City Guide: Beijing

Getting There

Beijing is the capital of China. It’s a pretty easy city to get to, most major airlines fly straight in and out of Beijing. From Australia, you’ll most likely have to connect from Hong Kong, Guangzhou or Shanghai, but it’s not a hassle to change (unless you’ve got the $$ to take one of the direct Qantas flights, which I definitely do not!).

There are two major airports; Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) and Beijing Nanyuan Airport (NAY). I’ve only flown in and out of PEK as I’m usually coming from overseas, or catching a train from elsewhere in China. The International Airport is very nice and modern. Most importantly, it has a train line that connects in to the Metro system.

Beijing also has several major train stations if you’re coming from other parts of the country. You have the usual options of sleeper trains, high speed trains or slow trains. For more, see my post on train travel in China.

Transport

Beijing has a great metro system. I would recommend downloading one of the apps before you go. Personally, I use the Metro Beijing Subway app (links are at the bottom of this post). The major tourist sites are largely near metro stops, including Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace and Wangfujing (main shopping strip).

Taxis are really unnecessary, but they are there if you need. Beijing also has Uber and Didi but really, the subway is much cheaper and more efficient .

If you are going to be staying in Beijing for more than a couple of days I would suggest getting a metro card. It saves you having to buy tickets every time you jump on and off trains, and it’s really easy to top up at the kiosks, which have English translations.

Another option for the bravehearted is hiring a bike. The reason I don’t suggest this to newbies is that Chinese traffic is really something else, especially in the big cities. Unless you understand how the traffic works, you’re a complete liability to yourself and everyone else trying to get around.

Accommodation

Beijing has some great accommodation options. I am a budget traveller so I tend to stick to hostels, but you can find all of the major chains and smaller operators in Beijing. The only hotel I’ve experienced was the Novotel which was great, it’s close to the main tourist sites and wasn’t too expensive.

Hostel Recommendation
Happy Dragon – Saga Youth Hostel: I loved this hostel. Sadly, it looks like it’s been turned into a 3-star hotel now! However, the same owners of Saga also run the Happy Dragon Backpackers Hostel. Saga had a great bar, friendly atmosphere and the staff were super helpful. We had no complaints about this one so based off that, I would recommend the Happy Dragon Backpackers.

Pros:
– Good atmosphere
– Helpful staff
– Great tours to the Great Wall and other important spots
– One of the only hostels where we made friends with other international travellers
Cons:
– The showers weren’t great… but you’re not travelling in China for great showers!

Things to Do

This is the hardest to write out of any part of this post. Beijing has SO MUCH to see and do, particularly if it’s your first exposure to China.

The Big Guns

These are the things that everyone thinks of when they think of Beijing.

  • The Great Wall of China: there are three sections of the wall that you can visit. I have been to the Mutian Yu section of the wall, which is the second-most popular. It’s easy to book a tour when you arrive at your accommodation, I wouldn’t bother pre-booking this unless you have very limited time in Beijing.
  • Tiananmen Square: Tiananmen Square is very easy to get to. The subway stop is literally called Tiananmen. It’s free, and it’s a very large concrete square. The most interesting parts of Tiananmen are the buildings around it – the Forbidden City, Mao’s Mausoleum and the National Museum of China.
  • The Forbidden City: you MUST BOOK TICKETS to get in to the Forbidden City. I have been to Beijing three times and never actually made it in. Find a travel agent online who can do it for you if you really want to see it.
  • Summer Palace: the Summer Palace is a beautiful palace on the edge of the city. It’s an easy subway ride and there’s no need to book tickets to see it, just buy them on arrival. You can appreciate the beauty without an audio tour, but these are available for a small fee if you want to know more about the history of the palace.

My Other Suggestions

  • Wangfujing: Wangfujing is a pedestrian shopping street. There’s great (safe!) food, lots of shops and it makes a really nice break from ancient sites.
  • 798 Art District: this is the most unexpected thing I saw in Beijing. It is a little bit out of the main city, but easy enough to get to on the subway. Set aside a full half a day for this as you’ll wander through hutongs loaded with eateries, craft breweries and adorable handmade crafts shops.
  • Food Tour: I recommend this in every Asian city because I genuinely believe it’s the best way to sample all the local offerings. I personally tend to use Urban Adventures for these, as the guides are amazing and I’ve never had an issue with them. We did the Beijing Foodie Walk (before it was a Lonely Planet recommendation!) and it was incredible.

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