Beijing is a place of many contrasts; modern yet traditional, politically charged yet relaxed and slow paced. Visitors must visit the sardine packed sights of Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, but must not forget to wonder the quiet ‘hutong’ for street food and traditional culture. Be prepared for friendly locals who want to chat and photograph you, in between their shopping and selfies! Beijing is full of surprises, an epic place to introduce yourself to Chinese culture and their delicious noodles…
Find (Some) Peace At The Temple of Heaven
South of the Forbidden City sits the Temple of Heaven, a series of temples originally built in the early 1400's during the Ming and Qing emperors reign as a place to pray for good harvests, along with its surrounding green spaces. Elders come here to play games together, sing Chinese songs in unison, to dance, and to practice the art of tai chi amongst the leafy pockets within the park. The trees are hilariously ordered in neat rows, although many are 800 year old cypresses which are desperately trying to twist and turn out of their regimented spots. The temples are very pleasing on the eye to walk around, they follow many rules of feng shui and so are beautifully symmetrical with odd lucky numbers being the focus. Unfortunately the number of Chinese tourists does continually make it difficult to enjoy the tranquility of the space, so we would strongly recommend getting there at 8am on a weekday to peacefully watch the locals going around their business. Entry is 35 yuan for a combination ticket which allows access to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Circular Mound Alter, the Echo Wall and all the surrounding parks. Nearest tube stop is Tiantandongmen.
Admire The National Centre Of The Performing Arts
The huge half-dome silver structure has caused a bit of a stir in the historic city of Beijing. Many have shunned it as the shiny egg on the cityscape whilst others have marvelled at its modernist aesthetic. To us it resembles a Chinese lantern and it’s contemporary style helps to bring Beijing in line with the modern world. The building is nestled in between the Hall of the People in Tian’nammen Square and Nanhai lake which makes it a perfect location for visiting whilst at other attractions. Surrounded by a large square of water, the rounded lantern appears to be half submerged, floating like a scoop of ice cream in a cola. The inside is also worth a visit with a notable deco-style curved roof in the entrance stairwell and a chunky metal pronged structure in the centre, guarded by 3 symmetrically placed security guards. Sometimes it is possible to visit the exhibition halls inside, but when we visited these weren’t open. Of course if your budget allows then the best way to experience this modernist building would be to see a show, whether it be an internationally renowned dance or theatre. The closest tube stop is Tian’anmen Xi and check the below link for opening times and schedule.
Watch Over The Forbidden City In Jingshan Park
Directly north of the Forbidden City sits the lusciously green Jingshan Park, it’s the protector from bad karma in Feng Shui alignment to the ancient city. Make your way up the hill via one of the many staircases and you will discover 7 temples all propped up on the steep slope with the largest Buddhist temple being at the top. From here you can see spectacular views across the city, the Beijing smog only adding to the mysterious aesthetic, and the Asian glazed tiles on the rooftops below of the Forbidden City. The park makes a welcoming escape from the busy streets and being up high in an otherwise flat Beijing is a nice change. The locals gather in the lower parts of the park to dance, practice their tai chi and chat amongst friends, creating a warming atmosphere for others visiting. On our trip, we were lucky to see over 100 locals singing together at the tops of their voices to some traditional Chinese music, we thought it was a really loud speaker at first! The people are so friendly in Beijing’s green spaces, trying to involve you in their games and always greeting you with a big grin on their faces. The closest tube stops are Nanluoguxiang and Beihai North and entrance fee is an affordable 20 yuan.
Stroll Around The Lakes
Enjoy Beijing’s slower pace of life and take an afternoon stroll around one of the many beautiful lakes. Serine and tranquil, the lakes cover a relatively large area in the city centre, and are surrounded by cafes, bars, restaurants and small independent shops selling anything from groceries to notebooks. Watch the locals swim in their speedos, play ping pong, exercise on the outdoor gym machines, play mahjong and watch the world go by. It is possible to ride in a rickshaw around Houhai lake and the surrounding Hutong (traditional alleyways), or to explore by bike or by foot for a more relaxing experience. On the lakes sit the occasional pagoda framed by willows, oriental in style and reflecting in the jade water, the sight is like a typical scene from a Chinese painting. The lakes make a wonderful break from the hustle and bustle of city life in Beijing and so we would strongly recommend spending some time here. The lakes are called Xihai Sea, Houhai Lake and Northern Sea, and the closest tube stops are Jishuitan, Shishiahai and Beihai North.
Explore The Trendy Nanluogu Xiang Alley
Once a rundown old alley without a single Belgium waffle in sight, this commercialised shopping street is a haven for young snap happy Chinese tourists willing to splash out a few yuan on some tasty grub and quirky merchandise. You can buy pretty much anything on a stick..... chicken, sweet waffles, a spiralised potato, the popular sugar-coated fruit, or perhaps if food isn’t you bag then what about an actual bag, or some cool postcards, or a piece of hand-engraved jewellery or some ceramics. You can hear the chinking of metal from the engravers at one of the front windows, and the musical toot of the ocarina from another. Around this area are now many courtyard hotels that you can stay in. What we love about this place is that drinking alcohol isn’t really a thing, yes there are a few nice bars that specialise in craft beers (at a very steep price mind you), but the Chinese are happy to be out wondering around at 10pm on a Sunday night just enjoying the food and soaking up the atmosphere. Make sure you explore some of the many Hutong, side alleys, off this street as they have a wonderful historic feeling to them taking you back in time to the old Peking days. Closest tube stop is Nanluoguxiang.
Get Arty In The 798 Area
With numerous art galleries, cool design shops, graffitied walls and too many cafes to choose from, the 798 art district is well worth a visit in the North East corner of Beijing. One of the most renowned art spaces is the UCCA gallery, where many international artists have showcased their work including Olafur Eliasson, the Danish light and space artist. At a 60 yuan entrance fee it’s probably worth checking that you’re interested in what’s on beforehand because the space is quite small. Nearly all of the other galleries are free to enter, and it makes for a nice afternoon dipping in and out of art spaces, searching for interesting pieces and exploring the tiny alleyways. If you enjoy conceptual and political art then this is the place for you, but if you are looking for world renowned artworks then it’s probably best to go elsewhere. We are recommending this more as a cool area to explore rather than solely for the artworks, so grab a coffee, take a wander and soak up the atmosphere. Closest tube stop is Gaojiayuan.
Munch On A Scorpion At Wangfujing Dajie
On the south end of Wangfujing Dajie shopping street sits a bustling food market packed with hungry shoppers and some seriously tasty treats. You could compare this to the Borough market of Beijing but with smaller bites rather than full meals. You can pretty much buy anything on a stick from battered squid to live scorpions (they get cooked once you order them), marinated chicken to crunchy crickets, and hundreds of brilliant red berries (tanghulu) glazed in sugar are sold by the plenty. Picky street food is such a big thing in Beijing, everyone walks and eats, takes loads of photos of themselves eating, and eats some more. There are tens of stalls at this market all selling different bites, and each stall has a huddle of people outside munching away on their recent purchase. If you are around this area and looking for somewhere quick to grab some tasty grub then this market is for you! Many items can be bought for around 10 yuan (£1.15) a piece, and if you feel like splashing out then a large battered squid is 35 yuan (£4.25) and was pretty tasty. Closest tube stop is Wangfujing.
Eat Like A Local On Andingmenei Dajie
Just north east of the trendy street Nanluogu Xiang sits the more local and cheaper Andingmenei Dajie. This main road is packed with good quality Chinese restaurants and street vendors with a local price tag to go with it. Just head to one of the busy ones and you can’t go wrong. You can pick up almost anything here, including some very acquired dishes of which penis and brain were on the menu, but putting that to one side there is a wonderful array of foods including hotpots, BBQ meats, noodle dishes, vegetables, Peking duck, and soups to name a few. We would thoroughly recommend the Beijing noodles which is noodles cooked in broth with freshly cut carrot and cucumber, beans, peanuts, oil and black bean and meat paste, and also the world renowned crispy Peking duck. To get the full local price tag you need to be ordering from one of the smaller restaurants where the menu isn’t in English, so perhaps try to get someone to order it for you if you don’t speak Chinese. We ordered 4 great dishes in one restaurant with a beer and the bill came to 75 yuan (£8.50)! Bargain. Also it’s worth noting that the portions are normally massive so make sure you don’t go overboard. Closest tube stop is Andingmen and walk Southward’s from there.
Feel The Buzz At The Qianmen Dajie Shopping Area
Packed full of Chinese tourists, the busy streets of Qianmen Dajie and Dashilan Commercial Street are a shoppers paradise and an interesting place for those wanting to soak up some bustling Chinese street culture. You can buy anything here from Chinese medicine to speciality sweets, cheap knock offs of traditional Chinese clothing to Tibetan hippy lanterns. Bright red Chinese symbols illuminate the stores and everyone is busy selling from their shop fronts, rounding up customers with their cheap prices and loud voices. It makes for a fun afternoon wandering up and down the surrounding streets, some are no more than a meter wide, and there are some great food places for a spot of lunch if you’re hungry. Head over to the lanes on the West side of Meishi Street to explore the slightly quieter and less developed shopping streets (Dashilan West and Yangmeizhu Byway in particular). Here you can find cool design shops, yoga studios, fancy coffee places and a few courtyard hostels all mixed in amongst local houses with old men playing majong. It’s best to explore these streets by foot or by bike if you want to cover a bit more ground. Definitely try one of the traditional Chinese pastry sweets, it’s always fun trying to figure out what the flavour is! Closest tube stop is Zhushiko.
See The Infamous Forbidden City
A trip to Beijing isn’t complete without a visit to China’s number one attraction, the Forbidden City. Built in 1400s during the Ming dynasty, this collection of ancient buildings and temples is the largest of its kind in China and is in immaculate condition considering the millions of people that have traipsed through it in its lifetime. The Forbidden City got its name because it was off-limits to all, unless you were important enough to be invited to visit by the emperor, and it remained that way for 500 years. Wander along the north-south central axis to view the largest of temples, impressive in their scale and acute attention to detail, and scattered either side is a collection of smaller buildings that used to be living quarters now used as museum spaces. Visiting the city as early as possible is the best idea to avoid the thousands of selfie loving tourists waving their sticks around. If you are expecting a peaceful stroll around the complex then think again, all the points of interest are crazy busy and it’s difficult to see inside any of the temples. Having said that, it is the world famous Forbidden City and so it’s worth seeing it once in a lifetime, especially if you are already in Beijing. Entrance fee is a steep 120 yuan per person and audio guide is 40 yuan (not sure that it was all that helpful though). Closest tube stops are Tian’anmen West and Tian’anmen East and access to the site is on the south side.
Explore Beijing By Bike
Beijing is a huge city with a population of 22 million people, and as you can probably imagine it takes a long while to travel by foot. The best way to see all of the sights in a day is to grab a bike and get cycling! Amazingly all the main roads have wide cycle lanes so you are away from busy traffic, because as little as 4 years ago everyone travelled by bike rather than car. It is possible to cycle past Tian’anmen Square, the moat around the Forbidden City, around the outskirts of the hilly Jingshan Park, through the bustling Qianmen Dajie shopping area, through the trendy alley Nanluogu Xiang, around The National Centre Of The Performing Arts, past the built up Xidan Bei Dajie and around Hou Hai lake all in a day if you are feeling energetic, and there are plenty of other places to explore off the beaten track. Make sure you explore the many Hutong, alleyways, that run from east to west all across the city. Bike rental is 40 yuan from Downtown Backpackers Hostel and their bikes make for a super smooth ride.
Stand in Tian’anmen Square
Surrounded by huge soviet-style blocky buildings, the famous Tian’anmen Square sits as the worlds largest public square and has a significant place in Chinese history. The square was built by Mao to display the strength of the Communist Party, and if size represents strength then they definitely got their point across. Standing in the middle, you really get a sense of the vastness of the space and even with a few thousand tourists present there is still enough room to run around. Impressively, up to a million people have gathered here during the cultural revolution and to pay their last respects to Mao. It’s a strange visit, all goers are ID and security checked in long queues beforehand, and once in you are surrounded by fences, soldiers, cctv cameras and undercover police officers! The overall feeling is very repressive and perhaps un-fun, step out of line and you could imagine being taken down in a second! That said, it’s worth going just to see these things for yourself and to get a glimpse into what Chinese life is really like, mouth schtum. Closest tube stops are Tian’anmen East and Tian’anmen West and Quinmen.
Trek On The Great Wall
Only a couple of hours from Beijing centre sits the legendary Great Wall. Every year millions of tourists flock to see a bit of ancient history, and to walk on the two thousand year old structure that runs 21,196km from Dandong in the east to Top Lake in the west. Many stretches of the wall have now been restored and replaced by new stones, creating busy tourist hotspots with numerous selfie sticks and tour guide flags, but there are some sections that remain left untouched, crumbling in their fragility and beauty. Jiankou is one of these sections, not technically legal to trek on, but worth every risk once you see the splendour of the wall epically snaking around the mountain tops. Highlights include the Sky Stairs, a near vertical staircase that has since crumbled to a few pieces of jutting out rock (you have to have nerves of steel to think about tackling this one) and the Ox Horn which is two incredibly steep watchtowers perched on the mountain tops. It is possible to trek large sections of the wall in a day, basing yourself in one of the small villages below, or camping out with only a sleeping bag in one of the watchtowers. Jainkou is a photographers delight as the wall is the most dramatic here, climbing high and low winding over the hills, and surrounded by mountains as far as the eye can see. The experience is exhilarating, to be trekking on the Great Wall with only a handful of people is possibly one of the most memorable things you could do in a lifetime. We would thoroughly recommend it! All information about getting to and from the Jiankou section of the wall can be found here:
Beijing is a fantastic city to visit, we loved our time there and 5 days was the perfect amount of time to explore what it has to offer. If you have been to Beijing and have any other recommendations then we would love to hear them!
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