China stands proudly as one of the world’s biggest superpowers, so it’s only appropriate that its capital should boast the development, history and culture that has made this nation great. A unique nation which stands alone with its incredibly powerful and influential culture that has seeped into every corner of the Earth. There is no greater overall representation of this amazing country than its equally magnificent capital of Beijing.
As travelling is concerned, Beijing would have to be considered one of the best possible cities to explore. The number of sites and opportunities to delve into a completely unfamiliar culture is abundant. All of which are scattered in between the snug blanket of concrete development. China has realised the potential in tourist dollars as well as the local Beijingers know how to relax and take advantage of big city life.
Table of Contents
The Geography of Beijing
First off, you must get to grips with the gargantuan size of Beijing. It’s easy to forget that the city is home to more than 24 million people (more than the entire population of Australia). This extraordinary number of people are jammed into an area not much bigger than Singapore or Jamaica.
Such size should exacerbate the common problem with big cities; travelling from A to B within the city can eat up a lot of time. However, Beijing’s extensive transport system has attempted to make it as easy as possible to travel anywhere within the city.
Beijing itself is enormous, and the city outstretches far and wide out of the city centre. The city has been helpfully divided into separate districts, each with its own unique flavour and identity. Each district will have something to appeal to travellers and expats of all mindsets that find themselves in Beijing.
The Districts of Beijing
Making up one-half of the city centre, Dongcheng (East City) arguably would be the most important district for travellers, as it’s where you’ll find the best representation of Beijing’s extraordinary past and incredible culture with the best historical sites of significance in the city nestled closely together.
The highlights would include Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City AND the Lama Temple. Here you’ll also find the infamous bug market in Wangfujing. This rich area also holds the arrow straight tourist-packed shopping street of Nanluoguxian, cutting a bright light through the network of hutongs.
Xicheng (West City) boasts a more natural influence as the city’s concrete curtain is broken by a series of lakes and parks that wind their way through the city. Some beautiful examples can be found around Shichahai, with one of the best being Beihai Park which towers across the district.
The eloquent banks of these lakes are lined with endless rows of restaurants, bars and cafes. No other lake looks more beautiful at night than the lakes of Houhai, making this district one of the most attractive. This district also holds the best examples of the authentic traditional hutongs which define local life with their winding hedge mazes between the busy Beijing streets.
Some might regard the Eastern district of Chaoyang to be the true heart of the city. This district would have to be considered the most cosmopolitan district within Beijing. As this lone district has a higher population than the entire nation of Wales, it’s easy to see why such a high rate of foreigners find themselves along these streets.
This would also be regarded as Beijing’s diplomatic area, as practically every foreign embassy is found here. Numerous amounts of international companies set up camp here, and with that comes the influx of international schools, Western restaurants/bars and monumental malls. The best example of this is found in the streets of Sanlitun, which would have to be considered Beijing’s party central. This district is so vast it incorporates Beijing Capital Airport and the 798 Art District.
To the North-West you’ll find the equally enormous (but perhaps less equipped) district of Haidian. This district also exhibits a decent amount of history and a fair amount of natural beauty preserved in its parks. However, these days Haidian and particularly the suburb of Wudaokou has widely become known as the student district. The majority of Beijing’s top universities and their accompanying students are found in this area. This results in an enormous population of youngsters and a very high rate of foreign students. As a result, there’s a decent number of restaurants and bars to fill their needs
What is There to See in Beijing?
The Forbidden City
For over 500 years, the nation of China was ruled by one of the most mysterious and awe-inspiring fortresses the world has ever seen. It was a place where no outsider could ever enter and thus was appropriately named the Forbidden City. In total, 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties once ruled from these walls, the common people are finally free to explore the monstrous palace complex.
As well as being the best-preserved imperial palace in China, the Forbidden City is also the largest palace complex in the world. Following the removal of China’s last emperor, the 72-hectare large palace turned into a public museum in 1925 and has become one of the most visited attractions in the world.
Not only is the UNESCO World Heritage site an immense architectural masterpiece, but also a treasury housing a unique collection of 1.8 million art pieces such as ancient paintings, imperial artefacts and ancient texts. These relics are divided between the different halves of the palace; the Inner and Outer Courts. The latter was used to handle state affairs whilst the former functioned as the living quarters of the emperor.
The Great Wall (Badaling)
If you think of China, you think of the Great Wall! There’s no image more iconic than those of the wall snaking its way across monstrous mountain ranges. You’re able to visit the wall at many different points, some of which are still within the municipality of Beijing.
Due to its restoration, and its proximity to Beijing’s centre, Badaling has become the most visited point of the wall. Its close proximity and the extraordinary views of the perfectly reconstructed wall make it the perfect spot for a day trip! Though that does mean that this section of the wall can get pretty crowded!
Don’t let the crowds put you off! As soon as you follow the wall in either direction, you’ll soon lose the crowds and enjoy your own private experience. If you’re not the hiking type, then not to worry, you could always take the cable car! And for a unique way down the wall, why not take a rollercoaster?
The ultimate guide on how to get the best out of your visit to the most popular section of the Great Wall.
Located right at the centre of Beijing is yet another iconic image recognised throughout the world, Tiananmen Square! The largest of its kind in the world, it dwarfs the likes of Moscow’s Red Square or Times Square in New York!
Placed directly in front of the Forbidden City, it acted as an entranceway to the palace and a place for the common people to gather to find out who would become the new emperor. The square is also surrounded on all sides by other fascinating landmarks such as the National Museum of China, the Great Hall of the People, Zhengyangmen Gate and the Monument to the People’s Heroes right in the centre.
Every morning, eager crowds gather at the end of the square to watch the daily flag-raising ceremony. Possibly the most significant landmark of all, particularly for locals, is the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao Zedong. Inside the hall lays the body of the national hero in a crystal coffin surrounded by fresh bouquets of flowers.
The Summer Palace
If you thought that the Forbidden City was the only palace in Beijing, you’d be mistaken! At the North-Western edge of the city, you’ll find the enormous grounds of what many believe to be the most picturesque of highlights Beijing has to offer, the Summer Palace.
The palace is the largest and the best-preserved imperial garden in the world. The gardens have had great influences on Chinese horticulture and landscapes, which has earned the palace the reputation of being ‘The Museum of Royal Gardens‘.
Within the enormous grounds are over 3,000 man-made ancient structures, including pavilions, towers and bridges. Easily the most impressive and spectacular of them all is the Tower of Buddhist Incense. The immaculately designed pagoda taken straight out of Bruce Lee’s Game of Death dominates the view across the entire palace.
The other big highlight is of course Kunming Lake itself which also has plenty of treats scattered around the shoreline. One of the most striking has to be the Seventeen Arch Bridge that leads across to the islet of South Lake Island. If walking doesn’t take your fancy, then you could always take a dragon boat across the lake!
The ultimate guide to the excessive luxury and beautiful grounds of the mighty Imperial vacation home; the Summer Palace
Temple of Heaven
Considered the holiest of all Beijing’s temples, the Temple of Heaven functioned as the royal altar where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties held the Heaven Worship Ceremony. As yet another of the iconic highlights in Beijing, the temple was opened to the public to showcase its ancient philosophy, history and religious significance.
Not only is it a masterpiece of architectural design, but the parks surrounding the temple are also a popular spot amongst locals! Groups of the older generation regularly gather to practise tai chi, play chess and even dance!
The Ming Tombs
Yet another one of the iconic highlights in Beijing is the Ming Tombs, where the 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty were laid to rest. The UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site is by far the best-preserved mausoleum and you won’t find a bigger collection of emperors anywhere else!
Located 30 miles northwest of Beijing’s centre at the foot of Tianshou Mountain, each mausoleum is spread up to 5 miles apart in its own independent unit. Each site has been carefully designed to reflect the philosophy of ‘the unity of heaven and humanity‘ by paying attention to the area’s harmony with nature.
Though there are a total of 13 mausoleums in the area, at present, only 3 are open to the public; Changling Tomb, Dingling Tomb and Zhaoling Tomb. Visitors can also walk down the Sacred Way, which was used as the ceremonial entrance to the cemetery complex.
Everything you need to know about visiting the mausoleum of the emperors of the once mighty dynasty and cultural icon: The Ming Tombs
Yonghegong (Lama) Temple
Though Beijing has plenty of other temples to choose from, few are more significant and as awe-inspiring as this one! Located at the northeast corner of Beijing, Yonghegong Lama Temple is considered the largest and best-preserved lamasery, or Tibetan Buddhist monastery, in present-day China.
To this day, the temple still functions as a monastery with monks (or lamas) sauntering amongst the many halls. Moreover, one of these halls is home to a world record, an 18m tall white sandalwood figure of the Maitreya Buddha, the biggest of its kind.
When entering the temple complex, visitors will come upon a screen wall and three Paifangs (gateways) which lead to the Zhaotaimen (Gate of Peace Declaration). Of the three large archways, the central one was exclusively for emperors.
Everything you need to know about visiting the biggest and best-preserved Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in China, the Yonghegong Lama Temple.
Old Summer Palace
As the name suggests, the Old Summer Palace was the original place to be! Once the play area and political hub for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty, it was then sadly destroyed by French and English troops in 1860. Due to most of the structures being made of wood, all that remained were the European-style stone structures.
The grounds of the temple are actually bigger than the Forbidden City! As a result, it’s technically the biggest museum in the world with its various classic architectural styles and precious historic relics.
The long-cobbled street leading south from Tiananmen Square once served as the southern gate of the capital during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The extended avenue in centuries past was solely used for carrying the emperor’s imperial carriages towards the Temple of Heaven for ceremonies or weddings. With such a rich history of over 600 years, Qianmen became known as the Gate of the Nation.
These days the streets are lined on all sides with high-end stores and restaurants serving all manner of authentic cuisine. The back alleys are also filled with stores selling authentic items and various markets offering all kinds of souvenirs, with some unique inclusions like fighting crickets!
The Silk Market
Once an outdoor market famous for the sale of one luxurious material, today the Silk Market has grown into a modern-day shopping mall with over 1,000 retailers selling everything under the sun. The market has been a symbol of Beijing for centuries, and has even attracted some famous names, such as former president George Bush Senior!
As the name suggests, the market’s feature item is silk and items crafted out of it. However, the market also has a plethora of other merchandise from tea, porcelain, and jade, to more present-day products such as tech items and clothing.
Be aware that most of the brands are cheap copies, and don’t be afraid to haggle! It’s normal in Chinese markets, so you can always aim to cut the price by 10% to 30%.
Wangfujing Snack Street (The Bug Market)
Though Wangfujing Street is an up-and-coming shopping district in central Beijing, known for its high-end stores and shopping malls, it’s not the district’s biggest attraction. One of the biggest highlights in Beijing is hidden down a nearby alley, away from the squeamish eyes of the public.
Wangfujing Night Market, more commonly known as the Bug Market, has been a staple of many travel documentaries and online vlogs for decades. The street has become notorious as a place to buy some exotic critters to snack on. Everything from scorpions and lizards to spiders, seahorses and snakes are available for your eating pleasure.
Admittedly, the entire street is a tourist trap in every sense of the word! Chinese people don’t eat any of this either, they’re just as amazed as we are! Even so, it’s still definitely worth a look!
The Olympic Park
In 2008, Beijing played host to the Summer Olympics, and as such, needed the proper venues for the event! The result was the Olympic Green Village, an area with 10 different purpose-built venues to host events such as track and field, weight lifting and swimming. Some venues will even be used for the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics!
Within the village, two landmarks stand out above all the rest. The Beijing National Stadium, more appropriately named the Bird’s Nest, is by far one of the biggest highlights. Another favourite is the outer surface of the Water Cube which was designed to imitate the way soap bubbles come together.
After the Olympics ended, the state-of-the-art facilities opened for public use and as the prime location for international sporting events! If you visit at night, you’ll see each structure illuminated in different neon colours.
Visit the Hutongs
Many people are surprised at how modern and futuristic present-day Beijing really is! Most want a more authentic old-timey experience. Luckily there’s still one place that gives a wonderful glimpse into traditional Beijing life and culture.
Hutongs are the name given to mazes of narrow alleyways or small streets between rows of single-storey Siheyuan (courtyards). In centuries past thousands of hutongs surrounded and expanded outwards from the Forbidden City. Both aristocrats and commoners would live in these neighbourhoods, though the latter were much simpler and less grandiose! By 1949 there were over 3,250 Hutongs in the city!
Sadly, times are changing. Most hutongs have been demolished to make way for new developments, such as the Olympic Village. The government is also very keen to modernise and tries to rid the city of its peasant slums at any given opportunity. As a result, no more than 1,000 remains, with the majority of them turned into tourist attractions.
The ultimate guide to travelling China’s capital, Beijing: Highlights to see, how to get there, where to stay, what to eat.
There are many hundreds of hutongs to choose from. Though you should definitely take the time to visit an authentic old-fashioned hutong, some of the touristy ones are also worth a visit. None more so than Nanluoguxian, a hutong that highlights the most complete lane of traditional courtyard dwellings in Beijing.
The 800-year-old hutong has been the home of many royal families and officials due to its close proximity to the Forbidden City. Today the historic central street is a place of cultural innovation with its combination of the old and new of both China and the West.
The central street has all manner of different architectural styles as well as being famous for its speciality stores. Many come for the creative culture whilst most stay for the snacks and distinctive bars.
China’s Imperial rulers were all about luxury. So much so that they built an entire man-made lake of Houhai just for their own pleasure! Literally translating as “Back Sea”, the picturesque artificial lake these days has been given back to the common people and has since developed into a prosperous commercial area.
In ancient times the shoreline of the lake was lined with wine shops, workshops, and opera stages, whereas today they’ve been replaced with bars, teahouses and restaurants. The lake is a popular spot to ride boats during the summer months and ice skate during the winter months.
Watch the Beijing Opera
For many, one of the city’s biggest highlights is watching the awe-inspiring Beijing Opera, the pinnacle of Chinese culture. The unique combination of magnificent costumes, facial makeup, unique vocals and literary stories make for some incredible performances.
The most iconic aspect of the opera is the unique facial masks decorated with various colours to symbolise different characteristics. For example, the red face symbolizes loyalty while the white faces denote treachery and paranoia.
Not only were Beijing’s Imperial rulers a fan of palaces, but they loved their gardens too! Beihai Park is one of the oldest imperial gardens in the city and has been a venue for royal banquets for centuries. For almost a thousand years, the park has been a fantastic representation of art and culture.
Undoubtedly the park’s most notorious landmark is the White Dagoba, which sits on top of a hill on the Jade Flowery Islet. The Tibetan dagoba symbolizes the Buddhist doctrine of shrines on the earth. Of the many parks in Beijing, this is amongst the best highlights!
Party at Sanlitun
Let’s get one thing straight, the Chinese love to party, and they party hard! There’s no better place to do that in Beijing than in Sanlitun! It is the place to be for foreigners and young locals to come for a good time! The streets are lined with countless clubs and bars. It said that nearly 60% of Beijing’s bars are congregated in the area! Oh, and if you’re a foreigner, you get to drink in clubs for free! How about that?!
Though it’s one of the lesser-known highlights of Beijing, it’s still one of the best. Directly behind the Forbidden city stands the 5 peaks of Jingshan park, which were man-made from the mounds of dirt removed during the process of building the moat which surrounds the palace!
The peaks offer a fantastic panoramic view of the city, and an even better view of the Forbidden City from above, a site not available anywhere else. The park also marks the official centre of Beijing, which is represented by a marker set before the Wanchun Pavilion.
798 Art District
One of the more unique highlights in Beijing, the 798 Art district was established in the 1950s and named after the factory that used to stand here. Each year, more and more artists and designers move into the area and bring with them unique art exhibitions and creative workshops.
At present, there are more than 100 cultural institutions within the district. They include the likes of publishing houses, clothes design companies, music and movie producing companies and artist studios.
Transport in Beijing
Just like anywhere else in the world, a good rule of thumb will always be to use taxis…only as a last resort. With no exception, they are the most expensive way of travelling within a city. That’s only where the problems start with Beijing’s cabs.
Spotted by their yellow and various coloured roofs, there are plenty on the roads, but flagging one down is a whole other issue. 8 times out of 10 times, the cabs are already in use, or otherwise on the way to pick up a client. When you’re finally fortunate enough to get one, then it becomes a toss of the coin whether the driver will take you. You’ll regularly get rejected for lack of Chinese (making it too difficult for him to figure out where you want to go) or you’re simply not going in the direction he wants.
If you’re lucky enough to overcome all of these hurdles, you’ll still have the luck of the draw on whether you’ll get ripped off. Just be sharp enough to demand the meter before you begin.
The one form of transport you’re likely to find in any city running endlessly is the bus. The capital holds an extensive network of buses that run endlessly covering every inch of the city. As is the size of Beijing, by far it makes it the slowest way of getting from A to B, however, it’s also the cheapest. It’s also important to consider that the entire process will be in Chinese; signs, stop names, and bus drivers. There’s no English, making the entire process incredibly difficult.
Despite the bus being the slowest and most underused form of transport, it’s the only public transport that runs throughout the night and the early hours of the morning. Don’t disregard it too soon. At 3 am when you and every single other clubgoer are trying to grab a taxi, it becomes a lifesaver. It also has the added benefit of being one form of travel you’re able to pay with the multi-purpose travel card.
Easily the cheapest, fastest and most efficient form of transport within Beijing and any other city. The extensive spiderweb of subway systems is unbelievably reliable. Trains run 5 minutes away from each other at the most and are able to take you to any point from A to B in the city (with a couple of transfers of course). As initially daunting as trying to decipher the crisscross of 17 potential lines may seem, the display of efficient signs and a bit of familiarity soon makes the whole process a breeze and a blessing of having a subway. Costing anywhere between 3-9 RMB (around 30p to £1) per journey, it’s easily the cheapest option.
The only negatives will come in the popularity of this transport. Being the popular choice with locals across all social classes, at times the subways can become less than comfortable. Particularly when you’re pressed up close and personal with Beijing citizens. Equally irritating are the hordes of locals who will block off advancing crowds of subway goers. Mainly by walking at a snail’s pace with their head buried in their phone, with total disregard for other passengers. The transport is also on a time limit, from 5 am to around 11:15 pm.
Very much the modern option, I give you Chinese Uber. Very much like its Western equivalent, it’s a more efficient and reliable form of taxi. As the Chinese have developed the smartphone as an extension of themselves to this point, it’s no surprise it’s a popular choice. A driver is quickly ordered (or booked) at any time, any location, and soon enough he’ll come to pick you up.
This is still an expensive option, being similarly priced as a taxi (if the taxi driver’s honest enough to charge you the proper rate). However, this is much more reliable, efficient and available at all hours of the day/night. Being that’s the case, the price will fluctuate given the time and number of drivers available. When there’s a shortage, you’re in for a wait.
Accommodation in Beijing
As is expected with an enormous city, there is a vast supply of accommodation available. There are over 400 individual hotels throughout the city, without to mention the alternative options. Beijing provides everything from luxury 5-star hotels to budget hostels and everything in between.
Unfortunately, Beijing doesn’t hold many bargain hostels as you might expect. Not quite as expensive as you’ll find in the highly ordered streets of Europe or Australia, but still high by Asian standards. The cheapest you’ll find starts at £10 for dorms all the way to £19. This ensures that a couple of nights’ stay is more than sufficient.
The map below shows all hostel options according to Hostel World. As the map shows, most options will be secludedly found in Dongcheng District, mostly around the high-end party central of Sanlitun. Otherwise, they are bunched together in the Southern District of Fengtai.
For once it might not even be too ridiculous to consider a hotel room. Unlike most nations around the world, there isn’t a huge marked difference between the cheapest hostels and a budget hotel room for the night. Hotel prices also start at £10 with plenty of options in the same range up to £19. Of course, you could splash out on a luxury 4 or 5-star room if you’re happy to waste your travel budget. As the map shows, there’s a much wider distribution of hotels to choose from and not restricted to a certain district.
Side note: if you chose to stay in a hotel, be prepared to be offered some extra services via the hotel e.g. prostitutes. It’s a very common occurrence that hotels will offer this service. Some are even said to have brothels in the basements.
How to Relax in Beijing
Such a renowned city with inhabitants from all walks of life and every culture under the sun has succeeded in influencing Beijing, for better or for worse. With increased development comes the increased need for extracurricular entertainment. Particularly considering how hard the Chinese work, they need a suitably sufficient way of letting off steam. As a result, you have the choice of everything from spas (both legitimate and semi-brothels), to clubs, high-end dining, bars and parks one would expect from any decent capital.
When riding through the never-ending streets of Beijing, the single word of English you’re likely to find advertised along every storefront is the word “SPA“. This is an enormous industry in Beijing, used just as much by foreigners as do the locals. You’ll be handed an undecipherable menu of every relaxation technique known to man. As the Chinese tend to work themselves half to death, it’s no wonder that such an activity has become so popular.
As a traveller, be aware that some of these will be your legitimate health spas where you could take your own sainted grandmother. Where some others are essentially brothels, your good old-fashioned rub-n-tug. These spas offer alternative therapies, such as a 4-handed bath/body-to-body massage…I’m told. There’s so much demand for these spas (even the legitimate ones) that they’re open until the early hours of the morning.
Bars and Clubs
As with everywhere else, there are two different drinking options: Pub or Club. An important decision when it comes to Beijing. Namely, as one option will end up with you getting a free night. For the majority of clubs around Beijing, foreigners are a valuable commodity. It’s a commodity clubs are willing to dish out freebies just to get. Full bottles of Grey Goose and Hennessey brought one after the other all night long for a total of £0. Why? To sum up: Foreigners = pretty Chinese young adults = fat ugly rich Chinese.
Alternatively, you could go to a bar, and pay an increase to Western prices for the few recognisable brands available. Be it a foreign bar or a local one, there are plenty of options to choose from.
For nature lovers and otherwise (a few days of Beijing’s smog will make you crave it), Beijing does have its fair share of parks that aims to counter-act the overflow of concrete. Beijing’s parks follow the city’s theme of bigger is better. It becomes easy to lose the chaos of the streets and allows for a moment of peace and tranquillity. The most notable of which would be Beihai Park and Jingshan Park, or even the specially designed Olympic Park.
Cuisine in Beijing
If you ate at one place every day in Beijing, it would take you years to cross them all off. There are food options all the way from the fanciest 5-star restaurants to the local merchant selling side-street-made food. Just like any other city in the world, you have two options: restaurants and local side-street sellers.
Beijing boasts more than enough high-end restaurants for the high-rollers that call this city home. Obviously expect to pay similar (if not more expensive) prices to those in the West. An odd difference from the West though is that quite a few of these fancy restaurants are in Asia’s mini town centres; malls. Beijing has a close relationship with malls, as they’re located everywhere and hold everything a potential customer might need. This includes the most expensive restaurants. So expect to walk up a couple of floors passed your Adidas, Apple and Ann Summers stores along with their customers.
The other more highly recommended option would be your side-street sellers. Although Beijing sadly doesn’t have many of your authentic merchants selling a single product from behind his cart. However local tastes can be found down the authentic hutongs and scattered amongst the modern shopfront. Plastic chairs are always a good sign. Much cheaper option despite being quite expensive by Asian standards.
Some of Beijing’s highlight cuisine includes none other than Peking Roast Duck, which some restaurants will take very seriously, provided for a serious price. Another would include mutton hot pot; where a pan of sauce is boiled at your table for you to put in the various little items on a stick yourself.
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