It’s possible to visit Beijing on a budget. To make this Beijing itinerary work, you’re going to have to stay in dormitory accommodation. That’s not as bad as it sounds, as Beijing has a plethora of excellent hostels, many of which have dorms, with each bed going for around ¥50-100. Ones worth trying are Qianmen Hostel, or Three-Legged Frog Hostel, both near Tiananmen Square, or Sleepy Inn Youth Hostel, near Houhai Lake, or Drum Tower Youth Hostel, near the Drum Tower.
You’re spoilt for choice for breakfast on a budget in Beijing. Just head to any roadside restaurant that has bamboo steamers piled high at the entrance. This indicates that the place does dumplings. Walk in, point at the steamers and say: “ee-long bao-zi” (one basket of steamed dumplings please). Wash them down with a bowl of savoury porridge (ask for “ee-wan joe”), and you’ll be full to bursting, but only one-dollar poorer. If you’re stuck for choice, try Baozi Pu Dumplings, or Hangzhou Dumplings, both near the Drum Tower, or Hangzhou Xiaochi Dumplings, by the west gate of the Forbidden City, all of which open very early for breakfast (from around 5.30am).
After you’ve had your fill of dumplings, head to one of the Beijing’s wonderful parks. They’re all dirt cheap to get into (¥2-5) and a great way to spend a peaceful morning, watching locals do their thing. Try Jingshan Park or neighbouring Beihai Park. Further south, Zhongshan Park is good too, while further north, you could try Temple of Earth Park. Slightly more expensive, is the marvellous Temple of Heaven Park, still cheap enough to fit into a $30-a-day budget, and for many people the best park in Beijing.
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For lunch, grab a gaifan (rice meal) at any restaurant. Pronounced “guy fan”, this is a cheap meal for one, and comes as a plate of rice with pretty much any meal placed on top of it. The most popular option (and arguably the most tasty) is gongbao jiding gaifan (spicy chicken with peanuts on rice), which you’ll find in many restaurants and which will only set you back around ¥10-15. Zhang Mama’s is a good place for this, or else try Xiong Di Sichuan restaurant. Alternatively, for the same kind of price, go for a bowl of noodles at a place such as Liu Family Noodles, a tiny noodle joint with a friendly owner and an English menu.
After lunch head either to one of Beijing’s excellent museums – the best two; the National Museum of China, on the east side of Tiananmen Square, and the Capital Museum, near Muxidi subway station, are both free (but bring your passport for entry) – or head out of town to 798 Arts District, the city’s premier collection of art galleries and art exhibitions. The complex is free to enter, as are most of the galleries, and the lanes are dotted with cafes and restaurants, the cheapest of which is Happy Rooster.
Head back into town, by bus of course, for an evening meal at Yang Fang lamb hotpot, where you can feed a family of four for less than ¥100. Either stay here drinking cheap beers after you’ve finished your meal, or buy some bottles from a convenience store and sit beside Houhai Lake, legs dangling over the water as the noisy revellers in the expensive bars nearby sing karaoke long into the night.