Taking a tour will make it easier to sightsee without the hassle. However, if you're adventurous, you can easily explore the city on your own, even if you don't speak Chinese. You can't rely on taxi drivers to know the English names of the major tourist sites, but armed with the names in Chinese in this guide, you should have few or no problems getting around. If you do opt for an organized tour, keep in mind that a little research pays off. Dragon Bus and Panda Tours offer sightseeing for the masses at numerous offices around the city, but the tour operators here provide a more enjoyable Beijing experience.
China Culture Center. With a reputation for well-informed English-speaking guides, CCC is popular with both visitors and expats looking for more than just the standard tour highlights. Liangma Antique Market, 27 Liangmaqiao Lu, 4th Floor, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 100125. 010/6432–9341; 010/6432–1041 weekends. www.chinaculturecenter.org.
China International Travel Service. CITS is China's official travel agency, dating to 1954. In Beijing the company offers everything from customized tours to group tours and business trips. 28 Jianguomenwai Dajie, across from the Friendship Store, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 100022. 010/6522–2991. www.cits.net.
WildChina. This foreign-managed travel company is probably the best in China. WildChina has excellent guides who know the city well and who don't waste your time taking you to souvenir shops. The company offers a three-day tour of Beijing that includes major historic sites, a hike on a wild part of the Great Wall, a visit to the hutongs, and an introduction to the cuisines of the capital city. It's pricey but worth it. Room 803, Oriental Place, 9 East Dongfang Lu, North Dongsanhuan Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 100027. 010/6465–6602. www.wildchina.com.
Many of Beijing's pleasures are best sampled off the subway and out of taxis. In other words, pedal! Rent bikes (available at many hotels and near some subway exits) and take an impromptu sightseeing tour. Beijing is flat, and there are bike lanes on most main roads. Pedaling among the city's cyclists isn't as challenging as it looks: copy the locals—keep it slow and ring your bell often. And, of course, be very careful. Punctured tire? Not to worry: curbside repairmen line most streets. Remember to park your bike (and lock it to something stationary, as bike theft is common) only in designated areas. There are designated bike-parking lots throughout the city with attendants charging a nominal fee, usually about 3 mao.
CycleChina. If a guided three-hour afternoon bicycle tour of a hutong, or a trip through Beijing sitting in a motorbike sidecar sounds like fun, call CycleChina. They also offer a variety of hiking options and bike tours of the Great Wall. 12 Jingshan East Street, Across from the east gate of Jingshan Park, Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100009. 010/6402–5653 or 139/1188–6524. cyclechina.com.
Bicycle Kingdom. Offering bicycle rentals and suggested itineraries covering some of Beijing's lesser known historical sites, Kingdom is a great resource. A variety of bikes are available for rent here from Y100 for the first day and Y50 for each additional day (or Y300 per week). Helmets are available for Y20 per day or Y100 a week. 34 Dong Huangchenggen Nanjie, Wangfujing, Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100006. 133/8140–0738 (English); 010/6526–5857. www.bicyclekingdom.com.
Pedicabs (basically large tricycles with room for passengers behind a pedaling driver) were once the vehicles of choice for Beijingers laden with a week's worth of groceries or tourists eager for a street's-eye city tour. Today many residents are wealthy enough to bundle their purchases into taxis or their own cars, and the tourist trade has moved on to the tight schedules of air-conditioned buses. But pedicabs have made a big comeback in Beijing in recent years and can now be hired near major tourist sites. A ride through the hutongs near Houhai is the most popular pedicab journey. Be absolutely sure to negotiate the fare in advance, clarifying which currency will be used (yuan or dollars), whether the fare is considered a one-way or round-trip (some drivers will demand payment for a round-trip whether or not you use the pedicab for the return journey), and whether it is for one person or two. Beginning in 2008, government-approved pedicab tours were supposed to be fixed at Y35 per hour, though the actual price is often higher. Feel free to tip your driver for good service on longer tours. Independent pedicabs for hutong tours can be found in the small plaza between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower.
Beijing Hutong Tourist Agency. This agency was one of the first to offer guided pedicab tours of Beijing's back alleys, with glimpses of old courtyard houses and daily Beijing life. It offers trips ranging from 40 minutes to two and a half hours priced at Y80–Y220 per person (solo travlers pay extra). The longer tours will take you through what was once Beijing's most prestigious neighborhood (Houhai) and include a stop at the Drum and Bell towers as well as a visit to the home of a local family. 26 Di'anmen Xidajie, Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100009. 010/6615–9097.
Beijing Hikers. This outfitter offers guided group and private hiking trips aimed at expat hikers and tourists. The trips are rated from 1 to 5 in terms of difficulty and they take you into the hills around Beijing. You might visit a rural village, historic temple, or the Great Wall. Group tours depart from the Starbucks in the Lido Hotel and start at Y300 per person. Reserve in advance using the online booking form. Galaxy Building, 10 Jiuxianqiao Zhong Lu, Building A, 4F 4012, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 100015. 010/6432–2786 or. www.beijinghikers.com.
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