Beijing is China’s capital city and situated in the north of the country. It is one of the nations ancient cities and is the political, economical and cultural heart and soul of China. There is so much to explore from it’s historical past to futuristic developments and booming businesses.
China has always been somewhere I’ve been fascinated by with its huge population, vast size and diverse culture, I knew it was somewhere I always wanted to explore. I have been lucky enough to travel to China with my work and have been to both Beijing and Shanghai, and why China might not be everyone’s cup of tea; love it or hate it – it’s definitely unique!
Every time I travel to Beijing I try to see something new or discover a part of the city I haven’t ventured to before. There are so many temples, beautiful parks, historical monuments and people watching to be done in this city. I have tried some absolutely delicious food in China, and also witnessed some of the weirdest food items on menus, but the best bit of advice to visiting China is to go with an open mind and take China for what it is. Beijing really is an incredible city with a rich culture and a great city to get culturally lost in.
Sights & Activities
Bell Tower & Drum Tower
The Drum Tower and Bell Tower were for centuries the tallest buildings in Beijing, towering over the surrounding hutong. The 46m high towers would provide the city with time keeping, the drums would beat to sound the curfew after nightfall in the Qing dynasty, and thereafter every two hours to coordinate the patrols of the city’s nightwatch. Both towers have really steep stairs which aren’t great for people who suffer with vertigo, both towers are worth the stair hike and provide great views of one another as well as city views. The drum tower has daily performances every hour so time your visit to make sure to catch one.
Confucius Temple & Imperial College
Confucius Temple and Imperial College is a stones throw away from the incense filled Lama Temple. The temple is China’s second largest Confucian temple and is a haven of calm and contemplation. The temple has towering stone columns with scriptures, bright colours, intricate detailing, achievements of scholars past. The temple was once the site of the imperial college during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and now a museum consisting of multiple scholarly halls showcasing the educational system in imperial China. When visiting Lama Temple be sure to walk over and explore this beautiful temple steeped in history.
Hutong’s are the very essence of Beijing and are the alleyways, courtyards and neighbourhoods that cut across the centre of Beijing. Wandering them is an absolute must to get a real understanding of the culture and street life of the locals. After I visited the drum and bell tower I hoped in one of the many rickshaws near by which offer small tours for about £10, however you can explore by foot quite easily too. Looking into these passageways gives you an insight into what old Beijing would have been like.
The driver I had didn’t speak a word of English but drove me around for about an hour and pointed at a few alleyways and buildings and did make a few stops for me to look at various buildings even taking me to someone’s house and courtyard where I ended up having an older couple talking to me in Chinese and showing me what seemed like family photos, I still have no idea what I saw and if it was of any importance but it made for a funny trip and and gave me a good insight into Beijing’s inner city residents.
Jingshan Park is in the center of Beijing located by the north gate of the forbidden city. It is a huge royal landscape garden which covers 57 acres, and also home to Beijing’s highest point which provides amazing views over the forbidden city and the rest of Beijing. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, the park served as an imperial garden.
There are lots of palaces, pavilions, statues and artwork as well as lots of trees and plants. In 1928 the park was open to the public, and has since been popular with both locals and tourists, and is a beautiful green retreat to escape the hustle and bustle of busy Beijing. I visited here on a really hot day and really enjoyed escaping to this oasis in the middle of the city. If you visit the forbidden city be sure to visit Jingshan Park after.
Lama Temple is located in the northeast corner of the city, and is an ornately decorated Tibetan Buddhist temple. It’s also considered as one of the most perfectly preserved lama monastery’s in present day China. It was originally built in 1694 during the Qing Dynasty, this building was the residence of Emperor Yongzheng when he was just a prince. However, in 1744 the Qing Dynasty formally changed the status of the residence to that of a lamasery, and so it became the national centre of Lama administration.
There are 5 main halls to wander as well as prayer wheels to spin, and lots of Chinese lion statues and other typically Chinese silhouettes. It’s a really grand temple full of incense filling the air, and while your here it’s easy to also visit Confucius Temple and Imperial College as it’s really close by and it’s also near to Baihe Vegetarian Restaurant.
The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is the biggest and main symbol associated with China. The Great Wall is the longest wall in the world, and is definitely one of the top attractions in the whole country and a UNESCO heritage site. With over 2300 years of history it gives a glimpse into China’s days gone by. It was built in different areas by different states and dynasties to protect different territorial borders, and to protect the Silk Road trade and to prevent invasion from various nomadic groups.
If there’s one thing you do in China make sure you visit the wall, you can book onto a variety of tours. Some of my colleagues and myself booked transport through our hotel concierge which picked us up early morning. It only takes between 1 to 2 hours to reach the wall depending where you are in the city, and what the traffic is like. The ticket prices includes a chair lift up to the wall and you can tobbogan down. The chair lift provides great views over the forested areas below and the tobbogan down is so much fun! You can buy the professional photos from both which were an absolute bargain I never normally buy the photos from attractions, but they were so cheap I bought both from the chair lift and toboggan.
There are various tours packages you can book onto to visit the wall. The driver we had organised our tickets for us and waited for us while we hiked along the wall, we had several hours to explore before he took us back to the city. We paid about £40 each which included private transport to and from our hotel and the entrance. We went for half a day, however you could easily spend days, weeks and months exploring the full 13,171 miles of the Great Wall. We only skimmed the surface during the few hours we were there.
I absolutely fell in love with this part of China as I have seen it so many times over the years and on films etc it felt quite surreal visiting the wall myself. Try and get there as early as you can to try and avoid the crowds, just as we were leaving in the late morning it started to get a lot busier with crowds and tour buses coming in. When I visited it was a bit foggy so I didn’t get the most clear of views, so I would like to revisit in the future and maybe go in the winter time as I would love to see what it’s like with snow and frost and on a clear day. If you have a few days in the city then check the weather before and choose which day would be best to visit; weather wise.
Tian Anmen Square
Tian Anmen Square is the heart of Beijing and the largest public square in the world. Named after the Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) located to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City. The square has cultural significance as well as it political and historical, and is home to many of Beijing’s Monuments and museums such as Tian Anmen Tower, Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. The square is an absolute must visit when in Beijing and can easily be visited prior to entering the forbidden city, it draws in crowds from all over the world as well as locals, and its great to get there early to try and beat some of the crowds.
Food & Drink
Baihe Vegetarian Restaurant
Baihe Vegetarian Restaurant is a dream come true in Beijing when the food scene in China is so heavily dominated by meat and fish, this place is a breath of fresh air and the perfect place to visit vegetarian or not. If your vegetarian it’s great to be able to choose off the menu without worrying what’s actually coming out, as there can be a language barrier in China and most dishes have meat or meat broth in them. Here atleast you can rest assured whatever you order it will be vegetarian.
This restaurant is hidden away down a small street not too far away from Lama Temple. The courtyard restaurant come tea house has a great menu with lots of creative mock meat dishes, and has an English translated menu. I tried the ‘chicken’ kung pao which was so delicious as well as a side of vegetable dumplings.
The restaurant is like a small oasis of serenity compared to the busy streets of Beijing. If you worry what you might end up eating in Beijing then make sure to pay this place a visit, it’s slightly more expensive than other restaurants in Beijing, but was still pretty reasonable and your paying more for the ambience and calmness. The staff were also really lovely and one waiter wanted to talk to me a lot to practise his English.
Bao Yuan Dumplings
Bao Yuan Dumpling restaurant is located in the North Chaoyang district which is full of street food vendors, restaurants and bars. The restaurant may not look like much from the outside, but they cook up an absolute assortment of multicoloured dumplings with a variety of fillings including several vegetarian options. The dough dyes they use to colour the dumplings are all natural made from carrots and spinach etc. They also serve many other Chinese dishes, this place is well worth a visit with its huge menu catering really well for vegetarians, and it’s so cheap you can order a variety of dishes which won’t break the bank!
Transport & Getting Around
Beijing has an extensive public bus system which is really inexpensive however it’s hard to navigate with the language barrier. Beijing also has a clean subway which has signs in English as well as Chinese, however it can be extremely busy.
I tend to use taxis or the many motor rickshaws to cover larger distances of the city, and try and walk to most places if it’s not too far. Make sure to downsload maps.me so you can easily find your way around the city without WiFi, roaming and if you can’t speak the language. I also find it helps to plan your route and pin everything on the map and that way you can easily work out walking distances etc. Many tourists also hire bicycles to explore the city, however I would only recommend this if your a confident cyclist, as it’s a very busy with lots of road traffic and pedestrians.
When visiting China try and go as prepared as possible, yes there is a huge language barrier and not many of the locals speak English, so go armed with google translate, guide books, maps.me app etc. Also if you have any dietary requirements try and get one of the cabin crew on your flight over to write out a little card for you in Chinese with your dietary requirements or ask a hotel member of staff. Im vegetarian and luckily work alongside some great Beijing based crew and got them to write me a card which states I’m vegetarian and don’t eat meat or fish on a piece of card for me, and now every time I go out to eat I just show the waiter/waitress the card to make sure I’m not getting any surprises when I order.
When staying at any accommodation try and get a business card or address so you can show taxi drivers. A lot of the big hotels actually have small little translate cards you can ask for which have their address on plus lots of other popular attractions that you can show taxi drivers. I always have maps.me downloaded as it’s a great app that works offline and when I’m walking around Beijing or in taxi I always check it to make sure I’m heading in the right direction.