Historic palaces and temples, home to the 2008 Olympics, and a big old wall outside the city limits … there’s some pretty good food, too. One thing I learned about Beijing is that, much like many major cities, this sprawling metropolis has much to offer.
I must be honest, though, the city of Beijing was never really on my radar. I didn’t know a great deal about it and still don’t, but it was the first stop after sweating it out in steamy Wuhan Not that Beijing was much cooler, mind you.
The sights in and around this town seem to be spread all over, so time is needed for getting about on public transport. That means organisation and time, but for what I ended up doing, 4 days was enough. Here’s what went down on our itinerary.
The Palace Museum.
For almost five centuries this was home to 24 emperors, plus the political and ceremonial centre of the Chinese government. The Palace Museum is just a small portion of the much larger Forbidden City; the most important in the whole country.
Some 980 structures make up the 14th century World Heritage site, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist spots in the city; if not the country.
Get clued-up on major events that went down within its fortified walls, learn about Chinese history, gawk at some seriously impressive pavilions, and take a breather in the leafy Imperial Garden before departing.
It’s best to buy tickets online due to its 80,000 visitors-a-day limit. Cost is either RMB40 or RMB60, depending on the time of year. A passport is required to book, and at entry.
Opposite the entrance of the Palace Museum is Tian’anmen Square, one of the city’s prominent locations, and one made famous by pro-democracy protests in 1989. Here you’ll also find the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, a Soviet-inspired mausoleum complete with the embalmed corpse of the big man himself. Entry is free and the queue is long.
Wangfujing Street & surrounds.
One of Beijing’s biggest and most popular shopping precincts is Wangfujing Street. This 1.6 km-long pedestrianised strip is loaded with the big guns – Apple, Victoria’s Secret, TAG Heuer, Adidas, Prada, Zara and so much more. China wouldn’t be China without the big names, and you’d be a nobody if you didn’t shop there. It’s all about status, of course.
It’s here you’ll also find Wangfujing Street Snack Street, an eating thoroughfare packed with market stalls and a good chink of American franchises. Most of it was under renovation when I was in town, so very little time was invested in checking it out.
In amongst all the commercialism is the mid-17th century St. Joseph’s Church, a Chinese-Romanesque structure originally built on land granted to two captured Jesuit missionaries from Portugal and Sicily. The leafy square in front of it is a nice spot to take a load of, plus it’s popular for wedding photos and meeting spot for tours.
Eat Beijing duck.
About ten minutes away, on foot, is this little gem of a place. Youyifu Restaurant – or Lucky Roast Duck Shop – is a great-value spot for an indulgent lunch that ends with delicious Beijing (Peking) roast duck. Many restaurants offer roast duck all over the city, especially around the Forbidden City, but no need to pay inflated tourist prices when you can go somewhere like this; plus if you have an app like 美团meituan, you can save even more RMB.
A procession of plates hits the table, beginning with a deliciously refreshing shredded cabbage and salty fish salad. Then there’s warm towel gourd (or luffa) with pork and a plate of shatteringly-crisp fried pastry topped with sweet mayo and diced dragonfruit. These little things were seriously addictive.
Some kind of tofu soup always makes it to a roast duck feast, and the one we got was huge, yet completely flavourless; even with the ginger and pork. Another soup joined the food parade; this one a duck bone soup with tofu (not pictured).
Last, but not least, is the roast duck itself. Meticulously sliced by the table and arranged on a platter. The meat and crisp skin is nothing short of divine, served with plum sauce, julienned cucumber and green onion and warm pancakes for wrapping it all in.
Regular price for this duck meal is 380RMB, but booking and paying through the above-mentioned app, the price drops to 258RMB. It’s enough for two.
Climb the Great Wall of China.
When spending at least three days in Beijing, booking a trip to the Great Wall of China is a given. The closest and most visited section of the wall is at Badaling, about 80km northwest of the city.
Most people seem to arrive as part of a tour group, as did we, but it won’t be long before you can take the underground metro; as we discovered when seeing its construction. Regardless of how you get there, it sure is a sight to behold, despite the thousands of people cramming into the cable car to get to the wall, the people on the wall itself and paths surrounding it.
Only a small section of the wall is open to the public at Badaling, so my visions of people-free photographs of a wall never happened. For those, and a more rugged and authentic wall experience, Gubeikou, Jinshanling, Huanghuacheng and Jiankou may be worth looking into.
The second stop on our tour was at Dingling Tomb, found 50km from Beijing and about 30km from the Great Wall, at Badaling. The site is at the eastern foot of Dayu Mountain and makes up part of the much greater Ming Tombs
Dingling Tomb, one of thirteen royal tombs in the area, was built in 1590 as a mausoleum for Emperor Zhu Yijun in 1620. His two empresses – Xiaoduan and Xiaojing – were buried here, as well, in a 5-chamber 1195m² underground palace.
The aboveground section of the tomb follows the ancient Chinese philosophy of the earth being square, and the heavens being round. Visitors are greeted with large square courtyards with three carved marble bridges, gates and numerous carvings of turtles and dragons. The rear of the complex is a circular construction covered with earth, and it’s where visitors can descend into Underground Palace. Five stone chambers make up the subterranean palace, which is the first of all the Ming Tombs to be excavated and opened to the public.
The final stop on our tour was Olympic Green, where we were free to wander around before taking the metro back to the hotel. Also known as Beijing Olympic Park, the sprawling site was the centrepiece of the 29th Olympic Games. Aside from iconic buildings, there’s also Olympic Forest Park which is the largest piece of urban green space in Asia.
Start off at the National Stadium – or the Bird’s Nest – and gawk at its unique design. You can pay around RMB50 to go inside or rent a Segway and do laps for RMB200, but walking around it is still impressive, and free.
Opposite the stadium is the National Aquatics Center – or the Water Cube – which is just as impressive, in its own way, as the Bird’s Nest. The building resembles accumulated soap bubbles (more than 3000) and contains a pool and water park. Entry is RMB30, but if you want to swim, entry is RMB260. Currently, the Water Cube is undergoing renovations for the 2022 Olympics, so only the practice and warm-up pools are open.
Chow on Hunan cuisine for dinner.
The food in Beijing has it’s own style. It’s hearty, it uses ginger, garlic and capsicum quite a bit, and substitutions of bread and noodles are often made for rice.
We could have easily dropped into one of the numerous local eateries down the road from the hotel, but it was Húnán rénjiā sīfáng cài (Hunan People’s Private Kitchen) that made the cut.
Fans of food from the Hunan Province seem to flock to this popular restaurant, chowing on the likes of two colour fish head, duck blood chicken and dry pot fish. Hunan food is characterised by a few things – fragrance, oil and spice – and for the uninitiated, it may be tricky to find a dish that doesn’t set your mouth on fire.
One thing I love about eating Chinese food is its lack of formality. Everything comes either at the same time or whenever the cook has finished plating it. The result: a bunch of dishes you pick at with chopsticks.
Our spread featured a fiery mapo tofu (20), deliciously salty sautéed green beans (29), sautéed cauliflower (28) and the spiciest thing to have ever entered my mouth – Hunan-style salted duck (58). Eating two pieces tipped me right over the edge. Nothing but the sharpness of chilli – maybe a bit of salt – assaulted my palate. Even Xian, my chilli loving friend, was struggling.
The Summer Palace.
One of Beijing’s other big-ticket sites is none other than the Summer Palace, the sprawling imperial retreat of the Qing Dynasty. Gardens, lakes and palaces were built in 1750 for the emperor and his crew; a 2.9 square kilometre space for the privileged to cool down during the stifling summers.
Its Chinese name of The Garden of Tranquil Harmony makes it exactly that. It truly is a place to escape the craziness of Beijing for a few hours – or half a day – and marvel at this UNESCO listed masterpiece filled with utter beauty.
The Summer Palace can be found 15 km northwest of downtown Beijing and can be easily accessed by bus or metro. The Suzhou River, at the north side of the site, is a stunning canal-like setting filled with traditional buildings, pavilions and plenty of greenery. You can wander the waterside paths, read about history, stop to buy some gifts or even take a boat ride. If you can look past the Disney-fied feel about the place – something I find China can’t help doing with many historic precincts – it really is a place to enjoy.
Longevity Hill is another area worth exploring. Plenty of stairs and cobbled paths, stunning gates, halls and temples, and the seriously impressive, elaborate three-storey Fo Xian Ge Tower of Buddhist Incense.
There’s not a great deal of food going on within the Summer Palace complex, other than a fast-food few kiosks here and there. Step outside, go for a walk and you can discover little places like this.
We were feeling a tad snacky and found a supermarket at the underground Prosperous Lund Convenience Life Plaza (鼎盛隆德便民生活广场), but nothing appealed. Right by it at the top of the escalators is the Old Beijing Noodle Restaurant, an eatery that’s clearly loved by cigarette-puffing tradesmen up for cheap noodles. RMB18 can get you one of these delicious bowls of zha jiang mian – Beijing’s signature noodles – of fermented soya beans, meat, cucumber and pickled radish.
Yonghe Temple, or the Lama Temple.
The stifling heat and humidity were close to tipping me over the edge, so dreaming about a cold shower and air-con back at the hotel was sitting at the front of my mind. There was, however, one more stop on the day’s agenda.
I was close to saying “I can’t, I simply can’t”, but something within me said “Just suck it up and keep on pushing” And thank god I did. The Lama Temple is an absolute must-see, even if the temperature may be hitting 40°C with 80% humidity.
Yonghe, which is also known as “Harmony and Peace Palace Lamasery”, is considered the largest and best-preserved lamasery in the country, and the most renown Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet. Here you can see the world’s largest Buddha carved from sandalwood, marvel at stunning pavilions, drum and bell towers and beautiful murals, statues and intricate archways. The entry is RMB25.
Eat more Beijing duck.
Getting another dose of Beijing duck simply had to happen, as it’s just not the same in other parts of the country. A short walk from the hotel is Bianyifang Roast Duck Restaurant, another popular restaurant for this local delicacy.
For the RMB208 roast duck set, you also get cabbage with peanut and chilled sliced duck liver, some very tasty beef tendon with bamboo shoot, steamed greens and some rather flavourless tofu soup with shrimp and mushrooms. As for the duck, it’s great, but not as nice as the one we sampled at Youyifu Restaurant two days prior.
Hit the bakery for breakfast.
The final day actually just happened to be a half-day, kicking off bright and early at Wedome, found right by the east gate of Tiantan Park and Metro Line 5. The selection of goodies at this chain store bakery is compact, a little pricey by Chinese standards, yet it fills the stomach.
There are some interesting Chinese takes on French-style sweet and savoury pastries, the drip coffee is akin to the watery stuff in crusty American diners, yet the Chinese desserts and cakes like egg tarts and sesame cookies look pretty decent.
Explore the Temple of Heaven.
With a stomach filled with fluffy bread, sugar and grilled cheese, it’s a very short walk from Wedome Bakery to one of Beijing’s other icons – the Temple of Heaven and its triple-eaved Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the emperor visited the temple a couple of times a year, the most important being on the winter solstice. Prayers and animal sacrifices were made for a good harvest and to appease the gods.
The huge, cyprus-filled park in which it all sits is great for people-watching, with locals practicing kung-fu, taichi, singing, and dancing. There’s even a small section where parents gather to advertise and hopefully match their adult offspring to anyone that may be interested, or compatible with.
It’s all done with a brief description of them, sometimes a single photo; laid on the pavement for all to see. And just as countless locals photographed me pretty much my entire time in China, I overstepped the manners boundary by taking this photo (below). They weren’t happy!
Entry to the Temple of Heaven is RMB35. Passport is required for entry.
Beijing Xi (West) Railway Station was the departure point for our onward travels, but a quick lunch was well in order. Opposite the station – in the SDIC Fortune Plaza – is a handful of local eateries on the street, so we took a seat at a place that was called something along the lines of “Chongqing Noodle“.
The small space bustles with people and aromatic smoke billows from the kitchen, filling the dining room. It’s all about the local food and big bowls of specialty noodles. Delicious eggplant with pork and two cast iron bowls filled with both smoked pork with celery, chilli and onion, and twice-cooked pork with celery, chilli and onion. So incredibly tasty!