To most Westerners, Beijing is a city cloaked in mystery. But while the language barrier can be a bit daunting, spending a few days in China’s capital is actually pretty easy, once you get the gist of things. Armed with a good map and an idea of what you want to see, you can make your way around the city without major mishap, and take in some of the world’s great sights — though you will often be seeing them through a haze of smog.
The first thing to know is that downtown Beijing, like the centres of numerous European cities, was once surrounded by a defensive wall — in fact, it had more than one. And as with the European cities, they were torn down long ago and replaced with a ring road system. Most of the city’s best sights lie inside the inner ring road, or just outside it, so once you get the lay of that area — principally the Dongcheng district — finding your way around is easy.
Dealing with the complex and tonal Chinese language can be more problematic. But as noted below, subway stations and street signs are in English as well as Chinese. And especially in tourist areas, there is usually someone within reach who speaks at least a little English. If you’re taking a cab, get someone to write down the destination in Chinese for the driver.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, there’s a great list of things to see and do in the city. Here’s a capsule rundown of what to do in Beijing. These could keep you busy for a few days, or a week, if you take it slow.
What to see
The temple of Heaven
This is considered a kind of also-ran among Beijing’s sights. But it’s an impressive and beautiful place, and the Temple of Heaven is a good thing to see before the Forbidden City, for a taste of what’s to come. This huge complex is where the Emperor came each winter to offer sacrifices for good harvests.
The centrepiece is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (above), a huge, round temple with beautiful decorations and an intricate design representing the seasons of the year. But the complex is home to a whole series of beautiful, ornate temples and outbuildings set among a 276-hectare park. The lovely gardens are filled with 4,000 cypress trees, some so ancient their limbs are propped up with poles.
This giant square is not exactly a showpiece, but it’s the political heart of Beijing, and it’s worth going through the heavy-duty security line to see it. The centrepiece is Mao’s mausoleum, a fairly plain building where you can file through for a quick glimpse of the dead dictator.
But the Ming-dynasty Zhengyang Gate and Arrow Tower (below) at the south end of the square are worth a look. They’re part of the old city wall system, and the Zhengyang Gate has some interesting old photographs inside that show Beijing as it once was. Then there’s the giant flower pot at the north end (seen at top, on a rare sunny day).
The Forbidden City
Follow Tiananmen Square to the top and you find this huge complex, the must-see attraction of Beijing. And for its sheer scale and intricacy, it’s worth a real chunk of your time. This was the home of two Chinese dynasties and 24 emperors, and the seat of power in China for more than 500 years.
Like most official Chinese complexes, it’s a series of great halls set in huge courtyards, aligned on a symbolic north-south axis. The halls themselves are grand and interesting, but the best sights are in the outlying buildings and all their nooks and crannies. You can do the Forbidden City in half a day, but a full day is better so you can see the real treasures, like the three-storey opera house, the imperial gardens and things like this.
This 700-year-old commercial street, also known as Golden Street, is the heart of Beijing’s modern city. It’s a mecca for tourists, partly because of the big pedestrian mall featuring everything from the glitzy Oriental Plaza to the multi-storey Arts & Craft Emporium and Ten Fu’s Tea shop. But take a left turn and you’re in the middle of a very Chinese market district, with souvenirs of all description and food stalls selling everything from squid on a stick to grilled scorpions.
A string of narrow lakes runs parallel to the Forbidden City, and these are Beijing’s favourite recreation spots. Beihai Lake, the original site of Kublai Khan’s palace, is now a park with paddle boats and places to fly kites. The lakes are lined with dozens of restaurants and bars, and at night it’s the place to go. There’s a lively bar scene, with neon lights on all sides and music pouring from what seems like a hundred doors.
The Lama Temple
It’s not really Chinese, but the Lama Temple is one of the better sights of Beijing. Here, in an out-of-the-way neighbourhood, is a real Mongolian-Tibetan Buddhist temple. There are beautiful shrines, stations where people light incense in acts of supplication, and red-robed monks whose chants vibrate the earth. The highlight is a temple with a giant Buddha statue, carved from one sandalwood tree, that’s so big you can barely see the top. If you’ve been to Tibet or Nepal, this will take you back.
The Great Wall of China
What to do in Beijing? There aren’t that many good day trips from Beijing, but this is the can’t-miss trip. This UNESCO World Heritage Site passes by the city, about an hour and a half away, and it’s a raging tourist attraction. The most popular site is Badaling, which attracts most of the tour groups, but there are several other sites along this stretch of the wall that you can visit.
At Mutianyu, seen here, there are fewer groups, but there’s still both a cable car to get up and a winding toboggan ride to get down — sort of ancient history meets fun ride. Still, the wall is an impressive sight, and walking its ramparts is an unforgettable experience.
China is a longtime magnet for shoppers, and there are innumerable places to spend your money in the city, including the Silk Market (watch out for fake goods), the Hongqiao Pearl Market (below), the Wangfujing bazaars and the Arts District, northwest of downtown. As well, you’ll find pop-up street markets and multi-storey malls just about everywhere. But bargain hard — the prices on souvenirs are usually just a starting point.
Where to stay
There are many hotels in the downtown area, and rates are reasonable: with the good deals available on three- and four-star hotels inside the ring road system, there’s little reason to stay outside the centre. The Wangfujing area is ideal, since it’s lively and close to the major attractions, such as the Forbidden City. But I had good luck with the Pentahotel, just south of the ring road near the train station.
An alternative is to stay in a Chinese hotel. These are usually set in a courtyard hidden in a hutong, or back street, and they can give you a much better look at the real culture of the city than staying in a Western-style hotel. However, the facilities will be less modern, and since some of these hotels don’t have a real address, even cab drivers may have a hard time finding them.
What to eat
Beijing offers just about every kind of food. including several regional Chinese cuisines, from the mild Cantonese to the spicier Hunan and smoking-hot Sichuan cooking. You can find most types of Western food here, too, including pizza, burgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken (just about everywhere). A great spot for breakfast or snacks is the 85° C chain of coffee and pastry shops, with good coffee and everything from French toast to hot dog Danishes.
The city’s specialty is Peking duck, prepared according to an age-old, time-consuming recipe and served with pancakes and sliced cucumbers. A lot of the Peking duck restaurants are both expensive and touristy. The less expensive Tian Wai Tian Duck chain comes recommended.
Beijing has a very good subway system, with more than 20 different lines, including the Airport Express, which goes to the airport. You can reach almost all of the city’s sights on the system. Station signs and system maps are in English as well as Chinese, and what’s more, it’s ridiculously cheap. A ride costs only two yuan — less than 40 cents U.S.
Taxis are also plentiful and cheap, as long as you get an official taxi that uses a meter. A trip across the city might cost only $4 or $5. Avoid unlicensed cabs, which will probably rip you off. There is also a good bus system, which can take you to places like the Great Wall, if you’re the adventurous type.
The Beijing of today is a unique mixture of the new and the old, filled with classy shopping malls and funky neighbourhoods, often only blocks apart. But that makes it all the more interesting. You can see ancient history, shop for designer goods and taste a little of Chinese culture, all within a few blocks. For the traveller, it all adds up to a memorable experience.
If you’re heading to Beijing, here’s a handy map from Travelabulous to help when youère planning what to do in Beijing.