My boyfriend and I’s arrival in China was far from glamourous. We’d caught a red eye flight from Perth, Australia, had a layover in Singapore and upon landing in Beijing, I raced to find a toilet due to – I suspect – some artificial colours and flavourings in the Singaporean Slings we’d had on our flight. Beijing Airport was hot and busy compared to the wintery scenes we’d left in Perth.
We reached our hotel in the central and touristy Wangfujing area via the airport train and subway, and took in the sunset from the rooftop club lounge. Sure, there was smog on the skyline – but we were pretty damn excited to start our three week adventure. I’ve travelled to Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and India but China was different. Its capital of 21 million people was modern, organised and clean. You can read more in 10 Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing.
The city is also flat, meaning you can easily get around on foot or use the excellent subway system to explore. Even if you only have two days in Beijing, you can make a day trip to the Great Wall of China and then spend a day taking in the city. For a suggested plan, check out Our Three Week China Itinerary which includes four days in Beijing. Remember, you won’t be able to Google addresses, entrance fees or opening hours unless you have a VPN. I simply switched to Yahoo search and used the excellent offline map app Maps.Me.
Here’s my list of my must-see places in Beijing!
1. Tiananmen Square
This is probably the most well-known landmark in Beijing, the city square infamous for the student protests of 1989 dubbed the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre.’ When visiting the square, it’s hard to imagine the scenes that played out almost 30 years ago, as it was seemingly spacious when we were there on a warm autumn day.
While the city square is public space and therefore open all the time, there was strict security and road blocks when we accessed Tiananmen Square from the southern point at Qianmen E St. It wasn’t always clear which line to join, there are large tour groups and I felt like we kept showing our bags and passports at various checkpoints. But once you reach the actual square, simply walk around and observe.
- Cost: Free.
- Tip: If you see large lines and barricades, it’s people lining up to visit Mao’s Mausoleum. Check your bag before lining up at the facility across the street. We did it, and it’s pretty special – but be prepared for a 1-2 hour wait for just seconds of viewing time.
2. Forbidden City
You must see the Forbidden City when you visit Beijing! This world heritage listed site is an extraordinary testament to Chinese civilisation, spanning 130,000 sqm (32 acres). Now officially called the Palace Museum, it was an imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty (1368 – 1911). It’s literally like stepping into another world, and it’s incredible such a huge space survives unchanged in the heart of the city.
If you arrive at Tiananmen Square from the south, simply head north and you’ll reach the entrance to the Forbidden City. While some reviews said to pre-purchase tickets and allow six hours, my boyfriend and I had two hours spare and decided to chance it. We reached the entrance on a Saturday about 3pm, kept walking and reached the ticket area at 3.15pm (yes, the site is that big). There was a sign saying to buy tickets using a QR code but it was no problem to buy tickets the traditional way, although you’ll need to show your passport (do this everywhere in China). There was a short line but it only took a few minutes. We also rented an audio guide at a separate station (to the north) for 40¥ (AU$8), which helped us learn about the significance of each building and notice some features we would’ve otherwise missed.
We walked slowly, took photos and went into a gift shop, although we didn’t see the west palace as it was closed. The imperial garden is stunning and busy, but not shoulder to shoulder. Its greenery was a welcome respite from the barren concrete of the main areas. You could buy food and drink too and rest if you need, although seating may be difficult to come by. After an hour, we’d reached the end of the Forbidden City (4.15pm), although you could stay much longer if you have a particular interest in Chinese architecture and artefacts or stopped for lunch. Again, we didn’t rush – we just kept selfies to a minimum and didn’t study every single building and object.
- Cost: 60¥ (AU$12) high season (April – October), 40¥ low season (November – March).
- Opening hours: 8.30am – 5pm (4.30pm in low season), closed Mondays except July – August.
- Website: The Palace Museum
- Tip: go later in the afternoon if you can, for fewer crowds.
3. Jingshan Park
Why must you visit this park in Beijing? To get panoramic views of the Forbidden City and beyond! If you’ve walked through the Forbidden City from south to north, the park entrance is literally across the road when you exit. The main lookout was signposted, and you’ll need to walk up a lot of steps but only for a few minutes. Then join the crowd and enjoy the views! The remainder of the park looked lovely too, but we’d skipped lunch and it was approaching 6pm so we left. We exited the less-busy west gate and got a taxi straight away (38¥ to Beijing Railway Station, as we had to collect train tickets). The image at the top of this post is the main lookout at Jingshan Park!
- Cost: 2¥ (AU$0.40!)
- Opening hours: unsure, but they were still selling tickets at 5pm.
4. Great Wall of China
I’ve done a separate post about hiking the Great Wall of China, but honestly – go there. It’s a day trip from Beijing, with many different sections ranging from 45 minutes away by car to more than two hours. We chose the wild Jiankou section to the restored Mutianyu path. It was like stepping into a photograph and having a 360-degree view! If you only have a day in Beijing, you could always visit the wall early, return mid-afternoon then explore the city in the evening.
When I was researching Beijing, I read about ‘old laneways’ and knew I had to visit! My boyfriend and I were lucky that my sister had lived in China and organised for us to meet one of her friends. He suggested we visit the hutongs for dinner and drinks, and boy, did we drink! The alleyways were like a dark concrete maze of houses, eateries, bars and strong-smelling public toilets. While I can’t give any reliable details about where the hutongs start and finish, I can recommend heading to Peiping Machine Taphouse and The Tiki Bungalow to get your party started. The tiki bar isn’t easy to find, but just get to Jiaodaukou Street near Beixinqiao subway station and explore the area from there. For those who prefer, there are plenty of organised hutong tours too.
- Cost: Free.
7. Wangfujing Street
Every city has its main shopping street and in Beijing, that’s Wangfujing Street. I love shopping – not so much buying as looking, exploring and people watching. I always dive into book stores and stationery shops, and shoe stores. On Wangfujing Street, you’ll find the usual international clothing chains like H&M, Zara and Gap, along with MAC Cosmetics. But there are also lots of Chinese confectionary stores (great for random snacks or to take home as gifts), a good food court in the ground floor of the book store and designer stores. It’s also home to the famous Wangfujing Snack Street – marked by a large gate and the smell of food wafting down to the main street. More for novelty than serious eats, you can find bugs on sticks, noodles and what I called ‘swirly potato sticks’ – essentially skewered, home style potato chips. If you need a SIM card, head to the small China Unicom stand inside the mall closest to the snack street.
- Cost: Free
- Tip: The snack street closes at exactly 10pm – don’t be idle!
7. Temple of Heaven
It was a rainy old morning when we walked from our hotel to the Temple of Heaven, but that meant less crowds. We reached Tiantan Park about 12pm and followed the signs to the temple. It was built in 1412 and I found the architecture so striking, especially when imagining royalty travelling from the Forbidden City to the site for ceremonies. The main attraction is The Great Hall of Prayer (north) with nearby buildings containing various artefacts and information, although from memory only some of it was in English. We walked south to reach The Circular Mound Altar before exiting. We spent just over 90 minutes there altogether, but you could take some time to explore the park surrounding the temple – it’s a beautiful place to read a book, do tai chi or have a picnic.
- Cost: Park entrance 15¥ (AU$3), extra 20¥ for the temple (buy outside the temple).
- Opening hours: Park 6am-10pm, Temple of Heaven 8am-6pm in high season (July – Oct).
- Website: Temple of Heaven (map)
8. 798 Art District
After being immersed in imperial culture, it was refreshing to see a vibrant, youthful side to Beijing in the 798 Art District. My boyfriend discovered the area when he was researching drone stores and it looked really cool. We had limited time so took a cab there from the Temple of Heaven. We showed the taxi driver the name in Chinese using Maps.Me, and the 40 minute journey cost around 50¥ (AU$10) with Sunday traffic.
798 is an old factory area that’s been converted to artist studios, cafes, galleries and stores. The neighbourhood is big – not quite Forbidden City size, but definitely big enough to spend a few hours walking the streets and admiring the art, grabbing some street food and going into studios. I highly recommend heading here to check out Beijing’s art scene, and even if you’re not into art, the huge street sculptures and people watching are sure to entertain you for a few hours.
- Cost: Free.
- Website: 798 Art District
- Tip: If you see bags of rolled up, wafer-like sweets, buy them. They’re delicious!
While we saw a lot in our three days (including a day trip to the Great Wall), we couldn’t fit in the imperial garden Summer Palace, a Beijing brewery tour or visit Hou Hai (Back Lakes) which is meant to be most impressive at night I would also love to return to the hutongs and see more of Beijing’s neighbourhoods too. It’s no problem, because I know I’ll be returning to Beijing as soon as I can!
Where to stay
We stayed at New World Beijing, a five-star modern hotel in the Wangfujing area, Chongwenmen in Dongcheng district. It was perfectly located in the middle of all the attractions we wanted to see, only 15-20 minutes to Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven and Wangfujing Street. The club room was excellent value at AU$210 per night, including a sizeable breakfast buffet, generous evening drinks and canapés and most of all, a spacious rooftop for drinks or relaxing. Staying in a club room means you can also request a 4pm check-out.
At the end of our trip, we stayed at Park Plaza Beijing (AU$114/night). Located at the opposite end of Wanfujing Street to New World, the hotel was older but still perfectly fine. The area was much more business-like, surrounded by other hotels and high-rise buildings. If you can afford it, stay at New World!
Beijing is well served by air and train. The airport express train was 25¥ (AU$5) and took about 30-40 minutes to Dongzhimen, the main subway hub. From there, we took the subway to our hotel (Dongzhimen to Chongwenmen station, 20 minutes) followed by a short 10 minute walk. Our departure flight was early so we took a cab – from memory, it was maybe 120-150¥ (AU$24-30) from our Dongcheng hotel heading into peak hour.
There are five main train stations in Beijing, namely Beijing Railway Station, the West, North and South railway stations and Badaling station. Be sure to closely check which one you’re arriving or departing from!
- Subway: It’s fast, reliable and cheap. It was just 3¥ (AU$0.60) for most of our short, one-way journeys. Note the subway isn’t 24 hours, with most services stopping at 11pm-12am.
- Taxis: They’re cheap, plentiful and professional but communication can be difficult. Always have your destination in Chinese, even for a big hotel. I used Maps.Me for directions when our cab driver mistakenly took us to New World apartments instead of New World Hotel (thankfully only 10 minutes away on foot).
- Foot: It’s really easy to get around Beijing on foot. We walked 7 to 13km (4.5 – 8 mi.) most days we were in Beijing. It’s flat, and footpaths or roads are mostly wide and level (making them fine for luggage and baby strollers too).
- Buses: We didn’t use these as subway, taxi and foot were adequate. But there were English numbers on the front and bus stops were obvious because of shelters.
The Chinese Yuan Renminbi can be expressed in a number of ways, from ¥ to CNY or RMB. It’s all the same. While we could use our credit card at major hotels, most attractions and transport were cash only or if they did accept credit card, it was only locally-issued ones. Bring lots of cash otherwise there are ATMs available. As a rough guide, 100¥ = AU$20, US$15, £11 and €13.
QUESTION: What are your Beijing highlights?