With its unique mix of ancient history and rapid modernization, Beijing is the quintessential Chinese city. Take thousands of years of art, architecture, culture, add about twenty million people and a competitive drive to be the leader in industry/technology, and you end up with the massive metropolis that is Beijing. As a first time visitor, it's size and chaotic streets can be a little overwhelming, but get past that and there is something for everyone to love. Few cities in the world can compete with its historical sites. There are six UNESCO World Heritage sites in the city alone, more than in most countries. Great food can be found on every corner, and cuisine from all of China's many provinces is represented. There are world-class museums, sprawling parks, bustling markets, high-end boutiques, and endless examples of strange modern architecture. It's the perfect place to get a feel for China and what it has to offer. With so much to see, it can be tough to narrow down the list to those must-do experiences. Luckily, you have us to help you out. Here are our top picks for what to do/see/eat when in Beijing.
You can’t go to Beijing and not pay a visit to the cities most famous landmark. The gigantic complex, made up of almost 1000 buildings and 10,000 rooms, is one of the worlds most impressive palaces. If you are into Chinese architecture and artifacts, you could easily spend an entire day wandering the compound. Even if you just scratch the surface of what the city has to offer, you should allocate a couple hours for your visit. Also, make sure you bring your passport as you will need it to get your ticket!
Almost more impressive than a visit to the Forbidden City itself, is getting a bird's eye view of it from the neighboring Jingshan Park. Join the crowds who flock here at sunset to get a spectacular view of the palace and the surrounding city. After you finish snapping photos, take the opportunity to explore the rest of the park. Chances are you will stumble upon groups singing traditional Chinese songs or elderly folks ballroom dancing.
National Center For The Performing Arts
If you can, try to catch a show at this huge, beautiful opera house located just west of Tiananmen Square. It is one of the best performance venues in the city and they hold frequent operas, plays, and concerts. The building is worth a visit for the incredible modern architecture alone. If you can’t make it for a show, you can visit during the day and pay an entrance fee of CNY 30 ($5) to take a look inside.
One of the largest city squares in the world, it is difficult not to be awed by the sheer scale of the plaza. It might not hold as much significance for foreigners as it does for Chinese visitors who flock here to take photos in front of Mao’s portrait and to visit his tomb, but it is still fascinating to see. Like the Forbidden City, you will need your passport to get in, so don’t forget it at your hotel!
National Museum of China
Located on Tiananmen Square, its no surprise that this museum is big. Actually calling it big is an understatement, this museum is freaking massive. There are over 2.2 Million square feet of display space. It is one of the world’s largest museums and it had almost 8 million visitors last year. Honestly, we were there for over an hour and we only explored a tiny fraction of the collection. Pro tip: If you are going to be there for a while, maybe bring some snacks with you so you don’t end up buying and eating questionable vacuum sealed sausages from the museum gift shop like we did.
In our opinion, hutongs are by far the coolest thing to see in Beijing. These winding alleyways and courtyard residences are windows into a more traditional Beijing, a side of the city that is rapidly disappearing. In the cities relentless effort to modernize they have been destroying many of the hutongs and replacing them with condos and office buildings. Alternatively, some neighborhoods have been taking a slightly less destructive approach by retaining the hutong architecture but filling the existing buildings with hipster coffee shops and boutiques. For a glimpse of hipster hutongs we recommend walking from the Lama Temple to Houhai Lake. Take your time and wander down any side streets that look interesting, some of the cities best bars and cafes are hidden in this area! If you are looking for more traditional hutongs, head just west of Houhai lake to Hugosi St and the area north of it. Here you will find fish or vegetable vendors instead of souvenir shops and traditional Chinese snack foods instead of waffles and churros.
Though you have seen it in countless photos and films, nothing really prepares you for visiting this world wonder in person. Walking along the top and looking out at the wall snaking across the distant mountain peaks… it’s a humbling experience to say the least. We visited the restored Mutianyu section of the wall, which is slightly farther away and less crowded than the Badaling section. You can either pay to take a cable car up to the wall, or just hike up. The hike up only takes about half an hour so if you are in decent shape we recommend doing that and saving the money. Once up at the top, walk away from the cable car to get away from most of the crowds. Getting to Mutianyu by public transportation is a bit of a hassle but totally doable, check out this helpful video someone made as a guide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tN9IDZDZnbw.
After visiting the Forbidden City, you might feel like you’ve had your fill of palaces and decide to pass on the Summer Palace, but that would be a mistake. Visiting this giant imperial park is a completely different experience than visiting the Forbidden City. Whereas the Forbidden City feels grand, imposing, and formal, the Summer Palace feels extravagant, fun, and almost whimsical. You can climb rock formations, stroll through gardens, or pedal a boat out on Kunming Lake… it might be one of the best places in Beijing to while away a sunny afternoon.
The headquarters of Beijing’s burgeoning contemporary art scene is this revitalized industrial district full of gallery spaces and street art. Although some of the galleries aren’t that exciting, there are so many of them that you are bound to find something interesting. We recommend UCCA, Faurschou Gallery, and Gallery Yang. After you checkout the galleries, grab a bite to eat at one of the many cafes and then head to the elevated walking path on the east side of the complex for an afternoon stroll.
For upscale shopping, dining, or going out, Sanlitun is the place to be. The popular area is full of stylish restaurants and bars and on a weekend evening, expect them all to be packed with well-dressed locals and foreigners alike.
Like everywhere else in China, the best food in Beijing is usually found at tiny restaurants or street stalls without an English name. Therefore it's tough to pinpoint some of the places where we had our best meals. When in doubt, just look for places that are packed with locals. If there isn’t an English menu just look around at what other people are eating and point to it when you order! Here are a couple places that we can actually identify and recommend!
Bad Ass Lamb Hot Pot
Our friend introduced us to this huge hot point joint packed with groups of locals. There is usually a wait but things move pretty quickly. Just grab a number from the machine when you come in. To order you walk along a buffet line and take poker chips representing which dishes you want, then give them all to the cashier and they bring them to your table. The most popular dish is a meter-long board covered in lamb. It was a ton of meat even shared among the three of us, but we saw plenty of people ordering one just for themselves!
We tried a few of the more famous peking duck places around the city, but this relatively quiet one around the corner from our hostel ended up being our favorite! Incredible, moist duck at a good price. (The link is to a restaurant on Google Maps with a different name, but Jingfuju should be there or right next door.)
A tiny, hole-in-the-wall joint serving up amazing spicy wings with 4 different spice levels. There is no English menu so it can be a little tricky but if you use the google translate camera feature you should be able to find the wings without too much trouble. They come 2 to an order, skewered on a stick.
Great Leap Brewing
One of Beijing’s most popular breweries with multiple locations. We like the original location hidden deep in the Hutongs near Houhai. With 7 brews always on tap plus a number of seasonal options, there are always plenty of beers to choose from.
Wangfujing Snack St
Probably the most touristy of the street food areas but worth a visit if it’s your first time. The crowded alleyway is full of stalls serving all of the Chinese street food staples like meat skewers, stinky tofu, dumplings, and candied hawthorn. The more adventurous can try scorpions and other bugs.