Beijing offers a vibrant mix of history and modernity, from the Great Wall of China to cutting edge art at the 798 Art District. Here are some Beijing travel tips and suggested sights to help you get the most out of your visit to Beijing.
Explore Beijing’s 798 Art District
What was originally a disused electronics factory built by the East Germans is now a central part of the 798 Art District, Beijing’s leading concentration of contemporary art galleries. The industrial complex celebrates its proletarian roots in the communist heyday of the 1950s via retouched red Maoist slogans decorating gallery interiors and statues of burly, lantern-jawed workers. It’s easy to spend a day here soaking up the vibe and checking out all manner of works from cutting-edge media installations and quirky fashion boutiques to fine art prints and politically-tinged propaganda art. You’ll need at least three hours to fully explore this fascinating, edgy art district.
Getting around Beijing
Few drivers speak English and describing your destination in broken Mandarin is unlikely to be effective. You’ll likely get to see more of Beijing than you planned as you and your driver struggle to find your destination. Get your hotel to print their address and your destination in Chinese characters to avoid confusion. If money is tight the subway is a great alternative but it’s best to avoid the bus system which can be complicated for non-Mandarin speakers.
Explore a Beijing hutong
There is only one way to glimpse local daily life as it has been for hundreds of years, and that’s to get thoroughly lost in the city’s labyrinth alleyways. Ask at your hotel for suggestions on which one to visit as some are more picturesque than others.
Beijing spa tips
It’s not a trip to Beijing without experiencing a traditional Chinese massage but these can vary greatly from western massage. Chinese massages emphasize healing, and can involve tools like wooden hammers, suction cups and needles which can be an acquired taste. If you want to experience a traditional treatment that is more comfortable for Westerners head to a hotel with a spa specialising in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
CHI, The Spa at Shangri-La offers TCM treatments which foster a connection with the city. Guests who enjoy strong massage will appreciate the deep finger pressure and unique hand rocking movements of Tuina, a dry Chinese pressure point massage along meridian lines. For something a little softer there are Sense of Place treatments which use local jade and other Asian ingredients and last for up to three hours.
See the Great Wall of China
While it’s possible to get to the Great Wall using public transport, standing around waiting for what you hope is the right bus isn’t much fun. Booking a guide is money well spent and cheaper than you might think. They can arrange transport, pay your entry fees and keep you entertained with stories about the wall’s history and creation. Bespoke Beijing specialises in high quality, high value guiding services in and around Beijing. Avoid the so-called ‘guides’ touting at bus stations around the Great Wall and go with someone who has been recommended by your hotel or a fellow traveller.
Four separate sections of the wall can be easily reached from Beijing but experienced guides will likely take you to Mutianyu which is located 90kms from the capital. This segment was restored in the 1980s and is renowned for the visual drama of its tightly packed guard towers and knife-edged mountain peaks. Surrounded by towering pine trees and dramatic scenery, it offers a compromise between the slightly closer yet tourist-packed Badaling and the physically challenging sections at Juyongguan and Simatai.
Choose the right Beijing hotel
There are hotels to suit every budget but be sure to book somewhere central to the things you want to see and do as Beijing traffic is notorious. Staying in a hotel on the opposite side of town to the areas you want to explore can add up to an hour to your itinerary – and that’s each way.
Explore the Forbidden City
Allow half a day to explore The Forbidden City which is the largest and best-preserved group of palaces in China. It did not open to the public until 1940s and in the olden days curious locals were killed for sneaking in or their whole family could be tortured.
The palace walls extend 760 meters from east to west and 960 meters from north to south and The Forbidden City includes over 720,000 square meters of courtyards, pavilions, great halls, flourishing gardens and nearly 10,000 rooms.
Built by tens of thousands of people, it took over 14 years and 32 million bricks to complete. Arrive early to beat the crowds or visit in winter when it is much quieter. You can also do a walking tour of Beijing which includes a visit to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City offers some amazing photographic opportunities. Allow enough time for photographs so you don’t feel rushed or consider visiting twice: once to look around and another time to take photos.
Beijing restaurants and dining
Beijing is a prime dining destination with something to satisfy every taste and budget, from high-end international restaurants to hole-in-the-wall noodle bars. It’s the ideal place to sample China’s myriad regional styles and discover the city’s sophisticated international flavour. Temple Restaurant Beijing is set in a 600 year old temple and is considered to be one of the city’s newest, most elegant and inspiring fine diners. Temple offers a taste of Europe in a truly unique setting.
The Red Chamber is the place to come for traditional Beijing style Peking Duck and other Chinese delicacies. The restaurant’s funky fitout and energetic vibe makes for a fun night out and the menu is well-priced. For something more formal there is Grill 79, Beijing’s highest restaurant which also has the largest selection of beef in town. Service is formal without being stuffy and the food is superb. We also enjoyed the great dining options available at the Rosewood Beijing, which was filled with local foodies.
Avoid Chinese public holidays
Beijing is hugely popular with local tourists. The only thing you’re likely to see on days like these is the spectacular crowds.
Disclosure: The writer travelled to Beijing as a guest of Shangri-La Hotels and China Southern Airlines.
If you are looking for somewhere to stay in Beijing, check out our reviews of the Peninsula Beijing and Rosewood Beijing. We also enjoying touring Beijing with a guide and hiking the wild wall with Imperial Tours.