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As China’s capital, Beijing is a wondrous site for history. This sprawling city of over 22 million inhabitants is so large that it is difficult to comprehend for most visitors why it takes so long to get to one place to another. Due to its historical importance, and as the capital of China, any visitor to the country should plan on spending a few days exploring all it has to offer. I was amazed at how clean the city is considering how populous it is.
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Here, world travelers give their perspective on the best things to do in Beijing during your visit.
Visit Tiananmen Square
by Brittany Harris of Asia Undiscovered
Tiananmen Square is another must-see in Beijing. This plaza is mainly known for its historical significance and the tragic 1989 pro-democracy protests. Furthermore, it is considered to be one of the largest squares in the world. The square’s name Tiananmen means ‘heavenly peace gate’ and is named after the original main gate in the Forbidden City.
As you’re walking around Tiananmen square, you will get a glimpse into Chinese history. Moreover, you’ll be able to take some great Instagram worthy shots here.
This square includes the monument made for the People’s Heroes. Additionally, the National Museum of China and the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall are also located inside the square.
How To Get There
Another great thing about Tiananmen Square is that it’s directly across the street from The Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is south of the Forbidden City and within walking distance. As a result, you can easily visit both places on the same day. This will allow you to fit more destinations in your Beijing itinerary.
Explore the Beijing Zoo
Cindy Graham of Blue Bag Nomads
The Beijing zoo makes for a great day of exploring. Founded in 1906, it is one of the oldest zoos in China. It is home to over 14,500 animals. The zoo is a bit different in that it is a zoo, a park and it has an aquarium. The zoo is also a research center that studies and breeds rare animals.
If you are staying at a hotel, I would recommend taking a taxi and getting from the concierge a “taxi” card. On the card, the concierge will write both in English and Chinese at your destination. We always get these for all the places we are going to visit that we need a taxi to get there, including, a card with the name of the hotel for the return trip.
There is a bus that can drop you off near the entrance, but you will probably need more than one depending on where you are staying, and they usually are very crowded.
Enjoy a leisurely and beautiful stroll through the zoo and in addition to the animals, the water features and park setting. You will see Giant Panda’s, one of the favorite exhibits for locals and international tourists.
The park is open year-round from 7:30 in the morning till 6 pm, April to October and 7:30 am until 5 pm, November through March. The entrance fee is around $3, so not only is the zoo inexpensive; it makes for a lovely day.
Eat Spicy Crayfish
Sean Lau of Living Out Lau
Spicy crayfish is a traditional dish that originates from the southern province of Hunan, a place where it is known for its spicy food. It was introduced to Beijing in the 1900s and has now become an iconic dish.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Beijing if you do not try this cultural dish. This dish is probably as famous as the Peking duck. The term crayfish literally translates to “little lobster” in Chinese.
There is only one location where you should go to find your spicy crayfish. The place is called Gui Jie (or Ghost street). If you haven’t been to Gui Jie before, you are missing out. Known as a popular spot to hang out at night, it is a street filled with amazing food and nightlife activities.
There are several restaurants that serve spicy crayfish on Gui Jie. Which one should you go to? The answer is Hu Da. Hu Da is probably the most famous spicy crayfish restaurant and for good reason, their spicy crayfish is absolutely delicious. There are several Hu Da restaurants along Gui Jie. If you want, you could go to the main one, but the wait would be insane. (For a table of 4), we waited 3 hours from 7 pm to 10 pm on a weekday. For that reason, many other Hu Da’s have opened up along the same street. I have heard the test is the same as the main one but I cannot attest myself. If you have time, I suggest you wait for the main one!
Experience the Wangfujing Food Market
by Annick of The Common Traveler
One of my favorite things to do while traveling is trying new foods. China offers many foods that are unusual to the western palate, with each region offering its own flavors. Food markets are a great way to see and sample these different specialties.
Wangfujing Food Market offers the perfect blend of the unusual while feeling safe. Located just outside a highly touristy area of Wangfujing Street, lovers of all things local may feel a bit disappointed. Feel transported to a different space as you walk through the antique archway to what mostly looks like a wide alley. English, French, German and other languages can be overheard often in this market. But it also attracts Chinese visitors from other areas of the country.
Here is your opportunity to try the more common local dishes like cooked tripe, sugar-coated haws, stuffed squid, soup dumpling to the more unusual ones like scorpions, starfish, and spiders. Or choose to people watch and admire the stalls. This place makes for a unique experience to talk about upon your return home!
How To Get There
Take subway line 1 and use exit C2 at the Wangfujing Station.
Cool off at the Summer Palace
by Annick Lenoir-Peek of The Common Traveler
Located nine miles from downtown Beijing, the Summer Palace once served as the royal’s retreat from the summer heat. Plan on spending about a half-day exploring the beautiful gardens and halls. Originally built in 1750, the property has been rebuilt over the years, most recently in 1888, when the Empress Dowager Cixi embezzled funds meant for the Navy to creating her retreat.
Walk along the Long Gallery that fronts Kunming Lake where you’ll see more than 14,000 Su style paintings. Don’t miss the walk to the Marble Boat. If you’re feeling extra energetic, walk over to the Seventeen-Arch Bridge to be rewarded with a beautiful view of the Summer Palace.
The Summer Palace’s opening hours vary with the seasons, but is open at least from 7 am to 5 pm. Pay for the combo ticket including the entrance fee and various halls, costing 50 to 60 Yuan per person. The Summer Palace is definitely one of the best things to do in Beijing.
How To Get There
Take subway line 4 to Beigongmen, and exit from D. Walk west for 3 minutes to the North Palace Gate.
Pay Your Respects to Chairman Mao
by Sarah Carter of A SocialNomad
Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall can be found in Tiananmen Square. This mausoleum is the final resting place of Mao (1893-1976), where his embalmed body lies in state. Now you might think it’s a little creepy weird for me to suggest you visit a dead ex-leader of a country while visiting Beijing, but for me, it’s watching the other visitors that is half the exercise here.
You will definitely have to queue to see Mao, and there are no bags or cameras allowed in here (cell phones are allowed but in pockets only) – there is a locker room, but its 500 meters away at the otherwise of the square, next to the National Museum of China. Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday from 0800-1200 and expect to line up for quite a while – it took us three attempts to pay our respects to Mao!
Most Chinese visitors will pay their 3 yuan to buy a single red carnation to leave close to his body, although viewing the body is free. This is an interesting cultural experience, (especially if, like us you have visited the two other embalmed communist leaders of Russia and Vietnam) most visitors are curious certainly, there is an air of reverence amongst them too though. It’s certainly a unique thing to do in Beijing!
Mutianyu Great Wall
by Leona Wandermust of Wandermust Family
If there is one thing from our trip around Asia that stands out it is our trip to the Great Wall of China!
We decided to visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall for many reasons and have no regrets about our decision. The Great Wall at Mutianyu can be reached in just 40 minutes by car from Beijing! We visited the Mutianyu section as it is quieter than Badaling and accessible for families! The Mutianyu section has been restored which means the wall here is larger complete and one of the easier sections to tackle. On top of that, there are lots of tourist attractions on the site which will enhance your trip! On your way up to the Great Wall you can take a cable car and on the way down – for those adrenaline junkies you can take a toboggan back down to the base!
This will undoubtedly be a highlight on any trip to China!
Take a Rickshaw Ride Through the Hutongs
Annick Lenoir-Peek of The Common Traveler
If you want to learn about the culture of Beijing, you must visit the Hutongs. The Hutongs are the backbone of Beijing. These alleys and or small streets contain houses creating a local community where neighbors live in close proximity. Due to the lack of inside plumbing, these homes share public restrooms and toilets.
Because of the narrow streets, the best way to experience the Hutongs is riding a rickshaw. Today, there is a growing cry to protect the Hutongs which are being destroyed to make room for large buildings. The solution has been to make them appealing to tourists by featuring shops and restaurants.
How To Get There
Two of the most popular and easily accessible Hutongs are Shichahai and Dashilar. Visitors can take subway line 8 to Shichahai or subway lines 2 or 7 to Dashilar.
Reflect at the Temple of Heaven
by Daisy Li of Beyond My Border
As the capital of China, Beijing is definitely one of the best cities to visit in China. This historical gem has a lot of things to do, one of which is a visit to the Temple of Heaven.
Chinese mythology has a long-standing history. “Tian”, or heaven is also a key component in Chinese philosophy and beliefs. The Temple of Heaven was a place of worship for many emperors. With magnificent colors and grandiose designs, this 600-year old structure is a must-visit if you are planning a trip across China. The square itself is bigger than the Forbidden City, as emperors should not have a place of dwelling that is bigger than that dedicated to the heavens.
The park has 4 entrances. The East Entrances is the best place to start, as you can tour the park before seeing the main structures. You can reach the East entrance by taking subway line 5 to Tiantan Dongmen Station and exiting through A. Remember to go early, as tourist sites in China can get pretty crowded!
Visit the National Stadium
by Annick Lenoir-Peek of The Common Traveler
As someone who remembers the 2008 Olympics, the Bird’s Nest, as the Olympic (now National) Stadium is affectionately known, is an iconic structure I wanted to see for myself.
The area just outside the stadium is lively. When we visited, young people practiced in-line skating.
The building will host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 Olympic Games, so its Olympic usefulness is not a one-time and done occurrence.
The area is open daily from 9 am to 9:30 pm. General admission costs 40 Yuan but you’ll pay 80 or 100 Yuan to see some of the halls. The nearby Olympic Forest Park is free.
How To Get There
Take Subway line 8 and get off at Aoti Zhongxin (Olympic Sports Center) Station. Take Exit B2 and walk north for about 900 yards (823m).
Admire the Forbidden City
by Wendy Werneth of The Nomadic Vegan
The Forbidden City is one of Beijing’s most famous attractions and should not be missed. It is the largest palace complex in the world, and also the largest collection of ancient wooden buildings in the world.
The name “Forbidden City” is based on the rather poetic Chinese name “Zijin Cheng”, which is how the palace was referred to in centuries past. Nowadays, though, Chinese people just call it the “Ancient Palace”, or Gu Gong. It sits right in the center of Beijing, opposite Tian’anmen Square, and is surrounded by fortification walls.
More than 900 buildings make up this huge complex, so during the Ming and Qing dynasties it really was like a separate city unto itself, and common people were forbidden from entering. The complex was home not only to the emperor and his family but also to the many servants who waited on them.
The royal family lived in opulent style, wearing expensive silk robes and fine jewelry and feasting on all manner of exotic foods. This was in stark contrast to the modest clothing worn and the vegetable-based diet eaten by the common people in China.
You’ll need at least several hours, and ideally, a full day, to fully explore the Forbidden City. Restoration is ongoing, with new areas being opened to the public all the time. For example, in 2015 a walkway along the top of the perimeter wall was made accessible, offering unique aerial views of the complex.
Tickets do sell out quickly, so it’s best to arrive very early in the morning. Alternatively, it’s possible to purchase tickets online in advance, but the website is in Chinese only and does not accept international credit cards. To get there by public transport, take the Subway Line 1 to Tiananmen West or Tiananmen East station.
Beijing will amaze you!
Beijing is a great cultural destination and worthy of several days of your trip. We hope this list will inspire you to get out there and explore some magnificent sights.
If your travel plans include a trip to nearby areas, read on about what to do in Hangzhou and Shanghai, including a how-to guide to riding the Shanghai metro, as well as some tips for surviving the long flight!
Annick, The Common Traveler