Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Sightseeing (page 1 of 3)

5 Days in Beijing: Day 5 – Beihai Park and Almost Losing a Child

Morning came early as usual during this trip. Maybe we’ll be adjusted to China time just when it’s time to head back to California. I was a bit less tired when 8:00 p.m. rolled around the evening before, so maybe we’re almost there. The kids did sleep solidly until 7:00 a.m.

Breakfast was the usual affair in the club lounge on the 17th floor of the Renaissance (SEE: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Review). The spread and service have been excellent every day. This is shaping up to be one of the best hotel stays to date, mainly because of the perks we’ve enjoyed due to earning Marriott Platinum Premier status earlier this year (SEE: Fast track status: how to sign up for a Marriott Platinum challenge).

After breakfast we video chatted with mom and our youngest who have been enjoying themselves back at home.

Wangfujing snack street

Even though we’d been staying in a central Beijing hotel, we hadn’t really wandered the surrounding streets. One of the places I’d been pointed toward is the Wangfujing pedestrian street, about a third of a mile south of our hotel. This was our first stop for the day.

Wangfujing is a very walkable area, although very little in Beijing is a quick stroll away. The city is vast and sprawling. Even just walking from the south end of Tiananmen Square to the entrance of the Forbidden City takes longer than you’d expect.

We passed many of the typical high-end retail stores you can find in the central district of good number of cities. But that was not why we were here. If I wanted a BVLGARI purse, I would have bought it in Milan a couple years ago.

About halfway to the snack street we passed by an old church, which was extremely unexpected. The current structure is the third (I think) iteration of the Catholic church that has stood on this spot since 1655. Catholic mass happens daily, with additional services on Sunday. Given the current climate of Christian persecution in China, it surprises me that the church is even operating. I highly doubt that it is true to the gospel.

We took a peek inside and then continued on our way to the snack street. It did not disappoint. The kids couldn’t decide if the wriggling scorpions on a stick were utterly cool or totally gross. We decided to pass up the opportunity to ingest any of this “delicacy”.

Wandering into some souvenir shops, we perused the cheap knockoff goods. Some items had a trademark or copyright logo clearly displayed, should you question its authenticity. I somehow don’t think Disney would license these cheap plastic figures to be sold in Beijing for $2 apiece.

Curiosity satisfied after browsing the shops for half an hour, we headed back to Wangfujing Street and our next destination.

Beihai Park

This 1,000-year-old Imperial park was next on the list for our final day in Beijing. We took the bus, the first time we’ve braved one in the Chinese capital. Thank goodness for Google maps and bus signs that have Arabic numerals on them. I’d plotted the bus route in Google Maps to Beihai Park before we left the hotel and took some screenshots. Our 15-minute ride went without a hitch.

The bus made the most sense in this case as it was much faster. The fastest subway route would have been a mere four stops *but* required two transfers. The Beijing subway system is efficient for many routes, especially if you are going a longer distance, but it is often extremely inefficient for short distance travel. Constructed in a loop and grid fashion, it makes great sense for a city as large as Beijing. But it means that almost every trip you take will require 1-2 transfers, which are never quick.

We arrived in Beihai Park around 10:30, a bit later than I’d anticipated. We got “through tickets” for just 30 yuan (~$4.40) for all three of us.

Beihai Park is quite lovely, even during the fall when many of the trees have already lost their leaves. The willows lining the lake were quite beautiful. I’ve been impressed with Beijing’s parks in general. All have been very nice green spaces. It would be nice to visit again in late spring and see them in the height of their greenery. There were some flower displays to make up for the lack of color in the rest of the park.

I was a bit bummed that the Circular City was closed. I’d hoped to see this section of the park near where we entered. We instead began the climb up the hill to the white Dagoba (Tibetan Buddhist stupa) at the top of Qionghua islet.

I would be lying if reading “Dagoba” didn’t immediately make me think of Star Wars and Dagobah, the swamp planet Luke crash lands on when he is searching for Yoda. I know that George Lucas drew on eastern religions for his movies. I just didn’t know it was this blatant. The top of the hill provided us with a nice view of the rest of the lake.

The kids asked if we could rent a boat like we had at Chaoyang Park a few days prior (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 1 – Our First 24 Hours in the Chinese Capital), seeing so many out on the lake. I thought it was a fine idea. We made our way down and over the bridge out to the boat rental.

An hour on the water in a pedal boat only costs 60 yuan (~$8.75). I’ve been thrilled overall with how inexpensive China is. I’ll remind myself of that when planning other international vacations. When we visited Paris and Luxembourg in the spring, I had to be careful not to break the bank on just food each day.

The kids and I had fun powering ourselves around the lake. Pedal-power was an entirely different experience than our excursion on a boat with a small motor a few days before. Remind me to start biking. It is exhausting. But it was still fun. We spent most of an hour enjoying the lake.

By the time we were done, it was time for lunch. We found a small hole-in-the-wall place back toward Shichahai, where we’d had lunch during our day wandering the hutongs (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs). At $18 for the three of us, it was by far our most expensive lunch.

The kids tried duck for the fist time. They weren’t fans. My daughter, who primarily wanted to try it, was grossed out. the duck was served head and all, cut in half and sliced on a platter. I’m going to pack on the pounds eating all the food they don’t finish.

Nanluoguxiang a second time

Since we were once again near this foremost of the Beijing hutongs, a second walk through Nanluoguxiang was a must. The kids had enjoyed it immensely the first time. We picked up some more cheese bread (honestly not sure what it is, but it tastes amazing) at the same shop and sat on some steps to people watch.

Or be watched as the case may be. Apparently while I was taking the photo above, a Chinese lady stepped behind me and snapped a photo of my kids. They told me after what had happened. I’m left wondering if they were the novelty, or whether it was the fact we were sitting on some stone steps when literally everyone else was standing (maybe install some benches?).

The kids remarked a number of times that the Chinese gave them funny looks. We are definitely not the only tourists in Beijing, but it may be the combination of a white guy with two darker kids that makes us stand out a bit. Or maybe it is just the fact that they are foreign kids. I’ve seen very few others.

The kids have been a bit sensitive to this issue, my daughter especially. She must have a keen eye for it since I only noticed people staring at us a couple times.

Our delicious snack finished, we wandered back south through the Nanluoguxiang hutong until we arrived back at the metro station. Tip: visit on a weekday in the late morning like we did originally. The Saturday throng was a whole lot less pleasant.

Our scary moment: almost losing a child

We headed down to the metro at Nanluoguxiang, something that was routine for us in Beijing. We’d ridden it nearly every day in Beijing, and the kids knew the  drill. We bought tickets, headed through security, and then trotted down the steps to the platform.

The train we needed was waiting on the platform, and the bell hadn’t sounded yet for the doors to close. My son asked if this was our train, and I told him yes. Just as he ran into the car ahead of me, the bell sounded and the doors started to close. I knew I wasn’t going to make it, especially with my daughter a couple feet behind me. The doors slid shut. My son’s face was complete panic. Mine must have looked the same to him.

Now if I had more than a few fractions of a second to think, I would have realized that leaving a child alone on the subway platform would be preferable to leaving a child alone on the subway train. Diving through the rapidly closing doors would have been the best choice. As long as my daughter knew to stay put, we would come back to fetch her as fast ass we could.

A child alone on the subway is a more difficult problem. And I knew in that moment that we should have discussed a contingency plan for this situation. I tried to yell through the double doors for him to get off at the next stop. We would be on the train behind him and would meet him there. I couldn’t tell if he understood, but the subway would be underway momentarily. He had to understand.

To my surprise, the doors suddenly opened again. We quickly entered the car and were all reunited! I was so incredibly thankful that someone must have been watching the whole situation and realized we’d been split up.

I previously remember seeing an attendant at some Beijing subway stations standing on a small, raised platform. It seemed odd to me that this was a job (I’d heard of subway pushers for when crowds are thick), but a platform observer seemed strange to me. Now I am extremely thankful someone was there to watch passengers entering and exiting the subway.

The kids and I had an immediate talk of what to do in the situation we just experienced, had my son actually been whisked away. The plan consists of two simple rules: if you end up on the subway without dad, get off at the next stop and wait for me to find you. If you end up loeft on the platform while dad leaves on the train, simply wait there for me to find you. This will go into the safety discussion I have with the kids each time we travel.

Crisis averted, we stepped off the metro just a few stops down the line.

Lama Temple and a Cat Cafe

I’d identified the Wudaoying hutong as an interesting place for another stroll. The hutong offers an eclectic mix of shops and cafés, including a cat cafe. If you’re wondering what a cat café, don’t worry. They don’t cook and serve cats. Cat cafés are typically a coffee or tea shop where patrons share the space with cats who are free to roam and interact with guests. I thought the kids would love it.

But we ran into an issue in Wudaoying: I couldn’t identify the cat café. I’d failed to get an exact name or address, thinking that it would be easy enough to identify along the alley as we walked. After poking our faces into the windows of a few promising shops, I started to wonder if our search might be in vain. We eventually exited the hutong after a quarter mile, thwarted in our search for a cup of coffee with cats. The kids will have to wait for that experience.

However, we were now just a couple hundred meters from the Lama Temple, which was our final destination for the day.

The Lama Temple, or, more properly, the Yonghe Temple, is a temple and monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. Originally constructed around 1700 as an imperial residence, the Lama Temple was converted into a monastery about 40 years later. It is unique in that it is not only a functioning monastery, but also open to the public as a tourist attraction.

Although visiting Beijing in the fall has had its downsides, an upside was certainly walking the tree-lined path from the temple entrance to the first gate. The trees were a beautiful gold color, and unlike other places in Beijing that are efficiently cleaned, a layer of fallen foliage was left to line the path. It is beautiful!

The temple itself is impressive, although possibly less so to us than it could have been, given that we’d visited the Forbidden City the previous day (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 4 – Tiananmen and the Forbidden City). Many visitors were burning incense in the first courtyard. The kids asked some questions about what people were doing and I tried my best to field answers. I’m quite unfamiliar with Buddhism. Our discussion mainly centered around respecting their culture and religion and how ours differ from theirs.

We visited a few couple other sections of the temple, but didn’t stay especially long. Since it is an active Buddhist monastery, I felt like we were intruding more than anything. Our visit lasted maybe a half hour before we hopped back on the subway toward our hotel.

Ending the day with school

On previous days I would not have attempted school with the kids in the evening, given everyone’s exhaustion level. But the night before was the first one during which they were at least a bit more perky. They still went to bed at 7:45 p.m. without a fuss, but it wasn’t the voluntary crawl under the covers like the other nights.

School away from home has been working well enough. Luckily, the internet speed at the Renaissance is good and we are able to stream my daughter’s lessons. This probably would not have been possible at the Hilton, our first hotel (SEE: Hilton Beijing Review). Dinner in the lounge followed by an hour of lessons it was.

This brought our Beijing sightseeing to a close. It’d been a fun several days, and a great introduction to China. But Hong Kong awaits!

5 Days in Beijing: Day 4 – Tiananmen and the Forbidden City

The kids finally slept in a bit more than the previous two days. After a day chock full of sightseeing followed by one where we had our excursion to the Great Wall, they were extra tired. I’d actually set the morning aside for school, which is exactly what we did after breakfast. We may be across the world, but they didn’t escape the books this trip!

We called it a day at about 11:00 a.m., though, which was a grand total of about 2 solid hours. Beijing would provide the history lesson for the day.

Tiananmen Square and China’s beloved Mao

Most people older than I probably remember the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. I was born that year, so I don’t exactly have firsthand knowledge of what transpired, just what I’ve read and been told. While the square has a more lengthy history, including being the place where Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the first thing that always comes to mind when I hear “Tiananmen” is “tank man” and the protests that were forcibly subdued by the Chinese military, leaving a large number of people dead.

With that solemn history in mind (I didn’t try and explain anything to the kids), we made the walk to Tiananmen Square. The fall colors in Beijing were lovely along the way.

The walk was a bit further than I figured, but still not bad from the Renaissance on Wangfujing Street. Crossing under the street, we popped up in Tiananmen Square.

The square is immense. It can supposedly hold half a million people. To the north is the “Gate of Heavenly Peace”, from which Tiananmen gets its name.

In the middle (roughly) is the Monument to the People’s Heroes. To the south is a Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.

There were a good number of people out in the square, but given the size, it didn’t feel crowded at all. The National Museum of China flanks the square to the east. It was also on the list of sights to see, but given how many other things there were to do in Beijing, I decided to skip it. It’ll have to wait for another visit, probably once the kids can appreciate museums more.

Satisfied with our walk through the square, the kids and I once again crossed under the street, this time arriving in front of the “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The placement of a large picture of Chairman Mao on the gate is paradoxical to me. He is the leader responsible for the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, ushering in China as we know it from this very spot on October 1, 1949. Yet he is also the man responsible for the “Great Leap Forward”, a period where tens of millions of Chinese people died due to poor governance that severely compounded natural disasters around 1960.

Seeing his photo here was enough. I didn’t have the desire to take the kids to see the embalmed leader in his Mausoleum on the other side of the square.

Entering into the Forbidden City, I decided we better find a place to eat. There isn’t anything very easily accessible at Tiananmen Square, unless you want some snack foods sold by the vendors. That just won’t cut it for me. Luckily, we found a spot.

Lunch was a solid introduction for the kids to how the Chinese don’t respect lines. The lunch counter we found in the first courtyard contained a throng of people slowly pushing their way along toward the counter. You basically just stand in the mob and shuffle your way to the front, eventually being the one closest to the cashier so that you can order.

I wouldn’t eat here if you can avoid it. The food had to be chock full of MSG. The flavors of the meatballs and beef we ordered were too intense and satisfying.

Exploring the Forbidden City

Entry tickets to the Forbidden City are fairly inexpensive like nearly everywhere we’ve visited in Beijing. I think I paid 80 yuan for the three of us to enter, 40 yuan for myself and half that for each of the kids. For reference, this is less than $12 for one of the foremost historical sites in Beijing.

I did also opt for a audio guide. I thought about getting more than one, but we either took turns listening to some of the explanations or I just relayed the main points to the kids. If you want to maximize your visit to the Forbidden Palace yet still go at your own pace, I would suggest one of these.

One of the features of the Forbidden Palace is the presence of multiple sundials, in a form I’d never seen before. From what I understood, the sundial was invented independently here in China, although the sundials of other cultures predate it. In this case, the sundial disk is oriented such that it is in line with the arc of the sun at each equinox. The upper disk is then read in the summer, when the sun is higher in the sky, while the lower disk is read in winter.

Another interesting feature of the bulk of the Imperial Palace buildings are the processions of tiny beasts at the corner of each roof. The Hall of Supreme Harmony boasts the most of these figures, which one gave it the highest status of all buildings in the Chinese empire.

The Forbidden Palace really is magnificent. It is (unsurprisingly) among the listed UNESCO sites for its cultural and historic significance.

The impressiveness of all this history sure didn’t keep the kids from being their goofy selves.

Near the very end of the palace (everyone passes through south to north), there is a very interesting feature. I didn’t really know what to make of it until the audio guide finally decided to explain what we were looking at. This odd rock face is actually artificially constructed from stones taken from a lake is a part of China quite distant from the capital. The pavilion at the top is said to have the best view of the entire Forbidden City.

Our visit to the Forbidden Palace lasted about 2 hours. We didn’t see all the sights,  but we were able to walk through or past the bulk of the halls and most interesting areas. If you’re really into the history of the palace, I’d suggest a visit of more like 4 hours.

Climbing the hill in Jingshan Park

We’d seen Jingshan Park during our second day in Beijing (Day 2), from the Drum tower. The Forbidden City, Jingshan Park and the Drum and Bell Towers all lie on the same central north-south axis of the city. Given the length of history of Beijing, the city has had this design for many centuries. You could stand right on it if you wished.

The walk up the hill was fun. At least…*I* thought it was fun. The elevation gain is seriously only 200 feet or so. Yet the kids acted like they were dying. I barely got my son to smile for this.

The air quality on Day 4 was also the best it had been the whole trip. I’d read so many stories about how awful many cities in China can be, but I did not that November is a better time for Beijing in general. Our view of Chaoyang from Jingshan Park was excellent, and the air was so much clearer than just the day before when we were headed to the wall.

The air was so clear we could see the hills miles away to the north. The sliver of lake on the left is near Shichahai, an area near the hutongs we wandered on Day 2.

After we’d made our way back down from the hill and toward the gate, we decided to watch the group of ladies dancing with streamers. We’d seen a bit of this at the Temple of Heaven on Day 2.  It is a lovely and enjoyable art to watch.

While surely not as picturesque as spring or summer, the park in the fall didn’t turn out to be that bad. So many bright yellow trees everywhere we went.

The kids had been asking for panda hats a couple times. While prices at the Great Wall shot that request down pretty quick, we found them a whole lot better here in Jingshan Park. Barely $5 for two hats? I’ll take ’em.

Evening in at the Renaissance

We walked back to our hotel from the park, wandering through a coupe hutongs on the way. The kids and I were solicited multiple times by rickshaw drivers who wanted to take us on a tour. One even had the clever idea of turning my kids against me by saying they must be tired from walking and are too young to be going so far. Luckily, I don’t have such sympathy. They will survive another half mile.

The kids wanted to play foosball when we got back, which was fine by me. It was the perfect activity for killing a half hour before the club lounge opened for dinner. As is typical, they couldn’t make it 15 minutes before they got in an argument and my daughter refused to play anymore. So I got to show my son who is the real foosball boss.

Dinner was quite good. I wish I’d realized our first night that “happy hour” of two hours between 5:30 and 7:30 was actually dinner and not just drinks. It would have saved us about $25 spent eating out and honestly been way easier.

The day came to a close with showers for the kids and then reading some Calvin and Hobbes together. Our last day in Beijing was yet unplanned, so I had a bit of work to do after the kids turned in. Would we make an easygoing day of it seeing some last sights in Beijing? Or would we cap things off with a day trip to Tianjin?

5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs

Our second day in Beijing started early. Due to the time difference from California, we end up exhausted by early evening and wake up early. The kids had gone to bed by 7:30 the night before, and I didn’t stay up much later after our first day in the Chinese capital (SEE: 5 Days In Beijing: Day 1 – Our First 24 Hours in the Chinese Capital). After tossing and turning for ages, I called it quits at 5:00 and decided to shower.

The kids were starting to stir when I was done basking in the glorious hot water, which lasted upwards of a half hour. We definitely need one of these rain shower things at home (and a better water heater). After a quick jaunt downstairs to inquire about a phone charger, both children were fully awake when I returned. An early day it would be.

Excursion to the Temple of Heaven

We left the hotel at 7:30, bound for Dongsi station where we would catch the Line 5 subway to the Tiantan East Gate stop. The entrance to the Temple of Heaven is a very short walk from this station.

Entry to the Temple of Heaven is cheap, like pretty much all of the major Beijing sights. I bought an adult combo ticket for 28 yuan, which is the off season price, and I believe kids are half off. All said and done, it was less than $9 USD.

We headed through the gardens, making our way toward the center where the temple itself stands. A couple things jumped out at me. First, there were a large number of people doing aerobic exercise. Or is it dance? I really couldn’t tell. So much of it was set to music with groups of people doing synchronized moves. There was one are filled with many middle-aged and elderly Chinese folks who were engaged in this activity. The kids and I paused for a bit just to observe.

From there we made our way along a long open-air hallway. Here there were groups of Chinese men gathered to play cards. It would seem the Temple of Heaven grounds are more a place to simply hang out rather than a tourist attraction!

Eventually we came to the temple itself. You have to buy a special ticket that allows you access to the main sites. Initially, I wondered why multiple ticket types were offered, but now the answer was obvious: many people come to simply enjoy the green space. But that wasn’t why we were here.

The Temple of Heaven was originally constructed in 1420 by Emperor Yongle during the Ming Dynasty as a place for the millennia old Chinese tradition of Heaven worship. Sections were expanded and rebuilt during the reign of two other emperors. Pictured above is the Temple of Heaven itself. There are numerous other buildings as well, spread across the large temple grounds. Below is the Imperial Vault of Heaven.

Surrounding the Vault of Heaven is the Echo Wall, a circular wall with two buildings inside, situated such that if you stand near the wall behind one of them, you can converse with someone on the opposite side of the other building, completely out of line-of-sight of each other. The kids and I tried to talk to each other, but with the numerous other visitors, including some attempting the same feat as us, it was impossible to hear each other.

We finished up our visit by walking past the Palace of Abstinence and through the gardens. November really isn’t the time to visit gardens; the only real color was found in some of the trees that were a lovely autumn yellow.

Just like what I’d read, our visit of 90 minutes was sufficient to see most of the sites within the temple. If you’re especially interested in Chinese history, or like to linger, you could probably take twice as long, although I think 2 hours is a decent amount of time to budget.

Wandering the hutongs

From the Temple of Heaven we hopped back on the subway toward Nanluoguxiang, one of the must-see Beijing “hutongs”. Hutong literally means “alley”, but don’t let that conjure up visions of dark, unkempt alleyways of other cities. Many of Beijing’s are lined with shops, restaurants and trees and make for a perfect morning outing.

Nanluoguxiang did not disappoint. The kids and I strolled slowly along, perusing the shops that piqued our interest. The smell from the various food vendors was intoxicating. We finally broke down and bought a sweet snack. I really don’t know exactly what it was, but it was utterly delicious. I can best describe it as butter with a layer of butter and sugar on top, broiled just slightly to give it a bit of color. But it may have had other ingredients.

We spent maybe another half hour wandering in and out of some of the shops before exiting along one of the side hutongs. Even though Nanluoguxiang was not really crowded, it was a whole lot quieter off the main stretch. These other hutongs also allow a glimpse into the more everyday lives of the people who live here, as many of the low lying buildings were obviously dwellings.

Eventually the side hutong brought us to a narrow canal, which we followed back to the main road.

Lunch and the Grand Canal

Since we’d started our day early with breakfast at 6:30,  lunch came early. It was barely after 11:00 when we are all thinking it was time for food. I thought the snack would help tide us over, but it basically just whet our appetite for more food. Once back to the main road, I spotted a place across the street that looked appealing enough. It’s really hard for me to tell what quality and price a restaurant is going to be, although the couple we’d been to already had been very affordable.

Another thing I worry about is whether the restaurant will have a picture or English menu. But my anxiety was baseless. Our experience at pretty much all the restaurants we ate at in Beijing was that they had something with photos that we could thumb through the make choices.  They just may not have descriptions in English. We ordered noodles with chicken, some dumplings, and pumpkin soup. I tried to point the kids to a few other options, but they are far less adventurous than I am.

I think the total came to like $11. China is a land of cheap, delicious food. It’s one of those places that you can visit very inexpensively if you can work out the flights and hotel for free. Traveling alone, I probably could have budgeted $30 per day and been entirely content.

Stomachs filled, we headed down the street to the Jinding bridge by Qianhai Lake . This is supposedly the end of the Grand Canal, the oldest canal in the world of its size (it is UNESCO listed). It would be cool to see other parts of the canal, but we would have to head to a different area of Beijing (or outside) to get more of a taste of it. The main purpose of the canal was to link the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, allowing commerce to flow far more rapidly across 1,000 miles of China.

From there we wandered a few more hutongs, including the “skewed tobacco pouch street.” The section along the water would be a great place to spend an afternoon, although the southern end is under renovation. You can cross a bridge over to Houhai Bar Street where there are many bars, cafes and more shops. If wandering the hutongs of Beijing is up your alley (get it?), this whole section from Nanluoguxiang past Shichahai is the place to explore.

At many points we were accosted by rickshaw drivers who wanted to tour us around. If we weren’t on a schedule to fit in a couple more sights, I probably would have said yes.

Drum and Bell Towers

The Drum and Bell Towers were not specifically on the list of things to see, but since we were already in the area, I decided we should probably take a peek. These two towers at located on the central axis of the city, just like Forbidden City and the structure at the top of Jingshan Park. The Drum Tower is to the south while the Bell Tower sits to the north, across a small open square. You can get a nice view straight down the road to the south, which is also the central axis of Beijing.

The entrance fees for both are reasonable, as all entry fees have been during our time in China. It’s nice not being gouged as a foreign tourist. A combo ticket to see both towers is just 30 yuan (~$4.35), and I think kids were half price. I can’t recall every time, but that is generally the discount.

The towers piqued the kids’ interest, but it abruptly died when they saw the giant flight of stairs leading up to the top of the Drum Tower. My daughter asked why the didn’t install an elevator. Hadn’t quite invented those yet.

I, on the other hand, thought the stairs were awesome. If you’re afraid of heights, these would probably be intimidating. The rise to run ratio is also terrible, so it would be hard if you are of limited mobility. But if you make the climb, you are rewarded with some fantastic views. Here is Chaoyang in the distance, where we spent our first night and day.

The Drum Tower had drum performances several times a day, but our visit didn’t coincide with any. We could have hing around for 45 minutes to catch one, but the schedule didn’t have that wiggle room, as I still wanted to fit in the Summer Palace. On to the Bell Tower it was.

The towers are literally a couple hundred yards (or less) from each other, so it was a quick walk. The Bell Tower is smaller, but more impressive in some ways. The giant bell at the top is exquisite. It would be fun to ring with that large post.

From there we continued north at a fast pace. There was still time to have a couple hours at the Summer Palace.

Afternoon at the Summer Palace

Since we’d spent more time visiting the Drum and Bell Towers and wandering the hutongs than I’d anticipated, we didn’t make it to the Summer Palace until 2:30 p.m. With a suggested visit time  of three hours, we would be pushing it a bit to see a lot of the historic Emperors’ escape of before it closed at 5:00. We would also be headed back to the hotel in the dark.

The ticket agent refused to sell us combo tickets, which included entry to some of the scenic areas within the Summer Palace. But it was for the best. The areas were closing anyway when we arrived. We at least get to walk most of the grounds. One of the first things that greets you is the palace itself, towering over you.

The grounds are huge. You could spend all day here. We climbed through the palace, enjoying winding our way along the rocky paths and then made our way down the other side to the lake. The bulk of the palace area is water, and the views of it and across is are lovely.

A visit in summer might be a whole lot more colorful. But it would just be too cliche to visit in summer. Gotta visit the Summer Palace in winter, I say!

We meandered along the water’s edge until we came to the bridge to Nanhu Island. The bridge is called “Seventeen Arch Bridge”. Talk about literal naming. It became part of my favorite selfie from the trip.

It was quite a walk from the east gate of the palace, much longer than I anticipated. The kids had had fun, but they were getting tired, and by this point we all just wanted to be back at the hotel.

The exhaustion sets in

This was still just day 2 of our adventures in Beijing, and the afternoon/evening jetlag was brutal. The fact we had walked miles didn’t help things at all. It was a stroke of good fortune that we scored seats on the metro leaving the Summer Palace, pretty much the only time this happened during our entire visit to Beijing. We had 11 stops to go before we transferred, and sitting for a while was welcomed.

One transfer later and we were walking back to our hotel. Most of the light had left the sky. The easiest course of action was to stop for dinner at the same restaurant we’d visited the night before (how I wish I’d known from the beginning that the hotel lounge served a full dinner spread). The kids could barely keep their eyes open and were pretty grumpy. Gotta keep things real, here.

Bed came early since we had an early wake up call. But it was for a good reason: we were going to visit the Great Wall!

Our Whirlwind 44 Hours in Luxembourg

After three days in the City of Lights (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3), we hopped on a train across the French hills to the tiny country of Luxembourg. I’d wanted to add a second destination to our trip, and it made sense, given that Paris is just a few hours away. Alternatively, we could have done another location in France, or possibly Belgium. But given the brevity of the trip, Luxembourg made the most sense.

I also have a fascination with tiny countries. When my wife and I toured southern France, Italy and Ireland in 2016, we also spent a couple nights in the tiny country of San Marino. Landlocked within Italy, it is a city-state with a fascinating history (SEE: 5 Reasons to Visit San Marino). We also visited Monaco on that trip, another tiny country (SEE: Hiking Monaco to La Turbie). Luxembourg was a good fit, and totally doable in a day and a half.

Hotel on a hill

We arrived in The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (as it is officially known) in the late afternoon at the main train station. I’d asked the hotel if they have a shuttle that would be able to pick us up. Unfortunately, they don’t , but the staff member who responded to me gave me instructions on how to get there by bus. Turned out to be super easy. We had to make one transfer at the Badanstalt stop.

We were staying at the DoubleTree, which is located outside the central part of town (SEE: DoubleTree Luxembourg Review). The bus didn’t run all the way to the hotel, so we did have to walk a few hundred yards up the hill.

The kids were fairly tired by this point in the trip. We’d spent three days seeing Paris, plus another couple hours in Luxembourg Gardens that morning before heading off to the train station. Our evening would best be spent in the pool, which was fine by them. We also made a couple calls back home, one to mom and their brother, and one to my daughter’s friend.

The one downside of not venturing out was that we had to eat in the hotel, which ended up being stupidly expensive. Not to mention the food was sub-par. But everything got better from there.

An enchanting morning

I’d told the kids the night before that I’d probably be up early to take a walk. They both said they wanted to go, but I knew that 6:00 a.m. was going to come too soon for them. Plus, I did want them to sleep in a bit and get a good night’s rest. I’m sure I could slip out and in before they even woke up.

The next morning was lovely. I left the kids sleeping peacefully in the hotel room and started down the hill. I traced the route the bus had taken from the City center, only departing once I got down near the creek in the bottom of the valley.

There was a light fog over the landscape. This, plus the utter quiet, made it a perfect morning indeed.

I wound my way through the trees along a creek that I could hear but really couldn’t see until I passed through the old city wall and came to some homes along the canal in the valley.

I also passed under the Grand Duchess Charlotte Bridge, also simply called the “red bridge”. It was far above, barely visible through the fog. The bridge connects the old upper part of the city with the new section, called Kirchberg. This section of the city is notable for containing multiple European Union institutions.

Further along, I came across an elevator that takes you from the bottom of the valley up to the old city. The topography of Luxembourg makes for some wonderful views, but it can make foot travel a bit challenging in places.

I’d not known there was an elevator at this point, but it was more than welcome. I’d been expecting to have to slowly wind my way out of the valley and up to the old city once I discovered a route. This made things far, far easier. It was just a couple more minutes before I strolled past the Badanstalt bus stop where we’d transferred the day before and made my way into the old city.

The old city wasn’t awake yet when I arrived. I spent some time wandering the streets, enjoying the shops beginning to open at the Places d’Armes and the view across the steep valley to the south.

There is a sign on the cultural center (formerly a palace and government building) that commemorates when Allied troops liberated Luxembourg during the Second World War.

Walking back past the cathedral. I grabbed a coffee at one of the only open cafés. It surprised me that the city was so sleepy, but I guess it was a weekend.

I knew it’d be a hike to get to the old city,  but I’d made good time. But taking the bus back made a whole lot more sense than walking. Luckily, the system is super easy to navigate. I ended up jumping on the first bus that would get me close, rather than waiting another 20 minutes for the one that could take me to Rue Jean Engling near the hotel.

I arrived a little over an hour after I’d left. The kids were right where I’d left them, snoozing peacefully. I’d given them clear instructions the night before on what to do if they woke up to me gone (get dressed for the day, don’t answer the door). Turns out those weren’t even needed. So much for getting up early with dad to take a walk! We’d do enough walking that day, so it was definitely better that they’d not been up and out at dawn.  😉

Old Luxembourg

After a nice (and free) breakfast at the hotel, we headed out to enjoy our one full day in Luxembourg. The Old City is the main area of interest, and that is the first place we headed. It was now mid-morning, and the town was a whole lot more alive than when I’d been there earlier. The kids were feeling alive, too, and wanted to play at the…uh…playground. I actually wouldn’t call it that, but other kids were climbing the poles, and, hey, they wanted to join in.

We wandered the streets for a little bit, visiting the Place d’Armes and cathedral first. Luxembourg Cathedral isn’t quite as impressive as others in Europe that I’ve seen, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

The town was waking up a bit more now. People were enjoying breakfast at many of the cafés. It was a very lovely morning. We wandered to the south edge of the town with a view of the Pont Adolphe, eventually making our way to the Luxembourg City Museum, the first real stop on our itinerary that day.

Luxembourg City Museum

I highly recommend the Luxembourg City Museum. The museum costs only €5 and is free for kids. The city-state has a fascinating history, and the museum will give you  great taste of it. The exhibits take you from the founding of the city on its rocky outcropping through to its place in modern Europe.

My daughter happened to meet a young lady busily spinning wool on a spinning wheel in one corner of the museum. They struck up a conversation while my son and I wandered the two rooms nearby. She then protested when we were going to move on. Long story short, I let her hang out with her newfound friend, and she chatted her ear off the entire time. The lady was a Luxembourger-American who had decided to relocate back to the land of her father after growing up in Seattle.

My son and I enjoyed the rest of the museum, moving slowly through the exhibits from floor to floor. The early section has some cool models showing the expansion of the city through the years.

The massive elevator that takes you between floors was a highlight as well. I’ve never seen one so large. They obviously custom-designed it to fill the space.

Near the end, there was a modern model of Luxembourg City. It was very neat to see where we’d already been. I pointed out a few places we’d be headed the during the rest of our visit.

We spent about 1.5 hours at the museum, although you could probably spend more. It’s not all that large, but there is still a good amount to see and read. Our visit concluded, my son and I returned to the first floor to fetch my daughter, who was still happily chatting with her yarn-spinning friend.

The Grund

Exiting the museum, we slowly made our way down to the Grund, the lower section of Luxembourg City along the river. This involved walking a lovely narrow street down toward the casemates. Along the way are some of the best views of the entire city. You can see part of the upper city in the left background, the Grund in the middle foreground down below, and the modern tall buildings in the distance located in Kirchberg.

We arrived at the casemates, a complex of tunnels used a bomb shelters during World War II. You can tour them for a fee, but I decided to pass up this attraction. My son found a piano and decided to give Silent Night (the one song he knows) a go. I did not expect this, given the public setting!

Continuing downward toward the river, we eventually found ourselves winding back to the middle of the Grund, which was directly below us when we started. Even though we could see exactly where we were headed, we probably walked at least three times the distance to get there. I should have paid more attention to the bus schedule, especially considering how reliable the service is and that the kids are free! At least taking the path meant the kids got to stop for a bit and play in the creek.

There was a small open air event going on at the bridge. We bought crepes for lunch from one of the stalls and hung out by the river for a bit. I thought the kids would enjoy a Nutella crepe, but it turns out that combination wasn’t received well. We hung out for a while with the people and vendors, eventually meandering to the other side of the river and waiting at a bus stop to head back to the middle of Luxembourg City. We took a brief joyride on one of the buses to see a bit more of the city before returning to the hotel for the evening.

But wait, there’s day two!

Our full day exploring Luxembourg City may have been over, but we still had a bit of adventure left before we needed to head back to the airport. Day two began with a lazy morning, as we’d done so much walking the day before. After another great (free) breakfast at the hotel restaurant we moseyed on down to the bus stop, just in time to catch the bus to the city center again. But today we caught a different line at Badanstalt this time, however, one that headed out to the edge of town. The point of interest? The Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial.

There are a number of U.S. cemeteries scattered across Europe in which soldiers from both world wars are buried. I figured we should visit the one in Luxembourg, given that we were so close. The cemetery is a 15 minute walk from the last bus stop, down a quiet road. It is in the flight path of the Luxembourg airport, so we got to do some plane spotting on our way there and then on the way back again.

Because our kids are from Costa Rica, they are almost completely unfamiliar with American history, especially history as it relates to the world wars of the twentieth century. I relayed what I could regarding World War II to both of them as we made our way to the front gate of the cemetery.

Overcome by reverence

I knew the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial would command a great respect, but I was not anticipating the level of emotion that I experienced when we walked through the gate.

The cemetery is perfectly maintained. There is a memorial chapel in the middle of the stone terrace. Flanking it on either side are two displays of the names of soldiers who were missing in action during the Second World War along with engravings of military operations.

Many of the soldiers buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial were killed in combat during the Battle of the Bulge, late in the war. It occurred very close to Luxembourg. Down the hillside are row upon row of wooden crosses and Jewish stars for each solider.

At the very top of the hill, closest to the terrace and separate from the other graves is the grave of General George Patton who tragically died just months after the conclusion of the war.

I would highly recommend a visit to the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial if you are an American visiting this tiny country.

Off to CDG!

The hours passed by so quickly. I felt like we’d barely arrived in Luxembourg, even though we’d spend a solid day and a half exploring. We made a final stop at the Palace of the Grand Duke. They have a guard outside who parades back and forth and switches off with the one in the booth.

We also had a photo op with Grand Duchess Charlotte. She was the monarch of Luxembourg during the Second World War, but abdicated in 1965 and was succeeded by her son. The “red bridge” mentioned earlier is named in honor of her.

All too soon we had to head back to the hotel, fetch our bags, and return to the train station. The rest of the day was spent making our way back to Charles de Gaulle airport for our flight back to the U.S. the following morning (SEE: Air France A380 economy review: Paris to San Francisco).

I’d say things went smoothly, but I’d be lying. We had a little incident where I got lost in Metz in our rental car. But that is a story for a different day. Our final night was at the Holiday Inn Express Charles de Gaulle (SEE: Paris Holiday Inn Express CDG Airport Review), which ended up being a great airport hotel pick.

3 Days in Paris: Day 3 – Savoring the City

After dragging ourselves through the exhaustion of our first day in the City of Light (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 1 – Surviving the Jetlag), followed by a very full day of seeing the main sights (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 2 – Hitting the Highlights), some extra sleep was called for to start off our third day.

Once the kids were up and ready, we had breakfast at Aux Péchés Normands for the third time. It was already becoming tradition. The little bakery is a two minute walk from our hotel and offers great pastries, plus fresh coffee and juice. Fueled for the morning, we headed back toward where we’d began our adventures two days ago.

Notre Dame de nouveau

Notre Dame cathedral was both the first and last stop on our first day in the city. We’d enjoyed the view of the famous church from the square in front, returning later to enjoy the view from the towers.

But we’d missed one important piece: seeing the inside of the cathedral. This was what we intended to rectify today.

We arrived at Place Jean-Paul II to what seemed like an enormous line in front of Notre Dame. It extended the length of the square, and then wrapped around back towards the front of the Gothic cathedral. There really wasn’t any alternative to get inside, so we just joined the lengthy queue.

The line moved surprisingly quickly, and we were actually inside in under 10 minutes. The inside of Our Lady of Paris is just as lovely as her exterior. I love wandering around old cathedrals. When my wife and I visited Europe in 2016, we went to cathedrals in Milan, Florence and Dublin.

We didn’t stay especially long, just enough to take in the stained glass and immense feel of the cathedral. From Notre Dame we moved on to the other sights located on the Île de la Cité.

Conciergerie and Saint-Chappelle

A short walk later and we were standing at the entrance to Saint-Chappelle, a beautiful chapel with some of the most impressive stained glass I have ever seen. The chapel isn’t very large, but the ceilings are high and the color is mesmerizing.

Sainte-Chappelle is part of the Palais de la Cité, the residence of the kings of France for centuries. In many ways it is equally as impressive as Notre Dame.

The kids and I enjoyed the stained glass and wandering both the upper and lower levels of Sainte-Chappelle before moving on to the Conciergerie, located just another short walk away.

The Conciergerie is another part of the royal palace on the island in the middle of the Seine, albeit an infamous part of it. It served a number of functions after the French kings moved to the palace across the river, before becoming an infamous part of the French Revolution. Many prisoners were held here before being executed by guillotine, including Marie Antoinette.

I was surprised by how bare the interior is kept. There were a few areas where you could read about the history of the building, but other than that, you just got to wander the bare stone rooms. Bare, that is, except for a flume that is oddly constructed through the space and results in the waterfall you see outside between the towers.

I did my best to relay my limited knowledge of the French Revolution to the kids. They were fascinated by the story of Marie Antoinette, asking again and again why she was killed. The fact that the revolutionaries killed her unjustly, hating her for her wealth and power as one of the French royals, was hard for them to get their minds around.

Even as we left the Conciergerie, the kids continued to ask about Marie Antoinette and what happened during the revolution. I was glad for the moment I could teach them a small nugget of history, right in the place where it happened.

Lazily cruising the Seine

From the Conciergerie we continued our stroll along the Île de la Cité, heading to the dock where one of the river cruise companies operates. Given how much we’d all been on our feet the previous day, I wanted to make sure we broke up our day a bit more with active versus passive activities. I made sure to plan a time where we could just sit and talk and take in Paris. A cruise on the Seine fit the bill perfectly.

The tour company we used was fine, but there is serious room for improvement. Given the price of Paris in general, I was going for cheap. I’m sure there are better companies out there. The main drawback was that the tour guide did little more than point out 8-10 places in very thickly accented English. I caught most of what she said, but the kids hardly understood anything.

But it was still enjoyable to watch the city drift by from the water. The cruise took us from the Île de la Cité to the Eiffel Tower and back again.

We also headed upriver briefly and passed by Notre Dame, which was a highlight from the water.

We also saw (purportedly) the smallest house in Paris.

It was a great way to kill and hour and still enjoy the city. I’d highly recommended adding a Seine cruise as part of your Paris itinerary.

A much needed rest

Even after sitting for an hour, the kids were still tired. Three days of walking and sightseeing was a lot for both of them. It was mid-afternoon, and I still wanted to take them to Champ de Mars that evening to see the Eiffel Tower again and basically saw our goodbyes to Paris.

The best course of action was to regroup at the hotel for a while. The kids spent some time watching cartoons while I closed my eyes and tried not to drift off to sleep. Which was hard. I don’t like taking down time and would rather stay out until I’m completely done for the day. But with the kids, I needed to break it up.

But we had to get moving soon before I just decided to stay put. Dinner. We needed dinner.

Au revoir, Tour Eiffel

We headed out after maybe an hour at the Crowne Plaza Paris Republique, and grabbed some more bread, cheese and lunchmeat at a local store. Dinner was on the cheap yet again. However, we splurged afterwards, buying eclairs at one of the top-rated bakeries in the city. It was the most utterly delectable cream-filled pastry I’d eaten in my entire life.

On our way to the Champ de Mars, I became concerned that we might get rained out. The weather didn’t look promising. Sure enough, as we exited the train station, a light rain was falling. Plenty of other people had umbrellas. We weren’t so prepared. Even living in Humboldt, I cannot remember the last time I used an umbrella out and about.

We decided to just make a go of it. Looking at the clouds, I didn’t expect the rain to get worse, and it certainly wasn’t cold. We would be fine. This turned out to be the right call, as the rain let up within 15 minutes.

We walked along the Champ de Mars, bidding the icon of Paris adieu. Just had to get the perfect photo of these two in front of it. We strolled along slowly, me taking it all in. The kids brought up the fact that I’d made them walk up hundreds of stairs to the top. I have no regrets of my decision.

On the other side of the tower we encountered “the bubble man”. He was in the business of providing enjoyment to at least a dozen kids at a time for a small sum from their parents’ pocket (voluntary, of course). The kids enjoyed jumping and chasing the bubbles immensely. The Eiffel Tower made for the perfect backdrop.

A carousel ride, the perfect Parisian ending

After that we crossed the Seine toward Trocadero once more. This time we weren’t in a hurry, having already accomplished the mission of the evening. The kids asked to ride the carousel, and I figured this was the last chance we’d have. Of course this one picked a plane instead of a horse.

From there we wandered over to a small park maybe 100 yards from the Trocadero fountains. To my surprise, there were a couple families with kids. Young kids. I’m always taken aback by how late Europeans are out each evening. It was definitely late for us. The kids should have already been in bed. But here we were, enjoying the park, as the hour hand crept past 9 o’clock.

We finally got back to the hotel around 10:00, and quickly to bed. We said goodbye to Paris the following day, which was bittersweet. A final visit to Luxembourg Gardens was all we were able to fit in. We’d had a ton of fun. But the adventure would continue in Luxembourg!

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