Where to Go:
The Great Wall of China isn't one long wall, as many imagine. You can't see it from space--the reason being that it isn't continuous, it's dozens upon dozens of smaller sections where the natural landscape doesn't already act as a barrier. Some sections are in the desert, some in the mountains. And they all look, and were constructed, differently.
The Great Wall of China — Photo courtesy of Keith Roper
You can consider Mutianyu, Simatai or Badaling as three of the more popular and easy to access sections of the wall a mere day trip outside Beijing. Badaling is the closest and thus the busiest. It's 45 minutes north of the city and easy to reach by public bus for less than 12rmb.
Mutianyu is next, about an hour and a half away from town. Finally, Simatai was recently restored and offers a whole new range of peaks from which to view the wall. But the cost is higher and it's even further away from the capital.
Not all sections were created equally. Badaling is full of tourist traps like T-shirt stands and hawkers of corn on the cob. Mutianyu has a cable car and loads of hawkers. Simatai has newer, restored walls but less authenticity. Consider what you want to get out of seeing the wall before you book a trip.
What Else to See:
The Ming Tombs, located not far from the Great Wall, are an impressive site. They house some of the important men and women of China's imperial history, including several emperors and their families. Located 31 miles north of the city, the Ming Tombs are most usually combined with packaged tours to Badaling.
That means you'll hit the most tourist-friendly section of the wall combined with the highly touristy site of the tombs. Creepy, dank and a bit run down, the tombs haven't been getting good reviews lately, but they are scheduled for a revamp in coming years.
Ming Tombs — Photo courtesy of preston.rhea
When to Go:
The Great Wall is really great, by which we mean it's massive. If you don't like losing half your body weight in sweat, consider climbing the wall when it isn't summer. Spring and fall are nice, and even the most popular sections of the wall are packed year-round with the exception of snowy winter days.
We've climbed the wall in winter. It's cold, solitary and downright creepy-- but that's what the wall was meant to be when it was constructed! Winter is one of the best times to see the wall as you'll avoid the crowds and get cleaner, more crisp pictures.
What to Avoid:
Avoid anyone offering a Great Wall tour that costs more than 200rmb. You can get to all sections of the wall on your own for around $5 USD using public transportation. The entry fee to the wall isn't much, and the same goes for the tombs. Packaged tours are overpriced in China and often come with some midway scam stop at a jade factory. It's best to do a bit of research and make the trip on your own.