Teeming with countless historical accounts, landmarks, and sights, along with its deep rooted culture, and emerging art scene, Beijing leaves you feeling everything but bored. We were lucky to have a few extra days to briefly see beyond the “Top 10 must see sights” and capture a more intimate, “behind the scenes” snapshot of this great city.
Must check sites
3 Key sites to look into for happenings around Beijing:
- Tian’anmen Square. One of the largest public squares in the world, Tian’anmen Square will certainly make you feel small with its towering structures on all sides. If you wake up early enough, or visit in the evening, you may also be able to catch either the flag raising or flag lowering ceremonies that take place daily at dawn and dusk. It’s suggested you arrive 30 minutes prior to the ceremonies to ensure you get a good viewing spot. Insider tips: 1) Don’t take photos of any military you may see marching through the square or nearby. 2) If you’re planning to visit the Forbidden City as well, start at Tian’anmen Square, as once you go through the gate, you can’t turn back to exit. You’ll be quickly funneled into the entrance for the Forbidden City, which will take you through to the North Exit.
- Forbidden City. With its name stemming from the fact that this area was off limits for 500 years, this “city” is now the largest collection of preserved ancient buildings in the world. An impressive sight to see. Don’t miss the Imperial Gardens. Insider tip: If you’re not up for hiring an actual guide, the audio guides available to rent offer a wealth of information, and are set up with GPS to follow you through the area so you can take as much or as little time as you like to stroll through.
- Jingshan Park. Directly across the street from the North Entrance of the Forbidden City, you’ll find a set of steps in Jingshan Park leading up to a lookout atop the hill, where you can get a gorgeous panoramic view of the crowded golden rooftops within the Forbidden City. A popular but great photo opp!
- Qianmen Street. The second largest pedestrian street in Beijing, Quianmen Street is lined with everything Western retail chain shops to local hat vendors and candy stores, as well as authentic restaurants and private galleries (if you’re lucky, you might even catch an auction!). A famous street throughout Beijing’s history, built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it was sadly burnt to ashes in 1900 when the Allied Forces of the Eight Powers ransacked Beijing. There was nothing left to reconstruct, so what you see today is a model of what Qianmen Street looked like in its original state based on historical photos.
- National Museum of China. Located next to Tian’anmen Square, this museum leaves you with a lot to desire as exhibits are sparse and hard to find, but if you have time and happen to be in the area, it’s worth briefly stopping into. There is a permanent exhibit on the history of Chinese currency that’s fascinating, and the sheer size of the building is impressive in itself.
- Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Located in Tian’anmen Square, this is the final resting place of Chairman Mao Zedong. Conspiracy surrounds this place as it’s said that when the Chairman passed, the caretakers embalmed his body to an unrecognizable level, and although they were able to fix it in the end, a strikingly similar (and often unmistakable) wax figure of his body is displayed in lieu of the real thing! Insider tip: The mausoleum is only open until 11am daily, so do keep that in mind as you’re planning out your day.
- Temple of Heaven in the morning to watch the locals as they practice tai chi. (We couldn’t get up for it, but have been told it’s worth seeing if you’re in the area).
The Great Wall of China. A trip to Beijing wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Great Wall. We chose to go through Great Wall Adventure Club, which is an establishment that has been set up due to the relationships the guides have with local farmers and villagers who live along the Wall, which allows them special access to otherwise restricted hiking areas. We had a great experience, privately hiking through the overgrown and unmaintained, yet magnificent Jiankou section, and camping overnight in a watch tower along the Wall. In the morning, we woke to the sunrise and then welcomed a local farmer who climbed up to deliver warm homemade dumplings and oxtails (like a fried dough of sorts; also known as oil bread) to us for breakfast. It was a magical and memorable experience. Certainly a once in a lifetime must-do!
Capitol M. Head to the rooftop terrace at Capitol M for a cocktail after your day of sightseeing around the Forbidden City, Imperial Palace and Tian’anmen Square. The waitstaff are highly attentive, and will likely offer to take your photo as you look out onto Tian’anmen Square and surrounding sights below. Insider tips: Don’t miss their sweet bar snack: potato chips sprinkled with sugar! Also, if you’re new to Beijing, let them know. The restaurant has put together a small book with their recommendations of things to see and do in the area, which they’ll gladly give you a copy of (for free). We found it to be an extremely helpful and a kind gesture!
798 Art District. One of our favorite districts to date, 798 Art District is a restored industrial neighborhood with former factories turned galleries, public art instillations, and numerous gastro-pubs, farm to table restaurants, coffee shops, cold-pressed juice stands, and craft beer and cocktail bars. If you visit on a weekend, you’ll likely even stumble upon an exhibition opening!
Side streets around town. You’ll notice markets and activity exploding in many of the side streets as you walk through the city. Stop for a few minutes to explore a few of them; picking through produce to find the best peach for a mid-day snack, or sitting for a pint in the evening amongst locals unwinding from the day, enjoying sizzling meat steaming atop cast iron skillets.
Peking Duck at Quan Ju De Roast Duck Restaurant. This is a local chain with six locations around Beijing, easily identifiable by the two large yellow duck statues on either side of the entrance. A personal favorite, and recommend by our guesthouse host, “Quan Ju De is one of Beijing’s oldest and most famous Peking Duck restaurants. Established in the 1860’s during the Qing Dynasty, it has a long history and a classic taste that everyone can enjoy. When the duck you ordered is ready, the chef will cut meat from the duck in front of you. It’s really an art performance!”
Cooking Class at Mama’s Lunch. Joyce, the woman behind Mama’s Lunch, offers one of the best, and perhaps most personalized cooking classes in Beijing. The minute you step into her kitchen, you immediately feel at home. She provides you with an apron and snacks as she gently teaches you the art of making dumplings and hand noodles. Once you’ve finished up, she clears the table and resets it for dinner where you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labor, alongside a few other dishes she hand prepares herself. To keep conversation lively, she also keeps your glass filled with either beer or wine throughout the night! A truly enjoyable experience had by all. Insider tip: Joyce was also gracious enough to order us a cab home at the end of the night to ensure we got in the car with a trusted driver.
Note: Scroll to the bottom of the page to see the listing for Mama’s Lunch
Peking Opera at Liyuan Theater. This is an elaborate performance dating back to the 18th century (becoming fully recognized in China by the 19th century). There are three popular theaters where you can see Peking Opera in Beijing, but you’ll quickly learn that Liyuan Theater is the known favorite (the other theaters are rather known for their buildings, but the show at Liyuan is said to be the best). Liyuan is located in the Beijing Qianmen Hotel, and if you book through their ticketing agent, Travel Great Wall, you’ll likely be able to snatch a pair of VIP tickets for 160 – 180 yuan, which will seat you up in the front of the theater at a Baixian Table (an old-fashioned square table that seats up to eight people), complete with complementary sweets and tea. The show runs for 60 – 90 minutes on average, and English subtitles are displayed on screens adjacent to the stage to help you follow along with the changing storylines.
Tuina Massage at Yi Run Tang. Treat yourself to a tuina massage, an ancient form of Chinese manipulative massage treatment. We’d recommend Yiruntang Foot & Body Oil and Spa Massage. The masseuses are highly trained, facilities all very clean (you’ll even get a set of clothes to change into), and quite reasonably priced. Insider tip: Tipping isn’t included, or expected, but the masseuses are grateful if you do indeed offer them something in the end to recognize their service.
Note: We weren’t able to locate a website, but the closest thing to an address we had was, Yiruntang Foot & Body Oil and Spa Massage, Nanheyan Street Dongcheng, Beijing, China. If you put it into your maps app, it should come up. Also, ask your hotel/guesthouse to write down the address in Chinese for you as locals can point you in the right direction once you’re close by.
Must note – transportation
Rickshaws. Don’t trust rickshaw drivers, and if possible, try to avoid them as they severely overcharge and may not take you to the right destination.
Taxis. Before you hop into a taxi, especially at the airport, make sure you confirm with the driver that he’ll use the meter. Don’t assume (as we did!) that just because you’ve waited in the taxi queue that the driver won’t try to make their own side deal with you.
Subway. The Beijing subway is extremely clean, quick, reliable, and easy to navigate. If you show the ticket booth agent the Chinese address of your final destination, they’ll make sure to provide you with the correct ticket. It also helps to have the subway map preloaded on your phone, with your final destination starred so you can navigate while en route.
Insider tip: Get all addresses and other pertinent destination details written for you in Chinese by someone at your hotel/guesthouse before you set out. It’s extremely helpful to show both taxis and the ticket booth agents in the subway stations, for them to ensure you get to where you’re going.
Red Lantern House. If you’re looking for a more “off the beaten path” spot to post up at while you’re in Beijing, the Red Lantern House is the place for you. You’re almost transported when you walk through the large front doors, into a space filled with red lanterns hanging from high skylit ceilings, and coy fish ponds and tanks scattered around. Set within a local hutong which is home to a daily market, you’ll also be able to wander around the streets to glance through the produce, meats and trinkets available for sale. In addition, the Red Lantern House also has a number of English-speaking staff who are more than happy to help you with your plans and write out destination addresses out for you. They also send you off with a red tassel to hook onto your bag for good luck upon check out!
Notes on the food:
We don’t have much in the way of advice on cuisine as much of what we ate was at the recommendation of our Great Wall tour guide. All was delicious, but we couldn’t begin to recount the names of the dishes, so instead, we’d recommend trying to find a local who speaks English to help you order.
Some of the more local restaurants will set your place with pre-packaged table wear (small saucer, soup dish and spoon, and teacup). We couldn’t discern why this was, but thought it was interesting nonetheless!