Boisterous yet beguiling, Beijing is one of those exceptional cities that manages to showcase its fascinating past whilst offering a window into the future. This is the capital of the country that looks set to dominate the world, and its iconic modern architecture, its glitzy shopping malls and its high-speed bullet trains offer a glimpse into what the rest of China, and perhaps the rest of the world, will one day look like.
But this is also one of China’s true ancient citadels, and it’s laden with historical marvels. Beijing alone boasts six Unesco World Heritage sites – that’s one less than the whole of Egypt! – and tourists can spend days ticking off its impressive list of top-draw sights. But this is a big city – more than 10 times the size of London! – so it’s surprisingly easy to escape the crowds, get off the beaten track and discover a side to this mesmerising, centuries-old settlement that most tourists never see.
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We’ve got the Forbidden City covered, of course, as well as Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven Park. We’ll make sure you don’t miss the Lama Temple or historic Beihai Park. And of course, we’ll tell you all about how to get out to The Great Wall.
But we’ll also show you how to under the skin of true Beijing. Our Beijing Menu will help you decipher the unique flavours of Beijing cuisine, even when restaurant menus are only written in Chinese. We’ll then take you to some of the best locals-only restaurants, to sample genuine Beijing tucker.
We’ll also help you find off-the-beaten-track noodle joints and dumpling houses that most tourists have simply never heard of. After that, we’ll show you how to work off those calories by joining Beijingers for a spot of kite-flying, or lake swimming, or formation dancing, or tai chi , or outdoor table tennis, or just a simple cycle around the streets – all classic Chinese pastimes that locals still love to spend time doing, but which non-Chinese-speaking tourists find hard to seek out.
Perhaps most intriguingly of all, we’ll take you deep into the city’s famous narrow lanes, or hutong, where hundreds of years worth of history waits to be discovered; we’ll reveal their long-forgotten temples, back-alley cafes and secret teahouses as you slip down a gear or two and wander around the most charming pockets of this utterly enthralling city.
Beijing is at its best in spring (April and May) and autumn (September and October). Annoyingly, both these seasons are very short. Spring only lasts for around one month (usually most of May, but sometimes the latter part of April too), before the scorching summer temperatures start to kick in. Autumn too, is over in flash; usually lasting only for the month of October (although sometimes September is pleasingly cool) before the mercury levels plummet to below freezing, where they’ll stay until March. December to February is dry as a bone but brutally cold.
However, the streets are pleasantly quiet and free from tourist crowds. High season is mid-summer (July and August) when the schools are on holiday, but when high temperatures are at their most unrelenting and when rainstorms are common.
Avoid the two main national holidays (first week in May, and first week in October) if you can, as transport and tourist sights become overwhelmed. The same is true for transport during ChineseNew Year (January or February); its very difficult to snag train and bus tickets at this time of year. However, whilst the rest of China strains under the weight of mass migration as everyone goes home for the big holiday, Beijing itself is strangely quiet as most people are spending time with their families. The exception are the city’s temple fairs (at places such as Ditan Park and the Lama Temple, and Dong Yue Temple), which can be packed.. but are a lot of fun. Other festivals to look out for: Lantern Festival (the final day of the Chinese New Year; marked by setting off millions of firecrackers, and eating yuanxiao; sticky rice dumplings); Mid-Autumn Festival (full moon around Sep-Oct; marked by eating yuebing; moon cakes); Tomb-sweeping Day; falling on April 5th, this is a day to remember your ancestors; marked by the burning of ‘ghost money’ for dearly departed relatives.
Jeans and T-shirt is fine for much of the year (May to October). Shorts are ok in summer. It gets very hot in mid-summer, though, so don’t forget a sun hat (as well as sun cream and mosquito repellent) and a lightweight raincoat for sudden downpours. You’ll need a lightweight coat or a fleece for the evenings during spring and autumn. Winter is a different ball game. Wear plenty of layers: thermal underwear, thick shirt, jumper, gloves, woolly hat and a down jacket – plus thick-soled shoes or boots. At any time of year, you’ll need shoes with good grip for Great Wall hiking.
Budget travellers can get by on around $30 a day.
Moderate budgets require around $50-100 a day.
Those wanting some luxury will need to be spending in excess of $100-200 a day… but could easily spend five times that.
Bargaining is common in shops (apart from supermarkets), and expected in markets. But there are no hard and fast rules. In shops, you’ll only be able to knock a small amount off the asking price, but in markets – especially souvenir markets – you can bargain your socks off. Remember to keep negotiations lighthearted, and be prepared to walk away; that’s usually when you’ll hear the genuine ‘last price’.
Tips are never asked for, or expected. The only time you should ever consider tipping is in top-end luxury hotels or in top-end international restaurants, although usually they will add a service charge onto your bill automatically. Don’t be pressured into tipping tour guides – giving them extra on top of their fee is entirely optional.
Arriving in Beijing:
Plane: Arriving by plane is a cinch as all three airport terminals are connected to the subway system by the Airport Express line (6am-11pm; ¥25 one way).
Train: There are three main train stations. Beijing Station (Beijing Zhan), Beijing South Station (Beijing Nan Zhan) and Beijing West Station (Beijing Xi Zhan), all of which are connected to the subway system, although at Beijing Station and Beijing West you will have to come out of the station to find the adjacent subway station.
If you decide to take a taxi to your hotel, try to find one away from the immediate area of the train stations, or use the official taxi rank at either the airport or the train stations, and make sure the driver agrees to use the meter (da biao). Unlike elsewhere in the city, at train stations and airports, cab drivers do sometimes try to sting tourists into paying over the odds for a taxi ride.
Note, if you don’t speak Chinese it’s very important to have the name and address of the place you’re going to written down in Chinese characters for taxi drivers to read. Also note, many hotels will arrange airport pick-ups, although they will always cost more than if you make your own way to the hotel. Some offer free pick-ups from the railway stations.
Bicycle: The most fun and often the quickest way to get around. Almost every road has a bike lane. Bike rental per day is ¥30 to ¥50 from youth hostels or from bike-rental kiosks in places such as the Houhai Lakes. There is also a new bike-share scheme (¥200 deposit), but you need to register for it. Take an ordinary subway travel card (with at least ¥30 credit on it) to the registration kiosk (Mon-Fri 9.30-11.30am & 2-4pm) outside Exit A of Dongzhimen subway station, and fill in one of the forms they give you. The forms are in English. You’ll need to show your passport too. Once registered, you can use your travel card to swipe and go at any bike-share kiosk in the city. First hour of use is free. Subsequent hours cost ¥1.
Walking: The best way to see Beijing’s hutong. Don’t know where to start? Check out our step-by-step hutong walking tour (link to “Walking Tour: Historic Hutong”) which guides you through the old lanes surrounding the historic Drum Tower.
Subway: Quick, modern and easy to use (all signage is in Chinese and English), but often overcrowded, so don’t expect a seat. Per trip ¥3-9. Top tip: Get a travel card (pronounced “ee-ka-tong”; ¥20 deposit). It won’t save you any money, but it will save you from having to queue for a ticket every time you ride the subway.
Bu: Dirt cheap and extensive coverage of the city, but difficult for non-Chinese speakers to negotiate, and often overcrowded. Per trip ¥1-2. Can use the “ee-ka-tong” travel card here too.
Taxi: Cheap by Western standards but at certain times (rush hour or during rain storms) hard to find. Traffic jams can really slow things down. Flag fall is ¥13. Make sure your driver always uses the meter (“da beeow”).
Cycle/Motor Rickshaw: Great fun, but fares have to be negotiated (unlike taxis, rickshaws don’t have meters) so tourists are sometimes heavily overcharged.
Get a travel card (pronounced “ee-ka-tong”; ¥20 deposit). It won’t save you any money, but it will save you from having to queue for a ticket every time you ride the subway.
Less people than you think speak English in Beijing, and most people speak none at all (taxi drivers, for example). However, many people who work in the tourist industry, do speak at least some English (particularly in hotels and hostels), so, as a tourist, you’ll be able to get by without speaking Chinese. That said, you’ll enrich your experience here hugely, and gain the respect of the locals if you make a stab at learning some Chinese before you come.
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Local SIM cards can be used in non-locked phones. Local phones are cheap as are the calls you make on them with a local SIM card. Head to any mobile telephone shop (eg China Mobile) to get hooked up. Smartphones can use China’s 3G and 4G networks (with roaming charges) or Beijing’s many free wi-fi spots.
Most hotels and hostels provide internet access for free, usually through wi-fi, although sometimes they will have computer terminals you can use for a charge. Almost all cafes and bars, and a growing number of restaurants have free wi-fi for customers too. Internet cafes are dotted around the city, but are mostly used by young locals for gaming.
You’ll need to show your passport and be photographed by a desk-top camera (similar to the ones used at customs in airports), then pay a deposit (¥10 is usually sufficient) out of which your hourly rate (usually ¥3 or ¥4) will be deducted. You’ll need to enter a user number and password (which the front desk will give you on a slip of paper) to get started. You may need someone to help as log-in instructions will probably be in Chinese only.
A number of websites, particularly social-media websites are banned in China, or at least blocked from time to time. They include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and from time to time Google (and therefore Gmail). To get round this, internet users in China use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Check online before you come to see which ones are the most reliable at the time of your trip. The best ones get blocked eventually. One long-standing, reliable VPN is Astrill.