What does Beijing bring to anyone’s mind? A city overflowing with millions of people? The 2008 Olympics? Pollution? And heaven forbid… no access to Facebook?
The Chinese capital is so much more than that. We have to admit that we came here with preconceptions but soon we discovered another world, a huge city with its perfectly preserved monuments or modern architecture in a constant huge change.
It will amaze you.
Beijing was the first stop in our China tour and we had three days to discover this amazing city. So, we will share with you some insider travel tips on things to do in Beijing, like the best places to see and explore.
Why visit Beijing
Really?! Are you still questioning why you should visit China’s pulsating capital – a city of imperial history, abundant restaurants, leafy parks and tea rituals?
When to visit Beijing
Beijing has attractions that can be visited all year round, so there’s no bad time to go. However, summer can be stiflingly hot and the air pollution also worsens as the heat rises, so try a spring or fall vacation to enjoy the sights at their best. However, a June break could be ideal.
The Chinese capital has for many years suffered from serious air pollution. Primary sources of pollutants include exhaust emission from Beijing’s more than five million motor vehicles, coal burning in neighboring regions, dust storms from the north and local construction dust.
A particularly severe smog suffocated the city for weeks in early 2013, elevating public awareness to unprecedented levels and prompting the government to roll out emergency measures. The problem isn’t solved yet but there are days and days.
How to get to Beijing
With most visitors arriving by plane in Beijing, there are few option to reach the city center:
The Airport Express Line of the Subway serves the airport from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 and then takes passengers to Dongzhimen via Sanyuanqiao. This line was opened just prior to the 2008 Summer Olympics. It carries passengers to the airport in twenty minutes from the city center, covering a distance of 28 kilometers.
Airport shuttle buses
Currently, there are nine different shuttle bus routes connecting the airport with various locations in the city center.
Official taxi stands outside Terminal 1 and 3. Expect a taxi to the city center to cost around 90RMB.
Beijing has many railway stations. Most trains arrive at the Central, West, South or North stations. If you are traveling to Beijing from Hong Kong or Shanghai, taking the train is a wonderful way to make the journey.
China’s rail network is modern and reliable and the experience of traveling with a high speed trains unforgettable.
- By bus
Long-distance buses from areas as far as Shanghai and the Mongolian border connect to Beijing, which has over 20 long-distance bus stations, but what you need to do is go to the bus station located on the edge of the city in the direction you want to travel. Keep in mind that will be a looooong ride.
Before going anywhere around the city, have the names of places you want to visit written in Chinese characters. The staff at your hotel should help you and take their card to help you get back. Obtain as much detail as possible.
You can’t walk all over Beijing, let’s face it, but while walking in Beijing pay attention when crossing the road, assume that none of the road users will give way to you, even if a policeman is present. Use zebra crossings but pay attention that even here most drivers won’t stop. Stay always alert!
Should you find several cars and bicycles veering towards you from different directions, do not try to run to safety; instead, stand still, they will by-pass you.
- By subway
Beijing Subway is a great way to quickly get around the city and is clearly marked in English for travelers. For budget travelers, it may serve as a better mode of transport than taxis. At 3-9 RMB per trip based on distance, it is perhaps the nicest and cheapest transportation in Beijing. The network has expanded at a furious pace in recent years, with 17 lines currently operating and new lines under construction or planned.
- By bus
Beijing’s bus system is cheap, convenient and covers the entire city—perfect for locals but, difficult to use if you do not understand Chinese or Mandarin. The bus staffs don’t speak English and the stop signs are also entirely in Chinese. Unless you speak Mandarin or have a healthy sense of adventure, a bus can get you almost anywhere, and often somewhere that you never intended to go
- By taxi
Taxis are a convenient choice when traveling as a group except for the rush hours. Nearly none of the drivers speak English or recognize place names written in English, so it pays to have the Chinese characters for the location ready in advance or even an offline map. Few times it happened that the driver didn’t know where to take us.
- By bike
Once known as a nation of bicycles, China today has an ever growing number of private car owners. It is estimated 1,200 more cars hit the streets in Beijing every day. As a result, nowadays you are guaranteed to see more bikes in the Netherlands than in Beijing. However, the infrastructure from its days as the capital of the “Bicycle Kingdom” means exploring Beijing on a bike is excellent. The city is flat as a pancake and all major streets have bike lanes. Bicycling can be faster than traveling by private or public transport because of the traffic congestion in the motorized traffic lanes if you feel brave enough.
- By car
Driving in Beijing can be challenging, with regular traffic jams and often erratic drivers, coupled with the need to obtain a provisional Chinese driver’s license when you arrive.
Where to Stay in Beijing
The cheapest places to stay in Beijing come in the form of guesthouses or hostels and they can be found all over the city.
If you are not into hostels than you can choose Airbnb which have become increasingly popular in China and can offer an insider look at Beijing life. Hosts sometimes throw in the use of a free bike too. The downside of this is the language barrier. It will be difficult to get along with the owners.
Popular Neighborhoods in Beijing
Dongcheng – covering the eastern half of Beijing’s downtown area, it is the main tourist neighborhood. It’s home to world-famous attractions like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, restaurant districts and the many beautiful Buddhist temples.
Xicheng – the western portion of Beijing’s center, it is almost as appealing for tourists. It’s more of a cultural quarter, hosting the People’s Theater, the Beijing Youth Palace, and the National Center for the Performing Arts.
Chaoyang – where most business gets done in Beijing, it is a busy neighborhood that hosted the 2008 Olympics. Aside from the Olympic Village, highlights include the 798 Art Zone, the superb shopping opportunities in Sanlitun, and the iconic CCTV Building.
But you can stay anywhere in Beijing, with a huge metro network it will be easy to reach everywhere.
Beijing on the budget
Hmm not anymore.
In 2014 China became the biggest economy in the world surpassing US‘s economy. It means that it is no longer on the budget destination, in fact, it is in the top 20 of most expensive cities in the world.
We expected at least the cost of food to be low, it was not the case.
What to do in Beijing
- Forbidden City
Forbidden City is at the heart of Beijing. You will discover a vast ensemble of ancient buildings, all miraculously well preserved.
- Tiananmen Square
Feel the weight of history with a visit to the square, where the “Tank Man” famously stood in front of a column of tanks the day after the massacre. And don’t miss the National Museum and the Center for the Performing Arts.
- Great Wall
The wonder of wonders – the Great Wall of China is on everyone’s bucket list, and it remains a timeless must-see for visitors to Beijing. Take the day trip north to visit this incredible monument. See the wall snaking through the incredible hillsides for yourself, climb the steps and march through history.
- Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven, founded in the first half of the 15th century, is an amazing complex of fine cult buildings set in gardens and surrounded by historic pine woods. In its overall layout and that of its individual buildings, it symbolizes the relationship between earth and heaven, which stands at the heart of Chinese cosmogony. The Temple of Heaven is considered the holiest of Beijing’s imperial temples. It has been described as “a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design”.
China’s largest royal park was the setting for this gorgeous summer residence of the emperor. Every inch is luxurious and has well-maintained landscape following the norms of traditional Chinese horticulture. Walk through the lush park to find the most exceptional viewpoints.
Beijing is famous for its Hutongs, small traditional residences built around a small courtyard. Hutongs have a distinct ‘look’ with grey bricks and red artwork and loads of shops, restaurants and bars to keep locals and visitors entertained. Explore the city’s Hutongs by bike and try not to get lost in the maze-like alleyways filled with local people going about their daily business
It is the world’s largest steel structure and the most complex stadium ever constructed. It is “one of the key engineering marvels in the world today.” It was constructed for Olympic Games of 2008. A walk in the Olympic village and to the stadium it is a must while in Beijing.
- Beijing Opera
Beijing Opera has played an important role in the locals’ entertainment for centuries. It combines opera, dancing, music, art and literature together, showing you a complete picture of the arts of China. If you are interested in the mystery of oriental culture, enjoying the traditional folk opera is a must for you.
- Try a ceremony of the tea in a Tea-house
China is a country with a strong culture relating to tea and Chinese Tea has gained a high reputation around the world. Now, there are about 170 tea-houses in this city, which can be divided into three kinds: traditional tea-house, modern tea-house (characterized by Oolong) and special feature tea-house (with unique style and decoration). The traditional one is the preference for the visitors who are interested in the strong local culture.
- Temples of Beijing
Beijing has some spectacular temples such as the world-famous Temple of Heaven and the colorful Lama Temple.
However, there are 100s of lesser-known temples scattered throughout the city, which are often oases of peace and quiet away from the busy streets of the Chinese capital.
- Night market in Beijing
Local snacks are a special feature of Beijing. Tourists can taste not only the local flavors but those of other regions as well. Snack-stalls in the night markets is always popular and busy destinations. In most night markets, you can taste ubiquitous dumplings in every form imaginable, plus spring rolls, crab cakes, lamb, beef, and chicken skewers, quail eggs, candied fruit, various seafood, fried pancakes, and an assortment of cheeses. The street vendors of the night markets seem to take immense joy in enticing foreigners to try such delicacies as deep-fried scorpions, snake skewers, various types of deep-fried crickets, sheep’s testicles, silkworms, spiders, and anything else you can barely recognize, available deep fried on a stick. It’s not perhaps the most alluring offer for us, but swallowing some creepy crawlies can make for one entertaining night.
What to eat in Beijing
Chinese like to eat out and there are restaurants on every corner. Most Chinese restaurants have a huge menu with hundreds of items from different Chinese cuisines. If there is no English or “picture” menu and you want to try a specific dish that you read about, bring your source and show the waiter the name of the dish in characters. You can also look around at the other tables and see what appeals to you and order by pointing. Lastly, I recently came across an iPhone App named Waygo that translates menu items from characters into English.
So below you can find few of the Beijing specialties:
Beijing Roast Duck
Beijing roast duck or Peking Duck is the epitome of Beijing cuisine and if you had to choose just one dish to try whilst in the capital, this would be it. The dish is most esteemed for the thin, crispy skin, with authentic versions of the dish serving mostly skin and little meat. Whilst sauces and accompaniments will vary between restaurants (the most common being scallion and cucumber) it is difficult to go wrong with roast duck in Beijing.
A lot of restaurants offering this dish will carve the duck beside your table
There is a lot of myth and mystery surrounding the history of this dish. Whilst they are popular throughout Asia, a plate of dumplings with a soy sauce, vinegar and chili dip is synonymous with Northern Chinese cuisine.
Traditional recipes contain minced pork, ginger and leek, however, you can find restaurants that offer all types of different meat and vegetable fillings.
Shredded Pork in Beijing Sauce
It is another dish incredibly popular with local ‘Beijingers’ and unlike many of the cities other popular dishes, it originated in the capital. It’s popularity may stem from its simplicity; sliced pork cooked in a sweet bean sauce served with soybean wraps.
Although it doesn’t look like the most appealing meal, once you have tried the first wrap you will understand why it is so widely enjoyed.
The literal translation of this dish ‘dry pot potato slices’ offers diners a fairly accurate idea of what to expect. Slices of potato, crispy pork and chilies simmer in an iron pot sat atop an open flame. As you are working your way through the meat and potatoes, the bed of sliced onions that is hidden underneath slowly caramelizes in oil, leaving you with a delicious snack to finish your meal on.
It is a dish best enjoyed during the colder months but is popular with locals all year round.
Noodles with Soybean Paste — Zhajiang mian
Zhajiang mian is very popular when it comes to traditional Beijing cuisine. It has three main ingredients: wide hand-pulled noodles, vegetable pieces, and pork. Vegetables vary seasonally, but there are never less than seven kinds. It is an ideal lunchtime snack for visitors short on time as it is usually ready seconds after you order. As an added bonus it is very inexpensive.
Mongolian hotpot a dish that’s history dates back over 1,000 years, is as much about the enjoyment of the cooking as it is the taste. At traditional hotpot restaurants, diners will sit around a large pot of boiling soup, in which they cook their own food. Whilst Mongolian hotpot usually involves a large amount of lamb, any number of meats, vegetables and breads are available. These are sliced thin to ensure they cook quickly and evenly.
Need a break from all the Chinese food? American fast-food chains such as McDonald, KFC, Pizza Hut, are ubiquitous. The service staff rarely speaks English but often pulls out a picture menu with English names from behind the counter to make the ordering process easier for the occasional foreigner stumbling into their store.
Tipping is not common or expected in China, not even rounding up the bill a little.
Beijing is a safe city due to the massive police presence and camera surveillance. Inside the 4th ring of Beijing (the city proper), physical crime is almost non-existent.
Worry less about criminals and worry more about crossing the street. Statistically speaking, the biggest risk to your personal safety while traveling in China is Chinese traffic.