25 Ultimate Things To Do In Beijing

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Like China itself, Beijing is a study in contrasts: old versus new, tradition versus innovation, Chinese versus Western. These juxtapositions make this sprawling city a fascinating and vibrant place, but given its size (more than 21 million inhabitants) and history (three millennia and counting), Beijing can seem like an overwhelming destination to visit. Still, every city has its superlatives, so we’ve handpicked the best of Beijing for you to consider for your next trip. Spectacular palaces, historic temples, beautiful parks, bargain shopping, addictive cuisine, and so much more await you in the Chinese capital. —Michael Alan Connelly

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798 Arts District

Anyone with even a slight interest in Chinese contemporary art should get a firsthand look at the scene at the bustling 798 Art District. Formerly the site of several state-owned factories, the complex began attracting a small group of artists in the late 1990s; more artists and cultural organizations followed starting in the early 2000s, when the old buildings were transformed into galleries, studios, art centers, restaurants, and bars. Now a protected arts district that has been largely pedestrianized, 798 is also home to cafes, commercial galleries, and even souvenir shops. The galleries these days are hit or miss—you’ll see plenty of bad knockoffs of Western art and unappealing Socialism-era portraits—but the district still stands at the city’s most important contemporary arts hub.

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Beihai Park

Northwest of the Forbidden City, Beihai Park is home to Beijing’s largest and most beautiful public lake. All you need to do to enjoy the park is stroll around or rent one of the paddle boats that fill the lake on summer weekends. If you wish to see the cultural sights, check out Yongan Temple, from which you can climb to the white stupa perched atop a small island in the lake. Afterward, continue north to explore Qianhai and Houhai, two connected lakes surrounded by shoreside restaurants and bars as well as hutongs.

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Bicycle Tours

Even if traffic isn’t bad, which is usually is, or if the subways aren’t crowded, which they usually are, bicycles are the best way to get around Beijing when the weather is nice (rentals are available from Serk). If you don’t feel like cycling as your main mode of transportation, consider taking a tour to explore a part of the city you might not otherwise see. Bike Beijing offers a wide variety of tours for all skill levels and interests.

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Confucius Temple

Built in 1302, the Confucius Temple pays tribute to China’s greatest sage and his lasting legacy. The temple is unique in the sense that it is dedicated to a mortal rather than a deity; regardless, worshippers come here to offer gifts and sacrifices much like those seen at Buddhist and Taoist temples. The Hall of Great Accomplishment contains Confucius’ funeral tablet, while the Hall of Great Perfection features the central shrine to the scholar and a large collection of ancient musical instruments. In the front and main courtyards of the temple stand rows of stone tablets inscribed with more than 50,000 names of those who passed imperial examinations during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The temple complex has been combined with the adjacent Imperial Academy, once the highest educational institution in the country, where government officials were trained to master the Confucian classics.

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Jennifer Arnow

Panjiayuan Antiques Market

Also known as the Dirt Market, Panjiayuan Antiques Market is home to surprisingly orderly open-air stalls where more than 3,000 vendors hawk Cultural Revolution memorabilia, artwork, curio cabinets, jade dragons, jewelry, and more. Be forewarned that anything being sold as an authentic antique almost certainly isn’t one, but most people come here for the reproductions anyway. As with other Chinese markets, you’ll need to bargain aggressively here to get a fair price, since the price quoted to any foreigner will automatically be higher than it would be for a local. Once you’ve had your fill of Mao posters and porcelain vases, be sure to check out some of the enclosed shops lining the perimeter of the market. Weekends are the busiest, but no matter what day you visit, the earlier you arrive, the better.

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Jennifer Arnow

Dumplings and Baozi

Whether you see them at a street stall or in a casual restaurant, be sure to order some dumplings while you’re in Beijing. Steamed or boiled, they’re typically stuffed with pork and cabbage or pork and chives and served with black vinegar for dipping. For diners who are mostly familiar with fried dumplings or the seafood-filled dumplings typically associated with dim sum, Beijing dumpling’s offer an easy way to get a taste of northern China. Baozi, pillowy steamed buns stuffed with meat or vegetables, are particularly good (and ubiquitous) in Beijing. They’re especially popular for breakfast, and you can find them at street stalls and small restaurants all over the city. Unlike xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), which have become popular in the United States, baozi are breadier and don’t contain any liquid, making for a satisfying on-the-go meal.

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Eastern Qing Tombs

Northeast of Beijing, in Hebei province, lie the tombs of Qing Dynasty emperors, nine of which are open to the public. Not to be missed is Yuling, the final resting place of Qianlong, the Qing’s most powerful sovereign. The entry tunnel to the tomb descends 65 feet below ground before reaching the first of three elaborately carved marble gates. Inside the tomb, exquisite carvings of Buddhist imagery adorn the walls and ceiling. The most elaborate of the Qing tombs is Dingdongling, built to house the remains of the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi at a rumored cost of 72 tons of silver. Its stone carvings and gold-leaf paneling reflect the empress’s taste for luxury.

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Great Wall of China

Given its proximity to Beijing, the Great Wall of China is an essential part of any visit to the Chinese capital. How you wish to visit the wall depends largely on two factors: how much time you want to spend getting there and visiting; and whether you prefer perfectly restored or crumbling sections of the wall, or both. Only an hour by car from downtown Beijing, the Great Wall at Badaling is great if you’re short on time and seeking out postcard-ready restored sections. Given its proximity to the city, however, Badaling tends to be crowded, so go farther out if you’re seeking peace and quiet. Nearby, the Great Wall at Juyongguan is equally popular. Farther afield, the Great Wall at Mutianyu is significantly less crowded and the views are stunning. Here you can take a cable car to the highest restored section and then embark on a gorgeous 90-minute hike east to another cable car that descends to the parking lot. The Great Wall at Jinshanling is the least-visited restored section within striking distance of Beijing. This is one of the few sections of the wall where overnight camping trips are offered, and from here you can embark on an unforgettable four-hour hike toward Simatai, a remote and largely unrestored section of the wall that is best for adventure seekers.

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Hutongs

In an earlier era, most of central Beijing was filled with hutong (alleyway) residences, but over time more and more have disappeared. These days, you can sleep in hutong hotels and buy souvenirs in hutong shops, but the fixed-up alleyways lack a certain authenticity. Keep your eyes peeled when traveling around the city, and you might stumble across a hutong unexpectedly. If you’re looking to explore on your own, the area surrounding the Drum Tower is a good place to start; if you’d rather have a guide, arrange a tour with Beijing Sideways, a company that carts guests around the alleyways in the sidecar of a vintage motorbike.

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Lama Temple

Originally built as a temple for Prince Yongzheng, who went on to become the third Qing Dynasty Emperor, Lama Temple is one of the most important functioning Buddhist temples in Beijing. Although it once housed as many as 500 resident monks, today the complex is home to around two dozen, but that doesn’t detract from the splendor of the five main halls and multiple galleries hung with thangkhas (Tibetan scroll paintings). Lama Temple is best visited at a slow pace, but if you're short on time, make sure you don’t skip the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Fortunes, inside which stands an awe-inspiring, 85-foot Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood.

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Nan Luogu Xiang

A narrow alley that dates back some 700 years, Nan Luogu Xiang (South Gong and Bell Alley) has become a hot destination for drinks, shopping, and snacks over the past decade. Here you’ll find chic boutiques and unique souvenir shops alongside trendy bars and cafes. Due to its ever-growing popularity, it’s best to visit during the day or at least during the week if you want to avoid overwhelming crowds. Either way, be sure to spend some time wandering through the eight historic hutongs that flank Nan Luogu Xiang to the east and west. If you don’t have a ton of time to explore Beijing’s neighborhoods, this one is likely to provide much of what you’re looking for.

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Old Summer Palace

Much like the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace was once the emperor’s retreat until it was destroyed by French and British troops. Unlike the Summer Palace, however, this one was never restored to its original glory. Accordingly, the experience of visiting this place is rather different, since 90% of the buildings that once stood here were wooden and thus burned to the ground. What does remain, however, are the European-style stone structures built by Jesuits during the Qing Dynasty, which you’ll find in Changchunyuan (Garden of Everlasting Spring), one of three idyllic parks that comprise the Old Summer Palace’s grounds. Here you’ll find ornately carved columns, scattered stone blocks, and Huanghuazhen, a maze made of engraved concrete walls surrounding a European-style pavilion.

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Beijing Olympic Park

In the years surrounding the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing changed rapidly as entire city blocks were cleared to make way for new hotels, modern buildings, and sports centers. Almost every corner of the city was affected by the games in some regard, but to see two architectural icons from the games that are still standing, head to Beijing Olympic Park. Here you can see the Herzog & de Meuron–designed National Stadium, better known as the Bird’s Nest, which features an exterior crafted from 42,000 tons of steel. Nearby, look for the National Aquatics Center, better known as the Water Cube, where Michael Phelps set his world records. During the day you can go inside both venues; you can pay to ride a Segway around the Bird’s Nest track for 20 minutes or go to a water park constructed inside the Water Cube after the games concluded. If you only care about seeing the structures from the outside, it’s best to visit the park at night, when both are illuminated.

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Peking Duck

The Chinese capital’s most famous dish is also one of its tastiest. Specially prepared roast duck is thinly sliced and served on a platter for you to wrap in thin pancakes with plum sauce and spring onions—and make sure to get some of that crispy skin in each bite. Peking duck can be habit-forming, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to eat it more than once while visiting Beijing. Fortunately, there are a number of outstanding options where you can get your fix, including Da Dong Roast Duck, Deyuan Roast Duck, and Li Qun. If you don’t mind splurging, Duck de Chine serves the most flavorful duck in the city, hands-down.

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Peking Opera

Though there are myriad forms of Chinese opera, the Beijing style is perhaps the most notable and internationally recognized. Dazzling costumes, elaborate makeup, and amazing acrobatic feats are among the highlights of a typical performance, which you can see almost any night of the week in Beijing. One of the best places to attend a show is the National Center for the Performing Arts, an architectural marvel commonly called “The Egg.” If opera isn’t on the calendar there, shows at the Liyuan Theater are tourist-oriented but still fun, especially since you can show up early to watch the performers apply their makeup. One thing to note: With its nasal singing and clamorous music, Beijing opera isn’t for everyone. In fact, many Westerners and even some young Chinese find it rather annoying. If you want to experience a show without committing to a couple of hours, opt for shorter performances at the Liyuan and Huguang Guild Hall. Or you can simply watch a few minutes of it from your hotel room by flipping to CCTV 11, a channel that broadcasts opera nonstop.

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Red Gate Gallery

Located inside Dongbianmen, Beijing’s last remaining Ming-era watchtower to survive the destruction of the city wall, Red Gate Gallery has been a leader in the local art scene since it opened as China’s first private contemporary art gallery in 1991. Founded by Australian expat Brian Wallace, the gallery exhibits work from well-known contemporary Chinese artists on the first floor, while the second and third floors are devoted to the history of the surrounding Chongwen District.

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Ritan Park

Should you find yourself perusing historic embassies in Jianguomen or in the midst of the bustling Central Business District, make a detour to nearby Ritan Park, home to the Temple of the Sun. Built in 1530 and used as a sacrificial altar, the site is now regarded as one of Beijing’s most peaceful parks, an oasis of calm in a busy area. Locals come here to stretch their legs or practice tai chi in the absence of tourists who tend to clog other green spaces in the city center.

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Sanlitun

To experience Beijing’s vibrant nightlife, head to famous Sanlitun (also known as Bar Street), which caters to foreigners and young Chinese with its countless drinking establishments. Avoid the dive bars on the east side of the street unless you want to hang out with college students, and don’t be afraid to wander a bit until you find a place that suits you—it shouldn’t take too long to find a place you like. If dancing is what you desire, try Vics or Mix, two popular clubs located at the northern gate of the Workers’ Stadium. If you want to see and be seen, head straight to The Opposite House for its swanky bars. If you want a simple scene and good cocktails, go to Q Bar, a tucked-away lounge with a pleasant terrace south of the main Sanlitun drag.

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Silk Market

Years ago, the so-called Silk Market was a delightfully chaotic conglomeration of hundreds of outdoor stalls hawking clothing and knockoff designer goods and accessories. These days, the market exists inside a huge shopping center where you can acquire fake Louis Vuitton purses, Nike shoes, and much more. Just make sure to haggle your best to get those prices down, and be sure to inspect each item for quality before agreeing to purchase it. If arguing over the price of fake goods doesn’t sound like fun, you should probably skip this market for one of the many others in town; however, if it sounds like a dream come true, you should also check out Yashow Market, which local expats prefer over the Silk Market, and where you’ll be able to snag even lower prices.

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Jennifer Arnow

Street Food

No matter where you are in Beijing, you’re never far away from a tasty street snack, especially in hutong-heavy neighborhoods. One must-try street food is jianbing, a thin flour crepe that’s made on a griddle and topped with an egg before being topped with fermented bean paste, hot chili sauce, cilantro, and spring onion. A crispy wonton is added before the whole thing gets folded up into a portable package—think of it as the world’s best breakfast burrito. Other items to look out for include roujiamo, buns stuffed with well-seasoned meat and herbs; roasted sweet potatoes; grilled lamb skewers called chuan’r (pronounced “chwar”), flavored with cumin and chili flakes; xianbing, wheat-flour pockets typically stuffed with chives and eggs; and an assortment of skewered fruit covered in a sugary syrup that hardens to a satisfyingly crisp shell. If you’re looking for street food that’s designed to shock, head to Wangfujing Snack Street, a touristy lane where you’re guaranteed to see scorpions on a stick and other unusual eats.

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Summer Palace

For a glimpse at how the imperial family once spent its leisure time, visit the Summer Palace, a 700-acre royal retreat commissioned by Emperor Qianlong in 1750. Many of the original structures here were ransacked and burned by British and French forces in 1860, but the Summer Palace was renovated by the unscrupulous Empress Dowager Cixi, who “retired” here in 1889, even as she imprisoned her nephew, Emperor Guangxu, here and ruled in his place until her death in 1908. She even made the Summer Palace (rather than the Forbidden City) the official seat of government during the last five years of her life. Today, the park provides a lovely respite from the city, with hillside temples and pagodas, arched stone bridges on Kunming Lake, and picture-perfect willow trees. Don’t miss the marble boat at the west end of the lake, a perfect symbol of the Empress Dowager’s opulent tastes even as her country crumbled around her.

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Temple of Heaven

Southeast of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven remains one of the most important examples of Chinese religious architecture. For centuries, this is where emperors made sacrifices to the gods in hopes of achieving a fruitful harvest. (A series of bad harvests could be interpreted by the people as a sign to overthrow the emperor, so this ritual was taken very seriously.) Twice the size of the Forbidden City, the temple’s grounds are home to many fine Ming Dynasty buildings, but the hallmark structure, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is a visual knockout. Standing atop a three-tiered marble base, this magnificent, blue-roofed, circular building is supported entirely by 28 pillars and not a single nail; it was originally constructed in 1420 but burned to the ground in 1889, only to be replaced with an exact replica a few years later. Don’t miss the echo wall surrounding the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which will carry your voice to the other side if you speak in the right direction.

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Tian Yi Mu

Eunuchs played a vital yet often overlooked role throughout much of Chinese history, but their importance is made clear at Tian Yi Mu, the tomb of the most powerful eunuch ever, Tian Yi. Castrated at the age of nine, he spent the next 63 years of his life serving three emperors and rising to one of the highest ranks in the land. Though not as spectacular as any imperial tombs you might visit, Tian Yi Mu befits a man of high social status with intricate stone carvings around the base of the central burial mound. The eight remaining tombs house other eunuchs who wished to pay tribute to Tian Yi’s legacy by being buried alongside him.

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Tiananmen Square

As the world’s largest public square, Tiananmen Square needs to be seen in person to be believed. That said, this is not necessarily a place to linger, given the lack of shade, benches, or trees; in a sense, it is perhaps most impressive for its oppressive nature. Still, no visit to Beijing would be complete without a quick walk through the square, whose complicated historical legacy includes Mao Zedong’s announcement of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and the tragic massacre of student demonstrators in June 1989. The best way to see Tiananmen Square is to start at Qianmen, a historic gate located at the southern end of the square. Moving north, you’ll pass Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, where the Great Helmsman’s embalmed body is displayed in a crystal case, and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a 125-foot granite obelisk dedicated to those who died for the revolutionary cause of the Chinese people. Flanking the square are the Great Hall of the People, which can be visited if the Chinese legislature is not in session, and the monumental National Museum of China. At the northern end of the square is the namesake gate, Tiananmen, which serves as the entrance to the Forbidden City.

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Forbidden City

At the center of this vast metropolis sits its most enduring icon: the Forbidden City. Formerly home to a long line of emperors, this is the world’s largest palace complex, at 180 acres; with 800 buildings (and supposedly 9,999 rooms) on the site, you could spend days exploring here, but a few hours will suffice. Highlights include the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), where you can ascend to the top (where Mao Zedong himself stood) for an awe-inspiring view of Tiananmen Square; the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where coronations, weddings, and royal birthdays were celebrated; the Hall of Clocks and Watches, which displays ornate timepieces; the Gallery of Treasures, where you can see jade bracelets, tea sets, and other imperial possessions; and finally, the Imperial Gardens, the loveliest part of the Forbidden City. If you have any energy left, exit and cross the street to Jingshan Park, where a climb up a winding staircase to Wanchun Pavilion affords excellent views of the Forbidden City and surrounding neighborhoods on a clear day.

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