If you’re planning a trip to the Chinese capital, you’ve likely already got a full list of places to see and things to do. This list probably includes places like the Great Wall, and items such as eating Peking duck, seeing a Chinese opera performance and spending a day at the Summer Palace.
And those things are all worthwhile – sort of. It’s true that Beijing has a wealth of famous spots to see and snap the requisite photo in front of, but to stay on the well-trod tourist path is to miss the real heart of the city.
Budget your time in Beijing wisely so you can hit the tourist hot spots you’d really be bummed to miss while also getting to experience a side of the city that many tourists miss out on completely. Bear in mind that some of the big attractions take several hours to get through and can be quite crowded, so don’t plan on making it to more than one or two in a day. You’ll want at least a week in Beijing to feel like you’ve even scratched the surface.
Getting the Tourist Scene Out of the Way
The Great Wall
OK, so you know there are some can’t-miss places that have a permanent spot on your itinerary. For many people, the Great Wall tops the list. There are plenty of day tours you can sign up for that will take you to one or another section of the Great Wall, but be warned that these often include hidden stops at jade and silk factories, where you’ll be pressured to purchase the goods made there. A better bet is to check the Couchsurfing forums for Beijing, as there are usually people new to the city eager to meet up with other travelers and find their own way to the Wall. You can also take a public bus out near the Mutianyu section of the wall, and hire a taxi to drive you to the base. This is a much cheaper alternative to taking a day tour and is much more under your control.
Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City
The good news is, you can do both of these on the same day. Tiananmen sits directly across from the Forbidden City, and there is a subway line with a stop that lets you out directly at the entrance. The Forbidden City is extremely popular and it’s massive. Allow at least three to four hours to make it through the complex. It’s beautiful and impressive, but think long and hard before dedicating a good portion of your day to this.
The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace is another impressive, sprawling complex. This one is worth visiting if you have the time – but like the Forbidden City, you need to allow yourself several hours to get through the whole thing and by the end of it, you’ll likely want nothing more than to veg out in the hotel with a cold beer.
Tourist-Trap Alternatives In Beijing
Now that you’ve cleared a few items off the sight-seeing list, it’s time to check out some of what makes Beijing such an interesting, chaotic city. The Nanluoguxiang alley is lined with fun shops and great restaurants and bars. It’s a great place to check out for souvenir shopping and a night out on the town. It’s conveniently located in the Gulou (Drum Tower) area, which has many hip, trendy bars built into old hutong buildings.
Speaking of hutongs, these traditional neighborhoods are exactly the place to go for a taste of authentic Beijing. Rent a bicycle and get lost here for a few hours, sampling sizzling street meat and fried noodles from vendors and getting a taste of how locals live. If a trip through these crumbling, but colorful, neighborhoods doesn’t make you fall in love with Beijing, nothing probably will.
If you want a look at contemporary Chinese art culture, spend a day in 798, the popular arts district. The galleries here are constantly putting on interesting exhibits, film screenings and festivals and fashion events. Built on the grounds of an old factory, 798 has all the grit and glamor you’d hope to find in a rapidly modernizing city.
And if a quick day trip to the Great Wall doesn’t suit you, you can camp on some sections overnight, trading beers and stories with newfound friends. Ask the staff at your hotel about camping options, or check Couchsurfing.org to see if anyone is already organizing a camp-out.
Part of what makes Beijing so great is its nightlife – an eclectic mix of tacky clubs, swanky cocktail bars and dives that sell cheap bear and questionable liquor. Whatever else you do, spend a night exploring the Sanlitun bar street, where you’ll get a taste of the melting pot that is the Chinese capital.
There’s no doubt that there is value to be gained from visiting some of Beijing’s ancient sites, but those are not what make a visit here memorable. China is growing rapidly and is under constant scrutiny as it grows and changes, and grapples with issues of human rights and censorship. For all that it gets reported on in the media, the only way to understand China is to be there and feel its capital’s pulse. It’s a gritty city, not an easy or especially beautiful one, but if you open yourself up to the experiences here, it will leave a lasting impression for years to come.