Things to do in Beijing

Queues are forming outside the Temple of Heaven, one of Beijing’s most-visited sights, but in the early morning shadow of its conical roof, people are gathering to exercise. Every day, the city’s parks fill with elderly residents who come to join their club activities – tai chi, ballroom dancing or badminton. Some are here to sing opera, practice their calligraphy or play cards with friends.

“Seeing how local people go about their daily life in their free time – especially the older generation – really gives you a feel for the true spirit of Beijing,” says Karen Zhao.

Karen is the China travel specialist at our partner Intrepid. She urges travellers to make some time to go people watching in the city’s parks, or to hire bikes and ride around its residential streets. “It’s amazing to see the sights, the palaces, the ancient buildings – but I love this local side of Beijing. I think that’s what really makes Beijing alive.”
Beijing attracts more than 300 million visitors a year, making overtourism a major problem during peak times. Of course, for many travellers, this may be their one and only visit to China, and seeing the main sights is a must. The best way to do this is by booking with an experienced tour company that works with local guides. That way, they’ll know the best times to go to avoid the crowds, whether it’s mid-week, first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon, and can lead you around the quieter routes.

Once you’ve seen the highlights, however, the best advice is to allow yourself to get lost. “China in general is a very safe place to travel, especially for foreign visitors,” explains Karen Zhao. “Travellers often don’t realise that they can go out and explore the more unknown areas. You will not feel unsafe walking at 11pm or even 2am in the morning in the streets of Beijing.”

Most China tours don’t spend too long in the city, so book an extra few days if you want to see more than just the well-known sites. It’ll be worth it for a more authentic experience of Beijing.

“Personally, I love cycling in the hutongs – the old Beijing city streets,” says Karen. “You’ll find really cute little cafés, small local restaurants, people selling dumplings. It’s the best way to immerse yourself into Beijing local life.”

Top 5 things to see in Beijing

1. Forbidden City

At the very heart of Beijing sprawls the enormous imperial palace complex of the Forbidden City. Forbidden no more, since the last emperor was ousted in 1925 and the palace opened as a museum, Chinese citizens and foreign visitors now flock here in their thousands. Arriving early is essential, and not just to get a head start on the crowds – exploring the whole site could easily take a day. Visit with a local guide who can make sense of the many halls and smaller palaces, explain the significance of statues and carvings, and lead you round a quieter route.

2. Temple of Heaven

Once the most important temple in imperial China, where emperors held an annual ceremony of prayer for good harvests, the Temple of Heaven was finally opened to the public in 1918 and now the surrounding park is used daily for morning exercise and tai chi practice. The most striking building is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a 40m-high nail-free circular wooden structure with a three-layered gable roof. The two other main sites are the similar, but smaller, Imperial Vault of Heaven and the open-air Circular Mound Altar sculpted from intricately carved white marble.

3. Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is named after the red gate through which, and beneath the expressionless gaze of Chairman Mao’s portrait, you access the Forbidden City. It’s been the site of many important historical events – most infamously, the student-led demonstrations in 1989 which led to a civilian massacre still denied by the Chinese state. Arrive early and you’ll see the sunrise flag-raising ceremony, performed by the goose-stepping troops of the People’s Liberation Army every morning, before you join the queue to the mausoleum where Mao’s embalmed body is permanently displayed within his glass coffin.

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4. Hutongs

The hutongs are a doorway to ancient city life. These narrow residential alleyways were built hundreds of years ago and, until as late as the 1950s, several thousand of them criss-crossed what is now the old city centre. Since then, they have shrunk to a patchwork of several hundred little lanes but, although not quite the thriving hub of traditional family life they used to be, they offer a glimpse into what life may have been like during the Qing Dynasty. Gentrification means that many courtyard homes have been converted into cafés and shops, and the best-known hutongs attract throngs of tourists – but quieter pockets can be found if you take your time.

5. Great Wall of China

The world’s longest wall is not, in fact, visible from space, but it’s very easy to see for any travellers staying in the city. The closest sections to Beijing are Badaling and Mutianyu – approximately 1-1.5 hours’ drive away. But our China holiday specialists caution against going to the most popular places, which can be busy at any time of year and jam-packed during the holidays. Look instead for tours that lead guided walks along the lesser-known stretches of the wall, all still within a couple of hours’ reach of the capital.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: zhang kaiyv] [Intro: Riku Lu] [1. Forbidden City : Gigi] [4. Hutongs: Max Chen]