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Beijing is the capital of China. It’s a fascinating city that blends the ancient and the modern, sometimes on the same street. At over 3,000 years old, Beijing is one of the oldest cities in the world. It’s also home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Big, sprawling, and crowded, Beijing draws in millions of tourists every year. It also has a population of over 21 million people, so don’t expect many quiet, private areas in the city.
But if you can handle the crowds, then you can spend some time in one of the oldest, culturally rich cities on the planet.
Once known for having amongst the worst air pollution in the world, Beijing’s air quality has improved over the last few years. There’s an ever-growing number of electric cars and buses on the road.
Despite this, Beijing is still hooked on dirty fossil fuel energy like most global cities.
Not only is Beijing the political capital of China, it’s the cultural capital.
Beijing has a strong culture, mostly influenced by the predominant Han Chinese ethnic group.
However, you’ll also find ethnic minorities in the city such as Hui, Mongol, and Manchu, giving it that extra flare and touch of mystery.
Some of the most well-known cultural icons in Beijing are:
Beijing is an ancient city with a modern sensibility.
It’s busy and crowded and yet heaves with the slower pace of its past. And it’s this past that make up some of the best things to do in Beijing.
Beijing is one of the best places to see the Great Wall of China.
Built over hundreds of years by different states and dynasties to repel invaders and protect the Silk Road, parts of the wall are over 2,300 years old. It stretches over 6,000 km (3,728 mi) and parts of it are still in fairly good condition.
Here are some of the sections you can visit:
Unless you’re really pressed for time in Beijing, avoid Badaling. It’s the most visited section of the Great Wall of China because it’s the closest to Beijing, not because it’s the best.
Built in 1406, the Forbidden City is the largest ancient palace in the world and the best-preserved imperial palace in China.
For 500 years, it saw the triumphs, victories, trials, and failures of China’s imperial families and officials. Today, it’s one of the most important palaces in the world and draws in millions of tourists every year.
While you’re visiting the Forbidden City, make sure you check out Tian’anmen Square. You can’t miss it – it’s just out the front.
Also stop by the Palace Museum, which houses the best collection of Chinese artifacts in the world. It’s one of the top museums in China.
The Temple of Heaven was and is one of the most holy temples in Beijing.
It’s located in the southeastern part of central Beijing and is considered to be a supreme achievement of traditional Chinese architecture.
From 1420 to 1900, emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties worshiped and prayed there. Today, it’s a popular spot for tourists and locals doing morning exercise in a meditative environment.
Like the locals do, bring an umbrella if you’re visiting the temple on a scorching hot summer’s day. There’s not much shade around.
You can’t visit Beijing and not eat Peking Duck.
The dish dates back about around 600 years to the Ming Dynasty and was once a favorite of the emperor.
But even if you aren’t interested in the dish’s history, it’s still perfectly cooked duck, with a thin, crispy skin and thick, sweet sauce.
If you enjoy spending time outside, then you need to visit the Summer Palace while you’re in Beijing.
The name of the palace in Chinese means ‘Nourishing Peace Garden’ for its tranquil and soothing atmosphere. The surrounding gardens are among the best imperial gardens in the world.
Just remember, like most major tourist attractions in China, the Summer Palace gets really busy when the weather is nice.
If you’re wondering about the best time to visit Beijing, check out this page for more information.
Chinese opera is famous around the world, and you don’t need to speak Mandarin to enjoy it.
Beijing’s dominant form of opera, known as Peking Opera, combines dance, costumes, music, acrobatics, mime, and voice to tell colorful and symbolic stories.
This is an experience not to be missed, so make sure that you book in for a show at one of the popular local theaters like:
Beijing has some of the best markets in the world.
You’ll find everything in the markets, from antiques to arts and crafts, souvenirs, incredible food, clothes, and jewelry.
Some of the best and most popular markets in Beijing are:
The locals bargain for the best price, and you should too. Never accept the first price you’re given!
It helps to know how to count money in Chinese or at least learn the numbers from 1 to 10. But don’t worry, shop vendors will show you prices on a calculator so there are no misunderstandings.
Although the cultural attractions around Beijing are amazing, the food is still the best thing about the city.
The food all over China is just as amazing as the stories say, though it is a little different to the Chinese food that you probably eat back home.
You’ll find everything from 5-star restaurants to tiny local street food stalls in Beijing. And the food will probably be equally good in all of them.
You simply have to eat Peking Duck when you’re in Beijing, and this is one of the most popular places to do it. The restaurant actually dates back to 1864 and serves 5 million customers a year. So you know the food is good!
Address: 30 Qianmen Street, Chongwen District 崇文区前门大街 30 号
Jin Ding Xuan is open 24/7. It’s always busy, so arrive before you get really hungry and be prepared to line up for a while. The food is well worth the wait, with delicious Sichuan, Cantonese, and Shandong dishes on offer.
Address: 77 Hepingli Street, Dongcheng District 东城区和平里西街 77 号
It can be hard to be vegetarian in China, but it’s not difficult at all at King Joy’s. It’s one of the best vegetarian restaurants in town. Located close to Yonghegong Lama Temple, it serves fresh, organic, vegetarian delicacies from all over China.
Address: 2 Wudaoying Hutong, Dongcheng District (东城区五道营胡同2号)
Beijing can get freezing cold in winter and the best way to warm up is with hotpot at this Longtan Park restaurant. Featuring meats and vegetables cooked in broth, this dish is best eaten with friends or family.
Address: 22 Longtan Road, Dongcheng District (东城区龙潭路 22 号)
If you’ve eaten dumplings back home, then you probably haven’t had proper dumplings and should visit this restaurant when you’re in Beijing.
Xian Lao Man is a cheap and cheerful restaurant designed for the common folk and offers a huge range of dumpling fillings. With an English slogan like ‘Our dumplings are the fullest’, you know you’re in for a treat!
Address: 252 Andingmen Dajie
Beijing’s night markets have absolutely fantastic food.
There’s no better way to spend an evening than wandering a market snacking on anything that looks or smells tasty. And here’s where you should do it:
With a dizzying array of snacks, this market is mostly for visitors and offers good food in a more relaxed atmosphere than in more traditional markets.
The food isn’t as cheap as it is at other markets, but it’s still amazingly good. Critters-on-sticks are the norm.
This is the ultimate night market experience, complete with stalls selling almost everything you could imagine.
The area is also surrounded with shops and bars, so even if you get tired of the shops, you’ll still find lots to do and eat.
Located in the south of the city, this night market boasts a lot of Sichuan food, known for its heat and spice.
You’ll want a strong stomach and a fireproof tongue if you’re going to try some of these dishes. If you can get past the heat, then the tastes are simply amazing.
Beijing offers a huge range of accommodation options at every price point.
Unless you’re in a good hotel, just be aware that the facilities can be different to what you might expect if you’re from a Western country. For example, some lower-end hotels have squat toilets.
For a budget stay, try the Peking Station Hostel. It’s within walking distance of local attractions like the Forbidden City and only a minute from the subway station.
With dorm and private rooms and lots of common spaces where you can get to know your fellow travelers, this is the perfect place for anyone on a budget.
The highly rated, yet affordable, Furun Hotel is centrally located. It’s a few blocks away from some of the major sites in Beijing like Wangfujing and the Forbidden City.
The hotel was recently renovated, and you can even chill out in the small courtyard. It has a cozy kind of vibe.
If you have a little extra money to spend on your Beijing accommodation, then stay at the Westin Beijing Chaoyang. The hotel forms part of a large mixed-use complex in Liangma He, comprising office towers and extensive upscale shopping.
The Heavenly Spa offers a range of treatments for the renewal of the body, soul and mind. You can also work out in the fitness facilities, relax in the sauna, dive into the heated indoor swimming pool or get a relaxing massage.
Transport in Beijing is fast, convenient, well-priced, and not so surprisingly crowded, especially during peak hours.
There are lots of different transport options in Beijing whether you’re traveling to the city or within it.
Beijing has China’s largest airport, so you’ll probably arrive in the city by plane. There are two passenger airports, Capital International Airport in the northeast and Daxing Airport in the south.
When you’re arriving or leaving Beijing, you’ll probably go through Capital International Airport. It’s a huge and modern airport that offers flights to cities all over China as well as countless international flights.
Capital International Airport is about 25 km (16 mi) out of the city center, but it’s easy to reach by taxi, train, and airport shuttle.
See also: Beijing Capital Airlines review
China’s high-speed rail system is second to none and you’ll find trains from Beijing to most major cities in China. The trains are modern, fast, and a real pleasure to travel on.
Beijing has a comprehensive long-distance bus transport system. There are 10 major bus stations in the downtown area alone and 20 coach stations offering buses to major cities.
Taking a bus is usually cheaper than taking the train, but the journey time can be longer, so make sure you factor that in. You’ll also need to be a confident traveler – bus terminals aren’t always in the center of town.
If you’re traveling within Beijing, then the subway is a good choice to avoid traffic jams. It was put into use in 1969 to try and overcome the congestion on the roads. Just be aware that the subway does get extremely crowded at peak times, so try to avoid traveling around 8 in the morning and 6 at night if possible.
There are 23 subway lines in the city that can take you to the main areas, with multiple connecting stations. There are English signs at the stations.
The city bus is another good option for getting around Beijing. There are more than 1,200 bus routes running at all hours of the day and night and they’re all ridiculously cheap.
The only problem is that bus destinations tend to be in Chinese characters and not English, so use Google Maps to plan your trip ahead of time.
(Remember to download a VPN on your phone before you arrive in China so you can access Google products.)
You can pay by cash on the bus or get a Transportation Smart Card. Most short trips are 2 yuan, and you will need to put the exact change into the box next to the driver.
Make sure that you follow the locals when entering or exiting the buses, as there’s an etiquette for this. On most Beijing buses, you enter at the front and exit through the back doors, but this can change depending on the size of the bus.
Taxis are a cheap, fast way to get around. Official Beijing taxis have a sign on the roof and a yellow band from bumper to bumper. The drivers in these cabs will usually use their meters and the prices aren’t bad.
You may also see unofficial taxis around, which are usually run by private citizens looking to make some extra money. These taxis are more expensive, and you may have to haggle for a good price.
Just be aware that your taxi driver probably won’t speak much English, so you’ll need to be able to say your destination in Mandarin or have it written in Chinese characters.
Rickshaws are like small carriages that are pulled by a local on a bike. They’re a great way to get to know the small alleyways of Beijing, known as Hutongs.
If you want to explore the hidden parts of the city, bargain a good price and let them show you around. Rickshaw drivers often speak good English, and they can show you parts of the city that the big bus tours won’t.
Bicycles are a common way to get around Beijing as long as you’re a fairly confident rider. You can hire a bicycle from the docking stations all around the city using a Transportation Smart Card.
Beijing is a big city, but that doesn’t mean you should spend all your time there.
During your trip, make sure that you get out and explore some of the areas around Beijing such as:
Badaling is the closest section of the Great Wall, and it’s usually swarming with tourists.
So, if you want to visit other, quieter sections, you’ll need to travel further out. Just make sure you choose the section that suits your physical abilities and what you most want to see.
About 40 minutes’ drive from Beijing, Fragrant Hills Park offers great outdoor experiences as well as temples.
This gorgeous natural reserve is particularly good in fall when the leaves change. If you’re visiting Beijing at that time of the year then put this park at the top of your list.
These tombs were the final resting place for Emperors of the Ming Dynasty between the 14th and 15th centuries. They’re located in a nice forest area about an hour out of the city.
Some of the big bus tours stop here on route to the Great Wall.
Zhoukoudian is a prehistoric village where you can find caves holding well-preserved fossils of early humans who lived in this part of the world.
Located about 48 km (30 mi) from Beijing, this is a great day trip if you’re interested in archaeology or history.
Get a visual taste of Beijing before you visit!
Here’s an informative video about the city’s main attractions.
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a video about how hard life is for struggling migrant workers in Beijing.
And for the foodies, here are some of the best street food snacks you can find in Beijing.
It’s easy to forget a thing or two before you head to China.
So, here are a few reminders for you:
Have a wonderful time in Beijing. And don’t forget your VPN!
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Page last updated 3 November 2021. Main image credit: Simon Alpha on Pixabay. Commercial relationship disclosure: The Helpful Panda has commercial arrangements with organizations that may appear on this page, such as affiliate links. See our terms for more info.
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