As China’s cultural, historical and financial capital, Beijing is a city that you simply have to visit at least once. Full of vibrant and colourful architecture, beautiful park and lakes, unique things to do and enough history to last a lifetime, Beijing is a must on any China itinerary. Whether you’re stopping in Beijing for a day or a week, prepare yourself for grand palaces, peaceful parks and a very different perspective on city life. In this itinerary of Beijing, you’ll learn all about what to see during you’re time here, where to get the best plant-based food and some very unique places to stay.
After living in China for one year and exploring quite a few corners of the country, Beijing definitely became one of my favourite cities for Chinese culture and history as well as the variety of things to do. Are you ready to jump into this essential itinerary for Beijing and explore this unique Chinese city?
WHEN TO GO
Beijing and northern China experience all four seasons in extreme ways. Winters bring bitter cold and sometimes snow while summers can be scorching, leaving spring and autumn as some of the best times to visit the Chinese capital. March to May sees the start of spring where temperatures are warm and days are crisp and sunny. Visit from September to October and you’ll find the city covered in a sea of autumnal foliage giving the city a dazzling ochre hue.
Beijing is a big city and it’s crowded almost all the time, but try to avoid it during major Chinese holidays as this will bring the masses to popular sights like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Avoid visiting during the Spring Festival (late January-February) or during the first week of October during the National Day holidays.
WHERE TO STAY
The best places to stay in Beijing are in the City Centre around Tiananmen Square and in the Hutong Area, where you can find the traditional narrow alleys and unique stays in the city. Beijing has many accommodation options for all budgets.
Budget–Beijing Shichahai Shadow Art Performance Hotel- This gorgeous little boutique hotel located in the heart of the Hutong area is a great, comfortable option in Beijing. The hotel has a shadow art theme with a large courtyard to relax in and small but comfortable rooms with traditionally patterned shutters and finishes. The hotel also does a wide range of cultural activities on-site to ranging from Chinese calligraphy to dumpling making as well as free shadow art performances three times a week.
Check rates and availability here booking.com
Mid– Hotel Cote Cour Beijing– For a really traditional stay this hotel will transport you to bygone eras. Located in the Hutong Area, it makes the perfect base to explore the immediate neighbourhood and beyond. The decor and ambience here are sublime and so is the friendly and local staff. Rooms are large and airy and are all decorated with local and traditional furnishings and ornaments and have everything you’ll need for a peaceful and relaxing stay. Did I mention there’s also a gorgeous little plant-filled courtyard?- The perfect place for a peaceful morning coffee.
Check rates and availability here booking.com
Splurge– ManXin Qianmen Courtyard Hotel– If you’re an interior design lover you won’t want to miss this unique stay. For a modern, minimalist take on Chinese decor, this Hutong property is centred around a central courtyard just like during old times. Each room is spacious and has a garden or patio view with private bathroom and wifi and the property also has a shared kitchen for preparing some coffee or light meals. The balance between modern minimalism and traditional Chinese motifs and ornaments here makes your stay here nothing short of zen-like.
Check rates and availability here booking.com
*Airbnb: You might be wondering if you can use Airbnb in China and the short answer is yes but I wouldn’t recommend it. Airbnb is rapidly growing in China and many Chinese nationals use it to book accommodation but Chinese laws make things a little difficult for foreigners. Under Chinese law, all foreigners are required to make a temporary residence registration within 24 hours of checking in and hotels or hostels will normally do this for you but Airbnb hosts aren’t required to, meaning that you could get in trouble if they don’t. While you can do it yourself it is a bit of a hassle so, for this reason, I would give Airbnb in China a miss, or until Airbnb have clarified and reinforced their policy in China.
WHERE TO EAT
There’s no shortage of amazing plant-based food in Beijing from tofu to dumplings and even Western classics like pizza and burgers. In general, Chinese vegetarian cuisine is varied and plentiful and it’s possible to taste a lot of traditional foods and flavours while being on a plant-based diet. You’ll also find many vegetarian restaurants to be run or be backed by Buddhist temples and most temples will have a vegetarian restaurant nearby.
Fu Hui Ci Yuan– One of Beijing’s best plant-based restaurants this eatery serves Beijing-style tofu and other stir-fried vegetable dishes as well as soups, buns, dumplings and pancakes. Very good quality, delicious food right in the centre of the Hutong Area.
Vegetarian Dumpling – A simple vegetarian restaurant with many vegan options too and an English menu. The menu consists of dumplings and many different Chinese stir-fry dishes. Affordable and delicious.
Vegetarian Tiger – One of the best vegan chain restaurants in Beijing and you definitely can’t leave without trying this at least once. This modern and well designed a la carte restaurant serves many tofu, vegan meat, noodle and vegetable dishes that are flavoursome and filling. They also have buffets in which you can taste many different Chinese dishes. The Qianmen branch is just the southwest corner of Tiananmen Square making it a great option for after the Forbidden City.
Wutai Yun – Another delicious, 100% plant-based option in central Beijing, this restaurant focuses on organic ingredients straight from the owner’s garden. It’s the place to go to try hotpot and the homemade tofu products. They also do a great burger if you need a break from Chinese food. There’s also a really great shop on site selling all kinds of vegan snacks and juices- perfect for stocking up if you’re heading to somewhere more rural next.
Bestease- Bai Yi SuShi– another great option on the eastern side of central Beijing, this great little restaurant offers a menu of Chinese classics with a focus on noodles. Food is fresh, delicious and affordable.
There are vegetarian and plant-based restaurants all over Beijing and the city has many options. For more plant-based eats check out Happy Cow to see what’s near you.
ITINERARY FOR BEIJING: THINGS TO DO
Probably the most significant place to visit in all Beijing and the most famous, the Forbidden City is a symbol, an emblem of Chinese history, culture and art throughout history. The Forbidden City is located at the heart of the city and since its construction in the 13th Century, the city of Beijing has slowly grown around it. It’s entirely encompassed by a moat and 10-metre high walls and when walking in this place feels like you’ve just been transported back in history to another era altogether. The Forbidden City showcases some of the best of Chinese architecture and art throughout history so make sure not to leave without checking out the Golden River bridges, the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Imperial Garden- a natural respite towards the end of the visit.
The Forbidden City is one of the most popular places to visit in Beijing so make sure to arrive early and prepare to stay for a few hours- this place is huge!
If you’d like to know more about the fascinating history of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square why not organise an expert guide to take you around? Check out our top recommendations below:
Another famous site that’s simply unmissable from your itinerary for Beijing is Tiananmen Square. Located just opposite the entrance to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square is one of the biggest public squares in the world and it shows. With the ability to hold about 1 million people the square is normally used for celebrations and gatherings, notably during National Day when the military parade takes place here. Around the square, you’ll find some significant buildings too including the Chinese Revolution Museum, the beautiful Tiananmen Gate, Monument to the People’s Heros and Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum.
Upon exiting the Forbidden City you’ll find yourself adjacent to Jingshan Park. It’s a beautiful little green space right in the middle of the city with probably the best view of the Forbidden City in this whole itinerary for Beijing. Walk up to the top of the rocky outcrop and from the hilltop temple you’ll be able to gauge just how large the Forbidden City actually is. From here you can see most of central Beijing and beyond; a view of trees, palaces and pavilion rooftops and the odd pagoda and modern skyscraper. The park also offers glimpses of Chinese local life and provides a nice place to rest for a while. Alternatively, come back for sunset and you won’t be disappointed.
TEMPLE OF HEAVEN
For more history and culture, don’t miss this stunning temple complex in central Beijing. The complex dates back to the 15th Century and features several interesting structures and gardens but the most beautiful is without a doubt the Temple of Heaven. This small, round central temple structure is beautifully painted in traditional motifs and bursting with colour. The surrounding green space is also a great place to relax for a while and rest your legs.
EXPLORE THE HUTONG
What are hutongs you might ask? Hutongs are the old lanes or alleyways in Beijing usually formed by traditional courtyard compounds on each side. The hutongs date back from the Ming and Qing Dynasty eras and show what traditional Beijing life would have been like. Many different families would have lived in a compound and they would have shared the central courtyard. Nowadays many locals still live in this same way but many have now been transformed into areas full of tea shops, cafes, restaurants and shops.
Visiting at least one hutong is a must on your Beijing itinerary. The best things to do here are simply just walking around and take it all in or even take a rickshaw tour- one of the most traditional ways to travel around the city.
Some of the best and most popular hutongs to visit are Nanluoguxiang and Yandaixiejie. Both hutongs have some interesting shops to visit, restaurants and tea houses. You can even get a foot massage to relax after all the walking in the city. For a hutong that’s a little more western culture meets hipster check out Wudaoying.
798 ART ZONE
These military factory buildings turned boho art space is a fantastic place to visit if you’re a modern art and culture lover. This huge military site with a very unique architectural style is now home to a number of independent art galleries, publishing companies, design firms as well as assortments of cafes and restaurants. It’s a fascinating insight into the modern Chinese art world – something worlds away from the traditional buildings of the centre of the city. The best thing to do here is to grab a coffee in a nearby cafe and simply walk around and explore the galleries and shows. Make sure to also visit the fascinating UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art in the heart of the 798 Art Zone.
The Lama Temple or Yonghe Temple is one of the best examples of Han Chinese and Tibetan architecture you’ll see on your itinerary for Beijing. This unique fusion of styles provides a colourful insight into the Tibetan Buddhist culture and art. Inside, you’ll find a range of different halls and pavilions as well as a large Chinese guardian lion, buddha statues and a giant ancient bell. Look out for the amazing, bright colours, designs and inscriptions.
This park which is also known as the Winter Palace is a large park right in the centre of Beijing. The park is huge, about 69 hectares and much of that is actually a large lake. There’s so much to see here include Jade Flower Island, right in the centre of the park on which you’ll find the 17th Century White Pagoda as well as Five Dragon Pavilion opposite. From there you’ll have an excellent view of the White Pagoda. Chinese gardens can be found throughout the park where huge lotuses float peacefully over the calm water.
Because of its size, one of the best ways to see Beihai Park is by bicycle. Alternatively, the park makes a lovely place for an evening run (air quality permitting) when it comes alive with locals doing tai chi and taking their dogs for walks.
The Summer Palace, originally constructed in the 18th Century was the residence of the Qianlong Emperor and his Qing Dynasty successors. Now, much like Beihai Park, it’s a public park now full of magical pagodas, water features and even some Roman-style ruins. This grand, palatial complex is the perfect place to come for the afternoon to explore and learn more about the rule and power of the Chinese dynasties. The Summer Palace is located on the outskirts of the city, north-west of the city centre. To get there take subway line 4 or 10.
While Beijing definitely has its fair share of history and traditional architecture and culture it also has a glistening modern financial centre of skyscrapers and intriguing architecture. The CCTV headquarters are housed in one such building, this geometric 44-story skyscraper was designed by Rem Koolhaas and resembles a giant cube with a chunk missing. From an architectural perspective, it’s a cutting edge building and worth seeing. In the area, you’ll also find The China World Trade Centre Building, the World Trade Centre and a bunch of other skyscrapers, malls and 5-star hotels. It is a nice area in which you can spend a few hours just walking around.
OUTSIDE THE CITY
THE GREAT WALL
No trip to Beijing is complete without a trip to see the Great Wall, one of the seven ancient wonders of the World. There are a few different places where you can visit varying portions of the Great Wall. The section at Mutianyu is one of the best to head to as it doesn’t get so busy yet the wall extremely well preserved in this part and has been fully restored. There are a total of 23 watchtowers here with you can walk to admiring the brickwork and views of rural northern China.
If you can’t make it Mutianyu other options include Jinshanling- a half restored, half-wild portion of the wall and Badaling which is the closest to Beijing but also the most popular with Chinese crowds. If you fancy a really challenging hike and would like to see a really wild section of the wall head to Jiankou.
If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of figuring out how to get to the Great Wall then why not join a tour or get a private transfer. Check out these great tour options below:
GUBEI WATER TOWN
If you are planning on heading to the South of China you’re not going to want to give the ancient water towns near Shanghai a miss, but if you aren’t, make sure to visit the water town Gubei. Gubei is a reconstructed water town based on those of southern China and while it’s not exactly authentic or historical, it’s still a gorgeous place to spend a half-day.
Located just outside Beijing, it’s a beautiful way to familiarise yourself with the beauty of Chinese water towns all surrounded by a part of the Great Wall. Some of the best things to do here is to check out the unique architecture, tip tea along the canals and visit the cultural sites and castle.
Do you have any questions or comments about your itinerary for Beijing? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.
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