The buzz on Beijing: top things to see and do
For such an ancient city, Beijing is buzzing. Capital of the world’s fastest growing economy, it's got grand imperial sights and secret backways, not to mention the food... Our local insider Tripbod Simon shares his favorite things to do in Beijing.
1. Bike Beijing
“There are nine million bicycles in Beijing” sang Katie Melua. Not any more, but given the lack of hills, omnipresent cycle lanes and network of alleyways, cycling is still the best way to see Beijing. Cheaper, greener and (sometimes) healthier, a bike affords a far more engaging perspective on the city, especially since it can be impossible to get a cab, and rather than crawling along the skyscraper-laden avenues, you can make stealthy progress through backstreets and see snatches of everyday life. Rent a bicycles from one of the many hire shops throughout the old city and prepare to get lost - in a good way! Alternatively, Cycle China (opposite Jingshan Park East Gate) can organize guided rides on decent quality bikes.
2. See Imperial Beijing
The Big Three Imperial sights in Beijing offer easy insight into China’s historic and cultural legacy, and present a stark contrast to the gleaming towers of the modern city. Start with a visit to the Forbidden City (¥60) and as well as the grand main courtyards and halls, make sure you explore the network of side chambers for a more intimate view of courtly life. Too many temples and palaces can blur into one, so leave time for a boat trip on Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace (¥50), and a wander along the covered corridors east of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest at the Temple of Heaven (¥35), where you may find impromptu performances of Chinese opera, crowds intently observing games of Chinese chess, fan dances and other surprises.
3. Jingshan Park
As well as being one of Beijing's main attractions in its own right, a short climb in Jingshan Park instantly provides cooler air and a sense of the vast expanse of the Forbidden City - a sea of orange roofs stretching towards the horizon. The park dates from the Ming dynasty and its design is based on the principles of fengshui, with the hill to protect the Forbidden City from chilling northern winds. The park outlives the dynasty and is where the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, hanged himself in 1644. Open daily 7am-8pm; ¥2.
4. Chill in Tian’anmen Square
Tian’anmen Square is lined by the nation’s most important buildings – the Forbidden City, the National Museum and the Great Hall of the People, while Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum and the Monument to the People’s Heroes also lie within its concrete expanse, making it an essential place to see in Beijing. The square has often been the focal point for expressions of discontent, the most famous being the student protests of 1989, so there is a security check on the way in, whilst in the square, flagpole guards look blankly out into the middle distance. It may come as a surprise, therefore, to see how much fun everyone else seems to be having! In the midst of these serious and significant monuments the square throngs with visitors, mostly domestic tourists, having a great time eating ice cream, flying kites and meeting foreigners, so head down and mingle with the friendly crowd.
5. Panjiayuan antiques market
This fantastic covered 'antiques' market is one of Beijing’s best, and is well worth a visit, particularly at the weekend, whether you browse or buy (one always seems to lead to the other!) You’ll see traders from across the country selling everything from books to bedheads, and calligraphy to revolutionary art, and there’s an impressive collection of Buddha statues sitting incongruously between the skyscrapers. If you work up an appetite there’s also a coffee and sandwich shop in the market. The easiest way to get here is by taxi. Open Mon to Fri 8am-6pm, Sat & Sun 4.30am-6pm.
6. Trek the 'Wild Wall'
Badaling is the closest bit of the Great Wall to Beijing and bustles with visitors. To see the wall at its rugged best, head a little further from the city: Gubeikou, Jinshanling, Huanghuacheng and Jiankou are all far quieter and more spectacular, yet lie within 2-3 hours of Beijing. In these places you’ll feel as if you’ve stumbled onto a lost tract of history. At Jiankou the white-hued rock of the wall clearly etches its serpentine trail, making this one of the most dramatic of all the Beijing sections, but it’s a steep climb up to the wall. You can hike from here to Mutianyu (4-5hr), although as the wall is in fairly poor state it’s best to join one of Great Wall Hiking’s regular treks. Jiankou Great Wall costs ¥25; get bus #916 from Dongzhimen to Huairou and then a minibus. Mutianyu Great Wall costs ¥45; get tourist bus #867 from Dongzhimen.
7. Traditional Chinese massage
Shopping, hiking, eating and sightseeing in Beijing takes it out of you after a while, but fortunately a remedy is always close at hand! There’s an abundance of traditional massage clinics, parlors and spas which can de-stress your days and help your health from as little as ¥60 an hour. The choices listed below are definitely worth visiting.
Beijing Massage Hospital (+86 10 6616 8880) at 7 Baochan Hutong in Xicheng specializes in tuina therapy performed by blind masseurs, but they also perform acupuncture and moxibustion.
Dragonfly has several branches offering great Chinese massages, shiatsu and aromatherapy. Prices are high by Beijing standards, but still great value given the five-star experience offered. There’s a branch near the Forbidden City at 60 Donghuamen Jie (+86 10 6527 9368) and another on the ground floor of the Eastern Inn on San Litun Nan Lu (+86 10 6593 6066).
8. The ultimate romantic dinner
Delicious barbecued delights served to you in the comfort of your own privately punted gondola, to the backdrop of the sun going down over Houhai Lake and the sounds of classical Chinese musicians...sound good? Arrange the date night to end all others with Kaorouji at Houhai lakeside (14 Qianhai Dongyan; +86 10 6404 2554; daily 11am-2pm & 5-11pm) – the complete package costs ¥400 per boat, plus ¥100-200 per person for food. The same standard of cuisine can also be sampled at their relaxed lakeside restaurant. The streets surrounding Houhai are home to a selection of Beijing's best bars, perfect for a few post-dinner drinks; start with No Name Bar, just along from Kaorouji.
9. Beijing duck
Beijing duck just tastes better in Beijing! Although traditionalists argue that Beijing duck is best savored by itself, with simple condiments of plum sauce, finely sliced spring onions, cucumbers and wafer thin pancakes, adding a vegetable dish or two helps to offset its roasted richness. There are scores of good duck restaurants, but a good choice is Huajia Yiyuan, a labyrinth of courtyards and dining halls tucked into a hutong (the name for Beijing's narrow backstreets). Huajia’s deliciously succulent signature Yongzheng Roast Duck (based on a Qing dynasty recipe) is presented with an unusual variety of condiments including pineapple, Hami melon and lettuce. Found at 235 Dongzhimennei Dajie near Beixinqiao subway station.
10. Beijing acrobats
Beijing opera features intricate make-up, theatrics and shrill voices, so is not everyone’s cup of cha, whereas it's hard to meet anyone who doesn’t enjoy Beijing’s astounding acrobats. The capital has a long acrobatic history and the mind-boggling assortment of juggling, cycling, contortion and balancing acts will keep you on the edge of your seat. Chaoyang Acrobatic Theater (36 Dongsanhuan Bei Lu; ¥180-880) has nightly performances which include 12 girls on one bicycle! Tianqiao Acrobatics Theater (95 Tianqiao Market Street, Xuanwu; ¥180-580), is Beijing’s oldest acrobatics theatre that offers a great show in a smaller theater, meaning you’re closer to the action.
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Tripbod Simon is a travel writer, author for Frommer’s and Rough Guides books, as well as the founder of Bamboo Trails, a travel company specializing in getting off the beaten track in the Chinese world.
*Published October 2016. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.