Having a layover in Beijing doesn’t have to be bad news! There are lots of things you can do in the city that don’t require too much time and quick ways you can utilize your layover to see a bit of China without going too far from the airport.
The airport express is a quick, short trip into town for about $7. Find more information here on specifics for both the airport express and the shuttle buses into town. One of the unique things about Beijing is that you can get into town from the airport very quickly, and return again even if traffic is rough. Sure, you can take a cab from most anywhere in town for less than RMB100 ($14). In heavy traffic or during rush hour it’s probably best to use the airport express train as the chances of that making you miss your flight are slim versus the shuttle buses and taxis which are susceptible to traffic. Also keep in mind that since Beijing is the capital there are dignitaries coming in frequently and they often close the road from the airport for an hour or two when any major dignitary lands.
The airport express will deposit you at Dongzhimen subway stop. This is excellent because this is the north-west corner of the inner circle of Beijing. From here a cab to the Forbidden city is about fifteen minutes, or you can stay on the subway and reach the Forbidden city easily as it’s the only structure listed on the subway map as an image. So, in less than half an hour you could be from the airport to the Forbidden City in central Beijing.
Next to the Forbidden City it Tienanmen Square, which you mind as well walk through since you are already here. A tour of the Forbidden City can take an hour to three hours, while a tour of Tienanmen takes about thirty minutes. Depending on your time, chose accordingly.
After this, head to Qianmen Market Street where the adventurous traveler will be able to slip into the back alleys to the west of the main street for some of the best souvenir shopping in Beijing. a T-shirt will run you $5 and a little purse about $3. You can get scarves for as little as $2 making this a one-stop-shop for your friends and family back home.
From here, you can easily jump back on the subway and be at the airport express in no time, and that fast train will whisk you to the airport in under half an hour, including wait time. Round trip, you’re looking at a realistic five hours to play it safe to get into the heart of Beijing, tour the Forbidden city or Tienanmen and Qienmen and then return to the airport. If you have to collect luggage and store them at the airport that will take additional time, and keep in mind that if it is a weekend in Beijing traffic will be heavy (or during rush hour extremely heavy on work days) so that will also add time.
Finally, some of the best food in the city in terms of authentic local cuisine lies along the side streets of Qienmen, so get out and try something local while you are in town. A simple rule for safety is to only eat where there are other people eating. If you see an empty restaurant steer clear of it, the locals only eat where the food is clean and safe so follow their lead.