Top Beijing Hotels
The Great Wall justifiably ranks first on most visitors' lists and can be viewed at several different locations within several hours' drive from the city. The most convenient sites are the Badaling Great Wall and the Mutianyu Great Wall. These sections have been fully restored and consequently appear the most manufactured. They are the closest sections of the wall to the city and draw the largest crowds.
Simatai Great Wall is considerably further away and not as fully restored, however its spectacular location perched upon steep hills and smaller crowds make it a popular choice if the time is available. Other unrestored sections of the wall are also accessible for hiking or simply admiring in its natural dilapidated state.
The Forbidden City, the previous home of the emperors and the heart of the empire, sits at the exact centre of Beijing. Giving an impression of the customs, architecture and history of imperial China, it is a fascinating site. The audio-tour is informative and amusing and is highly recommended for those without guides. A thorough tour of the Forbidden City usually takes around an hour and a half and is best started from the main entrance on Changan Avenue.
Immediately in front of the Forbidden City is the expansive Tiananmen Square. Surrounded by the Forbidden City, the imposing socialist architecture of the People's Revolutionary Museum and the Great Hall of the People, standing in Tiananmen Square you cannot help but feel the enormity of China. The square is often busy with visitors from all over China, taking endless photos.
On the northwestern outskirts of the city lies the Summer Palace. This summer retreat of the emperors is a harmonious mix of temples, lakes, gardens and palaces, often described as the most beautiful scenery in Beijing.
Tiantan Park contains the Temple of Heaven, the site of former ritual ceremonies and one of the best examples of imperial Chinese architecture.
Other places of interest in the city are the Lama Temple, a fine example of Tibetan architecture, and Beihai Park, a pleasant park surrounding a lake, in which to take a relaxing stroll. At the southern end of Tiananmen Square is Mao ZeDong's Mausoleum, for those with a penchant for preserved great communist leaders of the world.
For those who are early risers, an interesting aside is watching the local residents exercising in the morning. From fan dancing and walking backwards, many interesting goings-on can be observed in the parks and on the sides of any street.
The favourite aspect of Beijing to those that have lived or visited there is what is commonly known as 'Old Beijing'. Hutongs, characterised by small, winding alleys with a strong community feel, link the courtyard houses, where a single door leads from the street to an inner courtyard containing the homes of several families.
These districts contain a warmth and atmosphere not present in the shiny new shopping malls and skyscrapers that are so quickly replacing them. Strolling through a hutong neighbourhood insulated from the noise and bustle outside, it can sometimes seem as if time has come to a stop. Old people sit by the side of the road observing the days pass by or, when the weather is fine, playing mahjong or cards with friends.
Some of the best places to experience 'Old Beijing' are in the areas surrounding the Houhai and Qianhai lakes, to the north of the Forbidden City. These districts were home to the officials and Generals and therefore contain the best architectural examples as well as being the best preserved.
Stroll around the hutongs, soak up the atmosphere and explore at your own pace. Food can also be sampled at any one of the many Old Beijing restaurants around town.
There are plenty of organised tours to the Great Wall, through the government travel services or hotel travel agencies, as well as public transport connections. However, the most convenient way to see the wall is to hire a car and driver for the day and proceed at your own pace.
Many of the tours to the wall can also be combined with a visit to the rather 'underwhelming' Ming Tombs, burial sites of the former emperors of the Ming Dynasty. If pushed for time it's advisable to skip them out completely. Allow at least half a day for a trip to the Great Wall, longer if taking in other sites as well.
Note: be wary of cut-price tours, which often spend the majority of the day in various shops along the way, leaving little time actually at the wall.
Guided tours of Beijing's hutong neighbourhoods, leaving from the north gate of Beihai Park, are available which can provide an insight into local history, either on foot or by pedicab.
Otherwise, Beijing does not have a lot to offer in the areas of organized activities or day-trips outside the city.
Beijing has an interesting selection of arts, crafts and antiques available from outdoor markets, covered markets, department stores and even a few boutiques. Items such as calligraphy, chinaware, antiques and bric-a-brac, are popular and available almost everywhere. For those interested in communist kitsch, Chairman Mao statuettes, watches and his little red book translated into any language you desire are also present here.
Quality varies greatly, as does the price tag - don't expect that porcelain vase in the street market to be a priceless antique. However the selection and price are reasonable for those looking for a couple of souvenirs.
Favourite places for shopping are in the Liulichang area (specialising in arts and crafts), at the top floor of the Hongqiao market or at the weekend Panjiayuan antique market. Also popular with tourists is the Silk Alley market, which sells all manners of fake brand name clothing and a few other interesting bits and pieces.
Note: Bargaining in markets is an absolute necessity and should be conducted with vigour, as the local residents do, and merchandise bearing an international brand name is best considered fake, regardless of the stallholder's protestations.
Beijing is one of the best places to find antique furniture or have furniture made to order, although the cost of shipping can be expensive.
International brand goods are available in Beijing, but are generally as expensive as elsewhere. They are readily available in the glittering new shopping malls of Wangfujing or Xidan.
China has fully embraced the internet and connections are readily available. Suburban internet cafes tend to be cheap but relatively slow, prone to viruses and occasionally lacking in cleanliness. Many hotels can also provide internet access.
The majority of Beijing's internet cafes are clustered in Zhongguancun, near Beijing University. Downtown, internet access is available in the China World Trade Centre on Jianguomenwai Avenue. They are quite common throughout, but are not immediately obvious since the signs are in Chinese.
Nightlife and Eating Out
As with all of China, eating is an important part of life. Business deals, family gatherings or simply hanging out with friends revolve around the dinner table. Forget the quiet, romantic meal for two by candlelight, Beijing's restaurants are as the people like them; bright, loud and busy. Be prepared to shout and don't worry about the mess.
Being the national capital, all of the different schools of Chinese food can be found in Beijing. However, it is the local specialty Beijing Duck that visitors prefer. Wrapped in a flour pancake with onion and plum sauce and tasting superb, this dish is suitably world famous. Of the many duck restaurants around town, Quanjude is the oldest and most well known.
Imperial cuisine, as served to the former emperors of China, consists if many strange and interesting dishes, including delicious cold appetisers. Some imperial restaurants will explain the history of the dish for you as you eat. Hot Pot, a favourite in winter, is fun to eat as you cook your food at the table in a boiling pot. Steamed dumplings are a popular staple food, come in many different flavours, and can be found in almost any local restaurant.
In the evenings, an outdoor food market springs up near the north end of Wangfujing serving all manner of local snacks, from lamb-skewers and noodles to deep-fried scorpions.
Beijing, being home to a large expatriate community, has a full selection of international restaurants, the majority of these being located in the Chaoyang district.
Note: Outside of the popular tourist areas, it may be difficult to find English menus. Ask your hotel to write down a few interesting dishes for you or simply point at the next table's dishes.
Beijing's bars are concentrated around the Sanlitun area in the Chaoyang district. The main bar street consists of a string of busy, loud bars spilling out onto street-side tables and is popular with both foreigners and locals alike. The south bar street, down an alley to the south west of the main bar street, has several venues playing live music and generally is more relaxed.
China's capital offers regular performances of Beijing Opera. While the wailing and crashing of the opera may not be to everybody's liking, the combination of singing, dancing, acrobatics and fabulous costumes is generally very entertaining. The best venue for experiencing Beijing Opera is considered to be the Zhengyici Theatre.
Acrobatics is also a perennial crowd favourite, showing superb balance, flexibility, coordination and strength, all in a highly entertaining performance. Acrobatics performances are regularly held at the Chaoyang Theatre.
Check local publications such as 'City Weekend' and 'Metrozine,' which are produced on a bi-weekly basis listing events, bars, clubs, galleries and exhibitions. These can be picked up in most bars and hotels.
Taxis are fairly cheap and reliable, and are the best way to get about. Ensure the driver uses the meter and be prepared for some interesting interpretations of the road rules.
Some hotels hire bicycles enabling visitors to take advantage of the city's wide flat roads and many cycle lanes. Seasonal weather extremes, pollution and unpredictable driving habits would make this an option for the brave.
Beijing has a range of buses and minibuses that are very cheap, but very slow due to congestion. Taxis are an infinitely better choice for visitors.
Note: As very few people speak English well, one of the best pieces of advice for getting around is to have your destination written in Chinese characters and simply show people the card.
Traffic in Beijing can be horrendous during peak hours. Beijing's two underground lines provide a fast and convenient service around the inner city and are preferable to being caught in traffic jams. Look for the blue and white logo to locate the entrances and buy your ticket as you enter the platform.
There are two main railway stations in Beijing linking the city with various destinations in China - the Beijing and the Beijing West stations. Tickets can be purchased at the train station. To avoid the rather chaotic queues and problematic language barrier, head straight for the Foreigner's Counter. Alternatively, tickets may be purchased through a travel agent at a small premium.
Getting to and from the Capital International Airport is easy on the newly completed expressway. It takes about half an hour by taxi to the city. There is also a shuttle bus to set locations around the city although this is not as comfortable or as convenient as taking a taxi.
All of China collectively goes on holiday several times a year depending upon the latest government decree.
Chinese New Year festivities, celebrating the incoming lunar year and generally falling in either late January or early February, are all-consuming. For a week expect shops to close, transport booked and attractions to be crowded. Given this, if you already have your hotels and transport arranged, this can be an interesting time with fireworks displays, processions and general merriment.
Other busy times of the year can be the International Labour Day and National Day holidays on the weeks surrounding the 1st of May and the 1st of October respectively.
During autumn, spectacular red and orange leaves can be seen on the trees in the Fragrant Hills Park, to the north-west of the city.
Tourist Information Offices
Beijing Tourism Group is located at the Beijing Tourist Building, 28 Jianguomenwai Avenue and can provide travel agent services such as booking trains and flights as well as tickets to such attractions as the Beijing Opera. Branches of China International Travel Service and China Travel Service do the same.
A 24-hour tourist information hotline (86 010 65130828) is available in English and Chinese.
Featured Beijing Hotels
Beijing Travellers Tales
We visited the wall twice first, visit was at Mutianyu which I would recommend, there were very few people on the wall and it was nice and peaceful, whereas when we visited Badaling, it was the exact opposite, you could not get moving for the amount of people there. We were dissapointed when we visisted the Forbidden City parts of it were closed off, the same when we visited the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace is a must to see. I recommend the Outback Steakhouse in the Beijing Hotel at the bottom of Wangfujing Street for a meal.
For first timers, I found Beijing very manageable - and easy to get around. The Novotel has a postcard with top Beijing attractions in their stationary folder. Just take this with you, and use it to show the taxi drivers where you want to go. I found the taxis mostly reasonable . . . except one who rushed up and solicited my business at the Summer Palace. I should have known better . . . his meter was set on fast. The ride back cost 2x what the ride out had cost . . . and even then it was only $12. But, beware. Best day was Prince Gong Palace and the Lonely Planet recommended walk back along the lakes . . . a real delight. Don''t miss Mao. The line moves fast . . . and the bag checking across the street seems to be safe and quickly returns your possessions to you. Have fun.
While in Beijing I went to the Forbidden city (60Y), Temple of Heaven (35Y) & the wall at Badaling (300Y for a 9 hr tour, which included lunch and a trip a Jade and cloisonné factories which were interesting and no real pressure to but). The former two were being restored at present (August 2005) so there was scaffolding up but they were still both very impressive. The Wall at Badaling was also wonderful but very very busy and lots of tourist traps on the walk up to the wall! As it says in all the guide books if you can get a tour it might be quieter and better to go to another area unless you like crowds then choose Badaling!
Yummy & cheap restaurant about 50M on the left when getting out of the hotel front entrance. Taxi to airport about 80 yuen.
What need be said about Beijing? It''s huge, the seat of power in China (and it shows!), with history all over the city. It has many of the sights and sites travelers come to China to see: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven), Old Beijing, etc. etc. plus ready access to the Great Wall of China and the Ming Tombs. Six days was almost not enough! The food was excellent and quite different from the Cantonese style we are used to in the US: no rice! Beijing is Noodletown! Don''t miss the acrobats, which one thinks will be hokey but are absolutely not. It''s a hot city and you don''t look geeky when carrying an umbrella in the blazing sun. In fact, it''s a necessity. Don''t miss: Dazhalan shopping, Peking/Beijing Duck(go to the "Old Duck" on Qiamen for the full duck banquet), the Echo Wall at Tian Tan, of course Tiananmen Square and the "Maosoleum," take a tour of the Forbidden City, rent a bike and ride through the hutongs of Old Beijing. And go to the night market (can''t remember the street, but it''s well known) for Everything-on-a-Stick. Seahorse? Scorpion? Silkworms? They''ve got it all! We hired a guide who approached us outside the Forbidden City; he took us to the Hutongs and then to the Great Wall. Also: the Drum and Bell Towers for steep stairs and great relics. Taxis are cheap and distances are great, so take them everywhere.
If you come the first time to Beijing, start with sunset drinks on the roof terrace of the Palace Hotel (open to the public) from where you have a magnificient view over the Forbidden City (Anchee Min''s novel ''Empress Orchid'' provides fascinating background). Besides many, many excellent small eateries in every neighbourhood, special restaurants for me still include Courtyard, Red Capital Club and Green Tea House. Besides the usual attractions try also the Botanical Garden and the ruins of what the Summer Palace originally was. BTW, B&B is becoming increasingly attractive in Beijing - I had a very lovely experience and can surely recommend it.
I found Beijing and surrounding area difficult for independent travellers not on a tour group. A Chinese phrasebook would prove invaluable.
The best way to get around if you are in beijing for a few day is taxi. For value, beijing taxi is cheap and less hassle than subway or bus.
Beijing is for me one of the most interesting and vivid cities in China, and with the preparation for the Olympics on the way it becomes even better. One thing to keep an eye on are the taxi drivers who are even within local people''s assessment some of the worst in Chinese big cities. Make sure 1. the driver turns on the meter, 2. then, only pay what is on the meter and ask your change back, 3. get your destination written in Chinese (the hotels are very helpful on this!), 4. and in case of problems, don`t argue too much but just write down the license number and ask your hotel to report to the taxi association complaint hotline.
There are some great backpackers cafe''s in the old hutong area close to the Bell tower. We really enjoyed our time there with a coffee and some nice dessert. One bar is called Pass by bar and served great european style food. Nice pastas and pizza...They have a small outdoor area where you can enjoy a sunny afternoon in peace.