13km (4.5 – 8 mi.) most days we were in Beijing. It’s flat, and footpaths or roads are mostly wide and level (making them fine for luggage and baby strollers too).
  • Buses: We didn’t use these as subway, taxi and foot were adequate. But there were English numbers on the front and bus stops were obvious because of shelters.

Currency

The Chinese Yuan Renminbi can be expressed in a number of ways, from ¥ to CNY or RMB. It’s all the same. While we could use our credit card at major hotels, most attractions and transport were cash only or if they did accept credit card, it was only locally-issued ones. Bring lots of cash otherwise there are ATMs available. As a rough guide, 100¥ = AU$20, US$15, £11 and €13.

QUESTION: What are your Beijing highlights?

Our Three Week China Itinerary

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how cheap the flights were. Perth, Australia to Beijing was just AU$280 return with Singapore Airlines! It was November 2016 and I’d spotted the deal at 5.30am on my way to the gym. I quickly forwarded the alert to my boyfriend, who was still asleep. I got home around 8.30am just as he woke up and I frantically asked him if he’d seen my email. He yawned and rubbed his eyes which indicated no, so I gave him the rundown.

The sale was for September 2017, so 10 months away. The date worked for us as we would return from Europe in May 2017 and have three months to save. We did our mandatory checks for booking flash sales (what’s the weather, are there any national holidays and what’s the average hotel price). By 9.30am, we’d booked two of the four remaining seats. We were going to China for 19 days!

It turns out the airfare was a company error but Singapore would honour our bookings. Six months later, we returned from Europe and sprung into action. China was just four months away! 

Planning our trip

The first task was deciding where exactly we wanted to go, as neither my boyfriend or I had been to China before. Obviously we were flying into Beijing and wanted to see the Great Wall, Shanghai would be easy to get to, and my boyfriend was set on seeing the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. I wanted to eat Sichuan food so its capital Chengdu was added to the list. I’d grabbed some catalogues from a travel expo and was enchanted by photos of pillar-like mountains in Zhangjiajie, so that went into the possibles too. We had the first draft of our China holiday.

Organised tour or solo?

My boyfriend and I had limited time and wanted to see as much as possible so we looked a few organised tour companies, including Intrepid and G Adventures. However their China tour dates didn’t quite line up with our flights and what’s more, the itineraries weren’t that attractive. There were multiple long train rides (necessary to keep costs down) but also things like ‘traditional performances’ and visits to ‘local culture villages,’ which I generally loathe as entirely constructed experiences.

In the end, my boyfriend and I devised our own three week itinerary for China. It was the best decision we could’ve made! We allowed roughly four nights in each city, booked trains and flights, and then pencilled in essential sightseeing (for example, some attractions were closed certain days). While it was a physically demanding holiday, there was also plenty of food, beer, culture and luxury. If you’re considering doing a self-guided trip of China, I really recommend it! It was much easier to get around than we expected, with trains modern, punctual and organised.

I’ll share specific posts about each location in the weeks ahead, but for now, here’s what we covered in three weeks. 

our three week itinerary

Days 1 – 4: Beijing 

  • Day 1: Arrive in Beijing. Hit a rooftop bar and watch the smoggy sunset with local beers. 
  • Day 2: Drive two hours to the Great Wall of China. At night, head to Beijing’s hutong area for dinner and drinks.
  • Day 3: Walk around Tiananmen Square before heading to the nearby Forbidden City. Continue to Jingshan Gardens for sweeping views of Beijing. At night, head to the shopping and food precinct Wanfujing Street.
  • Day 4: Visit the Temple of Heaven and surrounding park. Check out art and street eats in Beijing’s 738 Art District. Check out My Must-Do in Beijing for more details!

 Great Wall of China: a must-see when going to Beijing
Great Wall of China: a must-see when going to Beijing

Days 5 – 8: Xi’an, Shaanxi

  • Day 5: Catch a high speed train from Beijing to Xian. Have dinner in the Muslim Quarter.
  • Day 6: Cycle around Xian’s city wall before spending an afternoon at the Terracotta Warriors. Craft beer at night.
  • Day 7-8: Hike Mt Huashan, staying overnight on the mountain. Watch sunrise and continue hiking before returning to Xi’an. *See note at end of post.

Days 9 – 13: Chengdu, Sichuan

  • Day 9: Fly to Chengdu. Head to Jinli Street for Sichuan hot pot and street snacks. 
  • Day 10: See pandas at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. Check out the world’s biggest building New Century Mall. Go on a night time food tour.
  • Day 11: Explore the city, taking in Tianfu Square, Chengdu Museum, the People’s Park and pedestrian street Chunxi Road. Check out craft beer and Anshun Bridge at night.

 Chengdu, Sichuan: I wanted to eat as much local cuisine as I could! 
Chengdu, Sichuan: I wanted to eat as much local cuisine as I could! 

Days 14 – 17: Zhangjiajie, Hunan

  • Day 14: Fly to Zhangjiajie and have dinner downtown.
  • Day 15:Head to Zhangjiajie National Park, before driving an hour to the Glass Sky Bridge and Grand Canyon.
  • Day 16: Return to Zhangjiajie National Park to see the mountains featured in the movie Avatar.
  • Day 17: Take the world’s longest cable car to Tianmen Mountain. Walk the Glass Sky Walk and visit Tianmen Cave. Late flight to Shanghai. *See note at end of post.

 Zhangjiajie National Park: I saw these mountains in a catalogue and knew I had to visit.
Zhangjiajie National Park: I saw these mountains in a catalogue and knew I had to visit.

Days 18 – 20: Shanghai

  • Day 18: Explore Shanghai on foot, visiting the former French concession, Xintandi, YuYuan and the famous Bund. Have dinner and drinks in former French concession.
  • Day 19: Learn to make noodles or dumplings in a local cooking class. Head to Nanjing Road for retail therapy before cocktails from the 87th floor Cloud 9 Bar in Pudong.
  • Day 20: Return to Beijing via high speed train.
  • Day 21: Depart Beijing.

Cost

Not including airfares, the trip cost us around AU $5500 plus we each spent roughly $1500 extra mostly on food, drinks and admission fees. Here’s a rough breakdown of costs: 

  • Accomodation: $1800 (3x nights 5 star hotel, 7x nights 4 star hotel, 4x nights hostel, 1x night overnight train). Not included = 3 nights in Zhangjiajie (part of package tour).
  • Internal flights & trains: AU$2000
  • Guided/package tours: AU$1400 (four days in Zhangjiajie) + USD$300 (Great Wall day trip)
  • Activities (i.e. cooking class, food tour): AU$200

I was surprised by how expensive internal transport was, particularly airfares. There were cheaper train options, but they were often much slower and we had limited time.

My boyfriend and I agreed afterwards our China trip was one of the best we’ve ever done! There was a good mix of sightseeing and relaxing, and we didn’t feel like we were moving around too much or rushing any location despite the internal flights and some early starts. I would’ve loved more time in Shanghai but there’s always the next holiday! 

resources

I highly recommend the following websites when planning a trip to China: 

In coming weeks, I’ll share the highlights (and disappointments) from each destination along with my general travel tips for China, such as which apps to download and why you should bring a thermos.

*Note: There was very little information online about hiking Mt Huashan and Zhangjiajie, and most of it was inaccurate. If you’re planning to visit either of these places, I’ll be sharing our experiences in detail in the weeks ahead. Subscribe to my newsletter to stay up to date.

QUESTION: What’s the best airfare deal you’ve scored?

One Night in Florence, Italy

I’d heard the most wonderful things about Florence. Called Firenze locally, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region is 280 kilometres (170 miles) or three hours drive from Rome. Friends everywhere had told me how beautiful the city was, filled with Renaissance architecture, paintings and sculpture. I was therefore thrilled when my boyfriend and I’s journey from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini, Greece would include a night in Florence. To be precise, we’d have just 12 hours to see all we could. 

Given we hadn’t planned on stopping in Florence, I considered any sightseeing a bonus. However, the city is easy to get around on foot and lots of attractions are open until 9pm or later making it surprisingly easy to see a lot in a short amount of time. Here’s what we covered in one night:

 

2pm – hotel check-in

A friend who’d lived in Florence recommended we stay around the Duomo area as it was central, there were lots of eateries and attractions nearby, and it was close to the main train station. Given our short stay, we booked the mid-range Residenza d’Epoca Borgi Albizi (AU$190/night) just 15 minutes walk from the train station. We found the address without any problems but inside it was a little tricky to find reception. Our room was also up several flights of stairs (post-Cinque Terre hiking!) but such is Europe.

The room was spacious although it looked partially refurbished – the wardrobe was modern and huge, while the bathroom revealed the building’s true age. Staff were helpful in recommending good nightlife spots (see ‘dinner’ below). Address: Borgo Albizi, 14, Firenze | Website

 Pana e Toscano: getting a Tuscan sandwich is an experience not to be missed! 
Pana e Toscano: getting a Tuscan sandwich is an experience not to be missed! 

2.15pm – sandwich

For every person who raved about Florence’s art, there was another who said our visit had to include a Tuscan sandwich. Think of a thick slab of focaccia stuffed with as much antipasti as you can handle. We’d been recommended the famous All’Antico Vinaio in “sandwich alley” (Via dei Neri), but told to expect long lines. Instead, we went to the less busy but (according to our hotel) equally as good Pana e Toscano (Borgo Degli Albizi 13). I was ecstatic to see a vegan sandwich on the menu (€5) while my boyfriend went for more traditional fillings. Either way, you’ll be stuffed! 

2.30pm – Duomo

 The Duomo: a grand, imposing cathedral in the city centre.
The Duomo: a grand, imposing cathedral in the city centre.

The Duomo is the most famous landmark in Florence. The 15th century cathedral dominates the city’s skyline and is the third largest church in the world. It’s free to visit the cathedral or for €15, you can access all areas (the dome, museum, crypt etc). If you want to climb the dome’s 463 steps, you’ll need to make a reservation (free). Visiting in mid-May, there were long lines everywhere so we simply walked around the outside. It was still impressive! There were lines gathering at another nearby attraction too – you can create your own ice cream at the Magnum Pleasure Store for €4.50.

Address: Piazza Duomo| Opening hours: Generally 10am – 5pm | Website

3pm – mercato centrale

 Tuscan sandwich: my bean-heavy vegan option (€5).
Tuscan sandwich: my bean-heavy vegan option (€5).

My boyfriend and I were still full from our lunchtime focaccia, but we wandered to the Mercarto Centrale anyway. The first floor is full of Italian meats, cheese, pasta and fresh produce. There’s a few liquor outlets too. The second floor is a vibrant food hall, complete with wine bars and a flash cooking school. This place was a gastronomic heaven! I made a note to book a class if I’m ever in Florence again (and to get accommodation with a kitchen!).

Address: Via dell’Ariento, 50123 Firenze | Website

4pm – Ponte Vecchio 

Everyone said I had to see the famed Ponte Vecchio bridge. Honestly, I wouldn’t bother unless you’re seriously into medieval history or architecture. It’s not particularly attractive from a distance and the walk across is brief, crowded and lined with jewellery sellers. I had a much better time two minutes away at Il Papiro. This paper store has several outlets across Europe but the Florence store has been in the same family for five generations. Be sure to visit the room at the back for a paper printing demonstration. You can buy hand printed paper by the sheet, or grab a packet of offcuts for €17. Address: Via Guicciardini, 47r | Website

 Signorvino: resting our feet at a wine bar overlooking the Arno River.
Signorvino: resting our feet at a wine bar overlooking the Arno River.

5pm – Aperitif 

By now, my boyfriend and I were pretty tired. We’d drank a lot of vino on our last night in Cinque Terre and then caught a 9am train and travelled five hours to reach Florence. We rested our feet and minds at Signorvino, overlooking the river. The venue sells take away wine as well as a range of wines by the glass and bottle. Staff didn’t judge me for ordering a much-needed Diet Coke before returning to wine. Its location between Pinto Vecchio and Piazza Michelangelo (see below) makes it an ideal stop before sunset. Make a reservation if you go at dinner time as the venue is relatively small and got busy as we left.

Address: Via de’ Bardi, 46R, 50125 Firenze | Website

 Giardino delle Rose: this small garden is worth a stop when visiting nearby Piazza Michelangelo (free entry).
Giardino delle Rose: this small garden is worth a stop when visiting nearby Piazza Michelangelo (free entry).

6pm – Piazza Michelangelo

One thing I seek in every city is a lookout. Florence boasts Piazza Michelangelo, a large open air area on a hill where you’ll find performers, a restaurant, some souvenir stands and a few food vans. It’s a beautiful spot to watch the sun go down and enjoy an Aperol Spritz. I’m sure you could bring your own beers and picnic if you wanted. To get there, follow the signs along the river and roads. When you see steps, you’re close! There’s also a rose garden next door that’s free and pretty.

8pm – Hotel

We walked back to our hotel to change before dinner. It was only 30 minutes walk from Piazza Michelangelo and we could walk to our next destination too. 

 Palazza Vecchio: sweeping views of Florence at night from the Battlement area. 
Palazza Vecchio: sweeping views of Florence at night from the Battlement area. 

9pm – Palazza Vecchio

 Palazza Vecchio: the main hall's exquisite ceiling.
Palazza Vecchio: the main hall’s exquisite ceiling.

A friend in London had given us the heads up many Florence museums and attractions were open until 9pm or later. Perfect for a couple trying to see it all in a night! We reached Palazza Vecchio (Town Hall) just in time for a 9.30pm tour of the ‘Battlement,’ a fortress on top of the building. The nighttime views of Florence were a beautiful contrast to the scenes we’d seen from Piazza Michelangelo just hours before. You can peer five floors below through glass too and imagine medieval knights and battles. After our rooftop tour, we wandered through the museum for another 45 minutes. The map room, showing continents as imagined in the 15th Century was an absolute highlight, as was the elegant ceiling in the main hall. The museum (“museo“) entrance was €10, with an extra €4 for the battlement. Address: Piazza della Signoria | Website

10.30pm – dinner

 Borgo Antico: delicious food and perfect for people watching.
Borgo Antico: delicious food and perfect for people watching.

Both our hotel reception and a friend had recommended we head south of the river for dinner and nightlife. We literally had a map with a circle drawn on it, but it’s roughly an area just below Ponte Santa Trinita (or around 10 minutes walk from the Ponte Vecchio). We followed the sounds of people and music and grabbed a table at Borgo Antico, facing Piazza Santo Spirito. It was perfect for people watching! 

We ordered a bottle of white wine (€19.50) and scanned the food menu. There were big pizzas, plenty of pastas, large salads, and seafood and meat dishes. My boyfriend chose pizza with spicy salami, capers and mozzarella while I ordered a main of grilled vegetables (exactly what I wanted after days of spaghetti!). Our meals came with delicious wheat bread, olive oil and black olives. The bill was just €51 including the vino. Nearby restaurants began to wind down at midnight although the square stayed busy with people drinking and chatting. I can’t remember whether we caught an Uber or walked back to our hotel, so clearly it was a good night! 

Address: Piazza Santo Spirito, 6-red, 50125 | Website

Florence at night: viewed from the top of Palazza Vecchio (“Town Hall”).

1am – Bed Time 

With our stomachs full of wine, pizza and vegetables, we packed our bags and collapsed. It wasn’t easy when the alarm went off five hours later, but I’m glad we had a night in Florence! It’s a gritty city excentuated by a lot of smokers, but its rich and prosperous history is evident everywhere. I would’ve loved to visit more museums and art galleries, and more wine bars! But we had a 6.45am cab booked for our 7.30am train to Rome Airport, so we had to say farewell to Firenze. You can read what happened next in How To Get From Cinque Terre to Santorini.

practical info

Getting there

As with most European cities, you can reach Florence by air, rail or road. Florence Airport is 10km (6mi) from the city centre or around 30 minutes drive. An alternative is to fly to Pisa which is 80km (50mi) or about 90 minutes from Florence. As mentioned, it’s about about three hours drive from the capital Rome. We caught a train from Cinque Terre to Florence via Pisa, pre-booking through the excellent ticketing website Loco2. The fare was €18.30 each (Monterosso to Pisa €9.90, Pisa to Florence, €8.40). 

Getting around

It’s easy to get around Florence on foot, otherwise taxis and Uber are readily available too. The main train station is Firenze Santa Maria Novella (often “Firenze S.M.”). It has a restaurant, several cafes (including an allergy friendly one!), and a great bookstore. See my post Getting From Cinque Terre to Santorini for full details. 

Language

It’s helpful and polite to know some Italian before you go, although not essential to navigate the city or order food. Check out my post Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre for some handy phrases, or download the free language app Duolingo to practice your Italian before you go! 

QUESTION: When did you maximise a stopover? 

 

Three Days in Beaune, France

Have you ever had a travel vision you desperately wanted to make reality? For a year, I’d dreamed of cycling through French villages and drinking chardonnay. Yes, I’m utterly city-centric but vineyards don’t grow downtown. When my boyfriend and I had the chance to spend five weeks in Europe earlier this year, experiencing regional France was at the top of my list.

I didn’t know much about French wine or whether small towns even existed nowadays. I googled France’s best wine regions (particularly for chardonnay) and cross-referenced a few wine websites. The town of Beaune, Côte-d’Or in east central France was repeatedly mentioned. To be sure this is where I wanted to holiday, I typed Beaune into Google Images and immediately liked what I saw. Vineyards, villages and greenery. There wasn’t a single skyscraper in sight! 

My holiday dream was edging closer but the final element was cycling. I searched for day tours and found a highly rated company offering a full day of biking through local wineries, along with lunch. It looked perfect! We booked a three night stay in Beaune and three months later, my holiday dream became reality.

orientation

Beaune is the wine-making capital of Burgundy (Bourgogne, in French). The town is semi-walled, with most hotels, restaurants and attractions contained within or close to its 2.5 kilometre ring road. The town centre loosely comprises Beaune’s famous Hospices (also known as Hôtel-Dieu), Place de la Halle (town square) and nearby Place Carnot (park). From here, you’ll find Rue Monge and Rue Carnot with cafes and shops, while Avenue de la Republique and Rue de l’Hotel Dieu are direct routes out of the town. 

Beaune’s train station (Gare de Beaune) is outside the walled section, about 10-15 minutes walk from the Hospices. 

 The view from our hotel window: I was living my travel dream!
The view from our hotel window: I was living my travel dream!

Getting there/around

Beaune is two hours by train from Paris, stopping in Dijon (€23, 90 minutes, first class) then transferring to a regional train (€4.40, 20 minutes, to Beaune). When transferring in Dijon, don’t be alarmed if your train isn’t listed on the display boards. Ours left from a separate platform outside the station. An information officer pointed us to an exit, and told us to follow the orange line on the ground for two minutes. Sounds odd, but this will be helpful if you visit! We pre-booked all our tickets before leaving Australia via the excellent website Loco2

When in Beaune, it’s easy to get around on foot as the town centre is flat and fairly compact. If you’re towing a suitcase, be aware of cobblestones and high kerbs. I didn’t see many taxis, however we never had a need for one. There a few car hire companies near the train station which we considered, but ultimately didn’t need. 

What to do

1. Wine tasting/education

Wine is the key industry in Beaune and you’ll see it everywhere – from vineyards to wine bars, the heavy concentration of wine stores and even a wine museum! However don’t expect to visit wineries or vineyards without a tour or appointment. Many are family-run and they don’t have the facilities or time to open to the public. This is slowly changing, but like much of France, tradition here is very strong.

My favourite experiences were: 

  • Wine Stores

If you want to immediately immerse yourself in wine, visit Domaine des Vins in the town centre. There are six red and white wines available by the glass, or just browse the extraordinary range. We got a crash course here on local wines the first day we arrived, with one of the owners explaining the different villages and characteristics of the wines they each produced. There are many other wine stores in Beaune, but Domaine de Vins is the only one I saw offering tastings. Prices varied from €6 to €15 for a glass. Address: 16 Place de la Halle (near the Hospices). 

  • Bike & Wine Tour

We booked a full day cycling and wine tour with Bourgogne Evasion (€137/ AU$200 each). After some difficulty meeting our guide Florian (we didn’t realise the tourism office had temporarily relocated as the confirmation email went to my junk folder), we were driven 15 minutes to the top of a hill for our briefing and bike set up. It was a beautiful sunny Friday and we were lucky to be the only ones booked on the tour that day.

 Bike & wine tour: the best way to experience Beaune's wine region.
Bike & wine tour: the best way to experience Beaune’s wine region.

Over 24km, we cycled through towns including Meursault and Pommard, getting a fascinating political and social history along with wine education. We learnt about viticulture, the strict French regulations and the different appellations from regional to Grand Cru. It was like we’d biked into the National Geographic channel. 

We saw a castle, had wine tasting plein air, enjoyed a leisurely two-course lunch at a restaurant and visited two wineries. An unexpected highlight was stopping at a vineyard along the road and comparing the different rows – you could see the varied approaches taken by different winemakers. 

 Bike & wine tour: my travel dream became reality the moment I saw this!
Bike & wine tour: my travel dream became reality the moment I saw this!

There were one or two steep hills and while the website says it’s an easy ride, I would rate it as moderate. However, there was no pressure to rush your day. The number of people who greeted our guide Florian as we cycled through the villages is evidence of his popularity and experience. For both myself and my boyfriend, this tour was one of the best days of our entire five week trip. I highly recommend it! More info & bookings: http://burgundybiketour.com

  • Wine Tasting – La Cave de l’Ange Gardien

This was the most wonderful and surreal afternoon. For €10, my boyfriend and I sampled three whites and three reds over three hours with a fascinating lesson in the art of wine tasting and French wine. We booked almost by accident, walking downstairs into the modest cave  and being told they could do a lesson on Saturday at 3pm. Our teacher Nicola was witty, charming and extremely knowledgeable. If you’ve got the time, do it! Address: 38 Boulevard Marechal Foch.

  • Bar hopping 

Of course, you could educate yourself in Beaune’s wines simply by drinking them! There are plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants offering a wide variety of local wines. It was common to be given complimentary nuts, chips or other small snacks with your drink, especially when ordering a pichet (250ml). Prices varied greatly, so there’s something for every budget. See the drink section below for specific recommendations. 

Lastly, we didn’t make it to the Musee de Vin (Museum of Wine) or the labyrinth wine cellars of Patriarche, which our tour guide had recommended. But they’re on my list for next time!

 Hospices de Beaune: providing free healthcare for the poor in the town centre from the mid-1400s.
Hospices de Beaune: providing free healthcare for the poor in the town centre from the mid-1400s.

2. Hospices de Beaune (Hôtel-Dieu)

You can’t miss the hospices in the centre of Beaune. Built in 1443 as a hospital for the poor, l’Hôtel-Dieu is the heart and pride of the town. I was skeptical – how interesting could an old hospital be? But my expectations were greatly exceeded. After buying our tickets (€7.50 adult), my boyfriend and I walk through the hospices using the free audio guide and map. The history, architecture and artifacts such as uniforms, tapestries and equipment were impressive. The insight into medieval medicine was also an eye-opener. We spent just under an hour here. 

Opening hours: 7 days, 9am – 6.30pm, with last entry at 5.30pm | http://hospices-de-beaune.com

3. Saturday markets

Buying a baguette in France has been one of my life goals. I bought one at a supermarket in Paris, but the experience didn’t feel very authentic. I’d made sure our stay in Beaune included a Saturday so we could experience the weekly market! On a Saturday morning, the town centre is taken over by sellers offering everything from meat, cheese and fresh produce to baskets and clothing. The produce was excellent quality. We enjoyed fresh mandarines, berries, olives and bread along with sun-dried tomato tapenade and pastries.

 Saturday market: I bought a fresh French baguette here and achieved one of my life goals! 
Saturday market: I bought a fresh French baguette here and achieved one of my life goals! 

If your French is rusty, some sellers speak English but you could equally say Bonjour and point at items with a polite s’il vous plait. Nothing was too pricey, although we did pay €10 for a large handful of tapenade. The ensuing picnic in our hotel room was magic. Bring cash.

 Saturday market: this was one of at least a dozen cheese stands!
Saturday market: this was one of at least a dozen cheese stands!

 Saturday market: if only our hotel room had a kitchen. 
Saturday market: if only our hotel room had a kitchen. 

4. La Moutarderie (Mustard Mill)

The last thing I expected to do in France was a mustard degustation but given Beaune’s proximity to Dijon, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d actually walked past La Moutarderie without realising it on our first day, as the exterior is quite modest. There are three spaces inside – the old mill, the current production area and the tasting zone. We tried to book a tour but the times didn’t work for us, so we just did mustard tasting instead. What an experience! The range of flavours and chatty, happy staff member explaining the varieties were excellent. While I was disappointed we couldn’t do a tour, the tasting alone was worth it. And it was free! There’s also a vending machine wall of mini mustards for €1 each – perfect souvenirs or gifts! Address: 31 Rue du Faubourg. 

Opening hours: 9.30am – 6pm Monday to Saturday, closed most Sundays | http://www.fallot.com/

 La Moutarderie: we spent an entire hour tasting mustards, including walnut, blueberry and balsamic flavours.
La Moutarderie: we spent an entire hour tasting mustards, including walnut, blueberry and balsamic flavours.

Food

French cuisine dominates most of the eateries across town – this is serious meat and cheese territory. Being a lactose-intolerant vegetarian was a challenge (which I’d expected), especially as most menus were in French. As my bike tour guide explained “We are happy to do vegetarian and no dairy… but we just don’t know how to do it!.” Thankfully, the French do beautiful big salads with luscious dressings. If you’re picky or have allergies, try connect to wifi and Google Translate menu ingredients. Anchovies were quite common, as was raw salmon and of course, cheese (fromage)! The bread baskets filled with slices of fresh, delicious baguettes were constant, and quite a lifesaver. 

If you’re not familiar with French food culture, there aren’t many places with ‘grab and go’ options. I didn’t see takeaway coffee during our entire stay, and you won’t find fast food outlets or sushi to go. Bakeries are the exception, and I did surprise my boyfriend by bringing him a lemon tart one morning. 

 French cuisine: Beaune is serious meat and cheese territory.
French cuisine: Beaune is serious meat and cheese territory.

Dining out can therefore get a little expensive with restaurant salads around €12-18 and mains from €15. Meat and cheese platters were prolific and good value for two people grazing. I saw one sandwich shop which was probably more casual and affordable, but the cooler weather meant getting take away and sitting outdoors wasn’t an option for us.

You’ll find plenty of dining on Rue Monge and around Place Carnot, as well as all along Rue Jean-Francois Maufoux, which becomes Rue Maufoux and eventually Rue du Faubourg Bretonnière.

My suggestions: 

 La Lune: an exceptional dinner, fusing French and Japanese cuisine.
La Lune: an exceptional dinner, fusing French and Japanese cuisine.

  • La Lune (32 Rue Maufoux): It’s not your typical French fare, but this was one of the most memorable meals during our entire five weeks in Europe. La Lune is Japanese and French fusion: think asparagus with sweet miso, grilled mushrooms and an excellent wine list of course! Book ahead as the venue is small – you can contact them via Facebook. 
  • Les Negotiants (7 Petite Place Carnot): This venue in the centre was packed with people drinking and eating on a sunny afternoon. The staff were so happy and helpful (they smiled at my mediocre French) and service was prompt. We returned a few days later for a casual lunch on a rainy Sunday and enjoyed the cosy atmosphere indoors, along with seeing local families and friends dining. 

If you need groceries, there’s a small store in the centre called Casino Shop and there’s an Aldi within walking distance too. 

Drink

We drank a lot of wine, by the glass and by the bottle! As mentioned, you’ll often be given bread or small snacks such as nuts or chips with your order. We found this was most common when ordering a pichet (250ml) of wine. I wish I could return to Beaune just to experience its wine lists all over again! 

  • La Dilettante (11 Rue du Faubourg Bretonnière): this wine bar was full at 2pm when we arrived thirsty and a little hungry. We tried again 15 minutes later and got a table, and spent an hour or two sampling most of the wines available by the glass. There was a limited afternoon food menu – I had a simple green salad while my boyfriend had a chicken gratine, and we shared the bread basket. It was a fun spot with plenty of take away wine too.
  • Brasserie Le Carnot (18 Rue Carnot): a large bistro with a large undercover, al fresco area too. Again, it was the staff who made us feel welcome here. We ordered a few pichets and enjoyed the generous complimentary snacks.  

 La Dilettante: a cosy space for wine, food and friends.
La Dilettante: a cosy space for wine, food and friends.

shopping

Most retail is concentrated along Rue Carnot, Rue Monge and surrounding Place Carnot. The majority of stores were closed on a Sunday, but you’ll otherwise find some homewares, souvenirs and small clothing stores. Sephora is the most commercialised store you’ll find, while Minelli is a French shoe franchise (where I picked up some great ankle boots in Paris!). Of course, wine stores are everywhere.

For food shopping, the fromagerie Alain Hess boasts 200 types of cheeses, along with condiments, crackers and other gourmet items. I was astounded at the variety and would have purchased so much if we had a bar fridge or extra suitcase! As mentioned under food, you can get general groceries at Casino Shop (4 Rue Carnot) and there’s an Aldi.

Where to stay

We stayed at Hotel Abbaye de Maizières (19 Rue Maizières), a 4 star hotel in the town centre for about €200/AU$300 a night. I’d been immediately enchanted by its striking cellar and history – the property was owned by monks from the 13th Century until the French Revolution! The luxury linen, plush robes and Clarins toiletries were lovely. If the room had a bar fridge and wine glasses, it would’ve been perfect!

 Abbaye de Maizieres: historic and beautiful.
Abbaye de Maizieres: historic and beautiful.

The location was ideal with most attractions, restaurants and cafes within five to 10 minutes walk. We’d hoped to dine in the restaurant, but found it was mostly quiet. The hotel is about 10 to 15 minutes walk from the train station which we handled fine with our large suitcases. 

 Abbaye de Maizières: the cellar restaurant and lobby .
Abbaye de Maizières: the cellar restaurant and lobby .

Language

Do yourself a favour and learn a little French before you go. Sometimes, I would speak French and receive a response in English but my efforts were always appreciated. Here are some basics, remembering the French don’t usually pronounce the last letter or two of their words.

  • Hello/good day: Bonjour
  • Hello/good evening: Bonsoir
  • Yes/no: Oui (“we”)/Non (“no”)
  • Please: S‘il vous plaît
  • Thank you: Merci
  • I would like..: Je voudrais… (“voo-dreh”)
  • What is..?: Quell est..? (“kel-eh”)
  • Have a nice day: Bonne journée (said as a farewell)
  • Do you speak English? Parlez-vous anglais? (“on-glay”)

Other tips

Lots of businesses will close for lunch between 12pm and 2pm, including the post office La Poste. Many of the shops in the town centre close on Sundays too. Opening hours are usually in 24 hour format, such as 900 h to 1730 h. If you want to make the most of the Saturday market, get accommodation with cooking facilities. I desperately wanted to roast asparagus!

Overall, Beaune was everything I’d hoped for and it was refreshing to spend time in a place which hadn’t succumbed to modern pressures. The French approach to dining – quality produce, smaller portions and taking time to eat is a lesson we could all embrace. I loved learning about French wine, viticulture and the history of the region. After my wine tasting lesson, I’ve never looked at a glass the same way again! Merci Beaune pour une parfait vacance!.

QUESTION: Have you had a travel vision you were obsessed with? 

A Day Trip to Edinburgh, Scotland

There are several things I consider travel jackpot. A flight upgrade. A hotel upgrade. Any upgrade. Early check-in after a red eye flight. Being the only couple booked on a group tour. Lift access at a train station! But another one of my favourite holiday wins is the opportunity to see a city you hadn’t counted on. 

My boyfriend and I were visiting friends in Glasgow, Scotland last month as part of our five week trip to Europe. We had one day left in the city and were sat around our friend’s breakfast table thinking about what to do. When Edinburgh was suggested, I initially dismissed the idea. I’d spent five hours on a train from London that week and wasn’t keen for another long travel day. But then I was told Edinburgh was only 50 minutes away by train. I had no idea! I’d been to the UK before and it was, in fact, my second visit to Glasgow. I felt foolish but it was decided – we’d make a day trip to Edinburgh. A brand new city. Unexpectedly. Holiday jackpot! 

orientation

Edinburgh has two main areas – the Old Town and New Town (which, despite its name, was actually built in the 1700s). Old Town sits on top of a hill, crowned by the magnificent Edinburgh Castle. There are steep cobblestone streets, souvenir shops and it’s also home to the National Museum. 

By contrast, New Town is largely flat with neat, well-planned streets. Here you’ll find the main train station Edinburgh Waverley, gardens and the shopping precinct. It’s a short (10 minute) walk between Old Town and New Town, with The Mound being the most common thoroughfare. The Mound is also home to the National Gallery and the Bank of Scotland headquarters. 

 Old Town: cobblestone streets, old buildings and simply beautiful.
Old Town: cobblestone streets, old buildings and simply beautiful.

getting there

Edinburgh is about an hour’s drive from Glasgow or you can catch the train. You can get a return off-peak ticket for £12, allowing you to depart Glasgow after 9.15am weekdays (anytime weekends) and catch the 4.30pm train back. A peak ticket is £23 but you can travel anytime. The journey take about 50 to 60 minutes, depending on exactly where you leave from and how many stops the train makes. The countryside views are beautiful! Click here for the ScotRail website. Alternatively, there are frequent trains from London to Edinburgh, taking about 4.5 hours (from £30). 

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle was at the top of my sightseeing list and I got my first glimpse as we pulled into Edinburgh station. My friend pointed out the view from our train window was a unique angle you couldn’t get in the city. Edinburgh Castle was a 15 minute walk from Edinburgh station, via a short but steep stair case. We arrived at 12.45pm and had our tickets (£17 for an adult) within a few minutes. 

 Edinburgh Castle: stunning views of the city.
Edinburgh Castle: stunning views of the city.

We followed the crowds to wait for the One O’Clock Gun. The firing of the gun dates back to 1861, allowing ships to set their maritime clocks for navigation. At exactly 1pm, the gun went off. It was entertaining but brief. Don’t worry if you miss it and note: the gun isn’t fired on Sundays either. 

I was much more fascinated by the actual castle. I had expected one large building, with long hallways connecting different rooms and courtyards like in the movies. But Edinburgh Castle was more like clusters of individual buildings, with big outdoor areas. Some buildings had been converted into mini-museums, and others like the Grand Hall were more of a recreation. 

 Edinburgh Castle: sweeping views of old buildings, all the way to the ocean.
Edinburgh Castle: sweeping views of old buildings, all the way to the ocean.

The views across the city were breathtaking and it was easy to see why the location had such military value. I enjoyed looking out to the ocean and countryside as much as exploring the castle itself. Our entire visit lasted an hour, but you could spend much more time there if you read every bit of information. We didn’t visit the War Museum either, but that’s because we were ready for lunch.

Opening hours: 9.30am – 6pm (5pm 1 Oct – 31 Mar) | https://www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk

lunch: rose street

 Vegetarian haggis: like a Scottish take on meatloaf.
Vegetarian haggis: like a Scottish take on meatloaf.

After visiting Edinburgh Castle, we walked to New Town via The Mound. The route took us past the impressive National Gallery and the Princes Street Gardens. Our destination was Rose Street, where you’ll find plenty of pubs and restaurants offering hearty looking meals.

I was keen to try some traditional Scottish food and was intrigued by vegetarian haggis. I spotted it on a menu outside Auld Hundred so we grabbed a table upstairs. I ordered vegetarian haggis with ‘neeps and tatties’ (£7.95), or ‘turnips and potatoes’ for those who aren’t versed in local lingo. My boyfriend and our friend ordered chicken breast stuffed with haggis (£10.50) and macaroni cheese with chips (£7.75) respectively. With a round of beers, we were set! Unfortunately, I didn’t like the random beer I’d chosen so I defaulted to a pint of Tennents lager (£3.75).

Our meals arrived and we didn’t waste a minute. My vegetarian haggis tasted like a mild falafel relative, with a chewy, thick oat texture. My boyfriend said his chicken-stuffed haggis was far tastier than his initial haggis experience many years ago. All in all, a hearty and warming lunch. Don’t forget to tip 10 per cent at restaurants!

 View of New Town from Edinburgh Castle: you can see the railway line and National Gallery along The Mound.
View of New Town from Edinburgh Castle: you can see the railway line and National Gallery along The Mound.

SHOPPING

By now, we had less than an hour before our train left for Glasgow. From Rose Street we walked up to George Street towards St Andrew Square. Here I was introduced to the small but beautiful department store Harvey Nicols. If you can’t afford the designer shoes or clothing, head to the 4th floor to experience the Chocolate Lounge. It’s like a sushi train, but instead offers various chocolates and desserts along with champagne. It was beautiful! This floor is also where you’ll find a great selection of wine and spirits, along with gourmet foods. 

Next time

We caught the latest train back possible on our off-peak tickets, which departed Edinburgh about 4.30pm. Next time I visit the Scottish capital, I’ll check out the National Gallery, go whisky tasting and visit the port district of Leith which is about 10 minutes drive from the city centre. 

Edinburgh is a city unlike anywhere I’ve been before, especially Old Town. Walking through its streets is almost like time travel if you can ignore the selfie sticks and hoards of people. The level of restoration and preservation of old buildings is extraordinary, and the historic feel continues well beyond Old Town when looking out across rooftops. Edinburgh was an unexpected bonus on our holiday but such a highlight! 

QUESTION: When did you unexpectedly visit a bonus city?