It’s incredible to think that a little over a century ago, Beijing was a kind of low-rise walled fortress, its nine humongous gates locked shut every night.
Today it’s the very model of a modern megacity, hurtling toward a brave new future though with one foot planted in the past. To put it simply, Beijing does things its own way: a city of 9 million gig-economy e-bikes and about as many tech workers, of historic hutong lanes overhung with facial recognition cameras, of endlessly inventive ways to get your foodie fix. Things move forward so quickly in China’s capital, it’s almost futile trying to pin down exactly what the city is. What is Beijing known for? It’s better to go there (when you can) and figure it out for yourself.
Here’s our guide to the most memorable, unusual things to do in Beijing.
Get lost in Beijing’s hutong alleyways
Beijing’s highly wander-able matrix of residential lanes has been on the retreat for decades, but despite the demolitions it’s still possible to lose yourself in neighborhoods that time (almost) forgot, where old folks play xiangqi (Chinese chess), walk their songbirds and haggle over a few jin of persimmons from a handcart seller. Head to Xisi to stroll the most authentic alleyways, where you’ll hear gruff Beijinghua (the local dialect) and marvel at the majestic White Dagoba Temple rising up over tapering tiled rooftops. After dark, a stroll through hutong streets is one of the best things to do at night in Beijing.
Eat jianbing for breakfast (every single day)
Take one giant crepe-style pancake, crack an egg or two on top, lather on some chili sauce and furu (fermented bean curd), sprinkle with cilantro and scallions, fold around a shatteringly crisp sheet of fried dough… and eat! Jianbing is a Beijing street snack you can get all over the city for around a dollar – and it’s so tasty that it’s now trending as far away as London and New York. Full disclosure: the dish actually originates in the neighboring city of Tianjin, where instead of the crispy dough sheet locals use chewy crullers called youtiao. Tianjin's version may be slightly more authentic but Beijing’s version is better.
Go on a “wild” Great Wall hike
Seeing the Great Wall in its naturally eroded state, snaking away over the ridgelines of mountains with trees erupting from buckled watchtowers, is a sight more fantastical than anything the Game of Thrones art department could dream up. It takes a bit of planning to skip the cable-car stretches rebuilt for tourists (and the security guards posted at popular wild wall-hiking spots near the city), so it’s a good idea to sign up for a day hike with Beijing Hikers. Let them handle the details so you can concentrate on the photographs.
Delve deeper into the Forbidden City
Most visitors to Beijing’s Unesco-listed centerpiece focus their energies on the Three Great Halls and parade grounds that comprise the outer court. They are indeed awe-inspiring – yet it’s by venturing into the tightly woven labyrinth of rooms and corridors to the north where you’ll dig up the most remarkable sights, ones on a more human scale. Like the Palace of Prolonging Happiness, an unfinished, Western-style building of marble, cast-iron and glass designed to be a kind of walk-in aquarium; or the Belvedere of Pleasant Sounds, an elaborate three-story opera house with trap doors, tunnels and pulleys for special effects.
Go on a historical run
Keeping fit, exploring the city and learning about old Peking at the same time: what more could you want? The founder of a local tour company Beijing Postcards has combined his twin passions of Beijing history and jogging into a series of themed runs, clocking in at about 10km each, that stitch together hutong alleyways, leafy canal paths and little-visited parks. You don't need to be super fit, as the run stops every few minutes for a brief intro to a particular sight or topic, and finishes up at the company’s hutong HQ for drinks and snacks.
Explore China’s most fantastical garden
Meaning “Garden of Preserving Harmony” but known in English as the Summer Palace, Yiheyuan served as a private royal playground on a truly epic scale. Kunming Lake at its heart is over 2 kilometers across, while Longevity Hill, raised from earth dug out to expand the lake, climbs 60m (197ft) over the water and is crowned with majestic halls, towers and pavilions. All this opulence was created for just one person: the Empress Dowager Cixi, who siphoned off funds earmarked for a new Chinese navy to design her dream retirement home.
Gorge on the world’s best Peking duck
The dish Beijing gave to the world tastes better in the capital than anywhere else. Molecular gastronomy has nothing on proper kaoya (roast duck), such as the distinguished birds served at Sìjì Mínfú, which take days to prepare. The ducks are dried, inflated with compressed air (to separate the meat from the skin), basted in molasses, then roasted in open-fronted ovens over crackling fruitwood. Even the precise method of carving takes years to master, and is an essential part of the culinary theater that’s an exciting accompaniment to one of the world’s great dishes.
See the sunrise at Tian’anmen Square
Every day as dawn breaks, a PLA honor guard marches out from under the giant portrait of Mao Zedong to raise the five-star Red Flag over Tiananmen Square. It’s an iconic spectacle, full of pomp and swagger. (Supposedly, the immaculately attired soldiers are drilled to march at precisely 108 paces per minute.) Don’t worry if you’re not an early riser; the same ceremony happens in reverse at sunset.
Climb Beijing’s very own twin towers
The magnificent Drum and Bell Towers are inseparable icons of Beijing. Until a century or so ago they were the city’s official timekeepers, sounding out curfews and coordinating the patrols of the night watch. These days you can climb both to see old-world views, hear an hourly drumming performance and gawp at China’s largest bell. But the monuments are actually at their most inspiring when seen peeking over rooftops as you wander the surrounding hutong alleyways of Gulou (literally “drum tower”). Beijing’s hippest neighborhood, it’s home to third-wave cafes, quirky boutiques and speakeasy-style cocktail dens.
Dig for treasures at Panjiayuan Market
Even knowing that pretty much every antique at this humongous market is fake, Panjiayuan still offers an unforgettable shopping experience. In addition to ersatz Ming vases “aged” with (fake) dust and artificially tarnished Buddha statues, you can find replica Qing furniture, traditional handicrafts, calligraphy brushes, ink stones and much more among the thousands of dealers. Stick to the last century and you might dig up genuine Mao busts, Little Red Books, faded cigarette posters and the like. On weekends, Panjiayuan starts trading well before dawn, which is when the best of the loot gets snapped up.
Drop a line to the gods at the Temple of Heaven
Less a place of worship than a divine conduit to the cosmos, the Temple of Heaven used to be reserved for the emperor alone, who twice a year would set forth with great fanfare from the Forbidden City in an entourage that included horse chariots, elephants and a gigantic sedan chair. After arriving at the open-air Round Altar, he would perform esoteric rites and ceremonies in the hope of summoning divine blessing for his continued rule. Every detail of the Temple of Heaven’s architecture is cosmologically significant, making it a fascinating place to ponder millennia of Chinese thought.
Meet China’s biggest dragon-tortoise
You’ll see bixi (dragons with tortoise shells) at temples all over Beijing, holding up stone stelae upon which are inscribed the virtuous deeds of emperors of old. But the alpha bixi resides at the Ming Tombs, the final resting place of 13 emperors in a secluded valley outside Beijing. Weighing in at 50 tons, this stone giant carries a stele over 6 meters tall, and guards the Spirit Way leading to the tombs, an astonishing funerary avenue lined by a dozen pairs of carved animals, mythical beasts and officials.
Ride a bullet train to the Great Wall
At the turn of the 20th century, travelers in Beijing went to the Great Wall by mule litter, a kind of sedan chair lashed between two donkeys. The reward for this grueling, two-day trek was Badaling, an astounding sprawl of brick battlements and watchtowers in the Jundu Mountains. Since 2020, the bullet train makes the same trip in just over 20 minutes, stopping at the world’s deepest underground station directly beneath Badaling, which has now morphed into a kind of Great Wall resort with its own Starbucks and KFC. Times have changed.
Dine in an imperial deep freeze
Royal Icehouse is a hard-to-find hutong restaurant near the Forbidden City with an icy secret in its basement: a royal refrigerator. The arched stone cellars were used to keep the emperor’s victuals cool in summer, helped in the task by giant blocks of ice cut from the adjacent lake in Beihai Park. It’s a quirky setting for classic Peking duck and Shandong-style sweetmeats like sugared crab-apples, best washed down with a tot or two of the in-house own rice wine and medicinal liquor. (You’ll spot it brewing in pig bladders and clay jars along the walls.)
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