We nearly didn’t go to China. We were in the midst of planning a trip to Hong Kong and Thailand, the idea of heading to China not even entering our minds. Then, once he heard of our plans, my dad suggested we go. “If you don’t go when you’re in Hong Kong, that close, you’ll never go. Just do it.” That was some damn good advice because not only did we have a fantastic time exploring China, we can’t wait to go back again and see more. Beijing was a surprise package, a far cry from the mental images I had of severely overcast, polluted skies. The history, delicious food, incredible parks and quirky locals took me by surprise, showing me a destination I never thought I’d enjoy quite as much as I did. If you’re planning a trip and need some inspiration, here are 21 awesome things to do (and avoid) in Beijing.
You may also want to read ‘21 things to know before you visit Beijing‘ and ‘Everything you need to know about visiting Beijing‘ and ‘What to pack for a trip to China‘. Scroll to the bottom to watch our YouTube video of Beijing and the Great Wall of China!
Best things to do in Beijing
1. Feast at Mr Shi’s Dumplings
If you love dumplings be sure to visit Mr Shi’s Dumplings in Beijing. We heard about this place and decided to hunt it down, luckily Mr Shi’s lived up to the hype and we found ourselves eating here more than once. You’ll find the menu in English if your Chinese is a bit rusty, and the servers had no trouble taking our order with us pointing out what we wanted. Dumplings come boiled or fried, your choice, and there are plenty of tasty options for vegetarians (woohoo!) Mr Shi’s is a tourist favourite so don’t expect to find any locals in there but don’t let that turn you off – the food is still delicious.
2. Visit the Bell and Drum Towers
The Drum Tower was initially built way back in 1272 for musical reasons and now finds itself a tourist attraction after being retired as the city’s timekeeper. The nearby Bell Tower is home to the largest and heaviest bell in China weighing in at a whopping 63 tonnes (a.k.a my post-dumpling bodyweight). I’ve grouped the Bell and Drum Towers together here as they sit very close to one another, so you can easily visit both. Try to time your visit for one of the drum performances, if possible, which takes place at 9.30am, 10.30am, 11.30am, 1.30pm, 2.30pm, 3.30pm and 4.45pm daily.
3. Wander Beihai Park
Everything in Beijing seems to have an incredible history, including the parks. Beihai Park was first built in the 11th Century and, aside from being gorgeous, is also home to a number of photo-worthy monuments and sites. Be sure to visit the Chanfu Temple, the Five-Dragon Pavillion, Jade Flower Island and the beautiful Nine-Dragon Wall. There’s a CNY5 ($1AUD) entry fee and once you’re inside you can simply wander and explore, sit for a while under a tree and do some people watching or climb aboard a ducky boat and float around the lake.
4. Great views at Jingshan Park
Trust me, when I planned our trip to Beijing, I didn’t expect to be so taken by the parks and including so many of them in this guide! We were blessed with some amazing weather when we visited Beijing and loved the incredible views and blue sky we were treated to at the very top of Jingshan Park. Again, there’s a small entry fee, but it’s worth it. The views from the top are amazing, the perfect place to photograph the Forbidden City. We also spent some time wandering the gardens, soaking in nature and watching a few of the older local ladies dancing – it was really sweet.
5. Try Hotpot
Yep, we all know dumplings are a non-negotiable, must-try food but ya better add hotpot to that list too! Mongolian hotpot, or Ménggǔ huǒguō, has a history dating back some 1,000 years. But don’t get too hung up on the ‘Mongolian’ bit, as you’ll find plenty of great restaurants serving up delectable hotpot around Beijing, each with their own take on the soup base. Diners sit around a large, boiling pot of soup, cooking fresh, thinly sliced meat and vegetables. For great hotpot, head to Beijing staple, Dong Lai Shun, Haidilaou Hot Pot Restaurant or Koufuju Hot Pot Restaurant.
6. Visit a Teahouse
Visiting a teahouse isn’t just about sipping tea, it’s about experiencing a unique and fascinating part of Chinese culture. In addition to sampling some truly beautiful tea, you may also be able to get your hands on tasty Beijing snacks, mix it with locals and, if you’re lucky, catch a performance while you’re there. Two of the best tea houses in Beijing, well-worth visiting, include Lao She Teahouse and Sentosa Teahouse.
7. Temple of Heaven
Not only did I love visiting the stunning Temple of Heaven, I really enjoyed exploring the surrounding gardens. We visited close to sunset, when the light was glowy and gorgeous and ended up getting some fantastic photos. It was also a really cool spot to just sit for a little while and soak in Beijing life, watching locals get in their afternoon exercise, older gentlemen walking together, catching up on the hot goss and older women dancing in groups. If you’re visiting in the hot months, don’t go in the middle of the day or you’ll roast alive in the sun!
8. Eat Jingjian Rousi
Jinjiang rousi, or shredded pork in Beijing sauce, is another one of those must-try Beijing meals you need to put on your bucket list. The incredibly popular dish originated in Beijing, making it even more unmissable. Sliced pork is cooked to perfection in a delectable sweet bean sauce served with soya bean wraps – simple and delicious. Sink your teeth into Jingjian rousi at Jin Ding Xuan Restaurant or Beijing Rongshunyuan Xiaojie Dalian Huoshao or simply order it when you spot it on the menu, now you know what to look for.
9. Explore the Hutongs
Rather than blowing our budget and staying in a cookie-cutter hotel in the centre of Beijing, we opted to stay in the Hutongs. Basically, the Hutongs are the suburbs of Bejing, where the locals lived. We loved staying here because it gave us a sense of life in Beijing. Each day we would wander the surrounding streets, watching men gather in groups to play games, the women gathering to talk and laugh. Beijing life is played out on the streets of the Hutongs and if you don’t get out and explore, you’re missing out on seeing what it’s truly like. You’re also missing out on finding amazing little stores, great street food to try and hidden restaurants too.
10. Eat Beijing Roast Duck
More food! More food! More food! Yeah, I hear ya. You absolutely cannot go to Beijing without eating Beijing Roast Duck, or Peking Duck, at least once. You’ll find it all things crispy, salty and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. For the very best roast duck in Beijing, you might want to visit Da Dong Duck Restaurant, Deyuan Roast Duck, Jing Yaa Tang or Country Kitchen.
11. Nanluoguxiang Hutong
I mentioned exploring the Hutongs, above, and if I had to choose one, it’d be this one. Nanluoguxiang Hutong is a beautiful area to visit and, I would say, a must-visit destination for travellers. We loved exploring the winding streets and found so many amazing photo opportunities, especially of the gorgeous buildings and bright colours everywhere. There’s also a fantastic snack and shopping street offering up loads of great different bites to try, cafes to visit and boutiques to peruse.
12. Day trip to the Great Wall
We were short on time but made sure to take a day trip out to the Mutianyu section of The Great Wall. We had been told it was easy enough to get a section of the wall by public transport but, rather than stuffing around with all of that and given we don’t speak Chinese, we decided to go with a car transfer out to the wall. If you’re thinking about doing the same thing (I recommend!) you might want to read this guide on how to get to from Beijing to The Great Wall.
13. Rooftop drinks at The Emperor Hotel
Head to the Yin Rooftop Bar atop The Emperor Hotel and you’ll be treated to the very best views of the Forbidden City. Rather than getting caught up in crazy crowds, you can chill out in a comfortable seat, sipping on a lovely cool drink, watching the day turn into night as the sun sets.
14. Summer Palace
Another palace, another Beijing must-do! You’ll love the location of the Summer Palace, located along the picture-perfect lake. Visit toward the end of the day and you’ll find it a photographers dream, the golden afternoon sun glistening off the water, bridges and gorgeous structures. You’ll most likely need half a day there, affording you enough time to wander around and see all the buildings, courtyards and vantage points.
15. 798 Art Zone
798 Art District is your go-to destination for art and culture. If you’re done with temples, parks and historical sites and want to get your dose of culture another way, while taking in the unique Beijing art scene, 798 is your spot. Located in an old, decommissioned complex of military factories you’ll find a number of art galleries and cafes set up. Feel free to explore and support local artists by scooping up a painting, pottery or other types of art. It’s also cool just to do a spot of sightseeing and snap some photographs.
16. Yonghe Lama Temple
Think you’ve got one more temple left in you? If you do, make it the Yonghe Lama Temple. A temple and monastery of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, it was initially built in the late 1600s during the Qing Dynasty. The bright red paint with its unique and intricate awnings make for one heck of a photograph, capturing the typical Chinese architecture you hope to see. As it’s so close to them, you’re probably best placed to visit the Lama Temple at the same time as the Drum and Bell Towers.
17. Panjiayuan Antique Market
With over 3,000 dealers, it’s no wonder Panjiayuan is the antique market of Beijing. Even if you don’t have money to spend on antiques, it’s still a fantastic way to see a huge range of unique items in the one place, like life-size Terracotta Warriors, porcelain vases, Qing-style furniture, artworks, photographs and so much more. Seriously, if you’ve ever had even the slightest thing for Antiques Roadshow, this place is going to knock ya socks off.
18.Catch a Kungfu or Acrobat show
The Chinese are famous for the incredible control, strength and discipline they display through Kung Fu and acrobatics. If you’re in Beijing and are keen to see a show, best to let the humans perform, not the animals. There are plenty of Kung Fu shows to choose from, but the Red Theatre’s Legend of Kung Fu Show is a good place to start. If acrobatics are more your pace, try Chaoyang Theatre Acrobatics.
Things you should avoid in Beijing
1. Crazy crowds at Tiananmen Square / Gate of Heavenly Peace
We got up pretty early, hoping to get to Tiananmen Square and the Gate of Heavenly Peace before the crowds. Instead, we ran smack into them and got stuck in a huge throng of visitors pushing, shoving, jostling and standing on one another. I get social anxiety and the huge amount of people on top of each other, trying to shove and get through the security check, made me feel really sick. The crowds were insane and, sadly, it detracted from the experience for me. I would probably recommend you see these places from a distance, get a photo for your memories then head out into the Hutongs of Beijing to explore, unless, of course, a visit has been on your bucket list forever.
2. Even crazier crowds at The Forbidden City
Just as above, I loved looking at the Forbidden City from a distance and photographing it, but didn’t have a nice time when I was up close. The huge number of visitors and a lot of shoving and pushing combined with intense heat made it unenjoyable for me. If you really do have your heart set on visiting, you might want to try and suss out joining a group or guided tour. A ‘safety in numbers’ approach combined with a Chinese-speaking guide might make things easier. We tried to do it solo and it was a disaster for us.
3. Wangfujing Snack Street
I didn’t enjoy our visit to Wangfujing Snack Street, which was really surprising because an entire street dedicated to snacks really appeals to me! Unfortunately, I found it to be more touristy than tasty. There were scorpions and bugs on sticks, presented as snacks, with signs saying, ‘no photos.’ They are more of a money-making ploy rather than an actual snack that locals would eat, which really sets the tone for the rest of the experience. We gave the bugs a miss and ordered food from a few different places and just found it to be really bland, overpriced and poor quality. If you’re keen to try amazing food, don’t eat the food at the snack streets, save your money and time, unearth local restaurants in the Hutongs and have an unforgettable meal!
Phoebe Lee is a travel writer, YouTuber and photographer with a love for storytelling and making people laugh. Follow her and Matt’s adventures at home and around the world, right here on Little Grey Box and through Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.