Beijing is pretty huge and that may well be the biggest understatement of the year. I know people that have lived in this city for nearly fifteen years and every time they venture out they stumble upon something or somewhere they have never seen before. Not only is Beijing’s scene constantly changing, it’s also rapidly expanding in every direction. Now, this city is home to over 20million people, so as you can imagine it’s a hive of activity. So, with that in mind, I should point out that these things I’m recommending are barely scratching the surface of this incredible city, and it’s going to take more than a few visits here and there to really vouch that you can know it. But, these activities gave me good feel for the place over 4 days, and it was enough to make me have the pressing need to return and discover more.
I repeat, Beijing is big so getting around on foot tends to be out of the question a lot of the time. Fortunately, the city has a good underground system, though this may be difficult for you if you don’t speak or read any Chinese. Alternatively, taxis here are incredibly cheap.
Top tip: Write all of the monuments and places you want to see in Chinese. If you can’t write Chinese then make a friend who can. You can use these to help you with taxis and also just walking down the street so people can at least point you in the right direction.
Top tip: Download uber – makes getting around even cheaper in Beijing. Just be sure that the driver is certain where they are going before you get accidentally transported to rural China.
Go see the Great Wall of China – it is aptly named
Our flight landed at lunchtime and the first thing we decided we ought to do in China was to head to the Great Wall. We were fortunate enough to have a driver as we were staying with some friends in the city (also just incredibly important), but there are all kinds of buses you can get and alternatively just jump in a taxi.
There are lots of places along the Great Wall that tourists can visit, though some of them are packed. Some of the most popular are Badaling, Jinshanling and Simatai. We headed to Mutianyu and saw very few people so I would highly recommend it, especially if you are able to go on a day that isn’t the weekend. It’s about an hour from the city, if that, and you can hike a long way in either direction. There is either a cablecar or a cableway up and you can, unbelievably, get a toboggan back down – yes, that’s right, you can slide down from the Great Wall of China (lesson 60). It will set you back about 155RMB, and is well worth it.
I’d say that the wall can take as long as you want it to and it really comes down to how many selfies you plan to take and how much energy you feel like exerting in walking along it, but at the very least I’d give yourself half a day.
Eat some duck.
So, considering it’s one of Beijing’s famous delicacies you should probably have it. Now to mention the fact that it’s incredibly delicious and you’ll have worked up a solid appetite from hike along the Great Wall. There are places all over the city serving it and if you avoid any of the tourist traps then you’ll probably stumble upon a delicious one.
This one was a big day, although we didn’t feel like we were rushing at all. If you don’t have the energy to do all of these things then you could quite easily break it up into a couple of days depending on the type of sightseer you are. Personally, I think you should seize the day but that’s just me.
Tienanmen and The Forbidden City
Top tip: See this in the morning, there are much less people.
Top tip: If you’re in a taxi then get them to drop you at Wangfujing as they can’t stop outside Tienanmen. From here, it’s a short walk to get to the entrance of the city.
Tienanmen is just opposite the entrance to the Forbidden City so you can quickly check it off. It’s just a square to be honest, and I didn’t think it merited more time than a lap. In the words of my friend Tom: ‘it’s very grey’. Never have truer words been spoken.
Afterwards, head to the Forbidden City. It’s 40RMB to enter and 40RMB to get a headset, which I would recommend because otherwise gazing at gorgeous palaces becomes a little overwhelming. They’re very informative (so now I’m a pro) and it’s all powered by gps so you can let it hang around your neck without having to push any buttons. Perfect for the lazy sightseer and now you have no excuse not to check off all of these things like we did.
Mostly, I was just incredibly bewildered about how big and beautiful the place is and spent a lot of my time questioning why my parents hadn’t brought me up in a place where I could reside in an array of gorgeous palaces. But there you go, some of us are very hard done to when it comes down to it. The Forbidden City was home to 24 different emperors throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties and you can get a headset to tell you the rest because I won’t do it justice. But baring in mind that it is huge, allow yourself plenty of time to take it in. There are a lot of routes through you can choose, if you walk straight down the middle, it’ll take about two hours.
Around The Forbidden City, there are a lot of tourists. A lot of these people have also never seen a white person in the flesh before and so you’re probably going to get asked for a lot of photos. If you’re tall and white the number of photos will increase again. If you’re tall, white and female, they’ll increase again. If you’re tall white, female with light hair and light eyes then you just hit celebrity status – well done you.
Check out lesson 61 for a bit more wisdom.
After heading out of the Forbidden City, pop across the road to Jingshan Park and climb to the top to get a great view over the whole of Beijing. This place definitely helped me get some vague bearings of the city, and it’s incredibly beautiful. Lots of locals like this park and lots of tourists miss it though I still haven’t worked out how you could walk straight past it.
Loop back around to Wangfujing – Snack street
Amongst the hustle and bustle of Wangfujing, you’ll find some of Beijing’s most epic street food off a little street to the side. Any street that involves the word ‘snack’ is very okay with me.
Top tip: watch your bag, this place is renowned for a bit of pickpocketing and you’re back to face a lot of the time shuffling through stalls of questionable looking food.
I know China has a bit of a reputation for food standards but some of these look and taste incredible.
Top tip: Eat the street food but have your wits about you. If it doesn’t look clean then it’s probably not clean.
Down here you can eat everything from veggie wraps to scorpions. No, I didn’t eat a scorpion because firstly the idea of it is just nasty and secondly, when I saw them impaled on a stick still moving I developed some very moral issues with it. If you happen to want to try it though, then I personally think you’re kind of crazy. You could just say you had and nobody would really know the difference. Some of the other things along here that I would judge you for putting into your system include: starfish, spider and snake. Just don’t.
From here we jumped in a rickshaw over to houhai just in time for the sunset.
Top tip: If you get a rickshaw, make sure you agree on a price beforehand and don’t pay until they’ve taken you there.
In the winter time you can skate on houhai and throughout the summer you can rent a little boat on the water. We timed our first visit for sunset and the place literally comes alive so I’d highly recommend it and going to grab some dinner somewhere if you’re not too full of street food.
Top tip: Avoid the bars in houhai. They are massive tourist traps and will completely rip you off. The best places to grab a drink, according to a local friend, are in the hotels. It’s cheap and the alcohol tends to be real – which is also a big problem in China.
Wander through the narrow streets of this place (although I do suggest you go back in the day further down) and then take a stroll all the way down the side of the lake. Here you’ll see lots of people fishing and catching squishy looking soft shell turtles. At the bottom of the lake you’ll find some more, less touristy places to eat.
We ate at a place called Private Kitchen, which I would really recommend. This place will definitely guarantee you no stomach bug as they make a huge effort to have home grown and carefully chosen produce.
So this day was very chilled for us because it happened to be Easter Sunday and we stayed out in a local village. That way we woke up essentially in a hutong, went for the most incredible Easter brunch with a family who live out here and then headed into the city in the afternoon. In that case, you could finish some of the things you might not have done yesterday on top of this day.
Hit the Sanlitun area
Sanlitun is a very cool part of the Chaoyang District. There’s cool bars, food, lots of shopping (mostly big international stores) and an insanely good coffee culture, which I somehow always find myself in the centre of wherever I go. There seem to be a lot of younger people, students and expats but not too many tourists, which is great.
From this area you can go and see the Acrobats at the Chaoyang Theatre. I personally hated it but that was because I was very alarmed at how young some of the girls who were performing looked. It’s noted down as one of the must see things to do in Beijing and honestly the crowd really did love it – it just wasn’t for me. It costs 280RMB for the show and they have a few every afternoon so there’s no need to book in advance.
36 E 3rd Ring Rd N, Chaoyang
If you want to go see a performance that isn’t acrobatics then you could also hit up some Peking Opera.
On our last day we headed back to Houhai. The area around there is full of hutongs for you to explore and lots of little shops and trinkets for you to collect. Get dropped at the bottom of S.Luogu alley and work your way up the street. There are a lot of hutongs that go off from this street.
The Drum Tower
After completing this little walk you can head to the Drum tower. This was originally used for music and then to tell the time. You can pay 20RNB to enter and climb to the top and there is a drum show every hour on the half hour.
Di’anmen Outer St, Dongcheng
After this, head back to the lake and do a lap in the daylight. There is an excellent jian bing shop on the corner before you hit the lake again – I recommend you get one. This spot is a particularly popular one for Beijingers’ breakfast.
The Lama Temple
This is one of the most popular Buddhist temples in Beijing and is the largest for Tibetan Buddhists outside of Tibet. It’s well worth a quick look and 25RNB to enter.
28 Yonghegong Dajie
Few more things to see…
I think this will be the third time I say it now, but Beijing is huge, so it’s kind of expected that you won’t get it all done in the first visit. Other things worth seeing are:
The Temple of Heaven
798 District – cool art district for those of you that like to pretend you’re art pros.
The Bird’s Nest
Mao’s Mausoleum – for those of you that like to queue to see potentially dead bodies.
Honestly, I wasn’t exactly sure how I would react to Beijing. It does get a lot of bad press and I can say about three words in mandarin (changing as you read this because I’m now learning) so I expected that it would be a city that wasn’t as easy to fall in love with as some of the others I’ve visited recently. I swallow my words entirely. This city is steeped in history and culture and honestly, it’s actually just insanely cool. All of my bad expectations about this place were absolutely blown away
Yes, it is busy – but I visited the Great Wall of China and I saw maybe 30 other people on it after two hours of hiking along it.
Yes, it’s polluted and you can feel it on your chest even on a good day – but I experienced blue skies and blooming cherry blossoms. I couldn’t have wished for better days.
Yes, some of the food is pretty sketchy – but I ate more street food here than anywhere else and I’m still going strong – ignore this if I became ill with food poisoning after publishing this post.
Yes, it’s corrupt. I heard some stories over these four days that made my jaw drop a little – but there are also thousands of people throughout this city that would love to help you and often will regardless of whether you ask or not.
Here’s a couple more tips to help you along the way:
Never agree to go to any art gallery, teahouse or coffee shop no matter how friendly the person inviting you might seem. Sadly, there are a lot of people in this city that are looking to scam you. Beijing has a reputation for tourists being lured into these situations and having money demanded. It’s great to make friends, but make sure you make friends with the right ones.
Download wechat! It’s the best way to talk to people in China.
Get a vpn. We all know that China’s internet control is kind of insane. There’s no facebook, there’s no instagram and there’s no google. I’m very positive you can live without all of these things but if you’re there for an extended period of time and want to stay in touch with life beyond the Chinese border then I recommend you download a vpn on your phone. I used betternet – it’s free and it works like a charm.
Make sure you munch on:
Jian bing (北京煎饼) – This was my favourite street food in Beijing and since returning to Hong Kong I have discovered that it’s one of Beijing’s most popular breakfasts. It’s basically a wheat and bean pancake with a bunch of delicious things inside – egg sunflower seeds, crispy wonton, coriander, chive, pickles and a lot of spices. One of the best ones in Beijing is on the shore of houhai.
Peking duck – This one is a given surely.
Peanuts in vinegar
Candied fruit – Going home with teeth not guaranteed.