With its spectacular palaces, historic temples, beautiful parks, bargain shopping, and addictive cuisine, it’s easy to fall for Beijing. Here’s what to do and see in the Chinese capital.
There are so many things to see, do and eat in China’s historic capital, Beijing, that it can be hard to know where to start. With five thousand years of history and over 20 million inhabitants, you’d be forgiven for feeling rather overwhelmed. That’s why we’ve handpicked the best restaurants, street food, museums, temples, palaces and more for you to make the most of your visit to Beijing. The city is the beating heart of one of the most confounding nations in the world, so find your feet with our list of the ultimate things to do in Beijing. From seeing world-famous Confucius or Lama Temple to climbing the Great Wall of China to eating dumplings at street stalls, this list of the best things to do will have you falling in love with Beijing. Oh, and when it’s time to sleep we’ve got you covered with Beijing’s best hotels.
Explore the 798 Arts District
Anyone with even a slight interest in Chinese contemporary art should get a firsthand look at the scene at the bustling 798 Art District. Formerly the site of several state-owned factories, the complex began attracting a small group of artists in the late 1990s; more artists and cultural organizations followed starting in the early 2000s, when the old buildings were transformed into galleries, studios, art centers, restaurants, and bars. Now a protected arts district that has been largely pedestrianized, 798 is also home to cafes, commercial galleries, and even souvenir shops. The galleries these days are hit or miss—you’ll see plenty of bad knockoffs of Western art and unappealing Socialism-era portraits—but the district still stands at the city’s most important contemporary arts hub.
Stroll Around Beihai Park
Northwest of the Forbidden City, Beihai Park is home to Beijing’s largest and most beautiful public lake. All you need to do to enjoy the park is stroll around or rent one of the paddle boats that fill the lake on summer weekends. If you wish to see the cultural sights, check out Yongan Temple, from which you can climb to the white stupa perched atop a small island in the lake. Afterward, continue north to explore Qianhai and Houhai, two connected lakes surrounded by shoreside restaurants and bars as well as hutongs.
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Bike Around With Serk Bicycle Tours
Even if traffic isn’t bad, which is usually is, or if the subways aren’t crowded, which they usually are, bicycles are the best way to get around Beijing when the weather is nice (rentals are available from Serk). If you don’t feel like cycling as your main mode of transportation, consider taking a tour to explore a part of the city you might not otherwise see. Bike Beijing offers a wide variety of tours for all skill levels and interests.
Worship at Confucius Temple
Built in 1302, the Confucius Temple pays tribute to China’s greatest sage and his lasting legacy. The temple is unique in the sense that it is dedicated to a mortal rather than a deity; regardless, worshippers come here to offer gifts and sacrifices much like those seen at Buddhist and Taoist temples. The Hall of Great Accomplishment contains Confucius’s funeral tablet, while the Hall of Great Perfection features the central shrine to the scholar and a large collection of ancient musical instruments. In the front and main courtyards of the temple stand rows of stone tablets inscribed with more than 50,000 names of those who passed imperial examinations during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The temple complex has been combined with the adjacent Imperial Academy, once the highest educational institution in the country, where government officials were trained to master the Confucian classics.
Shop the Panjiayuan Antiques Market
Also known as the Dirt Market, Panjiayuan Antiques Market is home to surprisingly orderly open-air stalls where more than 3,000 vendors hawk Cultural Revolution memorabilia, artwork, curio cabinets, jade dragons, jewelry, and more. Be forewarned that anything being sold as an authentic antique almost certainly isn’t one, but most people come here for the reproductions anyway. As with other Chinese markets, you’ll need to bargain aggressively here to get a fair price, since the price quoted to any foreigner will automatically be higher than it would be for a local. Once you’ve had your fill of Mao posters and porcelain vases, be sure to check out some of the enclosed shops lining the perimeter of the market. Weekends are the busiest, but no matter what day you visit, the earlier you arrive, the better.
Eat Dumplings and Baozi
Whether you see them at a street stall or in a casual restaurant, be sure to order some dumplings while you’re in Beijing. Steamed or boiled, they’re typically stuffed with pork and cabbage or pork and chives and served with black vinegar for dipping. For diners who are mostly familiar with fried dumplings or the seafood-filled dumplings typically associated with dim sum, Beijing dumpling’s offer an easy way to get a taste of northern China. Baozi, pillowy steamed buns stuffed with meat or vegetables, are particularly good (and ubiquitous) in Beijing. They’re especially popular for breakfast, and you can find them at street stalls and small restaurants all over the city. Unlike xiaolongbao(soup dumplings), which have become popular in the United States, baozi are breadier and don’t contain any liquid, making for a satisfying on-the-go meal.
Descend Into the Eastern Qing Tombs
Northeast of Beijing, in Hebei province, lie the tombs of Qing Dynasty emperors, nine of which are open to the public. Not to be missed is Yuling, the final resting place of Qianlong, the Qing’s most powerful sovereign. The entry tunnel to the tomb descends 65 feet below ground before reaching the first of three elaborately carved marble gates. Inside the tomb, exquisite carvings of Buddhist imagery adorn the walls and ceiling. The most elaborate of the Qing tombs is Dingdongling, built to house the remains of the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi at a rumored cost of 72 tons of silver. Its stone carvings and gold-leaf paneling reflect the empress’s taste for luxury.
Climb the Great Wall of China
Given its proximity to Beijing, the Great Wall of China is an essential part of any visit to the Chinese capital. How you wish to visit the wall depends largely on two factors: how much time you want to spend getting there and visiting; and whether you prefer perfectly restored or crumbling sections of the wall, or both. Only an hour by car from downtown Beijing, the Great Wall at Badaling is great if you’re short on time and seeking out postcard-ready restored sections. Given its proximity to the city, however, Badaling tends to be crowded, so go farther out if you’re seeking peace and quiet. Nearby, the Great Wall at Juyongguan is equally popular. Farther afield, the Great Wall at Mutianyu is significantly less crowded and the views are stunning. Here you can take a cable car to the highest restored section and then embark on a gorgeous 90-minute hike east to another cable car that descends to the parking lot. The Great Wall at Jinshanling is the least-visited restored section within striking distance of Beijing. This is one of the few sections of the wall where overnight camping trips are offered, and from here you can embark on an unforgettable four-hour hike toward Simatai, a remote and largely unrestored section of the wall that is best for adventure seekers.
Seek out Hutongs Residences
In an earlier era, most of central Beijing was filled with hutong (alleyway) residences, but over time more and more have disappeared. These days, you can sleep in hutong hotels and buy souvenirs in hutong shops, but the fixed-up alleyways lack a certain authenticity. Keep your eyes peeled when traveling around the city, and you might stumble across a hutong unexpectedly. If you’re looking to explore on your own, the area surrounding the Drum Tower is a good place to start; if you’d rather have a guide, arrange a tour with Beijing Sideways, a company that carts guests around the alleyways in the sidecar of a vintage motorbike.
Visit the Lama Temple
Originally built as a temple for Prince Yongzheng, who went on to become the third Qing Dynasty Emperor, Lama Temple is one of the most important functioning Buddhist temples in Beijing. Although it once housed as many as 500 resident monks, today the complex is home to around two dozen, but that doesn’t detract from the splendor of the five main halls and multiple galleries hung with thangkhas (Tibetan scroll paintings). Lama Temple is best visited at a slow pace, but if you’re short on time, make sure you don’t skip the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Fortunes, inside which stands an awe-inspiring, 85-foot Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood.
Hang out and Drink in Bei Luogu Xiang
The northern arm of the more famous and more crowded Nan Luogu Xiang, Bei Luogu Xiang is home to the quieter, hipper shops and bars that give the Beijing hutong their unique charm. The cocktail bars here are undoubtedly some of the best in the city, and the mix of locals and expats who hang out in the alley give the area a modern cultural fusion that is hard to find elsewhere in the city. Be sure to explore the small streets that branch off from this main alleyway–they’re full of local spots to refuel, rehydrate or simply relax in old Beijing.
Explore the Old Summer Palace
Much like the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace was once the emperor’s retreat until it was destroyed by French and British troops. Unlike the Summer Palace, however, this one was never restored to its original glory. Accordingly, the experience of visiting this place is rather different, since 90 percent of the buildings that once stood here were wooden and thus burned to the ground. What does remain, however, are the European-style stone structures built by Jesuits during the Qing Dynasty, which you’ll find in Changchunyuan (Garden of Everlasting Spring), one of three idyllic parks that comprise the Old Summer Palace’s grounds. Here you’ll find ornately carved columns, scattered stone blocks, and Huanghuazhen, a maze made of engraved concrete walls surrounding a European-style pavilion.
Beijing Olympic Park
In the years surrounding the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing changed rapidly as entire city blocks were cleared to make way for new hotels, modern buildings, and sports centers. Almost every corner of the city was affected by the games in some regard, but to see two architectural icons from the games that are still standing, head to Beijing Olympic Park. Here you can see the Herzog & de Meuron designed National Stadium, better known as the Bird’s Nest, which features an exterior crafted from 42,000 tons of steel. Nearby, look for the National Aquatics Center, better known as the Water Cube, where Michael Phelps set his world records. During the day you can go inside both venues; you can pay to ride a Segway around the Bird’s Nest track for 20 minutes or go to a water park constructed inside the Water Cube after the games concluded. If you only care about seeing the structures from the outside, it’s best to visit the park at night, when both are illuminated.
Eat Peking Duck at Da Dong Roast Duck
The Chinese capital’s most famous dish is also one of its tastiest. Specially prepared roast duck is thinly sliced and served on a platter for you to wrap in thin pancakes with plum sauce and spring onions—and make sure to get some of that crispy skin in each bite. Peking duck can be habit-forming, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to eat it more than once while visiting Beijing. Fortunately, there are a number of outstanding options where you can get your fix, including Da Dong Roast Duck, Deyuan Roast Duck, and Li Qun. If you don’t mind splurging, Duck de Chine serves the most flavorful duck in the city, hands-down.
Watch Peking Opera at the National Center for the Performing Arts
Though there are myriad forms of Chinese opera, the Beijing style is perhaps the most notable and internationally recognized. Dazzling costumes, elaborate makeup, and amazing acrobatic feats are among the highlights of a typical performance, which you can see almost any night of the week in Beijing. One of the best places to attend a show is the National Center for the Performing Arts, an architectural marvel commonly called “The Egg.” If opera isn’t on the calendar there, shows at the Liyuan Theater are tourist-oriented but still fun, especially since you can show up early to watch the performers apply their makeup. One thing to note: With its nasal singing and clamorous music, Beijing opera isn’t for everyone. If you want to experience a show without committing to a couple of hours, opt for shorter performances at the Liyuan and Huguang Guild Hall. Or you can simply watch a few minutes of it from your hotel room by flipping to CCTV 11, a channel that broadcasts opera nonstop.
Shop Wudaoying Hutong
This popular hutong is conveniently located near both the Lama Temple and the Confucius Temple. So after you’ve soaked up some ancient philosophy, you can head straight to Wudaoying to unwind in one of the dozens of independent cafés that line this charmingly crowded alleyway. This is also where you’ll find some of Beijing’s best vintage shops and local boutiques, selling handcrafted products that are many notches about your typical tourist fare.
Hang out in Ritan Park
Should you find yourself perusing historic embassies in Jianguomen or in the midst of the bustling Central Business District, make a detour to nearby Ritan Park, home to the Temple of the Sun. Built in 1530 and used as a sacrificial altar, the site is now regarded as one of Beijing’s most peaceful parks, an oasis of calm in a busy area. Locals come here to stretch their legs or practice tai chi in the absence of tourists who tend to clog other green spaces in the city center.
Go Out for Nightlife in Sanlitun
To experience Beijing’s vibrant nightlife, head to famous Sanlitun (also known as Bar Street), which caters to foreigners and young Chinese with its countless drinking establishments. Avoid the dive bars on the east side of the street unless you want to hang out with college students, and don’t be afraid to wander a bit until you find a place that suits you—it shouldn’t take too long to find a place you like. If dancing is what you desire, try Vics or Mix, two popular clubs located at the northern gate of the Workers Stadium. If you want to see and be seen, head straight to The Opposite House for its swanky bars. If you want a simple scene and good cocktails, go to Q Bar, a tucked-away lounge with a pleasant terrace south of the main Sanlitun drag.
Haggle at the Silk Market
The Silk Market is one of the few delightfully chaotic Beijing bazaars to survive recent efforts from the government to smarten up the city’s shopping environment, which led to many closures. Part of the reason for the Silk Market’s survival is that it is housed in a giant shopping center that feels like a world of its own, and although it’s definitely quieter than it used to be it’s still one of the premier fake goods destinations in the capital. Bring your hardest haggling skills and stock up on knock-off Louis Vuitton, Nike, Supreme and the like, or even buy pearls, as well as some wonderfully gaudy souvenirs.
Wander the Dashilar Area
This traditional hutong area to the south of Tiananmen Square is one of the few areas that still looks like it might have done in the ancient days of Beijing. Rather than being bulldozed like so many other hutongs, the Dashilar area has held onto a local character and beautiful original architecture. After taking in the grandeur of Beijing’s central square, Dashilar is a more intimate area to get lost in and take a walk into the past. There are informative plaques explaining the history of the area dotted amongst the snack shops and traditional houses–use these as your guide to Beijing’s oldest surviving hutong.
For a glimpse at how the imperial family once spent its leisure time, visit the Summer Palace, a 700-acre royal retreat commissioned by Emperor Qianlong in 1750. Many of the original structures here were ransacked and burned by British and French forces in 1860, but the Summer Palace was renovated by the unscrupulous Empress Dowager Cixi, who “retired” here in 1889, even as she imprisoned her nephew, Emperor Guangxu, here and ruled in his place until her death in 1908. She even made the Summer Palace (rather than the Forbidden City) the official seat of government during the last five years of her life. Today, the park provides a lovely respite from the city, with hillside temples and pagodas, arched stone bridges on Kunming Lake, and picture-perfect willow trees. Don’t miss the marble boat at the west end of the lake, a perfect symbol of the Empress Dowager’s opulent tastes even as her country crumbled around her.
Gawk at the Temple of Heaven
Southeast of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven remains one of the most important examples of Chinese religious architecture. For centuries, this is where emperors made sacrifices to the gods in hopes of achieving a fruitful harvest. (A series of bad harvests could be interpreted by the people as a sign to overthrow the emperor, so this ritual was taken very seriously.) Twice the size of the Forbidden City, the temple’s grounds are home to many fine Ming Dynasty buildings, but the hallmark structure, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is a visual knockout. Standing atop a three-tiered marble base, this magnificent, blue-roofed, circular building is supported entirely by 28 pillars and not a single nail; it was originally constructed in 1420 but burned to the ground in 1889, only to be replaced with an exact replica a few years later. Don’t miss the echo wall surrounding the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which will carry your voice to the other side if you speak in the right direction.
Visit Tian Yi Mu’s Tomb
Eunuchs played a vital yet often overlooked role throughout much of Chinese history, but their importance is made clear at Tian Yi Mu, the tomb of the most powerful eunuch ever, Tian Yi. Castrated at the age of nine, he spent the next 63 years of his life serving three emperors and rising to one of the highest ranks in the land. Though not as spectacular as any imperial tombs you might visit, Tian Yi Mu befits a man of high social status with intricate stone carvings around the base of the central burial mound. The eight remaining tombs house other eunuchs who wished to pay tribute to Tian Yi’s legacy by being buried alongside him.
Tour Tiananmen Square
As the world’s largest public square, Tiananmen Square needs to be seen in person to be believed. That said, this is not necessarily a place to linger, given the lack of shade, benches, or trees; in a sense, it is perhaps most impressive for its oppressive nature. Still, no visit to Beijing would be complete without a quick walk through the square, whose complicated historical legacy includes Mao Zedong’s announcement of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and the tragic massacre of student demonstrators in June 1989. The best way to see Tiananmen Square is to start at Qianmen, a historic gate located at the southern end of the square. Moving north, you’ll pass Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, where the Great Helmsman’s embalmed body is displayed in a crystal case, and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a 125-foot granite obelisk dedicated to those who died for the revolutionary cause of the Chinese people. Flanking the square are the Great Hall of the People, which can be visited if the Chinese legislature is not in session, and the monumental National Museum of China. At the northern end of the square is the namesake gate, Tiananmen, which serves as the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Explore the Forbidden City
At the center of this vast metropolis sits its most enduring icon: the Forbidden City. Formerly home to a long line of emperors, this is the world’s largest palace complex, at 180 acres; with 800 buildings (and supposedly 9,999 rooms) on the site, you could spend days exploring here, but a few hours will suffice. Highlights include the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), where you can ascend to the top (where Mao Zedong himself stood) for an awe-inspiring view of Tiananmen Square; the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where coronations, weddings, and royal birthdays were celebrated; the Hall of Clocks and Watches, which displays ornate timepieces; the Gallery of Treasures, where you can see jade bracelets, tea sets, and other imperial possessions; and finally, the Imperial Gardens, the loveliest part of the Forbidden City. If you have any energy left, exit and cross the street to Jingshan Park, where a climb up a winding staircase to Wanchun Pavilion affords excellent views of the Forbidden City and surrounding neighborhoods on a clear day.
Watch Chinese Cinema at Cinker Pictures
Beijing is famous for its traditional charm. But it also has a buzzing contemporary character, and nowhere is this more apparent at the luxury boutique cinema that is Cinker Pictures. Located on the rooftop of the hip Taikoo Li shopping district, Cinker has sumptuous leather armchairs and a cocktail menu that’s lovingly designed to complement the program of classic and arthouse films (it eschews new releases). This is your spot to catch up on the best of Chinese cinema. In the summer months, the rooftop bar hosts an outdoor screen for al fresco viewings.
Wander Through Yuyuantan Park
Visitors to Beijing rarely venture that far west of Tiananmen Square. But it’s worth it to get to this massive, sprawling park that is one of the most peaceful spots in the city. The name translates as “imperial gardens,” but there’s nothing grand or intimidating about this much-loved local hangout. Wander through the cherry blossom garden to the central lake, where you can swim with locals (who will be there rain or shine), or just relax on the banks watching people play cards and mahjong. If you get there early enough in the morning, you’ll also meet the local pensioners who walk their songbirds through the park every dawn.
Drink up at Capital Spirits
The world’s first baijiu bar is still one of the coolest watering holes in Beijing. Capital Spirits specializes in designing drinks that enhance the flavor of China’s national spirit, a potent rice liquor that can divide opinion. The cocktails are delicate enough to convert the most adamant non-believers, but there are also classic drinks on offer. For baijiu enthusiasts, they offer tasting flights where you can sample different types of spirit from around the country. Whatever your tipple, the intimate space, traditional architecture,and enticingly discreet location make this bar one of a kind in Beijing.
Take a Cooking Class at The Hutong
Take the flavors of Beijing home with you by doing one of the cooking classes offered by the local language and cultural center The Hutong. The small classes are taught in English and cover anything from hand-pulled noodles to dumplings to ethnic minority cuisine in China. The expert teachers will also guide you through the history and the cultural significance of China’s various famous foods, making sure that you leave with a mind as full as your stomach.