This post was last updated on May 25th, 2020 at 09:38 am
Beijing has been the capital of China since the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty, making it one of the oldest cities in China. The city has almost 20 million inhabitants and is, therefore, in terms of inhabitants, only behind Shanghai as China’s largest city. The city of Beijing is one of contrasts; modern shopping centers alternate with ancient temples. You will find many styles of buildings here; from old traditional alleys to huge underground shelters. It is a city that never feels boring!
Akisoto in Beijing
Although Beijing has grown into a megacity where modern shopping centers and crowded streets determine the view, you can still find more cultural heritage here than in many other cities of China. We thought it was nicer than many other websites would suggest.
TIP – Beware of English-speaking students who want to take you to traditional tea houses. These are often scammers.
Unlike cities such as Shanghai or Hong Kong, Beijing is a city where the locals do take time for their social life. It was the first city in Asia that we visited and it was quite a culture shock, but when you get over that shock you notice that it is actually a crazy and beautiful city!
It will not surprise anyone that you can eat wonderfully in a city like Beijing. There are thousands of restaurants, from chic to low-budget, where you can eat.
However, the most special is the street food. They prepare the most unusual dishes on the street. Some have great flavors and some take some getting used to, but we recommend trying them out when you get the change!
Why Choose Beijing?
Cities such as Amsterdam or Paris are villages compared to this metropolis. But although Beijing is a huge city and you can literally get lost; there is a cozy atmosphere, especially in the center. You have to search a bit and sometimes have to be patient, but for those who can afford it, Beijing has innumerable characteristic sights.
Despite the millions of inhabitants, Beijing has a certain charm. The markets, food stalls, bars and restaurants, shops, and sights give the city more than just skyscrapers, smog, and 19 million people!
TIP – If you stay in Beijing longer and want to visit many temples, purchase the Beijing Museum Pass. You pay 120 Yuan (US$17) and get free access (or a big discount) to 65 temples, museums, and other tourist attractions.
The Name of Beijing
China, just like many other countries in Asia, is bursting with traditions. This also applies to naming the cities. For example, the word “capital” must appear in the word. Beijing literally means “Northern Capital”. Běi’ means north; “Jīng” means a big city. The same applies, for example, to Nanjing, which means “Southern Capital”.
There have been many different names for Beijing over the years. Between 1911 and 1949, it was known as Beiping or “Northern Peace”. When the government moved the capital to Nanking, the name Beiping was changed again.
Best Things to See & Do in Beijing
Beijing is one of the most visited cities in China for a reason. Due to the hundreds of interesting and impressive attractions you can find in the city, you won’t be bored for even a second.
During a walk in the city, you will notice that stylish old buildings and sights are interspersed with futuristic buildings. Nowhere are these contrasts as great as in Beijing!
In Beijing, you can find hundreds of places of interest that, depending on your interests and preferences, are definitely worth visiting. How about the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, or Tiananmen Square, for example?
Of course, we cannot describe all the sights for you. That is why we have made a selection of the most interesting attractions in Beijing that you must see during your trip to the Chinese capital!
1. Visit the Summer Palace
The Summer Palace in northwest Beijing is almost the size of a city, an immense recreation place for the emperors. With numerous pavilions, a lake, several parks, temples, and a palace. There are also countless strange things, such as a marble boat in Lake Kunming. Also, everything has a nice name, such as the “Hall of the Sea of Wisdom” or the “Pavilion of Precious Clouds”.
The Golden Mountain Travel Palace was built in this area as early as the 12th century, but the current tribal buildings are “only” about a hundred years old. Whoever visits this palace should bring a guide, or read up on our article about the Summer Palace.
2. Discover the Forbidden City
The inner area of the Forbidden City covers an area of 750 by 960 meters. The main complex consists of three palaces, the majority of which were built in the 18th century. The emperor ruled the country from here. In the palace, the largest and open part is intended for state affairs, the northern part with numerous alleys and small rooms were only used privately. The women, including the empress, also had to follow rules. They too were only allowed to enter specific parts of the city.
You will find countless buildings in the Forbidden City, each with its own story and style. There are almost too many to mention. It is best to admire these beautiful buildings in real life instead of looking at pictures. You can easily spend a day wandering around squares, temples, houses, and residences. You can choose to explore the Forbidden City with a guide (or audio guide). You can also do well without one. Whatever you do; read our complete article about the Forbidden City and follow our map!
3. Visit Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square is named after the Tiananmen (The Gate of Heavenly Peace). Tiananmen Square is 880 meters long and 500 meters wide. It is located in the middle of the city and is called the largest square in the world. In the center of the square stands the mausoleum where Mao Zedong is buried. The square has often been changed in design over the centuries, although its function has hardly changed. The Tiananmen Gate is one of the few original parts of this square.
The gate’s brick base rests on a foundation of sparkling white marble. The square became world-famous in 1989 during a massive student uprising against the Communist Party. The uprising, which lasted more than a month, was crushed with tanks. It belongs to Beijing, where past and present often come together (and sometimes collide). Today, it is mainly a place where locals fly kites, a symbol of peace.
TIP – You can read more on our Tiananmen Square page.
4. Go to the Temple of Heaven
Beijing’s four main temples are located in the four cardinal points: the Temple of the Sun in the east, the Temple of the Moon in the west, the Temple of Earth in the north, and the Temple of Heaven in the south. The Temple of Heaven is often considered the most beautiful temple in China. The impressive building dates from 1420 and served as a ritual place for the Ming and Qing emperors.
At first, the temple did not belong to the city. But during the Qing Dynasty, the city walls were expanded. The buildings are richly decorated (including a lot of marble). Most date from the beginning of the last century. But this place was already in use in the 12th century.
5. The Temple of Earth
The Temple of Earth was built in 1530 by Emperor Jia Jing during the Ming Dynasty. Later it was restored during the Qing Dynasty, but it is much less exuberant than the Temple of Heaven, for example. The temple covers an area of 42.7 hectares. The Temple has a remarkable history. Yongle, the third Ming Emperor, had the Temple of Heaven and Earth built in southern Beijing around 1420.
In keeping with tradition, he made offerings to heaven (in winter) and earth (in summer) in the temple. Emperor Jiajing had a different view and turned this temple into the Temple of Heaven. In 1530 he had the Temple of Earth built in the north of the city. All Ming and Qing emperors then used the Temple of Earth as a sacrificial site for the God of Earth. For this he used the Altar of Earth, also called Fangzetan. The Temple of Earth is located in the north of Beijing.
6. The Temple of the Moon
The Temple of the Moon is Beijing’s fourth famous temple. This temple also dates from 1530 and is intended to have the emperors make offerings to the God of the Moon. The temple is now part of Yuetan Park. Large areas of the park were restored in 2004 and 2005 to 2007, and the park was reopened in 2007. The Temple of the Moon is located in the west of Beijing.
7. The Temple of the Sun
The Temple of the Sun, like the Temple of the Earth and Temple of the Moon, was built in 1530. In this case to offer sacrifices to the God of the Sun. This is what the emperors of the Ming Dynasty did and later the emperors of the Qing Dynasty. The Temple is part of Ritan Park, with large gardens and a small lake. Here too, the most important place is the altar, which is surrounded by a large wall. The Temple of the Sun is located in eastern Beijing.
8. Sea of the Ten Buddhist Temples
The Sea of the Ten Buddhist Temples is a small lake area in northern Beijing. It is famous because the Manchu princes and their Qing dynasty officials built countless temples here. Nowadays it is more an entertainment area with numerous bars and restaurants.
It is noteworthy that this area only started coming alive during the outbreak of SARS in 2003. Many Beijing residents believed they were safe from the virus by being outside a lot, so this area filled up every night. Even now, although the virus threat has passed. The most popular bars are around Qianhai Beiyan Street and the area around the small Yinding Bridge.
9. Visit the Great Wall of China
One of the most beautiful attractions of Beijing is, of course, the Great Wall of China. Your visit to China is not complete without seeing this wonder of the world. There are several pieces where you can climb and walk on the wall. The most popular places are at Mutianyu and Badaling, but it can get very busy there. Do you prefer fewer tourists and don’t mind traveling a bit further? Just like us, choose the stretch of Great Wall between Jinshanling and Simatai.
Read more about the Great Wall of China, including the best sections.
10. Visit the Old City Wall
Beijing’s Old City Wall is a relatively unknown attraction. And this city wall is often confused with the Great Wall of China, which is more to the north of Beijing. The Old City Wall was built to protect the city against external attacks. It was built between 1370 and 1419 and was a whopping 23.5 kilometers long. In 1553 the city grew and the wall also had to be expanded. By expanding the wall the Temple of Heaven, for example, was also protected.
According to archaeologists, it was twenty meters thick at the bottom and about twelve meters thick at the top. In most places, the wall was fifteen meters high. The wall stood there for about 530 years until the ring road around the city was built in 1965. As a result, much of the Old City Wall disappeared forever.
Various restored watchtowers can still be found in the city. The only part of the wall that remains today is located in the southeast of the city, near the train station. It has been restored in recent decades, while there are plans to restore other parts as well. It slowly returns to its old glory.
11. Visit the Bell Tower
The Bell Tower was used in the past to indicate the time. It is located near the northern lakes and was once the northernmost point in the city. It was built as early as 1272 during the reign of the famous General Kublai Khan. History books show that it was rebuilt under Emperor Yongle around 1420.
However, this wooden Bell Tower was destroyed by fire in 1747, after which the current 33 meters high stone tower was built in a location that is slightly east of the previous one. The bells started each day at 7 a.m. As the city grew, so did the size of the bells that can still be seen today.
12. The Drum Tower
In the past, the Drum Tower was a means to indicate, for example, that the city gates closed for the night. At 7 p.m. the twenty-four immense drums were beaten thirteen times, after which the gates of the city closed. Then the drums were beaten again every two hours. Of all the drums, only one remains, the rest has disappeared without a trace. The tower is over 46 meters high and has a steep staircase. The Drum Tower is located near the Bell Tower in the northern part of the city.
13. Visit Jingshan Park
Jingshan Park is a hill next to the Forbidden City. The story behind this artificial hill is special. It was created at the beginning of the 15th century when Ming Emperor Yongle excavated the canals surrounding the Forbidden City. Completely in accordance with Feng Shui’s rules, the dredged soil was laid here to protect the Forbidden City from evil influences from the north.
For a long time, the hill was an imperial garden, but in 1928 the public was also allowed to enter it. Today, its height makes it a popular place to get a good view of the Forbidden City and even Beijing in good weather. Incidentally, this is also the place where Emperor Chongzhen committed suicide in 1644.
14. Explore the Caves in Zhoukoudian
This village is not directly in Beijing but 50 kilometers (31 miles) away. It is known for the fact that the Peking Man was found here in a cave system in 1921. This is a humanoid species that lived around 500,000 to 700,000 years ago.
In addition, the remains of a giant hyena (Pachycrocuta) have been found here. It is, therefore, an important archaeological site! If you are interested in the history of man, we definitely recommend going here.
You have to pay a 30 Chinese Yuan entrance fee and 30 Chinese Yuan for the museum (about US$8.50 total). Bus 917 from Tianqiao Bus Station will take you to Zhoukoucun Lukou. There you switch to Bus 38 to Yuanren Yizhi (Peking Man Site in Zhoukoudian).
15. Shopping in Wangfujing Street
If you have seen the temples and tall buildings you can choose to take a look at the best shopping street and markets of Beijing. Wangfujing Street is one of the busiest streets so be well prepared!
The atmosphere has changed in recent years from gray to a relaxed shopping street where all kinds of department stores can be found. We recommend visiting the (evening) markets; you will find many special local products here.
16. Relax in Beihai Park
Beihai Park is known for the White Pagoda, a striking temple dating from 1278. The design comes from a Nepalese architect whose name has been lost in history. The park contains several classical gardens, which were once laid out for the Qing dynasty. It is located in the northwest of the Forbidden City, but it once had an important function.
It was the center of the Mongol city of Dadu, founded in 1267 under the leadership of Kublai Khan. Dadu was once also a Forbidden City, but eventually became the capital of this empire. The jade water basin at the main entrance to the park is the only remnant. The rest is gone.
TIP – Entry to Beihai Park is free.
17. Visit Lama Temple
The Lama Temple is a remarkable temple, as this Tibetan Buddhist temple has a prominent place in the city. Especially if you keep the ongoing discussions about Tibet in mind. However, it is in line with the government’s policy to bring “peace”, including in this part of China.
The Lama Temple was built in 1694 as part of the city wall. It served as a residence for Emperor Kangxi before ascending the throne in 1722. Because Kangxi had lived here, according to Chinese tradition, this building became a temple. It has become one of the most important Tibetan temples outside of Tibet.
18. Confucius Temple
Confucius was a world-famous philosopher from China. He was born in Qufu in the year 551 BC, long before the formation of the Chinese Empire. He started from personal and administrative morality, but also from order and respect for the superior and for the elderly.
It is considered to be the foundation of traditional Chinese society. The Confucius Temple in Beijing is part of the Metropolitan Museum and is one of the largest outside its birthplace. Special are the 198 stones with names of 51,624 students during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties who graduated in his thinking.
19. Visit the Capital Museum
In 2008, the renovated Capital Museum opened its doors. This museum has a large exhibition about old Beijing. More than 5,000 items can be seen in the museum, especially from a distant past and from the various dynasties that ruled the country from the city. You can also see a hutong here, a characteristic street in Beijing. The museum is located on the western side of the city, on Chang’an avenue. The old building was located in the famous Confucius Temple.
Fun Excursions and Activities in Beijing
In Beijing, you can do many fun activities. You can go on city excursions, hikes and much more. Here are a number of activities that we have highlighted for you.
Cycle Through a Hutong
Hutongs are old, narrow streets with houses and shops. Only part of old Beijing can be seen, many of these streets have been replaced by wide streets with flats. In the remaining “hutongs” you can still stroll through the streets and, for example, visit a local family for a cup of tea and a good conversation.
If you want to explore an area yourself, you can rent a bicycle rickshaw or walk. Pay attention; some areas have become extremely touristy, ask a local tour operator for the less touristy areas. You can also easily take the bike yourself. Hotels often rent out bicycles, but you can also buy one yourself, which is sometimes even cheaper.
Listen to Voice Echoes at the Temple of Heaven
It may sound bizarre but whispered words are clearly heard at Echo Wall in the Temple of Heaven. The acoustics here are remarkably good, especially at the stones of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. In one place, a clap of your hands comes back once, but a step further you’ll hear it twice. Or three times.
If you say something in the middle of the Imperial Altar your words will come back even louder. Even if it is not easy with the many noisy tourists. In the surrounding park, many Chinese do morning exercise or Tai Chi in the morning. Our advice is to go there early in the morning.
Gaze at Stars From the Old Observatory
China has been a forerunner in astrology for centuries. Gu Guan Xiang Tai is one of the oldest observatories in the world. This observatory is located in the middle of the city. It was built in 1442 during the Ming Dynasty to provide astrological predictions. It elaborated on previous insights about the stars and planets. Chinese calendars were also developed here and those who pay a little attention can see how the contemporary Chinese calendar came about.
Fly a Kite in Tiananmen Square
Kite flying in Tiananmen Square has been a popular pastime for decades. Numerous stalls sell kites in all shapes, including many animals and characters from the Beijing Opera. It is especially popular with children, but it also exudes a kind of symbolism. Especially if you know that this square was a famous place for demonstrations against the Communist Party.
Go Shopping Chinese-style
Beijing is a great place for shopping for jewels and gemstones such as jade, which are very finely worked. But it is also good for countless other handmade items, including typical Chinese like a painting in a crystal ball. But you can also learn everything about antique calligraphy and of course, buy some great artworks. You can go shopping by yourself but it is also possible to take a private guide.
Meet Beijing’s Opera Scene
It is not much like a traditional opera and Western ears often have to get used to this age-old art form. The Beijing Opera, which developed in Beijing, is one of the hundreds of opera forms and is considered the most refined form. Everything revolves around symbolism, whereby the roles are classified according to age and personality.
For example, only a handsome (with striking eyes) and a well-built man can take on the role of the protagonist. The music comes from special stringed instruments, such as bamboo rattles, drums, and the characteristic gong.
How Was Beijing Built?
Beijing is a great example of Chinese urban planning. This special construction can be traced back to just before the dynasties, also known as the time of the Warring States (476 – 221 BC). After Qin Shi Huang declared himself emperor in 221, this way of building became the standard.
The city is strikingly rectangular in shape and surrounded by a straight wall. The palace and government buildings are in the center. The location is also well-chosen. The city is open to the east and south. The mountains to the north shelter the city, while water can be found in the front. So, according to Feng Shui rules, Beijing is a safe place to live.
Best Time to Visit Beijing
Beijing is quite a difficult city to visit. The smog, in particular, can be very annoying. Autumn is a great period to visit Beijing but this also means that during October and November it is relatively busy in the city.
In the spring, the sand from the Gobi Desert in the north regularly blows into the city, which can cause a lot of inconveniences. In spring it is relatively quiet at the larger attractions. July and August, in particular, can be hot (and humid) and this is not really ideal for a visit.
In the winter months, it is cold and there’s a possibility of snow. Although the sun does shine regularly.
The Chinese have their holidays in May (from 1 to 7) and October (also from 1 to 7), which causes a lot of crowds at the famous attractions.
As with other major cities, the main attractions are extremely busy on weekends and during the high season. For example, the Forbidden City gets 100,000 visitors a day on some days!
In the table below you can see the average temperature and rainfall in Beijing per month.
Hotels and Hostels in Beijing
Are you going to Beijing soon and are you looking for a nice hotel or hostel? We are happy to help you find a nice accommodation.
Prices and Facilities
If you want to be as cheap as possible, you can get a room in a hostel for 50 Chinese Yuan (US$7.10), wherein many cases you share a room with several people, for example, six or eight. Often there are bunk beds, and sometimes every room has a bathroom, but in many cases, you will have to use it in the hallway. Some hostels will offer rooms for one or two people for a somewhat higher price, between 100 and 200 Chinese Yuan (about US$14 to $28). These hostels are mainly located in the hutongs around the lakes and are partly aimed at backpackers.
For about 300 to 400 Chinese Yuan (US$42.50 to $56.50) per day, you can get a room in the cheapest hotels which focus on foreign guests. Most of the time the facilities are quite decent. Breakfast is usually included and the rooms almost always have air conditioning. Of course, there’s a bathroom and usually either two single beds or a large double bed.
For a big city like Beijing, pick a good location is crucial. Although the major attractions are spread all over the city, many people prefer to stay in a hotel with many restaurants and shops in the immediate vicinity.
A good choice to stay is around Wangfujing (王府井), Beijing’s busiest shopping street. In this area, within walking distance of the Forbidden City and the Square of Heavenly Peace, you will find many hotels and restaurants, and it is also close to several metro stations.
Best Hotels in the Wangfujing Area
- Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Hotel – This hotel has, by far, the best view (Forbidden City) from all the hotels we stayed at during our holidays in China and Japan.
- Beijing Jingyuan Courtyard Hotel – This historic hotel is decorated in a classic Chinese style. It is a 2-minute walk from Wangfujing. This way you can also go shopping after visiting the temples in the area.
- Beijing Prime Hotel Wangfujing – This hotel is near the metro and the National Art Museum of China.
- Hilton Beijing Wangfujing – For travelers seeking luxury, this lovely hotel in the heart of Wangfujing is the best choice. This 5-star hotel has several restaurants and an indoor swimming pool on the roof of the hotel.
Another great location is west of the Forbidden City, around Xidan (西单) and Financial Street (金融街 / Jīnróngjiē). Although this is aimed a lot at business people, this part of Beijing also has many restaurants, shops and is close to some metro lines. Together with Wangfujing, we recommend this area the most.
Best Hotels and Hostels in the Hutongs of Beijing
If you prefer to stay in old Beijing, we recommend a hotel in the hutongs or the old city districts. In our opinion, the best hotels can be found in the vicinity of Houhai Lake.
- Kelly’s Courtyard Hotel – With the Forbidden City and Heavenly Peace Square a kilometer away, this is an ideal hotel to explore this part of Beijing on foot. It is located in a traditional Hutong.
- Leo Hostel – Leo Hostel is one of the best hostels in all of China and is a 10-minute walk from Qianmen Subway Station (Line 2) and Tiananmen Square. This hostel with traditional features is located in Beijing’s old quarter. It offers comfortable, affordable accommodation, a tour desk, a library, and massages. An airport shuttle service is available.
- Beijing Downtown Travelotel – This cozy hotel is located in the middle of a hutong. In the area, you will find many small restaurants and shops.
- The Orchid Hotel – Old Town & Drum Tower – This hotel is a 10-minute walk from Houhai Lake. From the hotel, you can take a nice walk through the hutongs. If you prefer to explore Beijing by bicycle, you can use bicycles which are free to use by the guests.
- Red Lantern House – This hostel has both dormitories and private rooms. There are several metro stations in the area.
- Jihouse Hotel – This hotel is within walking distance of the Drum and Bell Towers, Lama Temple, and Confucius Temple. In the area, you will find numerous bars and restaurants. The Andingmen metro stop is within walking distance.
- Beijing Bieyuan Courtyard Hotel – In the courtyard of this hotel, you can relax after a busy day.
Hotel reservations are necessary because when you apply for your China visa you must be able to show that you have hotel reservations during your stay. Also, keep in mind that during the main Chinese holidays, the Chinese New Year, and the two holidays in early May and early October, hotel rooms are often more difficult to obtain. If you are going to China during this period, we recommend that you book your overnight stays in Beijing several months before departure.
History of Beijing
Today, Beijing is the imperial capital. She took over from Xi’an, who had been the imperial capital for centuries during the Qin Dynasty. Most of the monuments in the city are from the last two dynasties: Ming and Qing, like the world-famous Forbidden City in the center.
The Forbidden City, which was actually a palace, has long been Beijing’s best-kept secret. Only when the last emperor (Puyi) was deposed in 1911 did it become accessible to everyone. Until then, The Forbidden City had not been accessible to anyone, or you had to work for the court. But if you did you weren’t allowed to talk about it to anyone.
When the doors opened, the wealth of the palace was revealed, which was immense. The yellow roofs, the abundance of gold, the vermilion (red-orange) walls, and the underlying story make it an eye-catching complex of buildings. Each building is richly decorated. There are golden bridges, countless finely sculpted dragons, and glazed tiles full of daily scenes.
The emperors also lived in his complete court in the city, including thousands of concubines and eunuchs (castrated men to serve the women). Around the palace was the Imperial Empire, where no mere mortal was allowed to come. Numerous local artisans worked here. They made all kinds of quality products for the court. The majority of this has now disappeared.
Although the Forbidden City is at the top of the list for most tourists to visit, Beijing has much more to offer. It is an ideal city to discover for yourself and you will see that past and present continuously intertwine.