Beijing is an enormous metropolis with a history going back thousands of years, and it’s usually the first stop for tourists coming to China. There’s enough to do in and around the city to keep you busy for years; trust me, I spent more than four of them living there. For travelers with only a few days to spend in the Chinese capital, planning the trip can be a bit tricky. Do you want to spend your time checking off the famous attractions? Are you looking to dive into the city’s vibrant culinary and nightlife scenes? Or are you more into exploring the old neighborhoods and local parks to soak up the culture? Or maybe you’d rather see the new face of Beijing – the impressive high-rises, luxury shopping centers, and outlandish nightclubs? Whatever you want, Beijing is your oyster.
Tiananmen – the heart of China.
Having spent a good portion of my 20s in Beijing, I did my best to explore all aspects of the city – the history, local culture, art, music, cuisine, nightlife, and everything in between. I’m not proclaiming to be an expert on the city, but I can give you quite a few pointers about how to plan and enjoy a trip there. Sure, the smog is disgusting and the weather can be downright awful, but under that layer of haze is a fascinating city with lots to offer. From a hike on the wild Great Wall, to peaceful afternoons in local parks, to wild nights out on the town, Beijing is a city with many faces. To help you plan your visit to the Chinese capital, here are the Top 10 places in Beijing, at least according to one blogger’s humble opinions. Note that each heading is a link to a separate post on that place.
Good times in the Wu.
Sure, it’s the student ghetto of Beijing and is far away from just about everything, but there’s a special place in my heart (and liver) for the Wu. Some of China’s most famous institutions of higher learning can be found here, such as Peking University and Qinghua. Thanks to its large student population, you’ll also find tons of markets, cafes, restaurants, and bars here. If you’re just visiting Beijing, a stop here can easily be coupled with a visit to the nearby Old Summer Palace.
Old Maoist slogans remain.
Perhaps nowhere in Beijing can you see the transformation the city has undergone better than at the 798 Art District. Once upon a time, factories churned out military equipment while workers chanted Maoist slogans. Today, you’ll find controversial artists pushing the envelope on what’s accepted in China, including the Gao Brothers and their portrayal of Chairman Mao as a, shall we say, “well endowed” woman.
Yes, that is Chairman Mao with boobs.
Vampires are all the rage these days.
Hop on your fixed gear bike and head to the neighborhood around the city’s Drum and Bell Towers to experience what we like to call the “Chipster” culture. After taking in the performance up in the tower, you can explore the quirky shops that line the street here – fake blood drink from an IV bag, anyone? There are also tons of places to eat and even a few live music venues where you can dance the night away.
A crowd gathers to sing at the Temple of Heaven.
To really experience the culture of Beijing (or any Chinese city, for that matter), head to the local parks. At all hours of the day, people gather here for a variety of activities – from early morning tai chi practice to evening square dancing. Although Beijing is notorious for its traffic jams and air pollution, the city also has a wide array of green spaces where you can escape from the daily grind and the stresses of the concrete jungle. You can also have tons of fun in the park; look no further than the Party Bike in Chaoyang Park:
Sunset on Houhai.
A great way to spend an evening in Beijing is a stroll through Beihai Park followed by a little boating at Houhai (or the Beijing Yacht Club, as we like to refer to it). Watch the sun go down and the neon come up as the area’s many bars come to life. While some of these bars are tolerable, most of them are absolutely awful; head instead to 4corners, a much more chill bar tucked away down a hutong.
View from the top of the hill, where you can see old Beijing…
This stroll – beginning at the city’s front gate and ending at Jingshan Park – allows you to see some of the most famous attractions (Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City) and a couple of great museums (National Museum and Planning & Exhibition Hall). In between all that sightseeing, get lost down the city’s old alleyways and munch on a traditional Beijing breakfast.
SLT – one of the best places to party in Beijing.
From the old, historical side of Beijing, we head over to the sleek, modern face of the city. Once a sketchy alley full of dubious characters, Sanlitun is now one of the top places to see and be seen in Beijing, with dozens of high-end shops, spas, restaurants, and bars. Ok, it’s still a sketchy alley with dubious characters when it boils down to it, but it sure looks fancy! Nearby, you’ll find the Worker’s Stadium, better known locally as Gongti. Catch a Guo’an match, and then head to one of the ritzy clubs here where Beijing’s nouveau rich love to show off. We love partying and eating in SLT so much we even put a video together about it:
Enjoy a nice sunset on Jinshanling.
As Chairman Mao famously said, “You aren’t a real man until you’ve climbed the Great Wall.” No trip to Beijing would be complete without a stop at one of the Seven Wonders of the World. There are lots of options for visiting the Great Wall, but I’d recommend making the extra effort to get to one of the more remote sections. For those really looking for an adventure, you can even campout on some sections of the Wall.
Panoramic view from atop the Tower of Buddhist Incense.
On a rare blue sky day, there’s no better place to be in Beijing than at the Summer Palace. Head to the top of the Tower of Buddhist Incense to enjoy one of the best panoramic views of the city, take a boat around Kunming Lake, or just pitch a tent and enjoy a lazy afternoon. Of course there are usually large crowds of packaged tourists here, but it’s not hard to escape them and find a bit of peace and solitude in this beautiful and historical place.
Will old Beijing disappear? We sure hope not!
Beijing’s traditional alleyways, or hutong, are one of the defining characteristics of the city and a vital part of its cultural heritage. Unfortunately, many of them have been bulldozed in recent years in favor of high-rises and shopping malls. Quite a few are protected, though, so it’s still possible to dive into old Beijing by getting lost in the hutongs. Some parts of the city have even sought to both protect and develop these old ‘hoods at the same time, such as the trendy NLGX and Wudaoying hutongs.
Have you been to Beijing? What are your favorite places there? Leave a comment – we’d love to hear what YOU think!