Beijing is a city of incredible contrasts. Imperial palaces and ancient alleyways teeming with life mingle with cutting-edge architecture and new shopping malls and tower blocks, while just outside Beijing is the majestic Great Wall.
As the capital of the country set to dominate the 21st century, there’s a unique fizzing energy to Beijing that few other cities around the world can match. You could spend weeks here, but five days is enough to see the most iconic sights and get a taste of Beijing life.
When to go
The Beijing summer is brutally hot and humid, but it’s also peak season for tourists. Winter is freezing but if you can handle the sub-zero temperatures and icy wind you’ll find the key sights far less crowded. The short spring and autumn are when Beijing is at its most pleasant. Make sure to avoid the city during the main Chinese public holidays, such as the Spring Festival and the golden weeks that fall at the beginning of May and October, when domestic tourists descend on the capital.
Where to go
Top of the list are the former imperial palaces. The Forbidden City is the heart of Beijing, even if nearby Tiananmen Square is its true centre. The former home of China’s emperors, the sons of heaven, it earned its name because it was off-limits to mere mortals for 500 years. Now anyone can wander through it, gazing at extraordinary treasures acquired over 5000 years of Chinese history. Almost as spectacular is the Summer Palace, a superbly landscaped collection of gardens, temples and pavilions, where the imperial family retreated to escape the heat of the Beijing summer. Then there’s the geometric marvel that is the Temple of Heaven, the ultimate expression of the Chinese quest for perfection.
Museums & galleries
The Capital Museum offers a fine introduction to Beijing and its customs, folklore and traditions, and the newly renovated National Museum of China can guide you through 5000 years of recorded Chinese history. Art buffs are also well served in Beijing and the buzzing Chinese contemporary art scene continues to attract attention from around the world. Explore the best of what’s happening now at the 798 Art District, where galleries (closed on Mondays) mingle with cafes, or the nearby Caochangdi area.
The very soul of Beijing is its hutong, the ancient alleyways that criss-cross the centre of the city. Dating back as far as 800 years, the hutong are still home to many locals and wandering them is the best way to experience Beijing street life in all its raucous and friendly glory.
With over 60,000 restaurants in Beijing, you can sample every one of China’s many cuisines in the one city. Don’t leave town without trying Peking Duck! There are also western and foreign restaurants galore, including an ever-increasing selection of high-end European eateries. Many of Beijing’s smartest bars are concentrated in the Sanlitun district, but there are plenty of bohemian places, especially in and around the hip hutong of Nanluogu Xiang.
No visit to Beijing is complete without an excursion to the Great Wall. The stretch at Mutianyu, a couple of hours out of the city, has fine, restored watchtowers and steep ramparts, from which you can gaze at the classic vista of the Wall snaking away over the nearby hills.
Beijing’s roads are increasingly jammed, making driving a tense experience. But cabs are plentiful outside of peak times and an ever-expanding subway system will whip you around the city for next to nothing. A good option is to hire a bike for a day to explore the hutong areas.
Costs & money
Beijing is no longer the cheap destination it once was. If you want to stay in high-end hotels, sip cocktails and eat in upmarket restaurants, you’re looking at 2000 Yuan a day, or more. But bed down in a 3-star hotel and eat in local restaurants and you can get by on 500-700 Yuan a day. Real budget travellers who stay in hostels and eat street food can survive on around 250 Yuan.