A lot of travelers find themselves in Beijing because they’ve dreamed of climbing the Great Wall, but they quickly discover that there is so much more to see and do in China’s capital city.
Because there is an exciting mix of historic sites, futuristic architecture, traditional cuisine, modern art, over 100 museums, and fantastic shopping, it can be tough to decide which things to do in Beijing. The Beijing travel tips and ideas below will help you narrow down your options.
Beijing Travel Tips
Traveling in China is surprisingly easy provided you know what to expect. Here are some Beijing travel tips I share when my friends and family express an interest in visiting the city.
Getting Your China Visa
All Americans visiting China need to apply for a visa — even kids. While you can visit the Chinese Embassy and do the paperwork yourself, the lines tend to be long, and there may not be an embassy in your city.
You can save yourself a lot of time and headaches by having a visa processing service do it for you. We use CIBTvisas. Thankfully, Americans are now eligible for a 10-year China visa.
The Best Time to Visit Beijing
Beijing is swelteringly hot and humid — and crowded — in the summer, and it’s cold in the winter. Spring weather is more pleasant, but the short autumn season is the best time of year to visit. Autumn is the most beautiful and temperate time for a trip to Beijing, and you’ll find fewer tourists at the major sites of interest.
Our most recent visit to Beijing with kids was in the summer for my daughter’s Mandarin camp. It was hot, but we were lucky and the rain tempered the heat. The heat is especially challenging at the Forbidden City and Great Wall where there isn’t much shade. Carry a UV umbrella and handheld fan (with a mister) in summer.
Always Carry Some Cash
Most major credit cards are accepted around Beijing, but some restaurant and shop card readers can’t process international cards (they take Alipay or Weibo which only those with Chinese bank cards have access to). However, international credit card usage in our experience is more prominent in Beijing than it used to be.
When you need to withdraw cash, look for ATMs associated with banks because they will use the actual exchange rate for that day.
How to Get Online
Wi-Fi in Beijing is everywhere and often free, but the internet is censored by the government and can be quite slow. You can bypass “The Great Firewall” by paying for a VPN app for your phone, computer, or tablet. It’s easiest to enable the VPN before arriving in Beijing. We use ExpressVPN.
The Language Barrier
Many people in Beijing do not speak English. If you can’t speak Mandarin fluently, it’s nice to learn a few key phrases like hello (nǐ hǎo), thank you (xiè xiè), you’re welcome (bú kèqì), and of course, “Do you speak English?” (Nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma?). In our experience, language translation apps are a disaster. We also lean on our hotel concierges to make reservations and provide directions in English and Chinese.
Always carry the name of your hotel written in Chinese (as the concierge to do this) in addition to the names of the attractions and stops on your itinerary. This way, you can hand the information to a taxi driver and he or she will know where to take you.
The Beijing metro system is modern, safe, and inexpensive though it can be very crowded so you shouldn’t expect to get a seat. One of our favorite ways to get around Beijing is with DiDi – a service very similar to Uber. Once you download the app, you can input a foreign credit card, and then schedule a pickup wherever you are. DiDi offers riders four options: Express (ride sharing), Taxi (metered fares), Premier (best drivers), and Luxe (luxury vehicles). Your driver may not speak English, but the DiDi app includes a messaging translation service so you can communicate with one another via text.
Where to Stay
When it’s time to rest and recharge after a day of exploring the many things to do in Beijing, you can retire to one of this cosmopolitan city’s many beautiful hotels. One thing to be aware of is that the maximum occupancy for most Beijing hotels is three people per room or suite regardless of age, but there are typically family rooms and connected suites available.
Some of my favorite Beijing hotels are:
- The Four Seasons Hotel Beijing
- Ritz-Carlton Beijing
- Aman Summer Palace
- The Peninsula Beijing
- Bulgari Beijing
- The Waldorf Astoria
Things to Do in Beijing
There are so many things to do in Beijing that it can be hard to know where to begin. If you’re pressed for time, make walking along The Great Wall and touring the Forbidden City a priority, and if you’re not, check out the other must-sees on this list.
1. Walk Along the Great Wall
This is one of the top things to do in Beijing, but deciding which section or sections of the wall to visit can be tough.
The section closest to Beijing is Badaling and it is typically the most crowded. It’s also the easiest to reach from Beijing by train or bus and recommended for visitors who are short on time. Many visitors join tours that visit both Badaling and the Ming Tombs on the same day.
If you’re planning a family trip to China, you’ll probably enjoy visiting the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. At Mutianyu, you can take a cable car up to the wall and then toboggan down, or hike east and take another cable car back down. This is the most kid-friendly place to visit the Great Wall and, while more remote than Badaling, has plenty of tourist amenities like shops, food outlets, and bathrooms.
The Great Wall at Jinshanling allows overnight camping and is an excellent spot for serious but rugged hiking, so may be best for grown-up travelers. At nearly 2.5 hours by car from Beijing, it’s the least crowded of these three popular options.
- Private Jinshanling tour with a Chinese historian (Context Travel — who we use worldwide)
- Group day tour to Mutianyu from Beijing (Klook)
- Small group day tour to Mutianyu from Beijing (Get Your Guide)
- Badaling and Ming Tombs bus tour (Get Your Guide)
2. Tour the Forbidden City
This is on my list of things to do in Beijing with kids, but keep in mind that touring the Forbidden City means a lot of walking. The entire complex is part of the Palace Museum, with galleries full of fans, jade, bronze statues, stone carvings, and stunning works of Chinese art.
You can explore it on your own with or without a guided headset tour that you can pick up at the Meridian Gate (small fee applies) when you arrive. Unless you come with a good understanding of the 500 years of history and the emperors who lived here, it is helpful to use the audio tour, join a group tour or book a private tour of the Forbidden City. To kids (and maybe some adults), it might otherwise just a set of red buildings and you won’t get the most out of your visit.
We prefer private tours because they allow you to move at your own pace. Our latest guide told the kids (we were traveling with another family) little fun tidbits about how doorway thresholds throughout the palace complex were tall to ward off kneeless spirits (and then try to walk over a threshold without bending your knees). We hit the highlights and gravitated toward shade when necessary.
- Buy Forbidden City tickets (buy the combination ticket that includes Hall of the Clocks and Hall of Treasures) in advance to skip the ticket queue. Bring a passport for ID to enter. (Klook)
- Book a private Forbidden City tour (Context Travel)
3. Chaoyang ParkThis is the largest open green space in Beijing, and it also has a pool, a small human-made beach, and a little amusement park — complete with a carousel, some rides, and several inflatable castles. In the winter, Chaoyang Park becomes a snow sports park with skiing and snow tubing near the west gate. Kite flying is also popular here in good weather.
5. Tiananmen Square
One of the largest city squares in the world, Tiananmen Square has been the site of many important historical events and visiting it is one of the most popular things to do in Beijing.
There are several attractions in Tiananmen Square, including the ten-story obelisk honoring the martyrs of China’s revolutionary struggle, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and of course, the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao Zedong (where he rests in peace, on display).
Tiananmen Square is located across the street from the Forbidden City and flanked by the National Museum of China on one side.
- Tiananmen and the Making of Modern China private tour (Context Travel)
6. The 798 Arts District
This is the hub of Chinese contemporary art in Beijing and a must-see for art-lovers. Here, old factories have been transformed into galleries, studios, and other cultural venues along with some very cool restaurants, cafes, and bars. It’s a beautiful place to stroll as foot traffic far outweighs all other traffic in the district today.
7. The Confucius Temple and Lama Temple
This beautiful temple, which was built in 1302, is the second largest temple constructed to honor the legacy of China’s greatest teacher, politician, and philosopher. Touring the temple only takes about an hour, and the vibe is surprisingly calm and peaceful. It’s a great place to visit when you need a break from the hustle and bustle of Beijing.
Also, the Lama Temple, the most famous Tibetan temple outside of Tibet and an active place of worship, is just a few minutes walk away. I’d recommend visiting both as the Lama Temple is particularly beautiful.
8. Acrobat Shows
Over the years, we’ve seen traditional acrobat shows all over China, but we’ve particularly enjoyed the one at Beijing’s Chaoyang Theater. There are contortionists, gymnasts, and high wire walkers, but one of the highlights of the show is the finale — an act featuring A LOT of motorcyclists driving at lightning-fast speeds around a surprisingly small wire sphere. We’ve seen the show multiple times and always enjoy it.
- Buy Chaoyang Acrobat tickets in the VIP section (Klook)
9. The Summer Palace
This is the largest and most well-preserved imperial park in all of China. It is a sprawling and beautiful space full of pavilions, palaces, temples, manicured gardens, absolutely gorgeous architecture, and statues — all designed to exist in perfect harmony with nature.
10. The Temple of Heaven
More than just a temple, The Temple of Heaven is a complex of three structures — the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and the Circular Mound Altar — plus a huge park where locals sing, dance, play chess, and practice tai chi.
One interesting feature of the Temple of Heaven is the echo wall around the Imperial Vault of Heaven. If you whisper in the right direction, your voice will be carried from one end of the wall to the other. Kids will love trying out this trick as you pass through.
11. The Hutongs
These labyrinthine passages between the courtyards of traditional residential compounds are more than just alleys. Hutongs are narrow lanes where you’ll find shops, cafes, tea houses, massage parlors, and plenty of locals and tourists going about their business. Nighttime hutong tours are also trendy right now, though you can always wander the lanes on your own.
- Intro to Beijing: Hip Hutongs private tour (Context Travel)
- Beijing Foodie Tour with Tuk-Tuk through the hutongs (Get Your Guide)
12. Panjiayuan Antiques Market
Sometimes called the Dirt Market, the Panjiayuan Antiques Market is where thousands of vendors sell authentic and reproduction Cultural Revolution memorabilia from open-air stalls.
Shopping here is a one-of-a-kind experience, and if you do find something you’d like to take home, know that aggressive bargaining is expected and welcome. I visit every time I’m in Beijing as there are many treasures to be had.
13. Beijing Olympic Park
Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the city cleared entire blocks to build hotels, sports centers, and other buildings — including the National Stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest) and the National Aquatics Center (also known as the Water Cube).
Both of these venues are open to the public, and the water cube has become a very cool indoor water park with slides, a lazy river, and a wave pool.
14. Eat Local
The food in China is worlds apart from anything you’ll find at your local takeout joint, and one of my number one Beijing travel tips is don’t miss a chance to try the classic imperial dish, Peking duck. Stop into Quanjude or Da Dong, two famous names with multiple outlets across Beijing for extraordinary Peking duck. There is a Quanjude in Wangfujing not too far from the famous snack street (where scorpions on a stick and other photo-worthy delights await).
The noodles, hot pot, and steamed or boiled dumplings in Beijing are also fantastic. We love cong you bing which is a scallion pancake and the Beijing-style soup dumplings, jiaozi tang.
If you’re an adventurous eater, you could try the Beijing specialty luzhu huoshao (which is made of pork lungs and intestines stewed with fried tofu and bread) or street snacks like fried insects on skewers.
- Beijing Afternoon Foodie Tour (Get Your Guide)
- Eat Beijing (A book written by an Airbnb host for where and what to eat — Amazon)
Beijing is one of our family’s favorite cities in the world, and I hope you love it as much as we do. If you’ve been there, what are your must-know Beijing travel tips and favorite things to do in Beijing?