Beijing, the undulating metropolis located in remote northeastern China, would take many lifetimes to fully explore and understand. The city’s history is epic, with human fossil records dating back more than 230,000 years and evidence of cities in the vicinity of modern-day Beijing as early as the first millennium B.C.
To make it digestible, let’s focus on the Beijing now — the noisy, dense, beating heart center that has kept China dominating the headlines — playing host to iconic revolution, the country’s first-ever Olympic games and more delectable Peking ducks than you can shake a chopstick at.
Home to scores of monuments of great cultural or historic merit, including Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, Beijing is a must-visit city on any tour of China. (Plus, maybe you’ve heard of that big old wall they made a few millennia ago in an attempt to keep invading Mongols at bay — Beijing is also the most convenient jumping-off point for tours to the famous Great Wall of China.)
For first-time visitors to east Asia, China — and Beijing in particular — may come off as overcrowded and dirty, but visitors who can get past Beijing’s no-apologies grittiness will find that the city has much to offer. From the Old World hutongs (historic neighborhoods) that line the alleyways in a testament to what once was, to the innumerable eateries and great bargain shops and endless seas of people that define what is now, Beijing will surely keep you busy taking it all in.
While knowing Mandarin (or traveling with a fluent companion) will undoubtedly enhance your experience in Beijing, speaking only English need not keep you from getting a healthy taste of the city. Any hotelier who makes business of Western travelers will have staff who speak decent English, and there are a great number of restaurants and bars that offer English or picture menus. With a kind smile and a pen in hand, don’t be shy to ask hotel staff to write down the name and address of places you’d like to go on a card you can show a taxi driver.
Although these days all sorts of motorized craft rule the roads, flat-as-a-pancake Beijing was made for bicycling. If you can afford the time to hire a bike for at least a day, you’ll be able to experience Beijing in a truly authentic way. For the rest of the time, there are plenty of taxis, subway cars and buses to make your way upon.
For Beijing’s best weather, visit in September and October, when you’ll encounter warm sunny days with clear skies and cool evenings. Springtime is also a great season to visit, unless you’re super unlucky and get stuck in a sandstorm blowing down from the Gobi Desert in the north. Beijing is oppressively cold in winter and predictably hot in summer. Consider avoiding China’s major extended public holidays (Chinese New Year in winter, National Day in October and Labor Day in May), as huge swaths of domestic travelers will be moving in all conceivable directions.
A great place to begin bumbling around Beijing is the Dongcheng area, near Houhai Lake. Here you can get a glimpse of everyday life in the hutongs, the centuries-old dwellings of Beijing of yore. Many hutongs have been demolished and replaced with the skyscraping apartment buildings that dominate Beijing’s skyline. But current hutong residents (and critics of overdevelopment) have fought for the remaining hutongs to be preserved. The city government has recognized the hutong’s tourist appeal and labeled them protected areas. Get a map, find the street known as Nanluogu Xiang (also sometimes written Nanluoguxiang) and use it as a starting point.
The aforementioned Houhai Lake makes a lovely spot for a stroll in the warmer months, and when the lake freezes in winter you can rent skates (or a chair with sled-like runners affixed to the legs) and have a bit of fun on the ice.
Missing out on Tiananmen Square while touring Beijing would be like not drinking Chianti when in Tuscany. The iconic square bustles with activity while exuding an air of old Soviet grandeur and that still-unshakable memory of Man vs. Tank.
The Forbidden City is to famous Beijing monuments as fried rice is to a Chinese menu. Lying just beyond Tiananmen Square, the sprawling, walled encampment once housed the Imperial Court during the Ming and Qing dynasties and is so huge that many erstwhile residents are said to have gone their whole lives without leaving the 30-foot high walls of the city. To see every corner of the UNESCO World Heritage Site would surely take an entire day — and to be honest, it may all start to look the same after a while — so make sure you hit the impressive Palace Museum within the city walls before you wear yourself too thin.
The Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube may be the most memorable venues of any Olympic Games in recent history. Though probably the kind of thing you can appreciate just as well from a postcard, the monuments are worthy of closer inspection if you find yourself in the Olympic Park area in east Beijing.
Taking a stroll through one of Beijing’s parks in the morning hours is a great way to start a day in the city. Watch old men ponder over board games, admire groups of people practicing tai chi and get a taste of (sometimes contrived) Chinese landscaping. Beihai Park, Chaoyang Park and the Purple Bamboo Park are all good choices.
If you can only visit one of Beiing’s parks, consider the vast green space that surrounds the Temple of Heaven. The temple complex was built under the command of the same emperor who ordered the construction of the Forbidden City. Dating back to 1420, the temple (which was visited by emperors to pray to the heavens for a good annual harvest) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The surrounding park is the greenest place in Beijing.
An old Chinese proverb says, “Not been to the Great Wall, not a great man.” And indeed, no trip to China is complete without viewing the countryside’s rolling hills from the Great Wall. Almost every hotel in Beijing sells trips to the Great Wall. It’s important to know what you want, though, before you embark. Most tours to the wall visit the Badaling section. This is convenient because it’s very close to Beijing and the site is outfitted to cater to the masses (think cable cars, newly paved steps, handrails, even a toboggan slide to take you back to ground level). But Badaling is markedly touristy, replete with shops and food vendors and numerous touts hanging out on the wall itself. A quieter, more peaceful option is traveling to the Jinshanling section. Its distance from the metropolis (some three hours by bus) makes it a less popular option, but one still worth considering. There will be fewer tourists (and even fewer touts!) and you’ll be face to face with raw, scenic beauty without parking lots or handrails sullying the view.
Also, be aware that most organized tours to the Great Wall will include lengthy stopovers at gem, ceramic or other craft wholesalers where all parties involved will try and make a commission off your tourist dollar. Some tour operators go out of their way to advertise “no stops” trips to the wall. Booking one of these is advisable. See Badaling and Jinshanling Great Wall Tours from Viator.
As an increasingly cosmopolitan city, Beijing is a real treat for foodies. From the highest end of fine dining down to the dirtiest vendor selling delicious baked yams from a cart on the street, there is no shortage of eating options in the capital city. Traditional Beijing-style food is known to be rather salty. But like anyone else, Beijingers like to mix it up a bit, and the city responds with a vast array of restaurants showcasing not only international cuisine but regional delicacies from throughout China as well.
And the best part of it is the price! In Beijing, for the money you’d normally spend on a dinner at Applebee’s you can eat like you’re at Nobu. But the real fun comes with the opposite: finding an obscure hole-in-the-wall and treating yourself to obscene amounts of goodness for a few dollars a person. (While undoubtedly worth experiencing, many of the best local joints offer no English menus. Don’t forget — there’s no shame in pointing to the happiest looking guy in the dining room and gesturing that you’d like what he’s having.)
What follows is merely a taste of the countless culinary choices at your fingertips in Beijing:
Another name for Beijing is Peking, and another name for delicious is Peking duck. And indeed, when in the capital city it would behoove you to sit down for a full course menu of the city’s namesake dish. Quanjude and Da Dong are two popular chains. Bianyifang is another old and reputable roast duck establishment with various locations. Duck de Chine is a comparative newcomer (Bianyifang has been in business since 1416!) but very modern and also worth patronizing. Reservations are essential at Duck de Chine and recommended elsewhere.
Each of China’s 22 provinces has an official government office in the capital city, and adjacent to many of these offices are eateries representing the provincial cuisine. For an authentic taste of peppery Sichuan-style cooking, head to the Sichuan Provincial Government Office. The restaurant itself doesn’t have an official name, but most locals know it as Chuan Ban. Another good Sichuan choice is Meizhou Dongpo, a chain that operates several restaurants throughout the city.
Dumplings, or jiaozi,come in countless varieties. Receiving consistently strong reviews for their colorful, innovative take on dumplings, Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu is a scrumptious delight that’s very kind to the pocketbook. Soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) are more of a speciality of Shanghai to the south, but for classic southern taste all the way up in Beijing, check out Din Tai Fung, which was recently voted “Outstanding Chinese Restaurant of the Year” by reputable expat magazine The Beijinger.
At some point on your tour of Beijing, you’ll inevitably wind up in the bustling embassy district of Sanlitun. Here you’ll see not only plenty of foreigners, but also just as many bars and restaurants catering to the masses with every sort of international flavor you can imagine. Dining options in Sanlitun are are too plentiful to list, but if you’re longing for a juicy steak or a cheeseburger so big you’ll need two hands to eat it, then head to Flamme. They offer great deals every day of the week, but the lunch specials are when Flamme really gets hot.
A great way to end the day is to take in the setting sun and the spectacle of city lights that come with the night from Atmosphere, the bar on the top floor of the Shangri-La Hotel located atop the China World Trade Center. It’s the tallest building (and bar) in Beijing. There’s a full drink menu, as well as light meals and desserts.
You don’t have to stay at a five-star hotel to enjoy the decadent comforts that lie within. Many of the city’s finer properties offer all-you-can-eat-AND-drink brunches on Sundays. You’ll surely gain a few pounds before you leave, but what a treat to have lobster and fois gras and Champagne brought to you on demand from waiters darting beneath countless crystal chandeliers. Good Sunday brunches can be found at the Westin Chaoyang, the Hilton Wangfujing, the Kempinski and Capital M (this one is not all-you-can-drink).
And for an taste of the bizarre, head to the Donghuamen Night Market at the north entrance of Wangfujing Street in the Dongcheng district. Here you can satisfy your late-night munchies with goodies like deep-fried scorpions, lizards or crickets. Or you can just order some spring rolls and watch everyone else eat bugs.
Shopping in Beijing
Beijing has an ever-growing retail sector, with the highest of the high-end shopping to be found in the Wangfujing area in the city center. And while the goods are authentic, the prices are the same as they would be back home. But for every piece of authentic merchandise on the market, there will be a much better priced — albeit fake — product available at any of the shopping centers most Beijingers frequent.
The quality of Chinese fakes can range from passable to outstanding, and unless you’re buying from an official, licensed retailer (i.e., buying a North Face jacket from the North Face store), rest assured, you’re buying a knock-off.
So when you see a little lady with a shop full of Polo shirts saying she’ll let one go for about half of what you’d pay for it on sale at Macy’s, have no shame in offering her a tenth of her asking price. This is the game you must play when shopping for almost anything in Beijing. Unless it has a barcode and gets scanned by a uniformed employee behind a cash register, the price is negotiable.
While haggling can grow frustrating, as long as you can maintain a sense of levity about it, the whole experience can turn out to be fun for both you and the shopkeeper. An effective way to bargain successfully is to think about what an item is worth to you. Set a maximum in your head. Open the bidding at a tenth of what you want to pay, and work your way from there. And when things start to get difficult, just walk away. This will almost always get the price to drop in your favor.
A staggering array of counterfeit shoes, luggage, apparel and handbags can be found at the Silk Market near Yong’anli station on Line One of the metro. This market caters almost exclusively to foreigners. The prices will be higher here, but the workers speak English and are pretty fun to engage. If you know Mandarin or are shopping with someone who does, you will get much better deals.
For international brand-name (legitimate) goods, visit the Wangfujing shopping street or the Malls at Oriental Plaza. For more brand-name shopping and dining (including Beijing’s newly opened Nobu restaurant), check out the Guomao area.
Stop by the Pearl Market near the Temple of Heaven for a chance to buy coral, amber, turquoise and, of course, pearls. This multi-story market has several high-end jewelers on the top floors, and lower floors have the usual array of trinkets and handicrafts.
Panjiayuan, also called the “dirt market” or “weekend market,” is the largest (and maybe most entertaining) flea market in China. It is open every day and gets started early. Here you can shop for antiques (beware of fakes), porcelain, jade and wood carvings, as well as paintings and decorations and knickknacks and just about everything else you could imagine. Don’t forget to bargain hard and shop around too, because many of the stalls will be selling the same merchandise.
–written by James A. Foley