Why visit Beijing?It’s the capital of the most populous nation on earth and home to some of the most iconic tourist attractions.
It’s also a city undergoing tremendous change, so it’s worth visiting soon before the last of the traditional streets and hutongs are bulldozed in the name of progress.
What to do in Beijing?The big three are Tian’an’men Square, the Forbidden Palace and Temple of Heaven. These are all reasonably close and can be visited in a long day, ending with a trip to DongHuaMen night market to sample the unusual foods on a stick, such as seahorses and scorpions.
Other attractions are the ornate but busy Lama (YongHe) Temple or the nearby Confucius Temple that is generally much more serene.
798 Art District is an artist’s haven created in a Bauhaus-designed ex-military factory. It’s peppered with some fine works of art,
In the north of the city is the National Stadium, or Birds Nest. Used in the 2008 Olympics this stadium is best visited at dusk, just before the stadium and nearby Water Cube are colourfully illuminated at night.
The adjacent Olympic Forest Park is a good place to catch a break from the crowds and traffic.
For a break from the crowds head west. Haidian district is home to the tranquil Summer Palace (once holiday home for the imperial family), Fragrant Hills walking trails and the Beijing Botanical Gardens.
Finally, spend any time in Tian’an’men or Wangfujing and it’s inevitable that some friendly students will approach you looking to practice their English. Chat to them by all means, but don’t accept their invitation for a drink as it turns into an expensive scam.
Where and what to eat in Beijing? The best food outlets in Beijing are often the cheapest and busiest. The high turnover ensures that it’s fresh and usually made to order.
Any street will have bun or dumpling shops where a filling meal can be had for 4-8rmb. For more upmarket soupy dumplings look for the Taiwanese Ding Tai Fung chain.
In the morning keep an eye out for carts selling my favourite, a Jian Bing Chinese pancake.
Half a Peking Duck – the strip on the right is considered the best piece and is reserved for guests.
Of course, nearly everyone will want to try Peking Duck. The most hyped is DaDong, famed for its crispy skin – it’s excellent duck but the side dishes aren’t up to the same standards given the high price. Most tour groups will visit a brand of Quanjude, but as with DaDong you might notice a distinct lack of Beijingers eating there. A good compromise is Bianyifan, which has been serving duck since 1416 and is a perfect combination of excellent duck and other dishes.
Beijing is also home to some of the best examples of regional Chinese cuisines. If you’re not travelling further in China take the opportunity to try spicy yet delicate Sichuan hotpot, rich in flavour Yunnan dishes or rustic Xinjiang lamb kebabs. For a special meal look for Imperial food, as served to the Emperors, but be prepared to pay handsomely. The Beijinger websitehas a useful directory of English-friendly restaurants.
If you’ve somehow tired of Chinese food, then Sanlitun is home to the majority of foreign restaurants. The South East Asian food is of particularly high quality, whilst the Italian and American dishes might leave a lot to be desired, and cost many times the price of a Chinese meal.
Where to drink in Beijing?
There are two main areas – Sanlitun and the hutongs round HouHai Lake. In warm weather it’s hard to beat sitting by the lake with a drink, accompanied by the sounds of local musicians. If it’s a little cooler head to Sanlitun where it’s possible to find everything from grungy music dives to stylish private clubs.
Be wary of suspiciously cheap (10rmb) fake spirits – the headache isn’t worth it – but do try Chivas Regal whisky with green tea.
Getting around -Avoid the pedicabs
The cheapest way to get round town is by subway – the price is fixed at 2rmb (US$0.31) no matter how far you go. It’s best avoided at rush hour. Many stations have maps in English but it’s worth carrying a subway map round anyway.
The easiest way to get around is by taxi. Prices start at 10rmb and increase with time and distance, but it’s hard to ever spend over 50rmb. Note that there’s a 3rmb surcharge after 2km that won’t appear on the meter, so be prepared to pay the extra, but there’s no expectation of tipping. A taxi in from the airport will cost 80-90rmb. Make sure you have your destination written down in Chinese – hotels can assist with this. To hail a taxi, don’t point – extend your hand with the palm downwards and waggle your fingers.
Walking is an option around the major tourist sites such as Qianmen hutongs, Tian’an’men Square or Wangfujing. Most streets run North-South or East-West, so map reading is straightforward. The city is very flat but spread out, so if you travel much farther afield you’ll need to find transport – many hostels also offer a bicycle hire service. In the hutongs, you can give your feet a break by hiring a rickshaw but negotiate a price before getting in.
And just for a smile - Day Care in Beijing. Is it possible she didn't know what it meant? Had some English Language Teacher played a joke on her? No harm done!