Looking for travel tips on what to do in Beijing?
As part of our city guides series, we interviewed Stephen Whale who has lived in Beijing for two years.
Stephen shares with us his insider Beijing travel tips and knowledge on things to do in Beijing for those looking for the best places to see, eat, stay, drink, and explore.
Why visit Beijing?
Beijing is the capital of the most populous nation on earth and home to some of the most iconic tourist attractions.
It’s also a city undergoing tremendous change, so it’s worth visiting soon before the last of the traditional streets and hutongs are bulldozed in the name of progress.
Things to do in Beijing
The big three things to do in Beijing are Tian’an’men Square, the Forbidden Palace, and Temple of Heaven.
These are all reasonably close and can be visited in a long day, ending with a trip to DongHuaMen night market to sample the unusual foods on a stick, such as seahorses and scorpions.
Other Beijing attractions are the ornate but busy Lama (YongHe) Temple or the nearby Confucius Temple that is generally much more serene.
798 Art District is an artist’s haven created in a Bauhaus-designed ex-military factory. It’s peppered with some fine works of art, but it’s worth noting that up and coming artists are rapidly being ousted by rent increases, leaving it mostly inhabited by artists that are more established.
Cheaper and more adventurous art is still being created in Ai Weiwei’s Caochangdi Art District or Songzhuan Artist’s Village.
In the north of Beijing city is the National Stadium, or Birds Nest. Used in the 2008 Olympics this stadium is best visited at dusk, just before the stadium and nearby Water Cube are colorfully illuminated at night.
The adjacent Olympic Forest Park is a good place to catch a break from the crowds and traffic.
For a break from the crowds head west. Haidian district is home to the tranquil Summer Palace (once a holiday home for the imperial family), Fragrant Hills walking trails and the Beijing Botanical Gardens.
Keep an eye out for the CCTV Tower – an angular arch sometimes called ‘The Underpants’ – you’ll know it when you see it!
A couple of warnings: avoid Beijing Zoo – it’s one of the few places in northern China to see Giant Pandas, but the living conditions are terrible.
Take the time to travel to Chengdu and visit the Panda Conservation Base instead. It’s still a bit questionable, but they’re at least helping the species.
Finally, spend any time in Tian’an’men or Wangfujing and it’s inevitable that some friendly students will approach you looking to practice their English.
Chat to them by all means, but don’t accept their invitation for a drink as it turns into an expensive scam.
Likewise, ignore anyone who offers to show you some cut-price works by art students.
Where to eat in Beijing
My specialist subject. The best food outlets in Beijing are often the cheapest and busiest. The high turnover ensures that it’s fresh and usually made to order.
Any street will have bun or dumpling shops where a filling meal can be had for 4-8rmb. For more upmarket soupy dumplings look for the Taiwanese Ding Tai Fung chain.
In the morning keep an eye out for carts selling my favourite, a Jian Bing Chinese pancake.
Half a Peking Duck – the strip on the right is considered the best piece and is reserved for guests. In this picture it
Of course, nearly everyone will want to try Peking Duck.
The most hyped is DaDong, famed for its crispy skin – it’s excellent duck but the side dishes aren’t up to the same standards given the high price.
Most tour groups will visit a brand of Quanjude, but as with DaDong you might notice a distinct lack of Beijingers eating there.
A good compromise is Bianyifan, which has been serving duck since 1416 and is a perfect combination of excellent duck and other dishes.
Beijing is also home to some of the best examples of regional Chinese cuisines. If you’re not travelling further in China take the opportunity to try spicy yet delicate Sichuan hotpot, rich in flavour Yunnan dishes or rustic Xinjiang lamb kebabs.
For a special meal look for Imperial food, as served to the Emperors, but be prepared to pay handsomely. The Beijinger website has a useful directory of English-friendly restaurants.
If you’ve somehow tired of Chinese food, then Sanlitun is home to the majority of foreign restaurants.
The South East Asian food is of particularly high quality, whilst the Italian and American dishes might leave a lot to be desired, and cost many times the price of a Chinese meal.
Where to drink in Beijing
There are two main areas – Sanlitun and the hutongs around HouHai Lake.
In warm weather it’s hard to beat sitting by the lake with a drink, accompanied by the sounds of local musicians.
If it’s a little cooler head to Sanlitun where it’s possible to find everything from grungy music dives to stylish private clubs.
Be wary of suspiciously cheap (10rmb) fake spirits – the headache isn’t worth it – but do try Chivas Regal whisky with green tea.
Best places for a night on the town in Beijing
The most popular evening shows are the Peking Opera, athletic or Kung Fu Shows, or chilling out to live music in HouHai and Nanluoguxiang.
For non-aficionados, the Peking Opera can be a bit much to endure and many people leave at the first interval, so visit Prince Gong’s Mansion near HouHai for a tour of the gardens and a 15-minute opera performance.
Where to stay in Beijing
For sightseers, the area east of the Forbidden City is full of cheap accommodation.
For hostels, there’s the well located YHA Peking International Youth Hostel.
For a budget hotel, friends have enjoyed the modern Hotel Kapok, again right next to the Forbidden ,City.
A couple of blocks east you come to Wangfujing where the high-end hotels are clustered.
The Mandarin Oriental is a personal favourite, and towers over DongHuaMen night market (due to reopen n 2016). Alternatively, look for a family-run traditional courtyard hotel in the same area.
If you’re going to be spending every night in the bars, it would be more convenient to be over by Sanlitun, where you’ll find most of the expats and backpackers hanging out in Bar Street.
For more places to stay in Beijing choose from the largest range of hotels, apartments, and guesthouses with our partner Booking.com.
Markets and Shopping in Beijing
For luxury brands, Wangfujing is the premier shopping street, closely followed by Sanlitun Soho, although be aware there’s a 50% luxury tax on many items so you’re unlikely to find a bargain.
For less authentic goods, try the Pearl Market or Silk Market. Haggling is essential here, but well-made fake clothes, bags, watches and jewellery can be bought very cheaply. The hiking gear looks good, but I wouldn’t want to be wearing it in an emergency.
Cheaper but less English-language friendly is the Zoo Market, opposite Beijing Zoo.
Festivals and events in Beijing
The absolute highlight is Chinese New Year when the city is a cacophony of fireworks for 15 days. It can wear thin after a week of sleepless nights…
The Cherry Blossom festival in YuYuanTan park is beautiful. Alternatively, the annual Lantern Festivals in the city parks provide a source of interesting nights out.
Getting around Beijing
Avoid the pedicabs in Beijing.
The cheapest way to get around Beijing is by subway – the price is fixed at 2rmb (US$0.31) no matter how far you go.
It’s best avoided at rush hour. Many stations have maps in English but it’s worth carrying a subway map round anyway.
The easiest way to get around Beijing is by taxi. Prices start at 10rmb and increase with time and distance, but it’s hard to ever spend over 50rmb.
Note that there’s a 3rmb surcharge after 2km that won’t appear on the meter, so be prepared to pay the extra, but there’s no expectation of tipping. A taxi in from the airport will cost 80-90rmb.
Make sure you have your destination written down in Chinese – hotels can assist with this. To hail a taxi, don’t point – extend your hand with the palm downwards and waggle your fingers.
Whilst the taxis are generally helpful, there are a few unscrupulous drivers so it’s worth watching that the meter goes up evenly, and your change is real.
Stay away from the three-wheeled pedicabs. They’re dangerous and will almost always try to scam passengers, even Chinese.
Walking is an option around the major tourist sites such as Qianmen hutongs, Tian’an’men Square or Wangfujing. Most streets run North-South or East-West, so map reading is straightforward.
Beijing city is very flat but spread out, so if you travel much farther afield you’ll need to find transport – many hostels also offer a bicycle hire service.
In the hutongs, you can give your feet a break by hiring a rickshaw but negotiate a price before getting in.
Finding WiFi in Beijing
It’s very easy to find WiFi, but you should be aware that the government censors many social media web sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Google works most of the time but is a little slow.
Wikipedia is often blocked, but Wikitravel is generally OK.
Internet addicts may wish to invest in a cheap VPN to bypass the blocks if you’re spending a few weeks in China.
If you want to access these while you’re in China, you’ll need to purchase a VPN. You can try a VPN from NordVPN here, which comes highly recommended. (affiliate link)
To find free Wifi you can go to international chains such as Starbucks, McDonalds, etc, or any local coffee shop – Maan is particularly fast. Some of these require a local telephone number to get free access.
There are plans to provide a WiFi cloud over Beijing, but it’s still in development.
Favourite side trip from Beijing
The most famous must be the Great Wall of China. For those with only half a day, Badaling is very close to the city, but can be extremely busy.
For a different experience, it’s also possible to camp overnight there, on top of the Wall.
Slightly further away is Mutianyu – it’s a full day trip and a bit more climbing but you get to see unrestored wall rolling across the hills.
There are plenty of other ‘Wild Wall’ sections to enjoy hiking trails, but be careful as they can be poorly maintained and the emergency services won’t come and find you in the event of an injury.
If there’s time, take a trip to Cuandixia. It’s a village that has barely changed for 600 years. Stay overnight to experience the slower pace of rural village life, coal-heated beds and fresh and delicious locally grown food.
Best time of year to visit Beijing
Definitely the autumn. The winter brings the cold winds from Siberia and the spring breeze carries the dust from the Gobi Desert.
Summer can be very hot, whilst autumn is a much more comfortable temperature and the gentle breeze keeps the pollution at bay.
Avoid travelling during the Chun Yun migration, when half of the cities 20 million inhabitants go home to the countryside for their annual holiday.
Tourist sites are packed, whilst public transport and restaurants are understaffed.
Getting there and away
From Europe, the cheapest is always AeroFlot, but I tend to pay a little extra and use Lufthansa for more comfort and a working entertainment system.
Travelling to the US, American Airlines or Delta are cheapest, but I prefer Air China for the on-board dim sum.
If heading south to New Zealand or Australia, domestic flights in China can be very cheap, so it’s sometimes an option to fly via Shenzhen or Guangzhou and continue from there on an international ticket.
The next best option is trains. They’re very cheap, but the distances involved can take multiple days to cover. This is improving rapidly as China introduces high-speed rail services across the country.
View over the Forbidden City from JingShan Park. There
Best Beijing insiders tip
For the adventurous, try XiFengKou, some way north of Beijing, where it’s possible to dive down to where the wall has been submerged in a reservoir.
Head to parks early to see people practicing Tai-Chi, or late to see them ballroom dancing. Feel free to join in!
Many toilets in Beijing are the traditional squat style. Give them a try, or you can find western style toilets in the lobbies of large hotels or international chains such as McDonalds and Starbucks (but not KFC!).
Look for the stall marked Disabled, Old Man or even Maimed/Crippled.
My favourite tip isn’t that obscure, but after visiting the Forbidden City head to JingShan Park across the road. As one of the only hills in the city, it gives an uninterrupted 360-degree panorama.
After all this walking around, try a foot massage. US$10 will get you two hours of pampering, including healthy snacks and fruit juices.
I love Beijing because…
There’s a lot not to love – the pollution can be terrible, the crowds overwhelming and the traffic deadly, but once you cut through all of that and get on the streets the variety is amazing.
Everywhere you look you can find the blurring of borders between East & West, new & old, traditional and contemporary.
Walk through the quieter areas and every corner has an adventure, a friendly face or simply something very strange going on.
There aren’t enough capital cities where you don’t bat an eyelid when you see someone in their pyjamas singing opera and walking backwards with their pet bird to an alfresco tea dance.
More posts about China:
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BIO: After leaving work in 2006, and travelling round over 80 countries, Steve has based himself in Beijing. Follow his blog and ask any questions you may have at You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?