Beijing is massive in size, sights and history. Strap on your Fitbit, grab your walking shoes and hit the pavement to explore the wonders of China’s capital city.
Words Sara Naumann Illustration Maggie Li
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD TO IMPERIAL KEEP
Begin your Beijing tour with revolutionary PRC history at Tian’anmen Square. This enormous plaza is infamous for the 1989 student protests but is now kept peaceful by roaming plain-clothes police. Get your Beijing bearings by starting at the southern side of the square and begin walking north through the middle. You’ll pass the Great Hall of the People on the west side and the National Museum of China on the east. Along your path through the square, you’ll be able to visit the Mao Zedong Mausoleum, where you can glimpse the embalmed body of the Chairman himself.
After you’ve left the square and crossed West Chang’an Avenue, you’ll find yourself standing in front of the iconic Chairman Mao portrait at the Gate of Heavenly Peace. This imposing entrance is your entrée to the Forbidden City. Walk through the gate of this UNESCO World Heritage Site and the enormity of the imperial compound becomes obvious. Spend the rest of the day exploring the gardens and pavilions where 24 successive Ming and Qing dynasty courts ruled until 1911, when the last Qing emperor fell.
TEMPLES BLUE, BUDDHIST & DELECTABLE
Now that you’ve had a tour of government seats past and present, make temples your next adventure. The Temple of Heaven, also a UNESCO site, southwest of the city centre, boasts unique round architecture and a cobalt colourway. Next, make a stop at the Lama Temple, a Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) Tibetan Buddhist temple with outstanding artistry and carvings. For dinner, finish the day at TRB Hutong (Temple Restaurant Beijing) for haute cuisine set in a restored 600-year-old temple.
GARDENS GRAND & CHARMING
To see how rich royals spent their summer holidays, head northwest of the city centre to the Summer Palace, another UNESCO site where Qing courtiers whiled away hot summer days, passing under the 728-metre Long Corridor, admiring hand-painted cross-beams and boating on the man-made Kunming Lake.
To take in a classical garden on a less imperial scale, head to peaceful Ritan Park just west of the Forbidden City. Arrive early in the morning to watch some of Beijing’s older generation practising Tai Chi or ballroom dancing. If it’s scenery you’re after, climb the hill at Jingshan Park just outside the north gate of the Forbidden City, for unparalleled views of the royal rooftops.
HISTORICAL WINDOW SHOPPING
Now that you’ve maxed out culturally, it’s time to buy some souvenirs. The ancient alleys of Liulichang, where Ming scholars and academics used to congregate, is a lovely place to check out old bookshops, bargain for curios and pick up traditional memorabilia. For something more modern, head to Nan Luo Gu Xiang, another alley; this one is full of terrace cafés and hip boutiques selling the wares of local designers.
A MARKET LIKE NO OTHER
You might have tasted the power of bargaining already, so take it big time at Panjiayuan Market. Beijing’s most famous flea market is busiest on Saturdays, but you can find folks selling their wares any day of the week. Whatever you’re after – from Peking Opera costumes to imitation Mongol weaponry to taxidermy peacocks to faux-antique Ming pottery – Panjiayuan has it all.
If you like to read something set in the city you’re visiting, try Paul French’s Midnight In Beijing before your trip. When you arrive, take his audio tour to discover this old section of Beijing once called the Legation Quarter. Believed haunted by evil fox spirits, the Dongbianmen Tower is where a murdered young woman’s body was found in 1937. When you’re finished hunting ghosts, hit the Red Gate Gallery inside the tower. This is one of Beijing’s best, and most famous, art galleries.
MORE ART, GALLERY BY GALLERY
Gallery-hopping is a recent Beijing pursuit and you can make an afternoon of it perusing the 798 Art District. Once the home of Beijing’s most cutting-edge artists, it’s now a bit more commercial. You can still find some of Beijing’s most interesting galleries inside this compound of repurposed factory buildings.
URBAN LAKE SWIMMING
Does anything sound crazier than urban lake swimming in Beijing? How about in January? Houhai is a small lake in central Beijing, surrounded by lively cafés in summer and the site for fun ice activities in the winter, including dips in frigid waters. Bring your swimwear if you’re ready to become a true Beijinger.
BEIJING KAO YA – YUM!
You must eat Beijing Roast Duck (kao ya) at least once. Da Dong is the traditional favourite with branches across the city. Duck de Chine receives international accolades for its version. Made in China in the Grand Hyatt is another perennial favourite and a fun place to go for its ambiance (and kid-friendly menu).
If the weather cooperates, Beijing by bicycle is the best way to get around. With large avenues filled with stopped traffic, biking is both efficient and enjoyable. Bike Beijing (bikebeijing.com) offers tours, but you can also use the plentiful share bikes parked all over the city. With an English interface, Mobike is the easiest to use. You’ll need a Chinese digital way to pay (see Travel Tips) and you’re off.
THE GREAT WALL
While technically “beyond” Beijing, a visit to the Great Wall must be worked into any trip to the Middle Kingdom. There are many “sections” to see, some more popular than others. Mutianyu is a section that bears plenty of guard towers, steep sets of stairs and incredible mountain views. Walk or take the chairlift to the top and then enjoy an alpine toboggan ride back down to the car park.
WeChat – If you download only one app in advance, make it WeChat. Ubiquitous in China, locals use it to do everything (hail cars, top up their mobile phones, pay bills, order food, etc.). If you use it for nothing else, WeChat’s translate function is really useful. Hit “Scan” and choose “Translate” and you’ll have a translation of whatever your camera is facing or any photo you take. This can help you avoid ordering duck tongue when you wanted chicken breast! Another fabulous WeChat function is “Payment”. You can add your credit card, and voila! You can pay for everything via WeChat. Every vendor uses it these days. They might be surprised at your cash.
Mobile WiFi – If roaming with your mobile plan is too expensive, look into renting a mobile WiFi unit at the airport when you arrive. Available as you exit the airport, these units are inexpensive to rent and can provide excellent WiFi for everyone in your party. There will be a place to return the unit when you leave Beijing (but you must be flying in and out of the same airport!).
Getting Around – If you’re trying to fit in a lot of sights that are spread out (say the Temple of Heaven, then the Summer Palace), it’s worth looking into hiring a driver for the day (enquire at your hotel). The subway is an excellent and inexpensive way to get around, so make sure to download a Beijing Metro map. DiDi is China’s answer to Uber. Available with an English interface, you can link your credit card to the app for payment.