Beijing is a city that took me by surprise and this is what I recommend for what to do in Beijing.
Hearing about Beijing from the news you could get the image of a heavily polluted city that isn’t worth visiting, especially when you compare it to other cities in China.
But Beijing has its own special charm, and although it does suffer from heavy smog and bad air quality from time to time, there was just something about the place that got to me.
So I have put this article together about what to do in Beijing that I got up to so you can as know some of the best things to do in Beijing.
I won’t mislead you with sites to see in Beijing that I personally didn’t find that great, even if they come highly recommended by others as this is all my own opinions.
Doing everything in Beijing would take a long time, but here is what I enjoyed the most in my nine days spent there.
People will have their own ideas about the place, but if you know and like my style of travelling then you should appreciate this list.
What to Do in Beijing – Things I loved
Cycling in Beijing
By far my favourite activity in Beijing was just simple cycling around the city.
The great thing about Beijing is that it’s all flat, and has the epic differences between taking a mellow ride through the peaceful back alley streets of the hutongs (alleyways), and then cruising full speed along one of the main roads.
Bombing in and out of heavy traffic during rush hour is great fun!
If you stay in the centre of old Beijing then it is quite an easy walk to the main sights. But trust me on this, take a bicycle for at least one day. Many people who live in Beijing get around by bicycle and there are bike lanes everywhere.
So have no fear!
If you get away from the centre though it’s best not use a bicycle due to it being such a huge city.
If you really don’t want to hit the main streets on a bike then get one for cruising the old hutongs, as they are mostly very chilled out and easy to get around.
It’s also one of the non touristy things to do in Beijing as so many of the locals do it and you won’t see many other tourists cycling around.
But going full speed on the massive road by Tiananmen Square, as the sun sets and the crowds gather to watch the taking down of the flag, is an experience not to forget.
I had such a massive smile on my face when doing that although I must have photo-bombed a thousand people!
The 798 Art District in Beijing
I absolutely loved the 798 Art District.
So many of the main tourist sights in Beijing, or China for that matter, get overrun by the mass of tourist hordes. But not in the 798, and that is part of why I liked it.
You get the occasional group of teenage school children passing through, but they are having fun with the place and not wandering around as if they were robots, like some adult tour groups seem to do.
The 798 Art District is quite a big area of disused factories that now house some of the best contemporary art in China, and some from around the world.
It has a very alternative feel when measured up to the other sights in Beijing. Good vibe cafes are on almost every corner where you can sit and people watch with a cup of coffee or beer.
I really enjoy art and film but not the stuff you see in the Tate Gallery, or a fancy art museum. Even though they are great works of art, I personally find them a little boring.
798 left me very satisfied with what I saw. I didn’t appreciate everything but the vast majority was cool, and I discovered artists I had never heard of.
Even if you are not really into contemporary art go and visit just to enjoy the laid back feel of the place.
Much of China can feel too well organised.
Head to 798 Art District and escape the machine!
The Parks in Beijing
People doing martial arts in the park at dawn is a somewhat iconic image of China. If like me you have trouble getting up too early you can also thankfully find people practising martial artists in the parks during the evening as well.
The Temple of Heaven Park is known mostly for its temple (no surprise there then) which is located in the centre but unfortunately is drowning with too many tourists.
But walk just a few minutes to either side of it and you will be in tranquil gardens, wooded forest, and it will mostly be devoid of people.
It’s away from the main tourist areas that you can find couples dancing, martial artists practising, kite-flyers, groups of men singing old songs. It’s the image of Chinese parks you may have in your mind.
At dusk (not bloody dawn) it is a very peaceful place to walk around.
Another park I liked is Jingshan. It’s up on a hill, and gives you views across the forbidden city and the rest of Beijing. Musicians can be found in various areas playing away.
It gets a little crowded there but not too bad.
The Food in Beijing (Must Eat)
Food – one of my favourite subjects. Actually why isn’t this number one? Well maybe I like suicidal cycling just a little bit more (just kidding, seriously go cycling)!
Anyway one of the best reasons to travel is to sample the food delicacies, and what a place Beijing is for food.
Being the capital of China you can find food from all over the country. One of my favourites was the classic Chinese hotpot.
I ate so much in Beijing I looked like a laughing Buddha by the time it was time to leave.
The signature dish is the Peking duck. You get this almost anywhere you can find a Chinatown, but sampling it in Beijing will blow you away.
Done right, it is a work of art. There are various processes that the duck goes through until it is ready to eat. It’s a Beijing must eat.
I travel on a budget but sometimes you just have to treat yourself. And thus I headed to one of the oldest duck restaurants in the city called Bianyifang, located in a modern shopping mall.
Ok so it’s not the original building but it is the same restaurant and the technique that has been used for centuries.
An expert duck cutter (put that on your resume) brings the duck next to your table and chops it up perfectly, before placing on a plate to be gobbled up by you.
Someone should come and show the proper way too eat it which involves placing the meat into a thin savoury pancake with cucumber and sweet sauce. The skin is eaten on its own dipped into sugar that brings out the flavour more.
Duck skin and sugar? Yes, it is awesome!
Don’t skimp on the cash when getting a Peking duck to try. $20 will get you a decent duck. If you are up for a challenge then get a whole one for yourself!
My favourite cheap eat was a noodle place near my hostel. For only around $2 you go and choose your own ingredients from shelves full of local fresh vegetables and meat, which is then cooked up in some seriously tasty spicy soup.
Seriously why isn’t there more places like this in the world?
You can get adventurous and pay a visit to the night market. It’s a very touristy place, but great fun. There you can sample everything from spiders and scorpions, to starfish and snake.
Some taste awful, while others are not that bad. Scorpion is actually decent, except for the legs getting stuck between your teeth!
Bakeries can be found everywhere and are dirt cheap if you go to the simple ones. Sweet tartlets, Chinese cookies, etc. You can just randomly munch them while walking around. Heaven.
There are so many food options. Visit yourself someday and take your taste buds on a journey.
The People in Beijing
As Ferris Bueller would say ( a movie from the 80’s for the younger ones reading):
“Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”.
The same can be said about Beijing. You can get so rushed of your feet visiting the tourist attractions that you may miss one of the best aspects of the city, the people.
Really, slow down and ignore the sites for a day and just go strolling around the old hutongs (alleyways) and see the people.
Yes you won’t be able to chat because of the language barrier (unless you get lucky and meet someone who speaks english), but you can feel the overall vibe. It’s generally a friendly one.
I’ve said it many times (go back and read older posts) that as impressive as a place can be if the locals are not that nice then it sucks the fun out of the whole experience.
Thankfully I found Beijing to be one of the most friendly cities in China. From hanging out with martial artists in the park, to being welcomed by the family in my favourite noodle place.
The Temples in Beijing
I love getting an insight into different cultures and visiting religious sites is a good way to do that.
The atmosphere and architecture that you get in these places is an essential part of a visit to Beijing.
Thankfully many of them don’t get way over-crowded (or maybe I was just lucky), and you can enjoy a bit of peace while wandering around the impressive spiritual halls.
My favourite was the Lama Temple. It’s a big complex with many large rooms, and most importantly still used by people to pray.
When religious places are just used for tourism purposes I don’t like them as much. But if they are being used by people to worship it takes on a whole different feeling. A better feeling.
With the smell of incense everywhere and less tourists, it’s perfect.
The Great Wall of China Day Trip From Beijing
The Great Wall of China is supposed to be one of the most impressive structures in the world. It is. But it can be hit and miss as to how you can enjoy your visit there.
There are quite a few areas you can go. Some are almost devoid of other tourists and situated in areas that hardly get visited, whereas other spots are swarming in tour groups helped up to the top by a cable car.
Personally I ended up with others at a relatively touristed part, but the great thing was that you only need to walk an hour either direction and you come across a sign that says ‘no tourists beyond this point’, and just simply keep on going, and you will have the wall mostly to yourself.
The other trick is to wait around until four in the afternoon when most tourists leave and enjoy the peace for a few hours.
Do not take a tour there. You can go by public transport for half the price and have the freedom to spend as much time as you like on the wall.
If you are travelling with children then you may want to know more about walking the great wall with kids.
Things To Do in Beijing at Night
Live it up Beijing style!
Even if you don’t like dancing (I am not the greatest) you should go to a nightclub if anything to see the locals going nuts in their vip seats with champagne bottles lit up.
Yes clubbing there may be totally different from what you are used to, and as such a new experience to try. Travelling is all about new things, right?
Even if the music and club aren’t that great, just get into the spirit and have a laugh with the people there. I only went one time towards the end of my stay and was a little perplexed at the style of the club in the beginning (definitely not what I was used to), but ended up having a fun time!
There are plenty of bars to have a drink in beforehand. If you enjoy beer (like me) you can find some lovely imported Belgium beers, such as duvel.
Then there is naturally the option to just hit up the amazing night food markets or a restaurant to get your eating kick.
Things I didn’t Like So Much About Beijing
The Forbidden City in Beijing
Uh oh! In many guidebooks about China the Forbidden City in Beijing is one of the most recommended things to see.
Yes it’s absolutely amazing architecture, huge in size, with so much history, but how the hell are you supposed to enjoy it with all those bloody tour groups.
When you have to wait behind a mass of people several layers deep to get a brief look into the large main halls, before being shoved away, really is not the image I had in my mind.
One thing I found was that around 20 minutes before closing all the tourists leave and you can have a few minutes of peace. Then it is great to sit back and marvel at the grand scale of where you are.
Unfortunately 20 minutes is not enough time!
I can also say the same for the Summer Palace. Way overrated in my opinion. As well as ‘the temple’ part of Temple Park.
The main tourist attractions are not what makes a place great, it’s all the other small things.
The Air Pollution in Beijing
The air pollution in Beijing is an unescapable problem if you are there for a long time. However if you are on a short trip you may get lucky and have not much problem with it.
What to do if the air does get to bad levels of pollution is to wear a face mask like many of the people in Beijing do.
The city government is putting more steps into place to reduce the air pollution and hopefully this will help for the future.
Final Thoughts on What to do in Beijing
I know I complain about big tourist groups a lot, but the reality is I do love the people, but just can’t enjoy the places they visit because there is too many of them.
With three days on a Yangtze river cruise on a different trip to China, on a boat with hundreds of Chinese I had a great time because I ignored the touristy stuff and just hanged out with the people.
As for Beijing, it is one of my favourite cities in China now. Nothing will beat cities like Tokyo or me, but Beijing was a very happy surprise.
If you do make it to China someday, don’t be afraid of the smog (get a face mask), and go and check it out.
And if you didn’t like it there, don’t go hating on me because I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: it’s just my personal opinion!
As for China itself if you’re short on time and only have a week or so to spare then I would recommend this China itinerary to get the best out of your time there.
Useful links for a trip to Beijing:
Get the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide China for a guidebook when visiting China and for what to do in Beijing in more detail. It’s one of the most popular guidebooks for China.
I used Agoda for all my hotel/hostel bookings in China (Beijing). You can search for places to stay in Beijing with the form below:
You can search for transport to and from Beijing here.
A lot of social media is banned in China and the way to get around that is to get a VPN for China like I did (this will explain more about what a VPN is for your trip to China).
If you want to do any tours when in Beijing if you are more short on time and want to see a lot, then take a look at some of these tours offered for Beijing at my favourite tour site:
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