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Things to know for a self-organized Beijing Trip

Last updated by meimeili at 2013/12/11; Destinations: Beijing

At some point in your travels in China, you will most likely pass through the imposing capital, Beijing. The city has morphed into a metropolis competing on the international level in recent years which means it has the entire spectrum of history, culture, services, resources, and sights to rival any other destination in the world. Below are some of our best tips for arranging your own journey to Beijing.

Main Neighborhoods and Zones

•    Dongcheng District – As a traveler and visitor, the Dongcheng District will be your main zone of interest. Here you will find Beijing highlights such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Beijing Central Station for your transportation needs. The majority of the top and most centrally located hotels and hostels are also in Dongcheng.

•    Xicheng District – Beyond Dongcheng District’s attractions, you will find in Xicheng Beihai Park, Houhai area, Beijing Zoo, and National Concert Hall. This district is in the northwest part of the city.

•    Chaoyang District – This district is large and found east of the city center. Visitors will find many international embassies, Olympic Park, Workers Stadium, Chaoyang Park, and Ritan Park.

•    Chongwen District – The main destination for travelers in Chongwen is the Temple of Heaven.

•    Haidian District – The Haidian District is a busy place for locals. Here you will find a thick high technology and business hubs, as well as education centers and universities. For the traveler, you will find the exquisite Summer Palace.

Getting Around

•    Taxi: Traveling by taxi is often the most affordable way to get around Beijing especially if traveling in a group or family. Most drivers do not know English so it is helpful to have some background in Chinese or have an address written down. Be sure that the driver turns on the vehicle’s fare meter so your fare is accurate. It can also be a good idea to hire a driver for the day if you are short on time in Beijing but still want to see the main sights on your own. Unofficial taxis are not recommended due to safety concerns.

•    Metro/Subway: The subway is very easy to navigate and most signs are in English. Each trip is 2 Yuan per person. There are currently 15 lines that run throughout the city, with portions of lines 14 and 15 under expansion and completion. Visitors can easily visit most of Beijing’s highlight destinations via subway. To take advantage of the subway system, a Yikatongpre paid card is essential; these can be purchased at the stations. Single use tickets are also available, only for travel that day and departing from the specific station at which you purchased it.

•    Bus: The public bus system in Beijing is cheap, convenient, and reaches destinations not accessed directly by the subway system. Fares are 1 Yuan per person for most rides, with night rides a bit more expensive. The only thing to note is that the buses are not as well labeled in English as the subway system, so it is useful to have some background in Chinese. Bus lines under number 300 operate in the city center; numbers 300 and up run to other areas in the metropolis. Buses in the 900s run to the outer districts. There are different operating hours depending on the bus’ route, with most running until at least 10pm each day.

•    Bicycle: Although Beijing is a city of bicycles for locals, it may be very intimating for visitors to get around on bikes due to the traffic and congestion, not to mention general lack of overall orientation. There are a few companies from which to rent bicycles if you wish to discover Beijing in this way. Be very careful of the vehicular traffic if doing so alone.

What to Wear/Pack

•    Comfortable and closed toe shoes such as sneakers are vital for enjoying your time in Beijing. Not only will you be walking an incredible amount in the city proper, you will also surely take long walks at the Great Wall, explore auxiliary temple complexes, and more. Of course, there is also much walking at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City! Closed toe is important in case of rains and the general griminess of a metropolis.

•    Always bring a light jacket. In some seasons, the temperature difference between day and night can be drastic. As well, air conditioning in buses, subways, restaurants, and shopping centers may be cranked all the way up in the summer.

•    Beijing is a hotspot for shopping. Make sure you bring extra bags or make room in your suitcases for new purchases!

•    Summer (April to October) – As elsewhere in China, spring and autumn are the best times to visit due to the milder weather conditions and temperatures. In summer, bring clothes made of thin and breathable materials such as cotton. Extra sets of t-shirts are also great due to rains and sweats due to humidity. Also due to rain, an umbrella is best; waterproof clothing will be too hot and constricting.

•    Winter (October to March) – Winters are harsh in Beijing especially in January and February. However, it is dry with no snow. Bring moisturizer and lip balms to protect yourself. Warm clothing, down materials, and layers are important, as well as accessories such as gloves, heavy socks, scarves, and hats.

What to See

•    Tiananmen Square – Within the city of Beijing, this is perhaps the most known destination. The square has been a public meeting place for demonstrations and cultural events for many, many years, giving it much historical significance. It is always flooded with locals and visitors alike. On its perimeters you will find some other top national highlights such as the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao and the National Museum.

•    The National Stadium – Located in the Chaoyang District, the National Stadium is also known as Olympic Park. This was the epicenter of the 2008 Summer Olympics when Beijing and China was thrust into the international spotlight. The complex includes the Bird's Nest and Water Cube venues, whose aesthetics are now known all over the world. There is also the Olympic Village where the athletes spent their time, as well as many other venues and park resources.

•    The Forbidden City – With 980 constructions, the Forbidden City is the most intricate palace complex in the world. Be sure to pass through the Tiananmen Gate which makes for a dramatic entry into the palace arena. It was the home to more than 500 years of emperors and dynastic powers during the Ming and Qing eras. A guide is most useful here as there is simply so much history to discover.

•    The Great Wall – Along with Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the Great Wall completes the trifecta of absolutely must-see places in Beijing. The Great Wall is outside of the city proper but many buses and organized tours can be arranged in Beijing. The wall is a testament to the longevity and power of the ancient Chinese people and remains a powerful image of the nation. Be sure to take a walk along one or 2 of its most famous sections to admire the stunning landscape and the human handiwork, sweat, blood, and tears that made it all possible to defend the country in ancient times.

•    Ritan Park – Parks in China are integral parts of society. Ritan Park in Beijing is a fine example where you will see people of all ages engaging in exercise, each other’s company, and traditional arts such as tai chi and calligraphy. As well, the park allows for a break from the urban energies of the city.

•    Beihai Park – Located northwest of the Forbidden City, Beihei Park is an imperial garden and gorgeous park property. It covers 69 acres and includes an immense lake which adds much ambiance to the natural beauties. White Dagoba is a 40 meter tall stupa on Jade Flower Island which makes for a nice photo opportunity. Other Buddhist temples and rustic stone bridges complete the aesthetics here.

•    The Summer Palace – The Summer Palace is one of China’s most impressive and significant examples of Chinese landscape garden design. It includes Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, intermixed with a combination of lakes, gardens, and palaces. There are 3 gates from which to access the Summer Palace, all northwest of the Beijing city center.

•    The National Museum – Located right in Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China is dedicated to promoting the ancient arts and history of the nation. It first opened in 2003 (previously the location was 2 separate museums). There are 28 comprehensive exhibition spaces with a focus on items from throughout China’s history, dating from up to 1.7 million years ago until the modern Qing Dynasty.

•    Lama Temple – Also known as Yonghe Temple, Lama Temple is a temple and monastery pertaining to Tibetan Buddhism. It is almost 300 years old and features many outstanding halls of artistic detail and attention. 500 Arhat Hill is one highlight you should not miss.

•    Beijing hutongs – Beijing is known for its narrow and tightly arranged hutong neighborhoods which are more residential than commercial. They are very traditional living areas for locals. As the years go on, especially since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, more and more hutongs are being deconstructed to make way for modern apartments and condos. Historically, however, these spaces have much meaning to the city. Explore a nearby hutong in order to get a glimpse of what life is really like for the everyday citizen in Beijing.

•    Temple of Heaven – The Temple of Heaven is actually a complex of religious buildings constructed throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In 1998, the site was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its great example of architecture and landscape design. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the visually arresting centerpiece, a circular building standing 38 meters all on 3 layers of marble stone base, wood construction, and no nails.

•    Guijie Food Street – Guijie Str eet, lined with traditional red lanterns, is a very popular food destination by night in Beijing in the Dongcheng District, at the northeastern side of the Forbidden City. Here you will find more than 100 restaurants, many with 24 hour service, serving dishes in styles from all over China. There are large, fancy restaurants, local eateries, and everything in between with prices to match. Just the people watching is fascinating enough!

•    Wangfujing – This busy shopping and snack street is a pedestrian friendly zone that attracts visitors as well as locals. Commercial activity has been held here since the Ming Dynasty. In addition to the top international brands you will find here, this is also the hub of the best Beijing brands that produce items such as hats, shoes, tea, and more. The snacks area, found in the nearby hutongs, is full of restaurants and stalls ready to serve the hungry masses. Cuisines from the traditional to the exotic can be found at Wangfujing. Do not miss this experience in day or night!

What to Eat

•    Peking roast duck – This is perhaps Beijing’s most famous and iconic dish! Peking roast duck is succulent, crispy, and simple when prepared correctly. You also get what you pay for so choose your eatery wisely.

•    Chinese pancakes – Aromatic and unpretentious, Chinese pancakes always make for a great lunch or dinner appetizer. They are often filled with green onions, dried seafood, and other delicacies.

•    Candied haw skewers – This very traditional snack can be found on snack street Wangfujing and at street vendor stalls. These candied fruits are sold on a stick, drenched in sugar syrup. Contemporary versions may use chocolate coating or sesame sprinkles as well. In the old days, the fruits were always Chinese hawthorn; today, you will find these skewers with cherry tomatoes, mandarin oranges, strawberries, blueberries, pineapples, kiwifruit, bananas, or grapes.

Where to Stay

The central areas of the city near the top attractions are the best place to stay. This includes the Dongcheng District and Xicheng District for the most part. Here you will find hotels and hostels of all categories and price levels. There are also some properties that are interestingly tucked into Beijing’s iconic hutong residential areas, making for a more authentic and memorable stay in the capital. Around the Great Wall and some other non-central areas, there are some hotels in a country club style, not to mention others that are more unique in theme and style.