Beijing (北京, běijīng) is a city that almost everyone enjoys. For new arrivals, it provides a gentle introduction to the country, and for travellers who’ve been roughing it round rural China, the creature comforts on offer are a delight.

What to see in Beijing

The place to start exploring is Tian’anmen Square, geographical and psychological centre of the city, where a cluster of important sights can be seen in a day, although the Forbidden City, at the north end of the square, deserves a day, or even several, all to itself.

Heading north brings you to a city section with a more traditional and human feel, with some magnificent parks, palaces and temples, some of them in the hutongs.

To the east, the Sanlitun area is a ghetto of expat services including some good upscale restaurants and plenty of bars; heading south will bring you to Qianmen, an important shopping area which ends in style with one of the city’s highlights, the Temple of Heaven in Tiantan Park. An expedition to the outskirts is amply rewarded by the Summer Palace, the best place to get away from it all.

Beijing requires patience and planning to do it justice – wandering aimlessly around without a destination in mind will rarely be rewarding. This is also an essentially private city, whose surface is difficult to penetrate; sometimes, it seems to have the superficiality of a theme park. To get deeper into the city, wander what’s left of the labyrinthine hutongs, and check out the little antique markets, the residential shopping districts, the smaller, quirkier sights, and the parks; the latter are some of the best in China, and you’ll see Beijingers performing tai ji and hear birdsong – just – over the hum of traffic. Take advantage, too, of the city’s burgeoning nightlife and see just how far the Chinese have gone down the road of what used to be called spiritual pollution.

By turns brash, gaudy, elegant, charming, filthy and historic, the Chinese capital of Beijing leaves an indelible impression on each and every traveller who passes through – this city is never, ever, ever dull. It has been this way for centuries: for a full millennium, the drama of China’s imperial history was played out here, with the emperor enthroned at the centre of the Chinese universe in the Forbidden City, now one of Asia’s most famous draws. Beijing was, according to some accounts, the first city in the world to hit a population of one million; as such, despite the setbacks which plagued the first decades of communist control, it should come as little surprise to see the remote control of urbanity stuck on permanent fast-forward here. Crisscrossed by freeways, spiked with high-rises and soaked in neon, this vivid metropolis is China at its most dynamic.

First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of apartment buildings, in which most of the city’s population of 21 million are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that slice it up. It’s a notion that’s reinforced on closer acquaintance, from the magnificent Forbidden City, with its stunning wealth of treasures, the concrete desert of Tian’anmen Square and the gargantuan buildings of the modern executive around it, to the rank after rank of office complexes that line its mammoth roads. Outside the centre, the scale becomes more manageable, with parks, narrow alleyways and ancient sites such as the Yonghe Gong, the Observatory and, most magnificent of all, the Temple of Heaven, offering respite from the city’s oppressive orderliness and rampant reconstruction. In the suburbs beyond, the two summer palaces and the Western Hills have been favoured retreats since imperial times. Unexpectedly, some of the country’s most pleasant scenic spots also lie within the scope of a day-trip, and, just to the north of the city, another of the world’s most famous sights, the long and lonely Great Wall, winds between mountaintops.

Beijing is an invaders’ city, the capital of oppressive foreign dynasties – the Manchu and the Mongols – and of a dynasty with a foreign ideology – the Communists. As such, it has assimilated a lot of outside influence, and today has an international flavour reflecting its position as the capital of a major commercial power. As the front line of China’s grapple with modernity, it is being ripped up and rebuilt at a furious pace – attested by the cranes that skewer the skyline and the character “demolish” (拆, chāi) painted on old buildings. Students in the latest fashions while away their time in internet cafés, hip-hop has overtaken the clubs, businessmen are never without their laptops and school kids carry mobile phones in their lunchboxes. Rising incomes have led not just to a brash consumer-capitalist society that Westerners will feel very familiar with, but also to a revival of older Chinese culture – witness the re-emergence of the teahouse as a genteel meeting place and the interest in imperial cuisine. In the evening, you’ll see large groups of the older generation performing the yangkou (loyalty dance), Chairman Mao’s favourite dance once universally learned, and in the hutongs, the city’s twisted grey stone alleyways, men sit with their pet birds and pipes as they always have done.

Places to visit in Beijing

The Western Hills

Like the Summer Palace, Beijing’s Western Hills are somewhere to escape urban life for a while, though they’re more of a rugged experience. Thanks to their coolness at the height of summer, the hills have long been favoured as a restful retreat by religious men and intellectuals, as well as politicians in the modern times – Mao lived here briefly, and the Politburo assembles here in times of crisis.

The hills are divided into three parks, the nearest to the centre being the Botanical Gardens, 3.5km northwest of the Summer Palace. Two kilometres farther west, Xiangshan is the largest and most impressive of the parks, but just as pretty is Badachu, its eight temples strung out along a hillside 2.5km to the south of Xiangshan. You could explore two of the parks in one day, but each really deserves a day to itself. The hills take roughly an hour to reach from Beijing on public transport.

798 Art District

Though it’s way out on the way to the airport, the 798 Art District is a hotspot for the arty crowd, and one of the most interesting of Beijing’s attractions. Originally this huge complex of Bauhaus-style buildings was an electronics factory, built by East Germans; when that closed down in the 1990s, artists moved in and converted the airy, light and, above all, cheap spaces into studios. As the Chinese art market blossomed, galleries followed, then boutiques and cafés – a process of gentrification that would take fifty years in the West, but happened here in about five. The city government – terrified of unfettered expression – initially wanted to shut the area down, but now that 798’s emphasis is ever more commercial, the future of the place looks secure.

Art in Beijing's 798 Art District

Beijing is the centre for the vigorous Chinese arts scene and there are plenty of interesting new galleries opening up, particularly in the 798 Art District. Galleries in the city centre are rather more commercial than those in the suburban artsy areas; they tend to focus on selling paintings rather than making a splash with a themed show. The best place to find out about new shows is in the expat magazines.

Ghost Street

Nicknamed “Ghost Street” (簋街, guĭ jiē), a 1km-long stretch of Dongzhimennei Dajie is lined with hundreds of restaurants, all festooned with red lanterns and neon – a colourful and boisterous scene, particularly on weekends. Note that staff in these restaurants will probably speak little or no English; few places will have an English menu, but plenty have a picture menu. It’s an atmospheric place, for sure, though when the crowds arrive in the evening the whole street can resemble a car park.

Nanluogu Xiang

There aren’t, to be frank, too many streets in Beijing that could be called appealing, so the pedestrianized north–south hutong of Nanluogu Xiang is a little oasis. Dotted with cafés, boutiques and restaurants, it has become a playground for the city’s bo-bos (bourgeois-bohemians). Though some expats sneer at this “Disney hutong”, in the alleys shooting off to the east and west there are enough open-air mahjong games, rickety mom-and-pop stores, and old men sitting out with their caged birds to maintain that ramshackle, backstreet Beijing charm. If there seems to be a surfeit of bright and beautiful young things, that’s because there’s a drama school just around the corner. All in all, it’s a great place to idle over a cappuccino, tuck into a meal or head for a drink in the evening – and there’s some good accommodation in the area too.

The Ancient Observatory

Beside the concrete knot that is the intersection between Jianguomennei Dajie and the Second Ring Road, the Ancient Observatory, an unexpected survivor marooned amid the high-rises, comes as a delightful surprise. The first observatory on the site was founded in the thirteenth century on the orders of Kublai Khan; the astronomers were commissioned to reform the inaccurate calendar then in use. Subsequently the observatory was staffed by Muslim scientists, as medieval Islamic science enjoyed pre-eminence, but, strangely, in the early seventeenth century it was placed in the hands of Jesuit missionaries. Led by one Matteo Ricci, they proceeded to astonish the emperor and his subjects by making a series of precise astronomical forecasts. The Jesuits re-equipped the observatory and remained in charge until the 1830s.

Yonghe Gong

You won’t see many bolder or brasher temples than this, built towards the end of the seventeenth century as the residence of Prince Yin Zhen. In 1723, when the prince became Emperor Yong Zheng and moved into the Forbidden City, the temple was re-tiled in imperial yellow and restricted thereafter to religious use. It became a lamasery in 1744, housing monks from Tibet and Inner Mongolia. The temple has supervised the election of the Mongolian Living Buddha (the spiritual head of Mongolian Lamaism), who was chosen by drawing lots out of a gold urn. After the civil war in 1949, Yonghe Gong was declared a national monument and closed for the following thirty years. Remarkably, it escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, when most of the city’s religious structures were destroyed or turned into factories and warehouses.

The lamasery nowadays functions as an active Tibetan Buddhist centre, though it’s used basically for propaganda purposes, to show China guaranteeing and respecting the religious freedom of minorities. It’s questionable how genuine the monks you see wandering around are – at best, they’re state-approved.

Modern architecture in Beijing

Since dynastic times, Beijing has been an image-conscious city – anxious to portray a particular face to its citizenry, and to the world at large. In the early days of Communist rule, Soviet functionality predominated, though things have recently taken a turn towards the cool and stylish – indeed, Beijing has undergone the kind of urban transformation usually only seen after a war. Esteemed architects from across the globe have been roped in for a series of carte blanche projects and, though the overall results have been hit and miss, some of the buildings are truly astounding. The best include the fantastic Olympic venues from 2008 (the “Bird’s Nest” and “Water Cube”); Paul Andreu’s National Theatre (the “Egg”); and, perhaps most striking of all, the CCTV headquarters (the “Twisted Doughnut”) by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, which appears to defy gravity with its intersecting Z-shaped towers.

The Summer Palace

One of Beijing’s must-see attractions, the Summer Palace is a lavish imperial playground whose grounds are large enough to have an almost rural feel. Once the private haunt of the notorious Empress Cixi, it functions today as a lovely public park, two-thirds of which is taken up by Kunming Lake. During the hottest months of the year, the imperial court would decamp to this perfect location, the site surrounded by hills, cooled by the lake and sheltered by judicious use of garden landscaping.

The palace buildings, many connected by a suitably majestic gallery, are built on and around Wanshou Shan (Longevity Hill), north of the lake and west of the main gate. Many of these edifices are intimately linked with Cixi – anecdotes about whom are the stock output of the numerous tour guides – but to enjoy the site, you need know very little of its history: like Beihai, the park, its lake and pavilions form a startling visual array, akin to a traditional Chinese landscape painting brought to life.

Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace)

Beijing’s original summer palace, the Yuanmingyuan was built by the Qing Emperor Kangxi in the early eighteenth century. Once nicknamed China’s Versailles for its elegant, European-influenced design, the palace boasted the largest royal gardens in the world, containing some two hundred pavilions and temples set around a series of lakes and natural springs. Marina Warner re-creates the scene in The Dragon Empress:

Scarlet and golden halls, miradors, follies and gazebos clustered around artificial hills and lakes. Tranquil tracts of water were filled with fan-tailed goldfish with telescopic eyes, and covered with lotus and lily pads; a superabundance of flowering shrubs luxuriated in the gardens; antlered deer wandered through the grounds; ornamental ducks and rare birds nestled on the lakeside.

Today there is precious little left: in 1860, the entire complex was burnt and destroyed by British and French troops, who were ordered by the Earl of Elgin to make the imperial court “see reason” during the Opium Wars. The troops had previously spent twelve days looting the imperial treasures, many of which found their way to the Louvre and British Museum. This unedifying history is described in inflammatory terms on signs all over the park and it’s a favoured site for brooding nationalists. Still, don’t let that put you off, as the overgrown ruins are rather appealing and unusual.

There are actually three parks here, the Yuanmingyuan (Park of Perfection and Brightness), Wanchunyuan (Park of Ten Thousand Springs) and Changchunyuan (Park of Everlasting Spring), all centred around the lake, Fuhai (Sea of Happiness). All together this forms an absolutely gigantic area, but the best-preserved structures are the fountain and the Hall of Tranquillity in the northeastern section. The stone and marble fragments hint at how fascinating the original must once have been, with its marriage of European Rococo decoration and Chinese motifs.

The Temple of Heaven

Set in a large, tranquil park about 2km south of Tian’anmen, the Temple of Heaven is widely regarded as the pinnacle of Ming design. For five centuries it was at the very heart of imperial ceremony and symbolism, and for many modern visitors its architectural unity and beauty remain more appealing – and on a much more accessible scale – than the Forbidden City.

The temple is easiest to access via the park’s east gate, which is the only one close to a subway station. Walking, cycling or coming by bus, you’re more likely to enter Tiantan Park from the north or west. Exiting the park via its west gate, you can head a little north to the Museum of Natural History.

Altar of Heaven

This main pathway leads straight to the circular Altar of Heaven, consisting of three marble tiers representing (from the top down) heaven, earth and man. The tiers are comprised of blocks in various multiples of nine, cosmologically the most powerful number, symbolizing both heaven and emperor. The centre of the altar’s bare, roofless top tier, where the Throne of Heaven was placed during ceremonies, was considered to be the middle of the Middle Kingdom – the very centre of the earth. Various acoustic properties are claimed for the altar; from this point, it is said, all sounds are channelled straight upwards to heaven. To the east of the nearby fountain, which was reconstructed after fire damage in 1740, are the ruins of a group of buildings used for the preparation of sacrifices.

Imperial Vault of Heaven

Directly north of the Altar of Heaven, the Imperial Vault of Heaven is an octagonal structure made entirely of wood, with a dramatic roof of dark blue, glazed tiles. It is preceded by the so-called Echo Wall, said to be a perfect whispering gallery, although the unceasing cacophony of tourists trying it out makes it impossible to tell.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

At the north end of the park, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the principal temple building of the entire complex, amply justifies all this build-up. Made entirely of wood, without the aid of a single nail, the circular structure rises from another tiered marble terrace and has three blue-tiled roofs. Four compass-point pillars, representing the seasons, support the vault, enclosed in turn by twelve outer pillars (one for each month of the year and hour of the day). The dazzling colours of the interior, surrounding the central dragon motif on the coffered ceiling, give the hall an ultramodern look; it was in fact rebuilt, faithful to the Ming design, after the original was destroyed by lightning in 1889. The official explanation for this appalling omen was that it was divine punishment meted out on a sacrilegious caterpillar, which was on the point of crawling to the golden ball on the hall’s apex when the lightning struck. Thirty-two court dignitaries were executed for allowing this to happen.

Tiantan: between Heaven and earth

Construction of the Temple of Heaven was begun during the reign of Emperor Yongle, and completed in 1420. The temple complex was conceived as the prime meeting point of earth and heaven, and symbols of the two are integral to its design. Heaven was considered round, and the earth square; thus the round temples and altars stand on square bases, while the park has the shape of a semicircle beside a square. The intermediary between earth and heaven was, of course, the Son of Heaven – the emperor, in other words.

The temple was the site of the most important ceremony of the imperial court calendar, when the emperor prayed for the year’s harvests at the winter solstice. Purified by three days of fasting, he made his way to the park on the day before the solstice, accompanied by his court in all its magnificence. On arrival at Tiantan, the emperor would meditate in the Imperial Vault, ritually conversing with the gods on the details of government, before spending the night in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The following day he sacrificed animals before the Altar of Heaven. It was forbidden for commoners to catch a glimpse of the great annual procession to the temple, and they were obliged to bolt their windows and remain, in silence, indoors. Indeed, the Tiantan complex remained sacrosanct until it was thrown open to the people on the first Chinese National Day of the Republic, in October 1912.

The last person to perform the rites was General Yuan Shikai, the second president of the Republic, on December 23, 1914. He planned to declare himself emperor but died a broken man, his plans thwarted by opponents, in 1916.

Tian’anmen Square

For many Chinese tourists, this gigantic square is a place of pilgrimage. Crowds flock to gaze at Chairman Mao’s portrait on Tian’anmen gate, then head south to see the fellow himself (maybe) in his mausoleum, quietly bowing their heads by the Monument to the People’s Heroes en route. The square itself is plain, and rather dull considering its colourful recent history. It’s sometimes better to look upwards, where you’ll often see incredibly long chains of kites disappearing into Beijing’s soup-like sky. It’s worth popping by at sunrise or sunset, when the national flag at the northern end of the square is raised in a military ceremony. Crowds are usually large for both.

Dissent in Tian’anmen Square

Blood debts must be repaid in kind – the longer the delay, the greater the interest.

Lu Xun, writing after the massacre of 1926

Chinese history is about to turn a new page. Tian’anmen Square is ours, the people’s, and we will not allow butchers to tread on it.

Wu’er Kaixi, student, May 1989

It may have been designed as a space for mass declarations of loyalty, but in the twentieth century Tian’anmen Square was as often a venue for expressions of popular dissent; against foreign oppression at the beginning of the century, and, more recently, against its domestic form. The first mass protests occurred here on May 4, 1919, when three thousand students gathered in the square to protest at the disastrous terms of the Versailles Treaty, in which the victorious allies granted several former German concessions in China to the Japanese. The Chinese, who had sent more than a hundred thousand labourers to work in the supply lines of the British and French forces in Europe, were outraged. The protests of May 4, and the movement they spawned, marked the beginning of the painful struggle of Chinese modernization. In the turbulent years of the 1920s, the inhabitants of Beijing again occupied the square, first in 1925, to protest over the massacre in Shanghai of Chinese demonstrators by British troops, then in 1926, when the public protested after the weak government’s capitulation to the Japanese. Demonstrators marched on the government offices and were fired on by soldiers.

In 1976, after the death of popular premier Zhou Enlai, thousands of mourners assembled in Tian’anmen without government approval to voice their dissatisfaction with their leaders, and again in 1978 and 1979 groups assembled here to discuss new ideas of democracy and artistic freedom, triggered by writings posted along Democracy Wall on the edge of the Forbidden City. In 1986 and 1987, people gathered again to show solidarity for the students and others protesting at the Party’s refusal to allow elections.

But it was in 1989 that Tian’anmen Square became the venue for a massive expression of popular dissent, when, from April to June, nearly a million protesters demonstrated against the slowness of reform, lack of freedom and widespread corruption. The government, infuriated at being humiliated by their own people, declared martial law on May 20, and on June 4 the military moved in. The killing was indiscriminate; tanks ran over tents and machine guns strafed the avenues. No one knows how many died in the massacre – certainly thousands. Hundreds were arrested afterwards and many are still in jail. The event remains a taboo topic; look out for droves of undercover police on the massacre’s anniversary.

Places to visit around Beijing

There are plenty of scenic spots and places of interest scattered in the plains and hills around the capital, and no visit would be complete without a trip to the Great Wall, accessible in three places within easy journey time of Beijing. The Ming Tombs, another remnant of imperial glory, are often combined with a trip to the nearby wall. In addition, the Western Hills shouldn’t be overlooked, and if you’re in the capital for any length of time, this large stretch of densely wooded parkland provides an invigorating breather from the pressures of the city. Further out, the Jietai and Tanzhe temples are pretty in themselves and, unlike the city’s other temples, they’re attractively situated.

Brief history of Beijing

It was in Tian’anmen, on October 1, 1949, that Chairman Mao Zedong hoisted the red flag to proclaim officially the foundation of the People’s Republic. He told the crowds that the Chinese had at last stood up, and defined liberation as the final culmination of a 150-year fight against foreign exploitation. The claim, perhaps, was modest. Beijing’s recorded history goes back a little over three millennia, to beginnings as a trading centre for Mongols, Koreans and local Chinese tribes. Its predominance, however, dates to the mid-thirteenth century, and the formation of Mongol China under Genghis and later Kublai Khan.

The Khans

It was Kublai who took control of the city in 1264, and who properly established it as a capital – then named Khanbalik – replacing the earlier power centres of Luoyang and Xi’an. Marco Polo visited him here, working for a while in the city, and was clearly impressed with the level of sophistication; he observed in The Travels:

So great a number of houses and of people, no man could tell the number. I believe there is no place in the world to which so many merchants come, and dearer things, and of greater value and more strange, come into this town from all sides than to any city in the world.

The wealth came from the city’s position on the Silk Road, and Polo described “over a thousand carts loaded with silk” arriving “almost each day”, ready for the journey west out of China. And it set a precedent in terms of style and grandeur for the Khans, later known as emperors, with Kublai building himself a palace of astonishing proportions, walled on all sides and approached by great marble stairways.

The Ming dynasty

With the accession of the Ming dynasty, who defeated the Mongols in 1368, the capital temporarily shifted to present-day Nanjing, but Yongle, the second Ming emperor, returned, building around him prototypes of the city’s two greatest monuments – the Imperial Palace and Temple of Heaven. It was in Yongle’s reign, too, that the basic city plan took shape, rigidly symmetrical, extending in squares and rectangles from the palace and inner-city grid to the suburbs, much as it is today.

The Qing dynasty

Subsequent, post-Ming history is dominated by the rise and eventual collapse of the Manchus, northerners who ruled China as the Qing dynasty from 1644 to the beginning of the twentieth century. Beijing, as the Manchu capital, was at its most prosperous in the first half of the eighteenth century, the period in which the Qing constructed the legendary Summer Palace – the world’s most extraordinary royal garden, with two hundred pavilions, temples and palaces, and immense artificial lakes and hills – to the north of the city. With the central Imperial Palace, this was the focus of endowment and the symbol of Chinese wealth and power. However, in 1860, the Opium Wars brought British and French troops to the walls of the capital, and the Summer Palace was first looted and then razed to the ground by the British.

Foreign empires arrive

While the imperial court lived apart, within what was essentially a separate walled city, conditions for the civilian population, in the capital’s suburbs, were starkly different. Kang Youwei, a Cantonese political reformer visiting in 1895, described this dual world:

No matter where you look, the place is covered with beggars. The homeless and the old, the crippled and the sick with no one to care for them, fall dead on the roads. This happens every day. And the coaches of the great officials rumble past them continuously.

The indifference, rooted according to Kang in officials throughout the city, spread from the top down. From 1884, using funds meant for the modernization of the nation’s navy, the Empress Dowager Cixi had begun building a new Summer Palace of her own. The empress’s project was really the last grand gesture of imperial architecture and patronage – and like its model was also badly burned by foreign troops in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. By this time, with successive waves of occupation by foreign troops, the empire and the imperial capital were near collapse. The Manchus abdicated in 1911, leaving the Northern Capital to be ruled by warlords. In 1928, it came under the military dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang, who moved the national capital south to Nanjing. Renamed Beiping, Beijing fell into temporary decline, even losing its status as provincial capital to Tianjin. It became capital once more after being seized by the Japanese in 1939, and at the end of World War II, the city was controlled by an alliance of Guomindang troops and American marines.

Empress Dowager Cixi

The notorioius Cixi entered the imperial palace at 15 as Emperor Xianfeng’s concubine, quickly becoming his favourite and bearing him a son. When the emperor died in 1861, she became regent, ruling in place of her boy for the next 25 years through a mastery of intrigue and court politics. When her son died of syphilis, she installed her nephew as puppet regent, imprisoned him, and retained her authority. Her fondness of extravagant gestures (every year she had ten thousand caged birds released on her birthday) drained the state’s coffers, and her deeply conservative policies were inappropriate for a time when the nation was calling out for reform.

With foreign powers taking great chunks out of China’s borders on and off during the nineteenth century, Cixi was moved to respond in a typically misguided fashion – impressed by the claims of the xenophobic Boxer Movement, she let them loose on all the foreigners in China in 1899. On her return, Cixi clung to power, attempting to delay the inevitable fall of her dynasty. One of her last acts, before she died in 1908, was to arrange for the murder of her puppet regent.

The communist era

The Communists took Beijing in January 1949, nine months before Chiang Kai-shek’s flight to Taiwan assured final victory. The rebuilding of the capital was an early priority, since the city that Mao Zedong inherited for the Chinese people was in most ways primitive. Imperial laws had banned the building of houses higher than the official buildings and palaces, so virtually nothing was more than one storey high. The new plans aimed to reverse this but retain the city’s sense of ordered planning, with Tian’anmen Square at its heart – unsurprisingly, the communists’ initial inspiration was Soviet, with an emphasis on heavy industry and poor-quality high-rise housing programmes.

In the zest to be free from the past, much of Old Beijing was destroyed, or co-opted: the Temple of Cultivated Wisdom became a wire factory and the Temple of the God of Fire produced electric lightbulbs. In the 1940s, there were 8000 temples and monuments in the city; by the 1960s, there were only around 150. Even the city walls and gates, relics mostly of the Ming era, were pulled down and their place taken by ring roads and avenues.

More destruction was to follow during the Cultural Revolution. Under Mao’s guidance, Beijing’s students organized themselves into a political militia – the Red Guards – who were set loose to erase symbols of previous regimes, capitalism and the Soviet Union; few of the capital’s remaining ancient buildings escaped desecration. Things improved with the death of Mao and the accession of pragmatic Deng Xiaoping and his fellow moderates, who embraced capitalism – though not, as shown by the massacre at Tian’anmen Square and the surrounding events of 1989, freedom.

Recent history

In 2008 Beijing succeeded in putting on a spectacular, if politicized, Olympic Games. This was the city’s grand coming out party, and no expense was spared to show that the capital – and China – could hold its own on the world stage. The city’s infrastructure was vastly upgraded, a process which continues today: in the past few years, six new subway lines have opened, along with a new airport terminal and a light-rail system. Some US$12bn has been spent on greening projects, including a 125km tree belt around the city to curb the winter sandstorms that rage in from the Gobi desert. Parks and verges have been prettified, fetid canals cleaned, and public facilities are better than anywhere else in China. Historic sites have also been renovated – or, it sometimes appears, invented.

The city gleams like never before, but what little antique character Beijing had is fast disappearing as old city blocks and hutongs are demolished. Now, the city’s main problems are the pressures of migration, pollution and traffic – car ownership has rocketed, and the streets are nearing gridlock.

Best time to visit Beijing

If the Party had any control over it, no doubt Beijing would have the best climate of any Chinese city; as it is, it has one of the worst. The best time to visit is in autumn, between September and October, when it’s dry and clement. In winter, it gets very cold, down to -20°C, and the mean winds that whip off the Mongolian plains feel like they’re freezing your ears off. Summer (June–Aug) is muggy and hot, up to 30°C, and the short spring (April & May) is dry but windy, with dust often blowing in from the northwestern deserts – you’ll see it covering cars.

Accommodation in Beijing

Beijing hotels were once largely impersonal concerns, with standardized, rather nondescript, modern interiors. But newer accommodation options are placing more emphasis on design and character, the established places are sprucing themselves up, and now, whatever your budget, it’s possible to stay somewhere that’s not just functional but memorable; most notable are the huge number of traditional-as-it-gets courtyard options, set in Beijing’s famed hutongs. The city’s cheapest beds are, of course, in its hostels, some of which are up there with Beijing’s most atmospheric places to stay. Private rooms at Beijing’s cheap chain hotels are safe, clean and comfortable, and sometimes cheaper than those at the hostels. Moving up a level to three-star places and above, rooms are more spacious; head up another notch, and there are usually facilities such as satellite TV, swimming pools and saunas. Luxury hotels are of an international standard and are generally foreign-run and -managed, and sometimes offer discounts of up to seventy percent off-season. For more information, see accommodation. Most of the mid-range and high-class hotels are east of the centre, strung out along the international shopping streets of Wangfujing and Jianguomen or clustered around subway stations. Further north, the Sanlitun district has some good accommodation options for all budgets, with plenty of places to eat and drink nearby. The most charismatic places to stay are those hidden in the hutongs north of the centre around Houhai and Nanluogu Xiang, close to good eating and nightlife options; there’s something here for all budgets.

Beijing City Tours

Organized tours of the city and its outskirts run by big hotels, CITS and other agents offer a painless way of seeing the main sights quickly. Though they’re not cheap, the price will include lunch and a tour guide: a trip to the Summer Palace, Yonghe Gong and a pedicab jaunt around the hutongs is ¥360. The one-day tours offered by the cheaper hotels offer better value, and you don’t have to be a resident of theirs to go along. All the youth hostels offer good-value evening trips to the acrobatics shows and the opera a few times a week, and trips to the Great Wall.

    Tour operators

  • Beijing Sideways - Dash around Beijing in a side-car, its adjoining motorbike driven by a local expat. Plenty of options available, including hutong tours, night tours, and trips to the Great Wall.
  • Bike Beijing offers some excellent bicycle tours of Beijing and its surrounding area, from half-day hutong trips to 15-day grassland journeys.
  • CITS A variety of one- and two-day tour packages on “Dragon Buses”, which you can book from their offices, from the BTS office or from the information desk in the Friendship Store.
  • City Bus Tour - The most convenient city tour operator; coaches are modern and you’ll have an English-speaking guide. A day trip with them costs ¥380.
  • The Hutong - This excellent outfit runs some interesting tours, including informative culinary and tea-market trips.
  • UCCA - Informative tours of their gallery in the 798 Art District.

Entertainment in Beijing

Most visitors to Beijing make a trip to see Beijing opera and the superb Chinese acrobatics displays – both of which remain timeless arts. In contrast, the contemporary theatrical scene is changing fast as home-grown dramatists experiment with foreign forms. The live music scene continues to develop apace, while Western classical music can be heard at any of the concert halls. Check the expat magazines for event listings.

Beijing bars and clubs

Plenty of bars are clustered around Sanlitun Lu, also called Jiu Ba Jie (literally, “Bar Street”), all within staggering distance of one another. An alternative bar scene exists around the prettified Shicha lakes (known locally as “Houhai”) where lounge bars now proliferate the way pondweed once did. There are other small bar scenes nearby, around the Drum and Bell towers and around Nanluogu Xiang. Though Chinese beer can be cheaper than bottled water if bought in a shop, a 350ml bottle of Tsingtao or the local Yanjing at a bar will usually cost ¥20–40. Many bars also sell British and Irish draught beers such as Guinness and Boddingtons, which cost at least ¥40. For up-to-the-minute bar reviews, check the expat magazines. Chinese clubs are quite slick these days, with hip-hop and house music proving to be crowd pleasers. If you just want to dance, and aren’t too prissy about the latest music, see the bar reviews here for venues with their own dancefloor.

Beijing opera

Beijing opera (京戏; jīng xì) is the most celebrated of China’s 350 or so regional operatic styles – a unique combination of song, dance, acrobatics and mime. Highly stylized, to the outsider the performances can often seem obscure and wearying, as they are punctuated by a succession of crashing gongs and piercing, discordant songs. But it’s worth seeing once, especially if you can acquaint yourself with the story beforehand. Most of the plots are based on historical or mythological themes – two of the most famous sagas, which any Chinese will explain to you, are The White Snake and The Water Margin – and full of moral lessons. Offering an interesting, if controversial, variation on the traditions are those operas that deal with contemporary themes – such as the struggle of women to marry as they choose. The colours used on stage, from the costumes to the make up on the players’ faces, are highly symbolic: red signifies loyalty; yellow, fierceness; blue, cruelty; and white, evil.

The Midi festival

The Midi Rock Music festival is held at the beginning of May in Haidian Park, just west of Beijing University campus; it has always been controversial, banned in 2008 and with foreign acts occasionally refused permission to play. Still, plenty of local talent is on display, and the audience is enthusiastic. You can even camp, for the full-on “Chinese Glastonbury” experience. Tickets ¥280 for all three days, or ¥120 per day.

Eating in Beijing

Nowhere else on the Chinese mainland can compete with the culinary wealth of Beijing: splurging in classy restaurants is a great way to spend your evenings, as prices in even the most luxurious places are very competitive and a lot more affordable than their equivalent in the West. Every style of Chinese food is available, but among this abundance it’s sometimes easy to forget that Beijing has its own culinary tradition – specialities well worth trying are Peking duck and Mongolian hotpot. Other Asian cuisines, including Japanese and Korean, are also widely available; Western food is easy to find too, with major chains prevalent, and a few good brunch places – also the city’s best places for coffee – dotted around the city’s trendier areas.

Lunchtime at Nali Patio

Just off Sanlitun’s main road, and snuggled into the gap between Tai Koo Li’s north and south malls at 81 Sanlitun Beilu, is Nali Patio (那里花园, nàli huāyuán; subway line #10 to Tianjiehu), Beijing’s current lunch venue of choice for expats and more affluent locals. This building’s various levels are full of interesting choices, with most restaurants putting on good-value lunch sets noon–3pm; at the time of writing, tapas was the taste du jour, though this is the fastest-moving place in Beijing – by the time you visit, everything could have changed.

Peking duck

Succulent roast duck is Beijing’s big culinary hitter. Every venerable restaurant has a different preparation technique, but once the duck has been brought to your table and carved, or vice versa, the routine is always the same; slather dark, tangy plum sauce onto pancakes, pop in a few scallions, add shreds of duck or duck fat (surprisingly delicious, if done correctly) with your chopsticks, roll it up and prepare for the local taste sensation. Nothing is wasted; the duck’s entrails are usually made into a separate dish of their own, then served up alongside the meat and fat.

Prices vary depending on where you go, what grade you’d like (there are usually two “classes” to choose from), and what you’d like served alongside the duck (some places charge for the sauce and scallions). These days it’s tough to find a whole duck for under ¥100, while at the city’s more famous duck restaurants you can expect to pay up to three times this price. Recommended places include: Liqun, Deyuan and Quanjude.

A real Beijing breakfast

Wherever you are at breakfast time in Beijing, you’re within easy walking distance of a place selling jianbing (煎饼, jiānbǐng), a sort of savoury pancake usually sold from streetside windows. First the hot-plate will be greased up, then attacked with a scoop of batter. You’ll be asked la bu la?: nod if you want chilli, shake your head if not. Chilli powder, if you want it, is flecked onto the rapidly frying mix, along with various bits of green veg; an egg is then cracked on top, to make a tasty, omelette-like layer. When it’s nearly done, a rectangle of miscellaneous crispy substance is added, and in a flash the whole shebang will be folded and put in a plastic bag. The whole process takes well under a minute, even including the time it takes to hand over your ¥5 and say “xie xie”.

You may also care to look out for the tell-tale baskets fronting places selling dumplings, which remain every old Beijinger’s favourite form of morning sustenance. Also be sure to hunt down some Beijing yoghurt (老北京酸奶, lăo bĕijīng suānnăi) during your stay; sold in cute clay pots for ¥3–5 (including ¥1 deposit for the pot), it has a delicious, honey-like taste.

Shopping in Beijing

Appropriately for the capital of a major commercial power, Beijing has some great shopping – the best choice of souvenirs and consumables in the country is on sale here, and a collection of intriguing little markets offers an appealing and affordable alternative to the new giant malls. Clothes are particularly inexpensive; there’s also a wide choice of antiques and handicrafts, but don’t expect to find any bargains or particularly unusual items as the markets are well picked over.

Sports and outdoor activities in Beijing

During the 2008 Olympics, a passion for athletic activity became a patriotic duty. Now the dust has settled, the legacy of the Games includes a range of good sports facilities across the capital, from the outdoor workout machines placed in every neighbourhood to the showpiece stadiums themselves. However, the most visible kinds of exercise need no fancy equipment; head to any park in the morning and you’ll see citizens going through all sorts of martial arts routines, walking backwards, chest slapping, and tree hugging.

The 2008 Olympics

It had to be China; it had to be Beijing. In a nation so obsessed with the number eight that SIM cards or apartments bearing that number cost more, it was unimaginable that they would not be selected to host the Olympics in 2008 – especially since a suitably auspicious quirk of the calendar meant that the eighth day of the eighth month fell on a Friday – the day on which the Opening Ceremony has to take place.

Beijing duly won the vote in 2001 (beating Toronto into second place, and Paris into third), and readied itself for the Games to end all Games – some put the final cost at over US$40bn, making it by far the most expensive sporting event in history. There were problems along the way, most notably protests by pro-Tibetan and human rights activists on the torch relay, but all venues were completed on time, and the Games duly began on August 8, 2008 in an utterly compelling Opening Ceremony.

Though over 10,000 athletes competed in the Games, two superstars stole the show. American swimmer Michael Phelps had won six golds at the previous Games in Athens; here he surpassed himself, and everyone in Olympic history, by winning an unprecedented eight gold medals. Then there was Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who had broken the 100m world record a few months before the Games in only his fifth race at the distance; here he obliterated that mark, winning in a time of 9.69 seconds, a time even more amazing when replays showed that he started to celebrate (and decelerate) well before the finish line. China had plenty to cheer about too, winning 51 gold medals – far ahead of the USA in second place.

Biking around Beijing

Chinese cycling pace is sedate, and with good reason. Chinese roads are unpredictable and at times fairly lawless, with aggressive trucks that won’t get out of the way, impatient taxi drivers in the cycle lane, buses veering suddenly towards the pavement, and jaywalkers aplenty. Still, riding around Beijing is less daunting than riding around many Western cities, as there are bike lanes on all main roads; you’ll be in the company of plenty of other cyclists. Ringing your bell is sometimes the only way of letting someone know you’re there, even if they can actually see you. At junctions, cyclists cluster together and then cross en masse when strength of numbers forces other traffic to give way. If you feel nervous, just dismount and walk the bike across – plenty of Chinese do.

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Andy Turner

written by Andy Turner

updated 26.04.2021

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