Beijing is the capital of China and, with an estimated population of 20 million people, its second largest city after Shanghai. Beijing is incredibly rich in history and historic sights, but its massive size makes it difficult to see all but the most important; it would take a lot of time to see everything and few people are willing to stick around for that long, because, let’s face it, Beijing is not a very pleasant place. It’s crowded, dirty, polluted, with constant traffic jams, air that can make you gag on especially bad days and a preponderance of scams aimed at tourists. Most visitors check out the most famous attractions and quickly move on to more pleasant areas of China.
Best Time to Go
Beijing is very hot and humid in the summer and cold and dry in the winter. September and October are by far the most pleasant months and easily the best time to visit. Spring has comfortable weather, but the dust storms that blow in from the eastern desserts make this season less than pleasant. Crowds and air pollution are both at their worst in the summer and make Beijing a pretty miserable place, when combined with the oppressive heat. Winters are nice, but very cold.
Getting to Beijing
Beijing Capital International Airport is located 26 km from the city center. The shuttle buses are the best way to get into town, especially if you have luggage. They cost 16 Yuan and will drop you at numerous locations around town. Public buses are cheaper, but much less convenient (bus #359 will connect you to subway lines 2 or 13 and costs 2 Yuan).
The airport express train costs 25 RMB and will similarly connect you to subway lines 2 or 13, as well as line 10. It is much faster than the public bus, but can be a bit of a pain if you have luggage, which is why I recommend the shuttle buses. They’re cheaper anyway.
Taxis are the worst option in my opinion, in large part because of the prevalence of dishonest drivers at the airport. If you decide to pay for a taxi, make sure they use the meter. Even then, some have rigged meters and some will make the trip much longer than it needs to be. You should never have to pay more than 120 Yuan and even that is pretty high. Additionally, most drivers will neither speak nor read English, so make sure you have your destination written down in Chinese.
Beijing has many train stations, but most visitors will arrive at Beijing Railway Station, Beijing West Railway Station, Beijing South Railway Station or Beijing North Railway Station. Three of these have subway connections; the largest, Beijing West, does not. Taxis are the easiest way to get downtown, but they are naturally the most expensive option and the likelihood of getting scammed and paying even more is pretty high.
Personally, I would take a public bus, but this can be a little intimidating. You’ll find a large sign indicating the routes on the station side of Lianhuachu Donglu or you could ask the information desk which bus you need. If you already have your accommodation picked out, they should have instructions on their website. Many also offer a free pickup from the station (the airport as well, in some cases).
Another alternative is to walk to the Military Museum subway station (Line 1), which is about 15 minutes north of the railway station. From there, you’ll pay 2 Yuan to get downtown.
Beijing has over twenty long distance bus stations. If arriving by bus, you’ll likely end up at the station on the edge of the city in the direction you came from. So if you are coming from the south, you’ll arrive at the bus station at the southern end of the city. Most bus stations are not connected to the metro, so you’ll have to take a taxi or a public bus. As always, I recommend the bus, if you can manage it.
The Beijing subway system is the best way to get around. For those places not served by the subway, the bus system is even cheaper and goes pretty much everywhere, but it can be difficult if you don’t know any Chinese. You hotel staff will be happy to guide you to the correct bus, though.
I’d advise against relying on taxis, but if you do, only take official taxis (official license plates have a Chinese symbol, then a B; any other letter and the taxi is fake) and get out immediately if the driver does not want to use a meter. Very few drivers will speak or read English, so you’ll need to be able to pronounce your destination correctly or have it written down in Chinese.
Beijing has accommodation options in every price range. Hostel dorm beds are the cheapest options that are legally allowed to accept foreigners. I stayed at the Leo Hostel near Tiananmen Square when I was in Beijing and I really enjoyed my time there. It can get a bit loud for some tastes, as there’s often people drinking in the common room. If that’s not your thing, I’d suggest avoiding this place.
A lot of places might fill up during popular times of the year, but in my opinion you don’t generally need to book in advance. When I went, I looked at a map of accommodation options and picked an area that seemed to my liking (Chongwen, south of Qianmen, where many budget hostels are located) then took a bus there from the train station. After walking around and checking out a few places, I found Leo’s. If you don’t have a map, you can use the accommodation map on Agoda’s Beijing page. I love their maps.
Eating & Drinking
Beijing has several popular nightlife areas, but if you ask for recommendations, chances are you’ll be directed to Sanlitun. It has long been the most popular area, which is unfortunate, since it’s pretty horrible. Luckily, it’s now considered the ‘old’ nightlife district and any newer clubs are located elsewhere.
That’s not to say you can’t have a good time here, just that it’s a very touristy good time. And not in a fun way, but in a sleazy ‘let’s extract as much cash as we can from the drunk tourists’ way. Go to Sanlitun if you don’t know where else to go, but ask the staff at your accommodation for other options. There’s much better out there.
Beijing’s most famous dish is Peking duck and you’re probably going to want to try it at least once. Try to stay away from the touristy restaurants if you can, but I know it can be hard to avoid them, especially if you’re going out with a group of people you just met in your hostel. You’ll spend more than you should at these places, though.
For other meals, definitely try to stick to local restaurants or street food. You’ll find great little dumpling stalls and lamb kebab places where you can fill up for virtually nothing. The famous shopping street Wangfujing has stalls offering more exotic meats-on-a-stick (scorpion, locusts, starfish, etc). They’re overpriced here, but still relatively cheap and you’ll get some great pictures.
Violent crime is rare, but petty theft is common in crowded areas like stations and tourist attractions. Pickpockets also work the crowded buses.
Scams are very common in touristy areas, including the notorious tea house scam, where locals, usually young women, befriend you and invite you to join them in a tea house. When the bill arrives, it will be much higher than expected and the friendly young girls will be replaced by threatening men. Basically, do not follow any ‘students’ or Chinese ‘tourists’ anywhere.
I’d advise against signing up for a tour to see the Great Wall and simply taking public transport instead, but if you do opt for a tour, book it through a hostel or a travel agent. Do not take the ultra-cheap tours offered on the streets. Also know that many tours will take you ‘shopping’ for most of the day and only toward the end will you get to the great wall. Specify beforehand that you do not want this (unless, of course, you do).
Pollution could also be a problem for those with respiratory disorders, and I wouldn’t drink the tap water unless it has been boiled. Even then, you’re better off avoiding it.
Things to Do
- Tiananmen Square: the largest square on earth; there is a flag raising and lowering ceremony at the north end of the square at dawn and dusk.
- Forbidden City: despite being overrun by tourists, this place is impressive; get there when the gates open (around 8.30AM) for some relative peace; ¥60 from Apr 1 to Oct 31 / ¥20 from Nov 1 to Mar 31
- Hutongs: the old neighborhoods and alleyways of Beijing; hutongs can be found in all four inner districts, but Dongcheng’s are probably the best preserved and the nicest to wander around
- Wangfujing: Beijing’s most famous shopping street; but the only part that was interesting to me was the snack street where you can find famous Beijing snack foods, as well as more exotic offerings, like various fried insects
- The Summer Palace: extensive gardens and palace ruins; most visitors stay in the front hill area, but the back hill areas are much quieter and you’ll find some secret ruins and caves; ¥30 from Apr 1 to Act 31 / ¥15 the rest of the year, ¥10 for a one-way boat ride
- CCTV Building: very unique architecture
- World Trade Center Tower III: Beijing’s tallest building with several restaurants and bars at the top
- Badaling Great Wall: popular and crowded section of the Great Wall; bus #919 Express from Deshengmen costs ¥12 and is the cheapest way to get here (beware of fake buses, with cardboard #919 signs in the windows); there is now also a new train service from Beijing North Station for 13 Yuan (don’t pay for a minibus after arriving at Badaling Station, as the ticket office is only 500m away); finally, you can take a tour bus or a taxi, but beware of scams (the bus will be around ¥150, taxis ¥600-800); tickets to climb the wall are ¥40
- Mutianyu Great Wall: less crowded than Badaling; take bus #867 from Dongzhimen Long Distance Bus Station directly to the wall for 16 RMB or the faster #916 for 12 RMB, but #916 stops at Huairou and you’ll have to switch to a minibus or a taxi for ¥10 per person; taxi all the way from Beijing will be ¥200-300; ¥45 entrance fee, ¥60 for the cable car, ¥60 for a toboggan ride; you can read about my visit to the Mutianyu Great Wall here
- International Shooting Range: located north of Beijing; shoot Chinese automatic and other military grade weapons
- Cuandixia: beautiful ancient mountain village with many more villages in the surrounding areas; subway to Pingguoyuan in West Beijing, then public bus to Cuandixia ¥13-18 (bus number 929, but there are many buses with that number and they go many different places, so be sure to ask the driver); you’ll want to stay overnight (at least one night) and rooms go for ¥30-50 for 2 people; entrance to the Cuandixia area is ¥30
Money Saving Tips
- do not take a taxi from the airport; take the airport shuttles for convenience and a low price or public buses to save even more
- avoid taxis in general; stick to the metro and the buses, especially when going to the outlying sites, like the Great Wall
- bargain hard for anything you buy; as a tourist, you will be quoted ridiculously high prices and even if you bargain them down by half, you will usually still be paying ten times what it’s actually worth
- avoid restaurants geared toward tourists (usually recognizable by an English menu); eat street food or at local restaurants