Brian and I did not even plan on visiting Beijing this year! We came across the idea when we found some very cheap tickets from San Francisco to Beijing over the Thanksgiving holiday. Once we realized we Brian was off work that week and I only had to take a couple of vacation days on top of the ones I already get for the holiday, we decided to go for it and book the tickets! 3 months before the trip! Visiting Beijing ended up being one of the highlights of our year. There is so much to do in Beijing; we spent 4 days going non-stop in this one city so we could see everything on our list. Here are our 15 favorite things to do in Beijing!
1. MUTIANYU GREAT WALL
The Mutianyu section of the great wall is the longest and most restored section. It was built over 1,000 years ago and had to be restored in order to be safe for tourists. You also have the option of taking a chairlift up to the wall as well as back down, or a chairlift up and a toboggan down. We took the chairlift/toboggan combination and had a lot of fun!
We visited at the end of November and the weather is great! I highly recommend visiting in the spring or the fall, as winter may be too cold/slipper and summer may be too hot. I also recommend visiting the wall on a weekday as it will be less busy. Lastly, it is far from the city center so I recommend hiring a driver or a tour guide for at least this one activity.
2. CHINESE NATIONAL MUSEUM
The Chinese National Museum is one of the most-visited museums in the world. Its mission is to educate visitors about China’s art and history. This museum is across the street from Tianamen Square; I highly suggest visiting on the same day you visit Tianamen Square, Forbidden City and Jingshan park because they are all within walking distance!
The above photo is my husband Brian and I in front of the museum. We visited in November 2018 when the museum had an exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of China’s Open Door policy. This policy opened China to foreign businesses and assisted China in its economic transformation, which was highlighted in the exhibition we saw while we were there!
3. TIANANMEN SQUARE
Although I didn’t feel that there was much to see at Tiananmen Square compared to a lot of the other things to do in the area, it is still a must-see! Tiananmen square is a city square that holds a lot of history for China. It is located in between the National Museum of China and the Forbidden City. Forbidden City is across the street from Tiananmen Square but there is an underground walkway you can use to get to Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square.
4. FORBIDDEN CITY
Forbidden City was amazing to see in person. My biggest piece of advice is to prepare for a lot of walking! Forbidden City is large and there is a lot to see.
It is amazing to see how symbolic just about everything is at these Chinese landmarks, especially at the Forbidden City.
5. JINGSHAN PARK
Jingshan Park is located near Forbidden City and also holds a lot of history. There are quite a few steep steps up to the top, but it gives you a beautiful view of the entire Forbidden City.
6. LAMA TEMPLE
The Lama Temple is a Tibetan Buddhist temple; you can actually see some of them walking around throughout your visit. This was one of my favorite places we visited in Beijing because of its history and the amazing, intricate statues. There is one 54-foot Buddha carved from one large sandalwood tree. You have to see it in person!
7. HOUHAI LAKE
I was surprised that Houhai Lake wasn’t a popular attraction on other blog posts I was reading before I went on my trip. It is great to visit in the afternoon or in the evening. In the evening you can stop in one of the countless bars along the lake and listen to live music while you have a beer. There are also a lot of street food-type booths near the lake, similar to what you find at the Wangfujing Snack Street.
There are also several shops that have a variety of items. I bought a scarf and Brian bought a small chess set in one of the shops. But, our favorite shop was Yuan Feng Tea Shop. This tea shop had the nicest store owner inside. She let sampled us different types of tea while telling us the background and history of each. She had a lot tea cups and other items that would make for great gifts. We bought several tea cups and loose tea for Christmas gifts!
8. WANGFUJING SNACK STREET + PEDESTRIAN STREET
The Wangfujing Snack Street and Pedestrian Street are close to the National Museum of China and Tiananmen Square. The Pedestrian Street is a block of malls/stores that are mostly large chain stores (Victoria’s Secret, Lululemon, Under Armour, etc). It was nice to walk around, but I didn’t buy anything because it was all things I could just buy at home or online!
The Wangfujing Snack Street is more popular and photo-worthy. It is located near the Pedestrian Street and consists of several street food-type booths. Here you can try items like sugar-coated fruit, dumplings, and even more adventurous items like spiders and live scorpions! Most of the people we talked to said eating the scorpions are more commonly eaten by the visiting tourists and not the locals, so don’t fall into the tourist trap of eating bugs if you don’t want to!
9. TEMPLE OF HEAVEN
Temple of Heaven is another historic location in Beijing that is amazing to see in person. Be prepared for more walking!
10. PEARL MARKET
The Pearl and Silk Markets are popular for people to bargain for items like clothing, purses, toys, jewelry and electronics. We chose to Pearl Market because our tour guide recommended it to us. I wanted to buy a good quality a knock-off designer purse so she took me to a hidden store located in the building behind the main Pearl Market building. If you don’t have someone that knows the best spots and you’re not interested in pearls/jewelry, I suggest going to the Silk Market instead.
Whichever market you choose to visit, the same advice applies. You should pay about 15-25% of what they first offer you…they’re ripping you off otherwise! And, at the final part of the deal where they stop budging their price, walk away. Almost every time, they will stop you and negotiate further! At one point we were going down the escalator and one of the saleswomen ran through the mall to catch us and give us a better price.
11. SUMMER PALACE
Summer Palace’s beautiful scenery is unmatched! And on a summer day, you should definitely visit as you’ll be more likely to find shade and a cool breeze here than any of the other locations. If you research the history of Summer Palace you’ll understand why!
12. LOST PLATE FOOD TOUR
Do you want to try some authentic Beijing food but not sure where to start? Concerned that not speaking Chinese will negatively affect your restaurant experience? Those were the reasons we chose to do the Lost Plate Food Tour and we had a fantastic time!
We had some great food all planned out by the company with little to no wait at each location. As we were eating, our tour guide gave us some background of what we were eating (and also in some cases, how to eat the food!). The restaurants we were taken to would have taken awhile to walk to each, so the tuktuk rides to each stop was convenient and a lot of fun! I definitely recommend doing this tour on an evening of your trip. Make sure to come hungry!
13. DRUM AND BELL TOWERS
The Drum and Bell Towers are two separate towers next to each other. These attractions are small and simple so we visited them without our tour guide. They’re close to Houhai Lake, so I recommend seeing them all in one day if you’re in the area! The drum tower has a performance each day at certain times; I suggest planning your visit to see it!
The towers have a lot of interesting history and also provide a cool view at the top. The stairs are steeper than those in the Great Wall, so please keep that in mind if you have issues with stairs!
Visiting the two towers took less than 1 hour.
14. TOUR WITH CATHERINE LU TOURS
Having our own personal tour guide and driver was essential to us having a great trip. We were only in Beijing for 3 full days and 2 half days (our travel days) so we didn’t have much time to take public transportation and waste time getting lost.
Having our own tour guide through Catherine Lu Tours resulted in less time waiting in lines for tickets and less opportunities for difficult conversations due to language barriers. You also have more flexibility on your tour because it is catered specifically to you. We even changed our tour around based on weather, air quality and busy hours while we were in China!
15. STAY AT THE ORCHID HOTEL
Besides our tour guide Jenny, our stay at The Orchid Hotel was our other favorite part of the trip! We were originally planning to stay at a large chain hotel like the Hyatt but opted for something more authentic/original. We stumbled upon The Orchid Hotel on TripAdvisor and were amazed by all of the 5-star reviews, especially for the great price!
The hotel is located in a Hutong, which is an alleyway surrounded by old homes and other buildings. Staying here gave us a better idea of how people live in the hutongs.
The hotel itself is great. The rooms and hotel itself is small but how much space do you really need? You’re most likely just there to shower and sleep! It was wonderful to come back to a clean room and a hot shower after a full day of exploring Beijing. Breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant also comes with your reservation and it was impressive! At hotels we are used to a free continental breakfast consisting of toast and cereal…The Orchid Hotel’s breakfast consisted of delicious dishes like frittatas and shakshuka, and beverages like lattes and americanos. It was a fantastic start to each day!
I think you can see everything you want in Beijing within 4 days (that’s what I did!). It is an amazing place to visit with so much history. If you are planning on visiting and have any questions for me, please leave a comment below!