Wondering What to Do in Beijing, China? Read on

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, China 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.

what to do in beijing
Stick to the left or right paths through the Forbidden Palace to avoid the crowds

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.

what to do in beijing
Birds nest Olympic Stadium

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!

What to do in beijing
Temple of Heaven

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.

what to do in beijing
Insects at DongHuaMen Night Market

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.

what to do in beijing
YuYuanTan Cherry Blossoms

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:

Planning a Trip to Beijing

We’ve been traveling 20  years and have come to rely on a few trusted websites that save us money and time when booking accommodation, flights, and car rental. Below are our preferred partners. If you book through these links, we do receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. It helps us continue to provide inspiring and helpful travel content for free on this site.

Accommodation in Beijing

  • Booking.com has 1,000+ properties in Beijing including hotels, apartments, and guesthouses. You get free cancelation on most rooms and a best price guarantee.

Flights to Beijing

  • Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees).

Tours in Beijing 

Pin This to Share on Pinterest:

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?

Do you have any tips on what to do in Beijing? Please share in the comments below.

35 thoughts on “Wondering What to Do in Beijing, China? Read on”

  1. Beautiful article. Very specific and accurate. You had me at DaDong. Ducks are delicious! Also, thank you for warning us about the Beijing zoo. I’ve always wanted to see pandas but not when they’re looking sad and uncared for.

  2. Great post! I have a friend touring through Beijing right now – I think I’ll pass this on to him!
    It’s funny, you’re the second person to recently speak of the 798 Art Exhibit – up until then I’d never heard of it.

    1. Hi Margyle – 798 is great to visit. If they’re there right now there’s a series of laid back Summer music festivals and afterparties on at 798 in the evenings – check TheBeijinger.com for details.

  3. Houston Siding

    Beijing is a very nice place.. I will be going there when vacation comes. Thank you for posting this. Now i have knowledge on where to go once I’m there.

    Get More

  4. Just wanted to thank you for a great blog you gave some very helpful tips that we have written down before we leave next week. Thanks heaps. Fiona from Australia xo

  5. Lovely article, very useful for me. I has been to China a few years ago on business trip. However, i think that there are too many interesting destinations that i missed out last time. Your article help me a lot in preparation. Thank you.

  6. full day tour in bali

    Beijing can not be forgotten, a place full of historical value, and the food makes me want to go back there again

  7. Since watching the olympics a few years back happen here I have always wanted to see the birds nest. I do think it is a lovely design and would love to experience it first hand

  8. Really a great article – I wished I had something like this when I visited Beijing back in 2009. Not to many people mention the 798 Art Exhibit area, as a art lover and designer I highly recommend visiting the area, it is a wonderful way to connect with contemporary culture in China.

  9. Just returned from Beijing. Agree w/ your comments but most in our group were surprised buy how expensive it was & unfortunately ran into a lot of the art student scammers & went to spa for foot massage & got up-charged for salts they put in water, when we didn’t ask for it, overall most felt the marketers tried to cheat them w/ giving wrong change, saying they had no smaller bills ect. Also, squat toilets at mcdonalds. Loved the Great Wall !

  10. This is really a good travel post of Beijing Tour… It is the first time I visit your blog, but I was extremely impressed. Keep posting as I am gonna come to read it everyday!

  11. Is there anywhere I can hook up with other couples and singles to make tour reservations. If you have 2 ,such as my friend and I the tours are $3-4 Hundred but if you have 5 it’s usually less than $100/ea.

  12. Hi Guys,

    Awesome article, very informative! I’ve placed a link for it on my website to provide my readers with the best information possible, I hope you don’t mind.

    Love,
    Angelina DiGiovanni

  13. My daughter is head to China for her senior project. She has a peanut tree but allergy. What do you recommend for foods to avoid? She will have a translator with her but still I have a bit of concern. I read that water is not drinkable. Tips on how to stay hydrated would be appreciated.
    They will be traveling to China-Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai
    They are not visiting the countryside .
    Can you suggest apps to use to keep in touch with us?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

4 Powerful Ways to Travel More & Create Better Memories

Want to know how we've made a lifetime of travel for 22 years?

This is what gives us incredible memories to share around the campfire. Join our community for insider tips and updates!

Please enter your name.
Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.
Scroll to Top