It’s best to set aside a whole day to see the Great Wall. It’s workable in half a day if you go to the sections that are nearest to downtown Beijing, but once you get there, you’ll probably want to stay as long as physically possible, just to soak up the scenery and exhilaration of actually being there. Set off as early as you can and take snacks in case you’re caught short and need refueling at the Wall. There are snack vendors and restaurants to varying degrees of plenty, depending on which part of the Wall you visit, but it’s best to come prepared.
Public transportation is your best option, with comfortable and reliable buses traveling regularly from downtown Beijing to the various sections of the Wall. Bus travel is cheap, too, with most trips costing under ¥15 each way. The only problem is keeping to the timetables, which can sometimes be restrictive. If money isn’t an issue, a taxi is a convenient choice and allows you more flexibility.
Taxis can be hailed from the street in downtown Beijing to take you to the Wall, but it’s a better idea to get your hotel or hostel to book one for you: Explain to the driver where you want to go and whether you want him or her to wait for you while you tour the wall. It’s a good idea to get the driver to wait, as you won’t have to worry about finding another taxi when you’re ready to head back.
Visiting the Wall on an organized tour is another option and one that is logistically easier than going it alone. If you don’t speak Mandarin or read Chinese, it can be a challenge to navigate public transportation. However, if you do go on an organized trip, be aware that companies will invariably take you to some sort of shopping emporium, be it a jade market or calligraphy gallery, and encourage you to buy souvenirs at inflated prices. You’ll usually be limited to whichever restaurant they are getting commission from, too.
Most hotels and hostels organize tours, but if you want to book one yourself, a reputable tour company that eschews commission-based detours is Great Wall Hiking (139/1136-1359, www.greatwallhiking.com ). They offer walks at Jinshanling , Mutianyu , Huangyahuan, Gubeikou, and Jiankou and provide pick-ups and drop-offs at your hotel in Beijing. One-day tours start at around ¥500 and a two-day hike with an overnight stop on the Wall starts at around ¥1,300.
Another reputable company is Great Wall Adventure (138/1154-5162, www.greatwalladventure.com ). Established in 1992 and now run by a Canadian company, it offers short and long hikes on the Wall at Jinshanling, Gubeikou, Mutianyu, and Jiankou as well as overnight trips (travelers make camp in watchtowers). Most day hikes cost under ¥500.
Beware of tour solicitors recruiting business in downtown Beijing: There have been situations where such people are running scams. Only book your trip with a reputable agency that can be verified online or over the phone.
The Beijing Hub of Tour Dispatch (10/6601-5622 or 10/5298-0138) was set up by the government in 2005 to replace the old tourist bus system. It runs routes to various parts of the Wall, some include lunch and entry tickets. The service runs to Badaling  daily, and to Mutianyu  and Huanghuacheng  only on weekends April 7-October 15. (Note: When the Simatai  approach was open, it was a part of the weekend service. It is presumed that upon reopening, the same schedule will be resumed.)
The Hub’s official website is exclusively in Chinese and difficult to navigate, but BeijingTrip.com offers timetables and other helpful information at www.beijingtrip.com/transport/sightseeing-bus.htm .
Staying overnight at the Great Wall is a good idea only if you are interested in longer hikes. Otherwise, seeing the Wall in a morning or a day is more sensible, since the hotel options are limited. Many cater only to Chinese guests, lacking the license that would allow them to accept foreigners. Notable exceptions include the Schoolhouse at Mutianyu —a series of private guesthouses arranged around a central venue in Mutianyu Village—and the luxury Commune at the Great Wall near Badaling .
Winter temperatures on the Great Wall can dip well below freezing. This part of North China is known for its biting winds and chilly frosts. Since the Wall is particularly high and exposed, you will need to bring warm, well-insulated clothing if you plan to visit during the colder months. Even if the weather in downtown Beijing seems temperate, it’s likely that it will be several degrees colder (and certainly windier) on the Wall. Layer up with thermal underwear, short- and long-sleeve T-shirts, fleece jackets, and windbreakers, and don’t forget a warm hat, scarf, and gloves.
If it’s raining when you visit the Wall, be extra careful, as the stone gets slippery. Sturdy shoes with good traction are recommended whatever the season. If it’s raining on the day you plan to visit the Wall, consider postponing your trip.
In sharp contrast to the chills of winter, summer on the Wall is blisteringly hot, with little protection from the sun. The hottest months are July and August, but June and September can get uncomfortably warm too. Make sure you take brimmed hats, shades, sunscreen, and plenty of fluids. (Water and other drinks are widely available on the Wall, especially at Badaling  and Mutianyu , but vendors often inflate prices.)
Veering off the beaten path can be fun, but it’s unwise to try to climb off the Wall outside of the designated areas. With unstable rocks and boulders, the terrain can be dangerous and if you get into trouble in remote areas, it can be impossible to get help. When it comes to conservation, don’t take stones from the Wall as souvenirs and respect the landscape by not throwing litter.
Beware of vendors pushing you to buy overpriced postcards and souvenirs: They can be very persistent, so make it clear right away that you’re not interested by saying “Bu yao.”