Beijing is one of the oldest cities in the world and it’s packed with history and culture.
It’s also one of the largest cities in the world. Home to around 20 million people, Beijing plays host to a huge number of travelers every year.
This combination means you’ll probably find the capital of China more comfortable to travel in than other cities that don’t see as many tourists, as it’s set up for travelers.
However, beyond the surface level, it’s still very different to western countries in a number of ways. Those differences can easily trip up new visitors.
I’ve lived and worked in China, and I’ve traveled around Beijing. So, let me help you ensure your vacation is more fun and exploration than trouble and confusion.
Alright, here are the best Beijing travel tips!
1. Get the right visa
For most people, getting a Chinese visa isn’t easy compared to the visa process for some other countries.
There is Visa Free Transit if you’re from a certain country and you want to stopover in China for up to 72 hours on the way to somewhere else.
But most people have to get the L visa (tourist visa) which gives you up to 30 days to explore this magnificent country.
Make sure you start the visa process early too, because you don’t want to be rushing around at the last moment getting all the paperwork organized.
2. Work out how you want to pay
Like elsewhere in China, the locals in Beijing love their technology and this impacts how they pay for things.
Most of the time, you’ll see them paying using their phone, a trend that hasn’t really become widespread in many western countries.
So, expect most places to take digital payments when you’re in Beijing. Even small food stands prefer phone payments.
If you want to join in, you’ll need to set up a Tour Card using Alipay. WeChat Pay won’t work as you need a Chinese bank account to use it.
If you’re not comfortable using Alipay, you’ll need to use cash. Try to get low-denomination notes, as smaller stores often don’t have change for big notes.
The ATMs in Beijing only dispense 100 yuan notes.
Oh, and credit cards are hardly ever used in China, so while it’s good to have different payment methods as back-up, you probably won’t use it in China (apart from at the hotel).
3. Don’t drink the tap water
Whatever you do, don’t drink the tap water in Beijing. And don’t swallow water when you’re in the shower because the effects will be horrible.
Not even the locals can drink the water in China, so it’s even worse for travelers who aren’t used to the local microbiome.
Get used to drinking bottled water when you’re in Beijing. You’ll find it sold everywhere, because like I said, even the locals drink bottled.
And while you can brush your teeth with tap water, I choose not to. And I’ve always left Beijing with a trouble-free tummy.
4. Prepare for the language barrier
You will find some people who speak English in the city center, but probably not as many as you might think.
Only a small percentage of the local people speak English (or are willing to speak it). It’s usually the younger demographic, so there’s a lot of people who won’t be able to understand you at all.
Chinese people tend to be a little shy about their English-speaking abilities. If they think that they might make a mistake, they’ll often pretend they can’t speak or understand English at all rather than risk this.
This may leave you struggling to get around, especially if you’re traveling solo or you’re not part of a tour group.
But it actually isn’t as hard as you think to travel in a place where you don’t speak the language. Here are some ideas to help:
- Have your accommodation name and address in Chinese characters on your phone, or carry around your hotel’s business card
- Download a translation app that works in China and can be used offline
- Learn some basic words or even the numbers which will help you in stores
- Screenshot key phrases and keep them on your phone to show to people
Also, be prepared to use lots of body language and to look ridiculous when you do it!
5. Always carry your passport
Carry your passport wherever you go in Beijing.
You’ve probably heard this tip before traveling to a lot of different countries, but it’s one of the most important Beijing travel tips.
I can’t tell you how many times I was stopped by officials for a passport check in Beijing. Thankfully, I followed this piece of advice, otherwise the consequences could have been dire.
You’ll also need your passport to purchase tickets for attractions and even get on the high-speed trains, so just keep it close.
6. Visit the big attractions, and the smaller ones
There are countless things to see and do in Beijing. The biggest attractions that people tend to head for are:
- The Great Wall of China
- Forbidden City (also called Palace Museum)
- Tiananmen Square
- Temple of Heaven
- Summer Palace.
While I recommend visiting all these attractions (especially The Great Wall – it’s the best place), consider doing other things too, if you have the time.
For example, you could visit the quirky 798 Art District, sift through antiques at Panjiayuan Market, try the silk market, or even take a day trip to Tianjin. It’s just an hour away on the bullet train.
Just a few years ago, Universal Beijing Resort opened up. While it’s obviously very touristy, and quite expensive by local standards, it’s still a super-fun day out. You can read more in this Beijing travel guide.
The city is also known for hosting the Olympics, twice. While the National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, is famous the world over, there’s usually not much to do there.
7. Forget personal space
This piece of advice is one of the most important and jarring for travelers and it’s also one of the hardest to explain.
Just don’t expect to have your personal space respected when you’re in Beijing. In fact, the idea of personal space doesn’t really exist in Beijing (or in China as a whole, for that matter).
Beijing is a huge, busy city and everywhere is crowded. During your time there, you will get pushed, stepped on, bumped into, and cut off when walking.
And the locals won’t say “excuse me” when they do it. In fact, they probably won’t even notice they’ve done it at all.
Whatever you do, don’t get angry about this. It’s not personal and really is just part of the Chinese culture. And if you stay for long, you’ll probably pick up this behavior as well, it’s just so accepted in China.
It’s also much easier to get around if you’re a little more aggressive and don’t care about personal space.
In fact, this was part of my own reverse culture shock. When I got home from China, I walked towards an escalator and deliberately cut off someone else who was ahead of me.
He stared at me like I was the rudest person in the world, and I got a huge shock when I realized that my behavior had changed in such a short time.
I literally had to relearn my own country’s ‘acceptable’ behaviors!
8. Bring an adapter
Beijing uses lots of different kinds of power plugs.
Depending on where you stay, you’ll find A, C, and I plug sockets, so if you want to charge your electronics, then make sure you have adapters to match.
You may also need a voltage converter to keep your electronics safe, so make sure you buy an all-in-one adapter/converter.
9. Prepare yourself for the toilets
You’ve probably heard over and over that Beijing is a big, modern city and it is.
But this doesn’t mean that it’s western and this applies particularly to the toilets. Yes, you will come across a lot of squat toilets in Beijing. And yes, you will probably have to use them.
I wish I could tell you that the squat toilets aren’t as bad as some people say, but for me they were a constant challenge.
My advice is to always have toilet paper with you (the toilets usually won’t have any) and avoid any puddles you see on your way into your stall.
You should also carry a bottle of sanitizer with you wherever you go, as many bathrooms in Beijing don’t have soap.
Also, remember that China’s sewerage system isn’t set up to handle toilet paper, so you usually can’t flush it down the toilet. Put it in the provided bin instead and then wash your hands really well because the bins are often overflowing.
I’ve written a whole article on Chinese toilets if you want to find out more.
10. Just accept the noises
Chinese culture is very different to western cultures and nowhere is this more obvious than in restaurants or in the streets.
The first time I sat down in a restaurant and heard the slurping I was appalled. But I got used to it over time, even if I couldn’t do it myself.
Slurping just isn’t considered rude in China, which kind of makes sense considering it’s natural to slurp when you drink soup.
Seeing and hearing Chinese spitting is a little harder to accept. Dodging a motorcycle rider who pulls over to spit near your feet in the gutter is confronting, as is dodging the puddles on the sidewalk.
But you do get used to it if you’re there long enough. It’s just part of local life.
11. Monitor the air quality
In recent years, the air pollution in Beijing has really improved.
Essentially, factories and industry have moved further away, but there has been some government intervention too.
You can still get the odd bad day, particularly in the winter months or when there’s the occasional dust storm.
There’s nothing you can do to change the city’s air pollution; all you can do is be prepared for it. Here’s how:
- If you have respiratory issues, try to avoid the city in winter when the air quality is the worst
- Wear a proper mask
- Look out for official air warnings on the really bad days and visit indoor sites on those days
- Avoid strenuous activities like hikes on bad air days.
Here’s a good website to track the air quality in Beijing, but if you’re fit and healthy, you’ve got nothing to worry about!
12. Get a VPN
Out of all the Beijing travel tips I could give you, this one is extremely important for anyone who goes into withdrawal without their favorite internet sites.
China’s firewall is real, and a lot of popular western websites and apps are blocked by it. This includes sites you probably take for granted and use for everything such as Facebook, YouTube, Google, Gmail, Snapchat, and Instagram.
If you want to use one if not all of these sites during your time in the Chinese capital, then you’ll need to use a virtual private network (VPN).
Some of the most popular and effective VPNs for Beijing are:
Top tip: Make sure that you download it before you arrive in China, as it won’t download once you arrive.
13. Don’t tip
Tipping is unnecessary in Beijing and if you try to tip, it will confuse people.
The only time you should tip is when it’s requested. If you take a private tour, then your tour company may suggest you leave a tip, but otherwise, don’t worry about it.
I never tipped during my travels to Beijing, or anywhere in China.
14. Practice your photo smiles
China’s capital city sees a lot of travelers from inside of China, many of them tourists from more remote areas who haven’t seen westerners in person before.
This means that you might attract attention while in Beijing. And this kind of attention usually isn’t subtle. You may find that people take photos of you as you walk down the street or ask you to take a selfie with them.
You can say no to this of course, but if you have a minute, then why not say yes?
The people asking are usually very excited and polite and it doesn’t hurt anyone to smile at the camera and make someone’s day!
15. Be patient with transport
You will need to be patient when it comes to getting around Beijing.
Between the language barrier, the crowds, and the sheer size of Beijing’s public transportation network, it can be challenging, particularly if you’re visiting for the first time.
To be quite frank, if you want to see a lot in a short time, then it’s better to organize a car through your hotel’s front desk or a tour operator, especially if you’re visiting The Great Wall of China which is quite far out of the city.
This will save you a lot of time and isn’t as expensive as you might think.
If you’re determined to use public transport then expect crowds, give yourself plenty of time to get anywhere, and try to avoid using public transport during peak hours.
You should also expect to get lost, and to have to find your way back again, so patience is needed here as well.
And you’ll also need patience if you’re taking cars anywhere too. Beijing’s rush hour is legendary and can turn a short trip into an hours-long expedition.
You can rest assured that Beijing has plenty of subway stations. Just have a navigation app ready on your phone so you know where you’re going once you hop off.
You’re probably familiar with Google Maps but there are other China map apps too.
16. Plan your trip to the Great Wall
I’ve mentioned the Great Wall of China a few times now, but this really needs to be a Beijing travel tip all on its own.
After all, the Great Wall is supremely iconic and what Beijing is best known for.
This awe-inspiring construction dates back centuries, and it meanders through numerous provinces over thousands of miles. It’s not just located near Beijing.
However, the best preserved parts are closest to Beijing, which is why everyone heads there.
Here are the most popular parts of the Great Wall of China:
- Mutianyu – the best restored, and you can even toboggan down (1.5 hours drive)
- Badaling – most popular with Chinese tourists and the busiest (1.5 hours drive)
- Jinshanling – the most beautiful and wild, great for hiking (2-3 hours drive)
- Simitai – also good for hiking, and offers night tours (2-3 hours drive).
It’s important to plan your trip to the wall carefully, as each section is different and caters to different kinds of tourists.
And, they’re all different distances from Beijing (though a one-day return trip is enough time for most sections).
The folks over at China Highlights have a nice article which goes into more detail about the different sections.
17. Beware of scammers
If you’re a first-time traveler in China, you really need to hear this.
If anyone approaches you, especially near Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City, and asks you to come with them to try some tea, definitely say “no”.
It’s a well-known scam, where after sampling a few small cups of tea, you’re essentially locked in the teahouse until you pay the exorbitant amount they demand.
You may also be approached by people offering to be your tour guide, especially in the Forbidden City area. Be very, very careful.
18. Come in spring or fall
Last but not least – when is the best time to come to Beijing?
If you don’t like extreme hot and cold temperatures, then spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons to visit Beijing.
Just note that this is when most travelers like to visit the city too.
No matter what season you come, it’s a good idea to avoid Chinese New Year and the other Chinese public holidays because everywhere will be unbelievably crowded. Even the hotels will be more expensive.
The final Beijing travel tip
This isn’t really specific to Beijing, but it’s something that I highly recommend for anywhere in China.
Just remember that the way you’ve always done things, the way that your family and culture have always done things, isn’t necessarily the right way to do them in China.
People tend to think that their way of doing things and looking at the world is the only or even the best way. But it isn’t.
During my time in Beijing and in China at large, I found that things that seemed strange at first came to feel natural and even appropriate over time.
Travel demands a flexible mind. And if you visit Beijing with a flexible mind, you’ll have a much better and stress-free trip.
I know you’ll have a great time in Beijing. And don’t forget your VPN!
I hope you liked my Beijing travel tips. Now, check out the China travel tips page for even more helpful advice.
Main image credit: Supplied by Mike Cairnduff.
FAQ about Beijing travel
Is Beijing open for travel?
It sure is. Following a few years of being practically shut off from the rest of the world, Beijing, along with the rest of China, is now open for travel. There are no longer any Covid restrictions.
Is it safe to travel to Beijing?
It sure is. Beijing, like the rest of China, is very safe for foreign tourists. Crime against foreigners is practically unheard of. If you’re prone to respiratory problems, you may want to bring some good quality masks in case of the odd bad pollution day or dust storm.
Is Beijing worth visiting?
Absolutely! It’s the cultural capital of China and it’s very different to other Chinese cities. There’s unique food, a local dialect, and countless historical sites. You could spend weeks in Beijing and still not experience everything.
Why is Beijing a good place to visit?
It’s full of history and culture, making it an absolute treat for tourists. There’s the world-famous Great Wall of China within a few hours’ reach, Forbidden City (or Palace Museum), Temple of Heaven, ancient hutongs (back alleys), Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, and so much more.