Beijing is known for it’s colourful history as well as its industrious nature. Although, not a place with a picturesque shoreline or mountain backdrop, if you take a moment to wipe the dust away from your eyes and look a little closer, you’ll see a city of adventure.
From ancient hutongs (alleyways) and historic temples, to vibrant restaurants and a bold art scene, there is something here for every type of traveller. Plus China now offers visa-free stopovers for up to 72 hours for those flying onward – making the city an ideal pause between Europe and Japan or Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands.
Dali Courtyard is a favourite when locals and expats have out-of-town guests they want to invite for a casual but impressive dinner. Specialising in the fare from the southern region of Yunnan, and influenced by South East Asian cuisine, there is no menu. You simply get what’s on offer, but luckily the choices are excellent.
You can’t go to Beijing and not have Peking duck. Head directly to Duck de Chine tucked away next to the Legendale Hotel. It is a beautiful little place and great value for money. Nearby Dadong Roast Duck is a little more slick and modern, but is also a good bet for the classic dish.
Dining well on a shoestring budget is easy in Beijing. A great option is Grandma’s House, which, if you can forgive the shopping mall location, offers treats such as sizzling garlic prawns and roasted pork. Expect long queues at weekend peak times.
Situated in a hutong close to Gulou, Mr Shi’s Dumplings is pretty much a Beijing institution. For those seeking to spice things up, Haidilao is a must. Beloved by locals despite its Sichuan origins, the spicy-hot pot is delicious. They also offer manicures and fruits if you’re waiting in line for a table.
Keep in mind temperatures plunge below zero during the winter, the air here is often very polluted, and summers are hot and sticky. The best time of year to explore is late spring or early autumn (taking care to avoid Golden Week and Chinese New Year when everyone else in the country will also be taking a break).
Beijing has an excellent, affordable metro service and though the crush is quite a challenge at peak hours, it is still a better option than sitting in lanes and lanes of vehicular traffic.
Head to Nanluoguxiang on Metro Line Six, and explore this clash of world’s where trendy shops meet the hutongs and courtyard homes of old Beijing. Make a stop at the Grand Canal, the Drum Tower, and the Guang Hua temple.
Wangfujing, on Metro Line One, is also worth a visit – one of the main shopping streets, expect to see everything from food stalls offering skewers of deep fried locust and scorpion to vast department stores.
If it all becomes a little too hectic and you are craving some green, open spaces, then Jinshan Park is a gorgeous spot for afternoon relaxing. Climb to the top of its hill for striking vista out across to the Forbidden City.
At Capital M the cocktails are great, as are the terrace views. In fact, it can be easy to have one drink here slide towards three or more. But no need to stress if the evening runs away – the food here is also very, very good.
If Capital M is the most glamorous spot for a tipple in Beijing, then Janes + Hooch is arguably the coolest. The unremarkable entrance hides a gorgeous vintage style dive bar where you can imbibe potent and theatrical cocktails by candlelight.
Take your time wandering through the Summer Palace as it’s arguably the most beautiful place in the region. Created in 1750 as a garden retreat for the royalty in the Qing Dynasty, it was repeatedly battered by war and rebuilt.
Now a UNESCO world heritage site, millions flock here for respite from the city. Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, where you can hire pedalos or take boat trips, are favourite spots, but there are plenty of idyllic pockets if you take the time to explore.
For around 500 years the Forbidden City was China’s imperial palace, a home for its rulers in the heart of Beijing. Its name refers to the an old law that anyone attempting to enter it without the emperor’s express permission risked execution. Today, it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world and an absolute must for any itinerary to explore the city.
With its haunting history, heavy security and CCTV presence, bleak communist colour palate, Tiananmen Square feels like a place George Orwell conjured up for his book 1984. It’s close to the Forbidden City, so most visitors stroll through it on their way in.
The 798 Art District has become a modern classic for visitor itinerary. Once a military zone, it has since become an art hub.
You could easily spend days exploring, but highlights include the 798 Photo Gallery, which displays original photographs from artist Chen Guangjun, and 798 Space, which is vast and showcases pieces tackling everything from everyday life to politics. The excellent 798 Art Festival runs in April/May, so if you are a fan of contemporary work, then it might be worth timing your trip accordingly.
The parts of The Great Wall closest to the city are the ones least worth seeing. The stretch at Badaling looks more like something from a theme park, and is always busy.
A good compromise is the section at Jinshanling to Simatai West, which has not been restored but remains in okay condition to walk along. It’s a breathtaking 8 kilometre hike, which enables you to climb up towers and gaze out along this historic defence, which stretches on as far as you can see. Parts of it are crumbling, clearly losing the battle with nature, but it’s all the more lovely for it.
Jinshangling is around three hours from the city by car, but this excursion is still doable as a long day trip. If you fancy something a little more testing, then it is possible to do multi-day hikes. Beijing Hikers and Wild Great Wall are excellent options to organise with.
Cycling – a favourite mode of travel with locals as most of Beijing’s main roads have dedicated bike lanes – is an excellent way to explore the city (provided pollution levels are reasonable). Although it is easy enough to explore by yourself, it is much more satisfying to go with people who know what they are doing. Bike Beijing offer a range of options from a half day exploring the hutongs to a full day out to the Great Wall.
The Opposite House is a stylish, hip spot to stay in the vibrant Sanlitun area. It’s beautifully designed and full of light. Stepping into the room is like being enveloped in a cocoon of white.
Aman at The Summer Palace is an extraordinary place to stay. Once the residence for visiting dignitaries to stay while meeting with China’s great and good, guests experience similar levels of grandeur. Plus a perk of being a resident is you get access to the park whenever it suits – which means you can escape the crowds. Service is exceptional.
Air China has some great offers both to Europe and the US with a stopover in Beijing. Food and service can be hit and miss, but most who opt for this airline are doing so because their prices are usually lower than other flag carriers to major world cities.
For a high end experience for your stopover, Jacada Travel provides an exceptional service and can craft a tailor-made itinerary that will suit all needs and styles.