Visit Beijing: Top 12 Things to Do and See (I Lived Here For 3 Months)

beijing what to do

If you’re looking for activities to do in Beijing during a quick stopover, or during your week stay, do not miss the following article.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to study for 3 months in Beijing, and if you continue reading I’ll give you my personal list of essential places that you have to visit.

1) Visit the Great Wall on your own and without tourists

great wall alone
Being alone at the Great Wall is not easy to achieve

The Great Wall is an obligatory visit if you’re going to Beijing, as you may all know.

It’s 8,850 km long, one of the 7 Wonders of the World and a symbol of the excellence of China. It’s so important, that if you come to the Badaling section of the Great Wall you’ll see a stone engraved with this quote from Mao Tse Tung:  “He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man” (Badaling section).

So going to the Great Wall definitely should be on every traveller’s bucket list. I went with some friends independently instead of taking a tour. And although it’s more difficult to organize especially the transport, it’s worth it.

It’s more affordable than going with an agency and you will not need to follow the herd. Another advantage is that you can pick the section that you want to visit. Besides, normally agencies will take you to more touristic sections and therefore they will probably be terribly crowded with local and foreign tourists.

You might be interested to know that the Great Wall of China has a lot of sections to visit, and they are all different: the views, the state of conservation, the distance, the number of tourists… so it’s essential to choose the best place for you depending on your priorities.

great wall map
Great Wall map – click to zoom

I will tell you about my experience, in Mutianyu and Huanghuancheng sections, although there are a dozen other ones you can visit.

Great Wall: The Mutianyu section

mutianyu
Great Wall – Mutianyu section

The first time I went to Mutianyu, I had read on various blogs that this is the longest restored section of the wall open to tourism. So it sounded good to me, plus my local friends also recommended me to go.  It’s not very far (70km from Beijing), it has great views and if you go off-peak it will be far less crowded than the Badaling section (the most popular one).

This section is located in Huairou County, about 1 hour and a half or 2 hours from downtown, and it’s easily reachable by public transport. The total length is about 3.4 miles of extension and Mutianyu is the only section that comprises a total of 22 watchtowers.

To climb up you have 3 options:

  1.  If you want to use the stairs to walk up, it’s a bit of a hike but well worth it. This section is surrounded by mountains and forests. It will take you around 50 minutes from the base.
  2. For those who feel lazy or have reduced mobility, you can take a cable car up and back down again.
  3. Get down via toboggan! It’s super fun, exhilarating experience, especially for those who have kids. And you’ll have some great picture opportunities.
mutianyu great wall toboggan
The toboggan at Mutianyu – Photo credit: Robert Scales on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

In my opinion, the cable car and the toboggan diminish the beauty of the place, so I walked all the way up. But if you are thinking of doing the same, don’t underestimate it, there are 1,000 steps.

mutianyu cable car
Cable car & Toboggan at Mutianyu – Photo credit: RebekahIHammond on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

I would suggest that you start early in the morning because people keep coming, so there will be fewer tourists – and in summer the temperature will be more bearable. They have food stalls and restaurants at the entrance and a coffee shop at the side of the wall. So if you go in summer make sure you buy water. I didn’t, and by the time I arrived at the top, I had almost died.

Yes, I arrived half-dead but satisfied. Finally, I was at the Great Wall of China!

Once at the top, you will see parts of the Wall that are separated by towers. If you walk up you will get to towers 8 or 10, if you went through the North entrance. If you went through the South entrance, you will arrive at numbers 6 or 8, depending on the path you chose.

If you catch the cable car you will get to tower 14. From there you should go towards the West because from tower 14 to 23 is the most beautiful part and also the most authentic.

Mutianyu map
Route Map of the Mutianyu Great Wall – Photo credit: Kwong Yee Cheng on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

If you have children, you will probably want to go down by toboggan, so for this, you will have to go towards the opposite side, towards tower 6.

The basic entrance fee is Y45 ($7).

Cable car fare: Y100 one way and Y120 ($18) round trip

Cable car to the Wall and return by toboggan: Y120 ($18)

Single trip by toboggan: Y100 ($15)

mutianyu toboggan
Toboggan at the top of Mutianyu section

How to get to Mutianyu from Beijing:

Go to Dong Zhi Men (东直门) bus station, which is connected to Dong Zhi Men metro station, you can’t miss it.

There you catch the 916 Express bus to Mutianyu (Y12) until Huai Rou Bei DaJie stop (it’s stop number 15 out of 20 stops that the route has) and from there catch a taxi to the Great Wall for Y50 ($7) or the H23 bus for Y5 ($0.7) and stop at Mutianyu Roundabout.

My tips for Mutianyu section:

  • Remember to prepare 12 Yuans or the exact fare for the bus ticket. Bus drivers don’t handle money at all. When you pay with cash you place the fare in the farebox by the driver’s cab when you enter the bus. If you don’t have the exact fare you can overpay but no change is given.
  • Catch the 916 express bus, not any other bus, because there are a lot of rip-offs. You will probably find a couple of people who wear bus attendant uniforms waiting for unsuspecting travellers at the station, and they’ll tell you that taking another bus will get you to the Wall faster than 916. They will even take the bus with you and tell you where to get off. But in the end it turns out that you got on a bus that was not the right one, it took you to a very far place and you will not have another choice but to get a taxi. Of course, they are in cahoots with these taxi drivers waiting to “help” you head back to the Mutianyu Wall for a ridiculous exaggerated fare. Not nice feeling, so I recommend you to not impulsively jump on any bus and plan your trips ahead.
  • Something similar happened to me, but not exactly. Because I knew about the scam I did not fall for the trap. I did catch the 916 express, so all good. But later it was difficult to know where to get off. The stops are written in Chinese on a screen, so you have to pay attention to the recorded announcements in English and in Chinese on the speakers. But they were not always understandable. The thing is that it was getting very confusing whether I had to stop or not. And suddenly, at one of the stops, a woman got on the bus wearing a uniform shirt and yelling “Great Wall!” to all the tourists, making signs for us to come.  She approached us and asked insistently if we were going there. Good thing we told her no because we were doubting and if I had not known about the other rip-off, we would probably have stopped there and we could have ended up who knows where.
    ⁣ If you are not sure, ask someone on the bus or keep an eye out for where the other tourists are stopping.
  • Another piece of advice would be to try to avoid going over the weekend, in Summer or the Public Holidays – because when I went there, it was a weekend in summer and I felt very disappointed because it was super crowded. It was impossible to take any picture without hundreds of tourists in the background.

So, in my opinion, I found Mutianyu a bit disappointing, because it’s becoming very touristic with all the shops and the vendors – and it’s completely refurbished so it looks brand new and it takes away from the authenticity of the place.  But maybe if you go during the week or in low season you will not have to deal with all the tour groups and you’ll enjoy your experience here more.

Great Wall: the Huanghuancheng section

huanghuancheng great wall lake
Huanghuancheng Great Wall

After going to Mutianyu, I wanted to explore the wilder sections – so I asked my Chinese teachers and they talked about the wonderful Huanghuancheng section. This section is supposed to be far more local, far less crowded and has magnificent scenery, thanks to the water reservoir.

To access this section of the Wall, you walk across a dam, and the go over to the other side of a lake in a boat. This part of the Wall is surrounded by a seemingly infinite mountain range, with views of the valleys and the water from everywhere and some parts are even submerged under the water.

It is also about 70km away from Beijing and it is connected to Mutianyu from the east, about 2 hours from downtown.

If you want the Wall for yourself, this is the spot!

We only saw a family of three people during the whole visit (about 3 to 4 hours), so no crowds at all. Here you will not spot tour buses filled with groups of tourists with colored hats and Chinese flags, or toboggans or cable cars.

A wonder! This is an enormous section of the wall in a wild state, with unrestored areas, where there are steep steps and an ancient tower at the east of the dam, from which there are some spectacular views.

The ticket costs Y45 ($7) to the restored part. But if like us, you cannot find the entrance, you can climb through other places up the mountain and it’s totally free. Nobody will check.

How to get there:

To get there, you have to go to Dong Zhi Men (东直门) bus station again, catch the same 916 Express to Huairou bus station (Y12) and after that catch the H21 to Small West Lake (for Y7).

From Huairou bus station the H21  buses do not come often so another option is to take a taxi to Huanghuancheng entrance. There will be a lot of taxis waiting once you get to Huairou. Don’t worry and remember to haggle the price; it shouldn’t be more than Y50 ($6).

My tips for Huanghuancheng section:

  • If you feel like trekking and you are not scared to pass through deteriorated areas of the wall, with big steps or irregular stones, you can do a trek of an hour and a half to Zhuangdakou.  Once you arrive, if you still have the strength and if you’d like to continue, you can follow the trail of 8km in total (3-4 hours) ending in Xishuiyu and you’ll find a great camping area.
    If you’re interested in hiking, the book Explore the Great Wall, explains the history of its construction, details about routes that you can do in 8 different sections, advice about what to take and how to organize walks.
  • If you are not interested in hiking at all, in the Huanghuacheng section you can stay at the bottom of the mountains and still get fantastic views also. You can follow the walk that takes you between the trees and the lake and see everything from there. Also in the middle of the walk, you’ll find a small port where you can get a pedal boat or a little boat, so there are various options.

The Huanghuancheng section is not as exploited as Mutianyu.

huanghuancheng great wall
Huanghuancheng section

Here, as I have already explained, you will not see souvenir shops, restaurants, scammers and big groups of tourists…but if you are traveling with kids, older people or dogs, or if you are not really fit,  I would recommend seeing the Great Wall at Mutianyu section, as it is more accessible. This part(Huanghuancheng section)can be a bit demanding and steep in places.

But if the main thing for you is to not to hit any crowds and to be able to take great pictures without being “photobombed” by tourists, then this is the part you can’t miss.

Another idea that we left pending, and only suitable for adventurers, is to camp at the Great Wall. There are agencies that organize a two-day tour to the Great Wall and you can do a trekking itinerary o the Great Wall and sleep in tents. You enjoy a landscape like no other, and you can see the dawn and the sunset from there. The agency provides the guide, the tent, the sleeping bags and the transfers. So if you go for it let me know how it was.

 

great wall tents
Great Wall Camping – Source: ChinaTravellers

2) Go to the Forbidden City (and then and enjoy the views from the top of Jingshan Hill)

Forbidden city
Forbidden City in Beijing

The Forbidden City, also known as the Imperial city, is another main attraction of Beijing, and a declared World Heritage site.

It’s located in the centre of Beijing next to the famous Tiananmen square. More or less, it will take you a couple of hours to walk through the huge palatial complex, since it’s the biggest in the world with 74 hectares.

It was built between 1406 and 1420 and has the name of the Forbidden City because to enter there you had to count on the express authorisation of the emperor.

It is surrounded by a defensive wall with four doors aligned to the four cardinal points and divided in two areas:

  • The North area: where the interior court was located, which is where the Emperor, the Empress and the concubines all lived.
  • The South area: which was the exterior area where the emperor held big public ceremonies and political reunions.

During your visit, you will walk through numerous courtyards, pavilions, beautiful gardens and halls. The treasures and artistic objects have been plundered throughout history but they still conserve some great jade or gold treasure exhibition.

forbidden city
Forbidden City

The entry tickets can be bought at the box office; if you are a foreigner, you will have to show your passport. The Chinese locals have to buy the tickets online in advance.

By the way, they close on Mondays.

The opening hours are:

1st of April to 31st of October: 8.30-17.00

Price: Y60 ($8)

1st of November to 31st of March: 8.30-16.30

Price: Y40 ($5)

How to get there:

By metro line 1 Tiananmen West or Tiananmen East Station, line 2 Qianmen Station

Not to miss right after visiting the Forbidden City

Once you have concluded the visit of the palace, there’s just one exit to the Forbidden City – so you will exit from the North Gate. If you look up you will see a pavilion-temple at the peak of a hill. It’s Jingshan Hill and I recommend that you walk up to it, because you will have the best panoramic view of the Forbidden City, especially at sunset.

forbidden city jingshan
Jingshan from the Forbidden City

The climb is quite short and easy. You will not need more than 15 minutes.

The Jingshan Park is also called “carbon hill”, and this is because it’s an artificial hill that was formed thanks to the soil that they took out for the construction of the pit that surrounds the palace.

It has 5 pavilions, and from the highest one, the pavilion Wancheng Ting, you will be amazed by the perspective of the Imperial Palace. You have to climb, but it’s totally worth it. Besides, there are not that many people visiting there.

View of Forbidden City at Jingshan Park
View of Forbidden City at Jingshan Park – Photo credit: angelhsu on Visualhunt.com / CC BY

When you finish, if you choose a different path to walk down you will find the place where the last emperor Ming committed suicide, before they came to get him.

The park opens from 6.00 to 20.00 (November to May) and from 6.00 to 21.00 (from April to October) and costs just Y2 ($0.2).

3) If you can only visit one temple, make sure it’s the Lama Temple

lama temple beijing
Lama Temple, Beijing – Photo credit: gregoryf_44 on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The Lama Temple is the most famous Tibetan Buddhist temple outside the Tibetan territory and the biggest one in Beijing. In Chinese, it’s called “Yonghegong”, which means peace and harmony.

lama temple beijing

It’s composed of various traditional buildings that are highly decorated with golden colored roofs and each building has prayer halls, the largest and tallest one being the Pavilion of a Thousand Happiness, which houses an 18m-tall statue of Buddha.  It is the biggest in the world and carved from a single piece of sandalwood.

lama temple buddha
Giant buddha at Lama Temple

You’ll also see many spots throughout the temple for burning incense. So you can take the opportunity to do it if you want to take part. They offer you a bundle of free incense and it’s a nice experience; just remember to be respectful because this is an active Temple. You’ll see a lot of pilgrims praying, bowing, spinning the praying wheels and Monks walking on the grounds of the Temple. And the smell of the incense everywhere just adds to the vibe. We loved it.

Lama Temple is a blend of Chinese and Tibetan culture, and if you appreciate spiritual places you will find it very special. The grounds are very well-maintained and the exquisite building structure and trees make the visit a calming experience.

The opening hours are from 09.00-16.00 the whole year and the price is Y25 ($3).

How to get there:

Line 2  Yonghegong metro stop

If you have time, you can combine your visit with Confucius Temple, which is a few minutes walking distance from Lama Temple (around 100m).

confucius temple beijing
Confucius Temple, Beijing – Photo credit: Herve “Setaou” BRY on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

To get there you’ll pass a very charming street where you can buy incense and Buddhist statues of every size.

The Confucius Temple is not as spectacular as the Lama Temple; here you will not see big Buddhist statues, it’s a different style of temple. What you will see is century-old cypress trees, drums and bells, and stone steles about the Ming and Qing dynasties.

A great visit since it commemorates one of the great political thinkers of all times: Confucius.

There’s also a traditional dance routine performed several times per day (between 10 to 14 every hour I think) in a small temple at the back of the complex. And I highly recommend watching it, it lasts only 15 minutes.

traditional dance confucius temple
Traditional dance at Confucius Temple – Photo credit: Studio5Graphics on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

The entrance fee is Y30 ($4) and the opening hours are from 8.00 to 17.00 from Tuesday to Sunday.

4) Discover the historical Beijing in Qianmen

quianmen beijing
Quianmen, Beijing – Photo credit: Photo Alan on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

If you want to discover the historical sites of Beijing and get lost in the hutongs (traditional alleys of the old town), then Qianmen is a good place.

Qianmen Street is a famous restored commercial street orientated to tourism, but it still has a lot of charm.

It has an old tram running silently down the middle of the street and modern shops like Zara and Starbucks that are mixed with traditional shops that have been there forever and that have survived generations – such as the pharmacy Tongrengtan, that has sold traditional Chinese medicine since 1669, the tea shop Zhang Yi Yuan, or the old China Bookstore.

starbucks quianmen beijing
Starbucks in Quianmen is following the traditional architecture

Apart from this, in this street, you can find the famous Quanjude Roast Duck restaurant. With over 100 years of history, it is no wonder that it is the best restaurant to eat Peking Duck. This roast duck has become a national symbol of China, so if you go to Beijing this is the first dish you should try – and Quanjude is the place.

pekin duck
Peking Duck preparation

If you catch the small tram, it will take you up or down, passing near by the hutongs and you’ll see how the locals live in the surrounding alleys.

The hutongs are normally made up of buildings facing into a central patio, where you can catch a glimpse of the traditional and authentic life of the locals. It’s very interesting and sometimes surprising to the tourists to see the Beijingers walking in their pyjamas or the elderly playing Mah-Jong in the street.

My advice: stay until night time and you will see the buildings, mailboxes and lanterns illuminated. You can have a tea at  Lao She Tea House and have Dim Sum for dinner (also called “Shao Mai”) at the popular restaurant Dou yi chu shao mai guan.

dim sum
Dim Sum

How to get there:

Metro line 2 stop Qianmen exit B or C

qianmen subway station
Qianmen subway station

When you exit the station you’ll see the Zhengyangmen, which is Tiananmen’s South Gate, and directly across the road, the Arrow Tower, a massive structure you’ll see as you cross the road walking towards Qianmen Street.

arrow tower beijing
Arrow Tower – Photo credit: Bernt Rostad

5) Learn to haggle for the best bargain at the markets

beijing markets
Photo credit: mosesfecher on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

If you are interested in buying something in Beijing at a good price, you’ll find it all in Beijing’s markets.

Just make sure to go with high energy because you will have to bargain, bargain and bargain. They’re tough these sellers. So have patience.

Silk Market

silk market beijing
Silk Market, Beijing

It’s the market where all the tourists go,  you’ll see lots of big tour buses parked outside. It’s a 5-story mall filled with small shops selling everything: fake brand-name clothing, bags, watches, slippers, scarves, suitcases, crafts and technology.  This is the place to get shirts and suits custom-made too; they can do it in 24 hours or less – you just need to choose the fabric and they will measure you on the spot. And if what you need is prescription eyeglasses there are many opticians to choose from and your glasses will be ready in a few hours.  Each floor is dedicated to one or more categories of products and on the top floor, you can enjoy a food court with many international options, after you’re done with the shopping.

But I would only recommend you to go if you are ready for hard, exhausting bargaining. Starting prices are very high, and I personally found everything a bit overpriced, since the products are not original.  So I learnt that the trick to get big discounts is to show some interest but be ready to walk away. Don’t be scared to bargain hard and it’s very important that you don’t show too much interest. If they can see that you can’t live without the item they will never lower the price.

Normally they say that you have to divide by 3 the amount of money that they ask for, but not all play the game and some even show a bad face or get angry if you try to bargain too much.  If you’re in the high season trying to negotiate prices while the rest of the tourists are offering and paying more than you, you will have a difficult time bargaining.

My advice:

Remember that the products that are sold here are imitations, so don’t calculate how much the real one would cost, but how much you would pay for the imitation.

Don’t buy in the first shop! This is something that tends to happen to me; they start to confuse you by giving you combined offers and in the end, you leave after buying fifty thousand things that you don’t want and that are not that cheap.

If you compare the prices that they give you in one shop and another, you will get an idea of how much to ask.

Also check the quality of what you are buying, especially if it’s something electronic.  Or ask if you can try it first. Quality varies from one shop to another and they normally have a cheap version and an expensive one.

They will try with many tricks to engage you asking all kind of questions like: ”Where are you from?… American? Oh you are very rich”, or “This is the best quality, you can’t find the same in any other shop”, or “you are my first customer.”

Look at this funny sign of “Useful phrases to use at the Market in China”. It’s a sign on the wall at the Silk Market.

vocabulary sign silk market

It’s a fun experience, but tiring at the same time. If you are the kind of person that prefers to pick your item and pay, don’t go.

Hongqiao Pearl Market

perl market beijing
Hongqiao Perl Market, Beijing – Photo credit: bryanh on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

This is the market that my friend who lives there recommended to me. It’s famous because they sell pearls of quality from all around the world, but also electronics, silk, handbags, shoes, suitcases, jewellery, toys and imitations of course. Everything you need. I prefer this market much more than the Silk Market. It’s also an 8-floor building with almost the same categories and on the underground floor, there’s a food court with different Asian restaurants of all kinds: Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian…

The best thing I experienced is that the vendors here are less aggressive than in Silk Market and they are more friendly and better behaved.

How to get there:

Catch the metro line 5 to Tiantan East Gate Station, exit via exit B and cross the street.

My advice: This Market is next to the Temple of Heaven so you can combine your shopping day with a trip to this Temple, just across the road. Read the next section for more info about the Temple of Heaven.

Panjiayuan Market

panjiayuan market
Panjiayuan Market, Beijing – Photo credit: gleenyc on Visualhunt / CC BY

This place is a paradise for collectors: you can find Chinese souvenirs, antiques, Chinese books or calligraphies, furniture, jade pieces, ceramics or coins from all of the countries, ethnic costumes, religious items and second-hand curiosities.

This market is the biggest of this kind in Asia, with more than 3,000 stands. In fact, they say that the Korean and Japanese antique markets come here to buy their antiquities.

My advice:

Be careful when you touch something. Don’t break it, or they will make you pay.

Don’t always believe the stories the sellers will tell you of the goods that you’re interested; it can be a strategy to sell.  Observe with a magnifying glass what you would like to buy if it is dark take it to the light. Ask for an invoice if it’s an important transaction.

How to get there:

Metro line 10 stop Panjiayuan exit B.

Wudaokou Shopping Market

wudaokou shopping market
Wudaokou Shopping Market, Beijing – Photo credit: GreenArcher04 on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC

Wudaokou is an area where a lot of universities are located. It’s a student district, full of restaurants, clubs and shopping with a lively atmosphere, especially in the evenings. The shopping area is conveniently located next to the metro station and it’s mainly a clothing market targeted especially towards students. I actually found this market thanks to my classmates.

The shops are mainly clothes shops with Korean designs and brand imitations such as Vans, Nike, or Diesel, but you’ll also find a bit of everything: cosmetics, accessories, bags, shoes and household items.

The prices are a lot more reasonable than in the other markets, but you will also have to bargain. Don’t be afraid, bargaining is a way of life in China.

They open until 20.30-21.00.

By the way, in this area, you can find the best Korean and Japanese restaurants at a good price. And the coolest party at the bar Lush, at the Red Rock Bar and the Nightclub La Propaganda.

How to get there:

Metro line 10 stop Xitucheng.

The market is 10 minutes walking distance.

6) Visit one of the most beautiful temples in China: The Temple of Heaven

temple of heaven
Temple of Heaven, Beijing – Photo credit: Herve “Setaou” BRY on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The Temple of Heaven is a true oasis in the chaotic city of Beijing. Situated less than 5 km from the Forbidden City, it’s not only a temple, but a complex of 273 hectares, with walls surrounding 5km of it and, at each cardinal point, three main buildings that are architectural masterpieces and beautiful gardens.

I entered on the East side just after opening and I recommend that you do the same. If you arrive early (before 9.00am), you’ll see elderly locals practising all types of activities in the park: singing, dancing, kung fu, tai chi, playing instruments, domino or Mahjong…

It’s a pleasure to watch, I could have spent all day here watching their talents. Worthy to wake up early.

tai chi park beijing
Elderly people doing Tai Chi in the Temple of Heaven’s park – Photo credit: Brian Carlson

After visiting the park, walk through the long corridor and that will take you to the most important monument, the Hall of Prayer for the Good Harvest, without a doubt the most beautiful in the Temple of Heaven. It’s a building made entirely from wood with 3 blue roofs, symbolizing the sky, constructed over 3 marble terraces – an extraordinary work that was made without using one nail or beam (viga). It was originally used to pray for the harvest.

Towards the south, you’ll find the Imperial Vault of Heaven, another magnificent construction, very similar to the hall of Prayer for the Good Harvest but in reduced dimensions. In this temple, the emperors paid homage to their ancestors.

imperial vault of heaven
Imperial Vault of Heaven

Finally, walking towards the south, we will find another very important construction: the Circular Altar. These are a series of white marble terraces distributed in nine concentric circles (the number 9 is the imperial number), and a place where the emperor carried out the sacrifices to heaven.

How to get there:

Metro Line 5 stop Tiantang Dongmen

Opening hours:

The opening hours of the park are from 06.00 to 22.00.

The monument opening hours are:

08.00 to 17:30 (April to October)

08.00 to 17:00 (November to March)

 

7) Walk through Nanluoguxiang,  a Beijing old trendy hutong

nanluoguxiang
Nanluoguxiang – Photo credit: Ricardo Ramírez Gisbert

Nanluoguxiang is a hidden treasure in Beijing, one of the oldest streets in the city, and one of the most popular hutongs for the last 10 years.

What is a “hutong”?

Hutongs are old alleys or streets typical in the north of China, with houses that are built around a common patio and are part of a close-knit community. The majority of the inhabitants are poor and have electricity and running water, but they don’t usually have a bathroom inside the house, just a shared communal bathroom on the street. And they are very lively; life is centered outdoors and people tend to do many things outside.

So for a tourist, visiting a hutong in Beijing is a must. It will help you to get an idea of the traditional life on the streets and wandering through the narrow alleys you will see the essence of traditional Chinese culture: people getting their haircut in the street, grandmas taking care of the children, old guys playing chess, people walking around in their pyjamas, neighbors drinking, smoking and chatting until very late. You might see things you don’t expect to see, so it’s always surprising.

Why go to Nanluoguxiang?

Because Nanluoguxiang is a typical pedestrian Chinese neighborhood, that started being basically residential but has become a popular tourist destination with lots of restaurants, bars, live music bars and handicrafts and souvenir shops. There’s a lot to see, buy, eat and more, so just walk around, have some food and enjoy some local delicacies.

Definitely recommended, especially in the afternoons and on weekends because it’s a popular hangout spot for local young people and students.

There is a street filled with bars, where the smallest bar in Beijing is located (12 square meters), Western and local restaurants, and many food and drink stands.

My advice: Try the passion fruit juice tea, it’s super refreshing.

How to get there:

Metro line 6 stop Nanluoguxiang

Sleeping in a hutong

hutong hotel
Beijing 161 hotel LeZaiNanluo

If you want to taste a more authentic experience of old Beijing and you’re seeking adventure, history and a real feel of China, you can even stay in one of these hutongs and not in a classic hotel in the center of Beijing.

Imagine waking up in a historic hostel from the Ming dynasty! A few years ago, some of the hutong’s houses were converted into boutique hotels and offer a unique and special stay.

The Beijing 161 LeZaiNanluo Boutique Hotel is a perfect place to stay, located near Nanluoguxiang metro station but far from the hustle and noise.  It has a beautiful, large patio on the roof overlooking the other houses with sofas and chairs to chill. And it’s a nice blend of traditional external architecture with modern hotel rooms equipped with everything: A/C, flatscreen TV, toilet, slippers or hairdryer.

8) Walk by the lake and the gardens of  Summer Palace and disconnect from the city

summer palace beijing
Summer Palace, Beijing

This is the place that I liked the most in Beijing.

It’s 15km (9.32 miles) from Beijing and it’s enormous. If you go, reserve a day or a morning at least to visit this complex, because it’s an authentic gem.

The Summer Palace was used as the residency of the Emperors in the summer season to escape the hot summers in the Forbidden City and to rest and meditate.

Three quarters of the entire surface, 293 hectares, is occupied by the lake Kunming which is at the feet of Longevity Hill and transmits a calm and a peace that you will hardly find in another place of Beijing.

The complex is divided into three areas:

  • The court area: was the area for both state affairs and living. a residency of the emperors and empresses. Enter through the East Palace Gate, you will see the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (which was the office of the emperor), and the Hall of Jade Ripples and the Garden for Virtue and Harmony (where the empress Cixi watched the opera performances). At set times you can see some traditional acts and dances.
    summer palace
    Summer Palace, BeijingPhoto credit: Slices of Light

    ⁣If you’re lucky you will also see in this area some Chinese calligraphy artists writing characters on the floor.

    chinese calligraphy floor
    Photo credit: 10b travelling / Carsten ten Brink on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND
  • The area of Longevity Hill: the area in front of Longevity Hill is another super beautiful area. You will find the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, the Long Corridor (which is China’s longest hallway in traditional style, is decorated with paintings narrating the history and mythology of China), the Tower of Buddhist Incense (at the very top of Longevity Hill, with impressive panoramic views) and the Hall of Utmost Blessing.

    summer palace corridor
    The Long Corridor

    ⁣In the back area, places of interest such as Shuzou street (a recreation of a traditional commercial street from the city of Shuzou, Eastern Venice), the Garden of Harmonious Interests (beautiful Chinese buildings on the lake surrounded by native nature) and the Tibetan temple.

    summer palace
    Photo credit: UniverseExplorer on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND
  • The area of the lake Kunming: is where you find the lake properly; here is where Nanhu island is, the Bridge of the 17 Arcs and the Marble Boat (ordered by the empress Cixi to enjoy the lake views).
    summer palace bridge
    Bridge to Nanhu Island

    Beijing – Summer Palace (marble boat)

Price:

Y20 ($3) low season

Y30 ($4.50) high season

If you would like a ticket that also includes entrances to the Wenchang Gallery, the Garden of Virtue and Harmony, the Buddhist of Incense and Suzhou St:

Y50 ($7.50) low season

Y60 ($9) high season.

My advice:

  • It’s essential to plan a route inside the Palace because if you don’t you’ll probably miss many interesting places on your visit.  If you don’t have a lot of time, you can start by the North Gate, visit the posterior area of Longevity Hill, pass the Long Corridor and get to the Marble Boat. From there catch a boat to the Bridge of the 17 Arcs and walk back to the Court Area. It takes approximately 3 hours.
  • Take some food because inside there are not many food options and they might be busy.
  • After visiting the Summer Palace, if you are very tired you’ll find the typical rickshaws waiting for you at the exit to take you to the metro station; if you use them, don’t forget to bargain the price.

How to get there:

On metro line 4 stop Beigongmen (north door) or Xiyuan (west door).

9) Attend the flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square

raising flag

Tiananmen Square is the most important square in China and the biggest in the world. Over the years this square has been the backdrop to different historic events: like the Proclamation of the People’s Republic of China and the Protests of 1989, where the government decided to end the freedom and pro-democracy demonstrations by force.

Today, it’s a symbol of China and its history and every day hundreds of foreign tourists congregate to watch the ceremony, and hundreds of national tourists come from all parts of China on a pilgrimage to see the raising of the flag, to visit Mao’s tomb or the Museum of the Revolution.

To be able to access the square you have to pass through various security controls and depending on the time you arrive you’ll have to join long queues. But don’t worry, the lines move quite fast.

What to see in Tiananmen Square?

  • The flag-raising/lowering ceremony: It is done at sunrise and sunset every day.  The schedule changes according to the time of the year, so if you are interested in attending you can check the exact time here.

    Flag raising/lowering ceremony schedule

    They open an hour earlier, so it is advisable to go at least 20 minutes in advance to get a front-line spot before all the Chinese tourists come and prevent you from seeing anything.
  • The Mausoleum of Mao Ze Dong: It closes on Mondays, and the rest of the days it only opens in the morning from 07:00 to 11:00.  Entrance is free, so as you can imagine, there tend to be big queues on Chinese public holidays since it’s the place where the body of Mao is held, the ex-Chinese leader and Father of Patriotism.

    You’ll see him lying in a crystal coffin surrounded by fresh flowers. At the entrance, there are sellers that sell flowers for the occasion.

    mao mausoleum
    Mausoleum of Mao Ze Dong – Photo credit: GoGap on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA
  • National Museum of China: If you like Chinese culture, history or art you should visit this. The entry is also free.
  • Monument to the People’s Heroes: It’s a 38m-tall obelisk, which pays homage to the Nation’s heroes, and the veterans of the Chinese wars (civil war heroes and the war against Japan).

Right before the monument to the People’s Heroes, you’ll see 30 red flags representing 30 provinces and regions that compose China.

flags
Photo credit: leckernapfkuchen on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

How to get there:

Metro line 1 stop Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West.

10) Dare to eat at Beijing Ghost Street

ghost street beijing
Ghost street, Beijing – Photo credit: davelocity on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

It’s a famous street, best visited at night, full of traditional restaurants and liquor shops open 24 hours. It’s decorated with thousands of lanterns strung across the streets and the giant neon signboards lighting the sidewalks. So it’s a very lively and exciting place to enjoy in the evening.

It’s so popular that outside the restaurants there are a lot of people waiting their turn to be seated inside. And when I say a lot, I mean at least 30 people. There’s a gentleman with a speaker that calls out people’s numbers and it’s incredibly loud everywhere.

ghost street beijing
Photo credit: joeywan on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

We asked in one of these restaurants that were very in demand for dining because we thought that it would be one of the best – and they handed us the number 84. So you can imagine our faces!

Although, after dining there, I have to advise you that the food that you will find is nothing like the westernized Chinese food that we are used to. It’s quite special to the Chinese people themselves.  Grilled tortoise, spicy frogs, intestines hotpot or seafood… everything prepared with a level of spiciness that you have not experienced in your life.

Then, why do I recommend you go to this street?

Because it’s curious and interesting. The environment, the people, the dishes – it’s entertaining. I’d recommend you not to risk it and order what you like to eat, and don’t forget to have it written down in Chinese just in case. Not everyone speaks English and the same goes with the menu cards – pick one with pictures if that helps.

How to get there:

Metro line 5 Beixingqiao.

11) Visit the curious night market Wangfujing

wangfujing scorpions
Beijing’s Street Delicacies (scorpions, seahorses, starfishes) – Photo credit: magnetisch on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Wangfujing is one of the longest and most popular commercial streets in China. It has two shopping malls, souvenir shops, the biggest library in Beijing, outdoor cafes and typical western franchise restaurants. You will find a similar environment to any commercial street of your city.

From this main street, there is an alley that will take you to the most famous night market. This market is super touristic because the stalls offer the most daring culinary delicacies: scorpion skewers, starfishes, seahorses or toasted centipedes.

These exotic appetizers are more of a tourist attraction than a Chinese tradition. Don’t think that they eat this every day. But without a doubt, it’s a way of attracting millions of tourists every year.

I shot that little video at Wangfujing market

How to get there:

Metro line 1 Wangfujing stop

12) Walk along the Olympic Park by night

The Olympic Park is where the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games were held and it’s an area I recommend to visit at night – especially in summer because it’s not so hot. It’s great to walk through this huge pedestrian avenue and observe the contemporary buildings when they are lit. There is a unique atmosphere that you won’t find in any other place in Beijing.

In the central part you will find these emblematic constructions:

  • The National Stadium or “The Nest”: so-called due to its bird’s nest shape, it has a capacity of 80,000 spectators and it’s illuminated from 8 pm to 10 pm. It’s a striking steel structure that uses solar panels to collect solar energy to light the structure at night.

    beijing national stadium
    National Stadium, Beijing
  • The National Aquatic Centre or “The Cube”: right next to the National Stadium, it was built for swimming competitions. This pavilion has a facade similar to a cube of soap bubbles.

    the cube beijing
    The Cube, Beijing

How to get there:

Metro line 8, Olympic Sports Centre stop. Exit B2 and walk 800m towards the north.

On the same day you can visit a close-by attraction, the Olympic Forest Park, in the north part. It is a huuuge park! It is 6.8km² and it was constructed as a leisure area for the athletes and participants of the Olympic Games.

olympic forest park
Olympic Forest Park

Today it’s the biggest urban park in Asia to walk and do sports. It has a lake where you can rent boats, a fountain with a musical show, a mountain with views of the park, football, basketball, and badminton courts…

olympic forest park
Photo credit: Philip McMaster PeacePlusOne_\!/ on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

In the outside part of the Southern Gate, you’ll find the Sightseeing Tower, which is the sixth tallest tower in China. From there you can have an amazing panoramic view of the entire park.

If you’re looking for a place to spend the day or the afternoon and do exercise, run or walk, this is the best place in Beijing.

It’s free and it opens in winter from 6.00 to 19.00 until March and in summer from 07.00 to 21.00.

How to get there:

Metro line 8 Forest Park Station South Gate stop. If you exit by the A or B exit you will get to the southern part of the park.

My recommended 5-day itinerary in Beijing

I’ve made an easy itinerary to follow if you want to see it all:

Day 1:

Visit the Great Wall of China section Huanghuancheng and at night dine in one of the restaurants at the Ghost Street (remember to write down in Chinese what you would like to eat, or pick a restaurant with pictures on the menu card).

Day 2:

Wake up early to see the flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen. Later, you can visit the Mausoleum of Mao, which is located in the same place, and afterwards visit the Forbidden City, just next door. After your walk through the Forbidden City, climb Jingshan Hill to see the best views of the Forbidden City. At night walk through Qianmen and eat the famous roasted Peking duck in the legendary restaurant Quanjude.

Day 3:

Visit Lama Temple and join the Buddhist believers burning some incense sticks.  Visit the nearby Confucius Temple. And in the evening, walk along Nanluoguxiang and enjoy shopping and discovering the surrounding hutongs.

Day 4:

Get up early to arrive at the Temple of Heaven’s park before 9.00a.m. and you will see the locals practice all different kinds of traditional activities: tai chi, kung fu, dancing… Afterwards, of course, visit the Temple, the biggest of its style in all of China and walk to the Hongqiao or Pearl market. You can do all your shopping there and bargain to the maximum. At night you can stroll around Olympic Park; it looks super-pretty with all the colored lights.

Day 5:

Visit the Summer Palace, the lake, photograph the Empress’ Marble Boat and cross the Bridge of the 17 Arcs that connects the island of Nanhu with the Summer Palace. You can also catch a boat to tour the lake.  At night you can visit the commercial area of Wangfujing, where the night market is located, and try exotic street food such as scorpions and grasshoppers.

If you are going to stay longer in Beijing or would like to know what else to do when you have already seen it all, do not miss my article: What to do in Beijing when you have already done it all.

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