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Guide by Alan Li: A keen traveller who was born in China and grew up in England, Alan has been fortunate enough to view sights from both Eastern and Western perspectives whilst travelling. A big fan of ancient and classical history, he loves to visit sites of historical importance.
Considered the world’s most populous capital city, it has a population of approximately 21.5 million people, and is the country’s political, cultural and educational centre, spread over approximately ten thousand square miles.
If you’re flying into Beijing, then you’ll likely be heading into Beijing Capital International Airport, located 20km outside the city. There are two Airport Expressway rail lines heading into the inner city areas, as well as a newer light rail system that connects to the Beijing Subway.
There are many options to travel from the UK to Beijing, and the best prices can generally be found departing from London Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham international airports. A visa will be required for anyone not holding a valid Chinese passport, which can be obtained from either the Chinese Embassy in London or the Chinese Consulate in Manchester. You can find more information on obtaining a visa here.
Direct flights can be pricey, especially if booked last minute: for example when we looked, British Airways return ticket prices can go over £800 if booked less than a month beforehand. However if you plan ahead and book at least five months in advance, then flights can come down to £469.
Due to the popularity of British universities amongst Chinese students, most major airlines operate regular flights to Beijing, so definitely shop around for the flights to see what offers are available when planning a trip.
Exchange rate: £ = ¥8.8 (July 2017)
Travelling around Beijing
The best way to manage travel costs around Beijing is to purchase a Yikatong IC (Integrated Circuit) Card in one of 170+ locations around the city. It is a smart travel card similar to a London Oyster Card. All you need to do is load it up with some money, and then you can enjoy 20% discount on travel costs. It can be used on:
- The subway
- Airport Express Train
- City buses
- Some taxis
- Can be used to pay in some supermarkets
Taxis are also a reasonably cheap method of travelling around Beijing, with a minimum fare of ¥13 (£1.50) for the first 3 km and then ¥2.3 (£0.26) per km afterwards. However, free taxis can be harder to find during peak travelling hours.
Beijing offers a wealth of options for accommodation, with 6,000+ locations listed on TripAdvisor. See below for a selection of well-reviewed hotels in their price brackets.
- Hostel that's close to the centre of the city, cheap and cheerful, good for short term stays
- Price per room per night: £20
- Low end three star hotel, in a great location – it’s just a ten minute walk away from Tiananmen square and Wangfujing shopping street
- Price per room per night: £49
- Mid-range three star hotel, great value and well regarded. It’s a 5 minute walk from the nearest subway station, meaning the city is easily accessible
- Price per room per night: £68
- Upper end five star hotel, complete with fitness centre, pool and bar. It’s also in an excellent location for all of the top tourist attractions
- Price per room per night: £114
There are so many things to see and do in Beijing – these are absolute must-sees.
A grand plaza in the centre of the city, this is named after the main entrance to the Forbidden City: the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The square counts amongst the top ten largest city squares in the world, and sits to the south of the Forbidden Palace. The square contains the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and perhaps most famously the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where many people across the country come to pay their respects to the founding father of the People’s Republic of China each day.
The Forbidden City Palace museum is the first place I would bring new visitors to see, as I believe that if you only have one day in Beijing, the old Imperial palace and museum would certainly be a great choice to show the grandeur of ancient China. This is the best preserved palace from the Imperial era, and the home to the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for nearly 500 years (from 1420 – 1912).
Construction of the Forbidden City was completed in 1420, and it consists of a sprawling complex of 980 buildings stretching across 180+ acres of land in the heart of Beijing. The Forbidden City has become one of the most visited museums in the world, reaching 16 million visitors in 2016. To reduce overcrowding and improve overall visitor experience, the museum now limits visitor numbers to 80,000 each day, so if you’re planning a trip here, this website gives you all the information to book your tickets in advance.
To see everything inside this beautiful palace, the entrance fee is excellent value at ¥80 (£9.05). With so much to see, you could easily spend a whole day here! From experience, the best route to take would be to take a walk through the largest gate to the palace, the Meridian Gate from Tiananmen Square. You would then head northwards through the palace grounds, and finish by coming out of the northern most Gate of Divine Prowess, into the 57-acre Imperial garden called Jingshan Park.
In the Forbidden City itself, there are several must see locations, the most important of which is the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The hall is 30 meters tall and is the throne room of the Emperor, where major ceremonial events such as coronations and wedding ceremonies were held. The centrepiece is the Dragon Throne, where generations of Chinese Emperors sat, presiding over a full court of officials, who must demonstrate their obedience and respect to the Emperor by touching their forehead to the floor nine times in his presence (known as kowtowing). The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest surviving wooden structure in China.
In China, an important cultural distinction is the idea of status and prestige, and the need for it to be recognised by those around them, whether for a person or a location that serves at a certain level within the government/society. For example, commoners are required to address government officials of all ranks by the honorific “Da Ren”, roughly equivalent to Sir. The rank of the official is displayed in his clothing, as the uniform for each rank differs subtly in their style.
When it comes to palaces, temples and government buildings however, one quick glance to the roof of a building can tell an observer the importance of the function performed within relation to other buildings of a similar nature. This is due to the imperial roof decorations: the line of little figurines perched along the ridges of the roof, the number and type of figurines indicating the importance of the building. For example, the Hall of Supreme Harmony where the Emperors conducted courtly affairs, has the highest number of figurines – led by man riding a phoenix, followed by a line of nine beasts, an immortal figure and lastly, a dragon.
Many of the gates and staircases within the Forbidden City are separated into three sections: gateways usually have a large central arch and two smaller side ones, and staircases tend to have a well decorated central section and two narrower side sections. Traditionally the central archway and sections on staircases were reserved for the sole use of the Emperor, everyone else had to pass via the sides.
The dragon motif is displayed in many locations around the Forbidden City, because in China the dragon symbolises divine strength, luck and authority. The dragon symbol was adopted by the Emperors to immortalise themselves in the eyes of the people, and it was decreed that only they could wear clothing adorned with the imagery of dragons. This is best demonstrated in another unmissable part of the palatial museum, the Nine Dragon Wall. This is a beautifully designed screening wall built in 1773 by one Emperor to block the view from the central palace halls into the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, which was his retirement villa. As the name suggests, the wall carries the design of nine dragons flying through the clouds, the ninth symbolising “the ultimate”.
After the splendour of the Forbidden City, the next place on my recommended tour list is usually the Summer Palace, which is a large scenic park 2.9 square kilometres in size, centred on the Kunming Lake. Built by successive Emperors as a summer retreat for the Imperial family, the lake and the Longevity Hill alongside it are both wholly manmade. The Kunming Lake itself was built based on a blueprint of the beautiful West Lake in Hangzhou (read more about it here) and even just walking along its banks is a great day out. There are so many sights to see, as in addition to the lake itself, there are lots of buildings nearby that are modelled after famous buildings throughout China. It’s great if you don’t have the time to visit other regions in China!
Two of the best sights in the Summer Palace is the Great Temple of Gratitude and Longevity, considered by many as the centrepiece to the park, and the Long Corridor. The large multi-tiered Buddhist temple is built directly in front of the Longevity Hill and is one of the best locations to get a panoramic view of the entire park. The Long Corridor, also known as the Long Gallery, is a 700-metre open air corridor adorned with many artistic furnishings along its length.
The Great Wall
Arguably the most distinctive landmark and most popular tourist attraction in China: the Great Wall of China is definitely the first place everyone wants to visit when they arrive in the country! Its fame is partially aided by a popular claim that it is one of very few manmade structures visible from space. Conceived by the first Emperor of China back in the 3rd Century B.C., it was reinforced and extended by Emperors of successive dynasties over 2,000 years until reaching its current length of just over 13,170 miles.
The purpose of the Great Wall was to defend central China against the fierce nomadic tribes that roam the great plains of what is now Mongolia. Throughout time, these tribes have been the Huns, the Turks, the Mongols and the Manchu. As the Great Wall has stood the test of time despite numerous foreign invasions, it symbolises the enduring spirit of the Chinese people in the face of adversity.
In modern day, the Great Wall no longer stands as a continuous wall, and many sections have collapsed or are deemed unsafe to walk on. One of the best preserved sections of the Great Wall to visit is Badaling, rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty in 1505 for defence against the Mongols. This section sits 40 miles to the north of Beijing, is 4.7 miles long and has 30 watchtowers set along its length. You can reach Badaling on Bus 877 (¥12 / £1.36) from the Deshengmen Bus Station, which is easiest to get to on Subway Line 2. Ignore the large numbers of privately operated tour buses/taxis offering their services outside the bus station and take the official bus, for security and pricing reasons.
Once you arrive at Badaling, you can buy an admissions ticket for (¥40 / £4.52) and begin your trip! You can either walk or take a short cable car ride up to the wall, and once on top you’ll be walking along a route the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Mandela and President Nixon have all walked. I remember after walking down there for a while, I passed through one of the watchtowers, and all of a sudden the breath-taking sight of the Great Wall stretching out ahead of me in the mountains stopped me in my tracks. In that moment, I truly began to appreciate the scale of construction accomplished by our ancestors without the aid of modern machinery.
The immediate area around Badaling is very well developed, and has plenty of souvenir shops and restaurants (even a KFC!) for those needing a break after the five mile walk. After a rest, I would highly recommend touring the Ming Tombs before heading back to Beijing. The Ming Tombs Scenic Area can be reached via Bus 879 from Badaling, and covers an area 46 square miles in size, and includes the mausoleums of the thirteen Emperors of the Ming dynasty.
The tombs spread outwards to either side in a fan shape from the tomb of the third Ming Emperor, and is the area where the most Emperors are buried in all of China. The bus will bring you to the Sacred Way which leads into the tombs (the Chinese Emperors are considered the sons of heaven who descends to Earth to rule, and will return to heaven via the Sacred Way upon death, hence the name of the pathway). Given the size of the scenic area, it’s unlikely you’d be able to visit more than three of the tombs on the same day. The best route would be to visit the Sacred Way, the Changling Tomb (the first to be constructed) and the Dingling Tomb. The admission for all three equates to ¥135 (£15.27) in peak season.
Temple of Heaven
There are a number of religious buildings throughout Beijing: the largest and most impressive being the Temple of Heaven. It’s an altar exclusively reserved for the Emperors for holding the Heaven Worship Ceremony on the winter solstice, and this was constructed in 1420. The Emperors would offer a sacrifice and a prayer to heaven at the temple for a good harvest each year. The temple is now a park open to the public (admission fee ¥35 / £3.96), and its grounds cover an area larger than the Forbidden City. The Emperors considered themselves the sons of heaven, and are bound by tradition to have a residence smaller than the primary temple dedicated to heaven on earth.
Traditionally, you would approach the temple from the south, and come upon the Circular Mound Altar where the Emperors would call out to heaven. The altar is made out of white marble and rises in three tiers. You would then come across the jewel in the temple to the north of the altar, across the Imperial Walkway Bridge, the 38-metre tall Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The hall is ornately decorated, with a mixture of blue, teal and red colours, making it stand out from the grey stone that most of the temple is constructed from.
Other attractions in Beijing
Besides the above locations, there are plenty of other amazing sights across Beijing. Seeing them all will depend on how long you have to spend in the city. Some of the best places to visit include:
The Prince Gong Mansion is one of the most well-preserved Imperial-era mansions in existence, and spreads over 60,000 square metres. Once inhabited by one of the most powerful and notoriously corrupt court official in the history of the Qing dynasty, the mansion was a symbol of extreme extravagance with over 40 rooms spread across multiple courtyards, and surrounded by an ornate garden with 20 distinct scenic spots. The official’s possessions were seized after his death, and the wealth contained within were said to top even those of the Imperial Treasury itself.
Yonghe Lama Temple, is an ornate and distinctive monastery that was originally the residence of one of the Qing Emperors before his ascension to the Dragon Throne. Half of the temple is an imperial palace, whilst the remainder is a devoted place of worship that houses many monks of Tibetan Buddhism.
Beihai Park is a large former Imperial garden located next to the Forbidden City. It contains a large lake that covers most of the park, and houses the distinctive White Pagoda on the Jade Flower Island at the centre of the park. The Beihai Park is very popular due to its beautiful scenery and easily accessible location. It’s fun to take a closer look at the scenery on and around the lake by renting out one of the water bird shaped paddle boats.
Beijing Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in China, opened in 1906 in the Qing Dynasty. The zoo and the attached aquarium are home to approximately 14,000 animals from almost 1,000 land and aquatic species. The zoo’s most popular attraction is undoubtedly the giant panda, which is one of the rarest animals in the world, and one of China’s national treasures. It costs just ¥19 (£2.19) to visit the zoo and panda house, whereas the aquarium is pricier at ¥150 (£17.26). Due to the size of the zoo, it’s a great place for a day trip, and there are numerous food stalls dotted around inside where you can pick up something cheap for lunch.
Beijing has many options for those interested in shopping, be it to buy souvenirs to take back home, or luxury branded products. There are large shopping malls across the city, and I would recommend heading to the Wangfujing, Xidan or Qianmen areas for the best shopping experience. Wangfujing Shopping Street is one of the oldest and most prosperous shopping areas in Beijing. It’s over a mile long, and is the busiest street in the city with around 600,000 to over a million shoppers visiting on a daily basis. There’s also a snack side street in Wangfujing that serves many local street food and snacks.
The Xidan Commercial Street is newer and stretches to 3.4 miles in length, with multiple modern shopping centres along the street. It’s the best place to pick up branded products from across the world.
Qianmen Street is an older street with many late Qing-era buildings, and a broad range of shops from H&M to Zara and even Chinese shops. One day tours of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven usually include a quick trip to Qianmen Street to pick up some souvenirs.
Beijing is a foodie’s heaven, as chefs from all over the country – and many from abroad – want to make their name in the capital. From street-side family run eateries, to ornately decorated multi-storey restaurants, and more specialised places serving Western food, visitors can always find something to satisfy their hunger.
I’ve been fortunate enough to sample the food at a broad variety of restaurants in Beijing, with my recommendations on the best traditional dishes below. As many restaurants (especially the smaller ones) won’t have knives and forks available, I would recommend either taking a travel cutlery set or choosing the more fun option and learn how to use chopsticks before travelling to China.
So now you’re armed with chopsticks, these are the dishes you should try…!
Lamb Hot Pot (Shuan Yang Rou)
Chinese hot pots are usually served in a copper pot filled with spiced soup, kept at boiling point and placed in the centre of the table. Fresh vegetables and thinly sliced meats and seafood are then placed around the pot, with each individual putting what they would like to eat into the boiling soup to be cooked. Once it’s cooked, you’d then take your food out of the pot and dip it in a thicker sauce before eating it.
Originating from Mongolia, this is a very popular meal for families in northern China, especially in the winter when temperatures can reach sub-zero degrees. Families often sit around a large circular table, with the steam from the soup warming the room. The most popular meat to use is lamb, although you can pretty much find any ingredient you would want to use for the hot pot.
- First branch opened in 1903
- Beijing’s oldest and most famous hot pot restaurant, with a number of branches located across the country
- Average cost per person: ¥70 (£8.06)
Beijing-style roast duck (Beijing Kao Ya)
Chinese roast duck is popular across the UK, and I would highly recommend all those visiting China to give proper Beijing-style roast duck a try. Traditionally the duck is roasted until the skin is crispy whilst the meat is still soft, and then the chef slices and dices the meat in front of guests. The duck is traditionally served with sweet bean sauce, chopped spring onions and cucumbers wrapped in a thin pancake.
- First branch opened in 1864
- One of the best locations is situated in the Qianmen area of Beijing, a very large restaurant that can seat up to 1,000 diners
- Average cost per person: ¥170 (£19.56)
- An upscale restaurant that has a specialty in roast duck
- Requires booking in advance, spread over two floors that include 30 private rooms for dining as well as the common area
- Average cost per person: ¥200-500 (£23.01-£57.54)
Made of a wheat wrapper and a variety of fillings, this is a traditional northern dish normally eaten boiled or pan-fried. One key occasion for eating dumplings is Chinese New Year’s Day, as the whole family helps with the extensive preparations to make the dumplings. One interesting fact is that dumplings are not ordered in portions but in liang, a traditional Chinese measure of weight usually translating to 5 or 6 dumplings depending on size.
- A popular place to sample traditional dumplings, minimum order is two liang (10-12 dumplings)
- Lots of fillings available, and dumpling wrappers available in four colours
- Many meat and vegetable dishes available to go alongside the dumplings
- Average cost per person: ¥150 (£17.26)
Alternative dining experience
You can try one of the following restaurants if you fancy something entirely different to Chinese food.
- 200 types of Mongolian food available along with a full music and dance show
- The show is very impressive to watch, with several acts involving dozens of dancers. The one I attended told the tale of an ancient Mongolian wedding, from proposal to ceremony
- Average cost per person varies depending on dining time and seating location
- Lunch time: ¥188 (£21.63)
- Dinner time: ¥316 (£36.36)
- Dinner time VIP: ¥588 (£67.66)
- Western-style restaurant that serves predominantly Russian food, along with New Zealand and Norwegian dishes
- Average cost per person: ¥250 (£28.77)
Other Famous Beijing and northern Chinese dishes to try
Many Beijing residents no longer cook their own dinner, as eating out in local restaurants is very cheap compared to other countries. There are plenty of traditional Beijing dishes that are worth trying besides the most famous ones. The following are tasty everyday dishes that can be found in pretty much any of the small-to medium-sized restaurants across the city:
- Scrambled eggs with chives or tomatoes
- Palace style chicken chunks with peanuts and chilli
- Shredded pork in Beijing sauce
- Grilled seasoned lamb kebabs
- Noodles served with fried soybean paste
- Soft fried tenderloin
- Shredded potatoes in rice vinegar sauce
On the other hand the following can only be sampled from the many street food vendors:
- Meat wrapped in thin mung bean flour pancake
- Chinese hawthorn fruit covered in hard candy on bamboo stick
- Roasted tofu in five spices on a stick
- Chinese roast sausage on a stick
Thoughts on Beijing
Beijing is a fantastic city, and is a great place for experience traditional Chinese culture in a big city. Whether you decide to just visit Beijing, or explore other areas of China, you’re sure to have a great trip. You may even want to visit China’s other famous city, Shanghai!