Like a writhing dragon’s tail, the Great Wall of China snakes its way across China’s northern border. As its name suggests, the Great Wall is an imposing architectural marvel, and it’s often hailed as one of the greatest manmade wonders of the world. The Great Wall of China’s history stretches back more than 2,000 years. Despite its cultural and historic importance, it wasn’t until 1987 that the Great Wall of China was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. But the Great Wall isn’t even a single wall.
Godwyn typically arranges for clients to visit one of four main sections — Badaling (the most accessible for travelers of varying mobility), Mutianyu (extremely popular and well-restored), Simatai (a crumbling, rugged stretch of wall), and Jinshanling (for serious hikers).
Want to discover more Great Wall of China facts and bits of history? Read on for our definitive guide to this world wonder and ancient marvel.
1. Where Is the Great Wall of China?
The Great Wall of China is easily accessible from Beijing, though the massive structure stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east all the way to the city of Jiayuguan, in the country’s northwest. Generally speaking, the Great Wall of China defends the country’s northernmost border. A 2012 archeological survey estimated that the wall (taking into account all the dynasties that had worked on the structure) crosses 15 provinces and extends from Xinjiang, in the northwest, to the border of Korea in the east.
2. How Long Is the Great Wall of China?
If you were to measure all the sections ever built, some reports suggest the Great Wall of China could be a staggering 13,170 miles long. The most popular (and arguably the most beautiful) section was erected during the Ming dynasty, and runs for 5,500 miles between Hushan to the Jiayuguan Pass. Even if you only take into consideration the main-line length (about 2,150 miles) of the wall — not including branches and spurs — it’s still the record-holding longest wall in the world.
For those wondering how tall the Great Wall of China is, the general answer is that the structure’s height varies considerably, from 15 feet all the way to 39 feet. At its widest point, the wall is 32 feet thick.
3. When Was the Great Wall of China Built?
It’s hard to say precisely when the Great Wall of China was built, as so many dynasties and rulers contributed to its construction. Some 20 states and dynasties contributed to the construction of the Great Wall of China over the course of millennia. It’s thought that the first lengths of the wall were built as early as 771 B.C.E., though official work didn’t begin until 220 B.C.E., during the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Most of what remains today — that 5,500-mile stretch — was built during the Ming dynasty (between 1368 and 1644).
4. Why Was the Great Wall of China Built?
Originally built as a wartime defense, the Great Wall of China features many towers and passes. When Emperor Qin Shi Huang first proposed the so-called Long Wall, it was meant to defend the Chinese states against nomadic tribes from the north.
During the Han dynasty, (between 202 B.C.E. and 220 C.E.) the Great Wall was extended to protect the Silk Road trade. The Ming dynasty is known for not only extending the Great Wall, but also repairing and reinforcing existing structures.
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5. How Was the Great Wall of China Built?
Despite its name, the Great Wall is actually a collection of fortifications, some of which run parallel to one another, while others are circular or side walls. There are even portions of the Great Wall that are natural barriers, like rivers or high mountains.
Hundreds of years before any official construction on the Great Wall began, individual Chinese states built fortifications against one another, using mostly earth, wood, and stones. Construction during the Ming dynasty made use of bricks rather than cut stone, which appears largely in the foundation and gateways.
More than a million soldiers, commoners, prisoners, and animals were recruited to help build the wall. Hundreds of thousands of men died while working on the wall, which required them to carry heavy materials on their backs up to the top of the ridgelines. There are rumors that many of the dead were buried in the wall, though to date there’s no hard evidence of this.
Much of the work on the oldest sections of the Great Wall were built by hand, though primitive technology — wheel barrows, ropes, basket-and-pulley systems, and horse- or oxen-drawn carts — was also used.
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6. When Is the Best Time to Visit the Great Wall of China?
The most popular times to visit the Great Wall of China are early May or October — but travelers should expect massive crowds during these periods.
Autumn is arguably one of the most popular and beautiful times to visit the Great Wall of China. Weather is comfortable and dry, and the mountains’ foliage is a kaleidoscopic array of hues.
During the winter, the Great Wall of China is blanketed in snow — and the number of tourists will drop dramatically. Winter is Beijing’s shoulder season, so you will enjoy serious deals and discounts on hotel rooms and tours. If you do make a winter trip, be prepared for a slippery, windy walk, and pack accordingly.
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7. Can You See the Great Wall of China From Space?
Contrary to popular rumor, you can’t see the Great Wall of China from space with the naked eye. As NASA reported, however, photographs taken from the International Space Station under ideal conditions have depicted sections of the wall.
8. How Many People Visit the Great Wall of China?
Every year, more than 10 million people flock to the Great Wall of China, making it one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. The Badaling section sees the most visitors each year. It once received 100,000 visitors in one day.
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9. How to Plan Your Visit
The Great Wall of China is a perfect day trip for travelers based in Beijing. “Most clients do one day at the Great Wall as part of a visit to Beijing,” explained Godwyn. “Typically, we have a day of sightseeing in Beijing — then the second day is an excursion to the wall.”
Pick the part of the wall that best suits your needs and interests. Active, confident hikers should venture to Jinshanling, while families may want to stick with the more accessible Mutianyu section (there’s an unforgettable, five-minute toboggan ride from the top of the eastern end to the bottom).
Check specific fees in advance, but expect to pay around 25 to 65 yuan (under $10) for general admission to the Great Wall.
And don’t rush it. Whether you’re visiting the Great Wall of China on a layover or during a longer trip, we recommend spending at least two or three hours exploring the ancient structure.
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10. Getting to the Great Wall From Beijing
The beautiful Ming dynasty portion of the Great Wall is around 50 miles from Beijing. But getting there can be a bit tricky for travelers making the trek solo.
Visitors sticking with public transportation will first need to get to Dongzhimen Station, where you can take an hour-long express bus ride to Huairou Station. Here, you’ll need to transfer to a bus stopping at the Mutianyu Roundabout.
The Airport Express connects directly from the Beijing Capital International Airport to Dongzhimen Station. Subway lines also transfer to Dongzhimen Station from the Beijing West Railway Station and Beijing South Railway Station.
However, one of the most convenient (and exciting) ways to get there is by taking the train to Badaling Great Wall Railway Station, also known as the world’s deepest and largest underground high-speed railway station, which was completed in 2019. There are more than 10 pairs of high speed trains that travel between Beijing and Badaling Great Wall Railway Station, running from Beijing North Railway Station or Qinghe Railway Station.
Many travel experts recommend skipping the train and opting for a hired car and a guide. They’ll be able to take you to less popular sections of the wall and can help navigate unexpected hiccups, such as road closures. A car is also the best way to maximize your time.
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11. Great Wall of China Tour Groups
For a private, luxury tour of the Great Wall, book an itinerary with Imperial Tours. A Beijing day trip with stops at the Forbidden City and less-touristy sections of the Great Wall also includes fine dining experiences.
If you’d like to hike, but would prefer not to go it alone, consider the four-day Great Wall Hiking Tour with China Odyssey Tours. After a day exploring the highlights of Beijing (Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, etc.) you’ll begin a moderate hike from the Jiankou section to Mutianyu.
Try TravelStore for a personalized trip to the Great Wall of China, which might include a customized Silk Road itinerary with stops in Jiayuguan, a northern Chinese city with restored wall sections and the last fortress of the Great Wall.
Even if you’re only in China for a layover, there’s still plenty of time to see the Great Wall. Every single day, Beijing Layover Tour offers private and small-group tours of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, ranging from four to five hours in length. You’ll be picked up at arrivals by a tour guide, and transferred back to the airport after the trip. These tours start at $50 for a private visit to the wall.
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12. Hiking the Great Wall
One of the most popular hikes along the Great Wall snakes from the Jiankou section to the Ox Horn at Mutianyu. Here, unrestored sections of wall switch back and forth along steep mountain passes. Hikers should expect to spend up to four hours each way.
Another good hike covers the section from Jinshanling to Simatai West — a challenging route that covers four miles each way, and passes a series of watchtowers.
Or, start at the Gubeikou section of the Great Wall in Gubeikou Town — approximately 90 miles northeast of Beijing. From these quiet, never-repaired stretches of wall, visitors will find unobstructed views of the Yan Mountains before they descend to the Jinshanling section.
13. The Great Wall of China Dos and Don’ts
Don’t visit the Great Wall during a holiday. The attraction is popular with tourists, but locals love the site as well. Tomb-Sweeping Day in April, for example, sends claustrophobia-inducing crowds to the country’s most famous sites.
Do consider waiting until the late afternoon to visit the Great Wall, when insiders say many of the early morning and afternoon crowds begin to clear out. Do pack comfortable walking shoes, and plenty of water.
14. The Great Wall Has Faced Erosion Concerns Over the Years
After centuries defending dynasties, China’s Great Wall has begun to crumble. Entire sections of the wall have been swallowed by weather and time — and that’s to say nothing of the many wars and manmade afflictions. Chinese state-run media has reported that nearly one-third of the walls have already disappeared. It’s not just slow-moving erosion wreaking havoc on the wall — the site has also succumbed to earthquakes and torrential storms.
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15. The Best Restaurant Near the Great Wall of China
One of the most popular places to eat near the Great Wall is Commune by the Great Wall — a five-star hotel with a restaurant, Commune Kitchen, that serves Peking duck and other regional Chinese cuisine with a dining room that overlooks the Great Wall.
Generally speaking, however, food near the Great Wall is quite expensive and not particularly notable. Travelers should consider venturing into the nearby towns for affordable, authentic meals — or waiting until they’ve returned to Beijing for a seat at a top table.
16. Laws Protecting the Great Wall
It’s not just the immutable forces of weather and time that have destroyed the Great Wall of China. Alarmingly, 30% of the original structure has disappeared, largely because of mankind’s endless meddling.
In 2006, China passed the Great Wall Protection Ordinance, though the country has struggled to enforce any rules or regulations.
Travelers should note that there are fines for taking bricks or other sections of the wall, and that it’s inadvisable to pay locals for access to less-traveled sections, as this puts even more, unregulated parts of the wall at risk of destruction.
17. Notable Visitors to the Great Wall
In November of 2009, President Barack Obama visited the Great Wall. He famously said the imposing structure puts life in perspective: “Our time here on Earth is not that long, and we better make the best of it.”
President Obama isn’t the only notable world leader or celebrity to visit the Great Wall. Queen Elizabeth II spent time there in the ’80s, while famous athletes like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal have also made visits. Celebrities like Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Jennifer Lawrence have been seen sightseeing at the Great Wall.