In a city as large as Beijing, it’s hard to prioritize. Temples here, modern wonders there. And oh, did you hear about that massive wall to the north? Since it’s likely you’ll be overwhelmed by all the history and culture to experience when visiting, we’ve attempted to make life easier for you and highlight 10 of the essential things to do in Beijing. Like with all of our lists, we’re not making the claim we’ve listed the 10 definitive experiences of Beijing—that’d be impossible. However, our hope is that this list will serve as a good reference point for exploring Beijing and experiencing all that it has to offer, while on China tours.
What is there to do in Beijing?
Explore the Forbidden City
Think of the most iconic landmark in Beijing and it’s likely the Forbidden City. Constructed between 1406 and 1420, the Forbidden City was home to the emperor from the time of the Ming Dynasty through the Qing Dynasty, until China became a republic. After the empire fell, the new republic transformed the collection of 980 buildings set across 72ha of land into a museum. It remains a museum to this day and a massively-popular attraction for both locals and foreigners. UNESCO lists it as a World Heritage Site, namely for it being the “largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.” It’s also stunningly beautiful. You haven’t seen Beijing if you don’t visit.
Head north to the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is not located within Beijing, but you can easily get to it from the Chinese capital. It’s at the top of the list of attractions to see when visiting the city on China tours. The Great Wall of China is one of the most impressive fortifications on the planet. It was constructed thousands of years ago to defend against northern tribes and the spiritual dangers of the north (think ghosts and the undead… seriously), but it wasn’t until the reign of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, when large portions of the wall were connected and it began to take on its current form. You can visit several sections of the wall from Beijing. Badaling is the most popular and iconic, but it’s also overflowing with tourists. If you want a bit more privacy and don’t mind spending a longer time getting there, consider the Juyongguan and Mutianyu sections.
Spend some time in Tiananmen Square
If you’re visiting the Forbidden City (see above), you’ll pass through Tiananmen Square at some point. Be sure to take in the sheer spectacle of the square, which separates the palace from the city, and was enlarged in the 1950s to accommodate up to a million people. Tiananmen Square is China’s answer to Time’s Square or Red Square, so it’s iconic in its own right. Add in all of the history associated with it, much of it tragic, and you have even more reason to spend some quality time in one of the largest city squares in the world.
Take a break at the Summer Palace
Head to the northwestern edge of Beijing and you’ll find the Summer Palace, the erstwhile summer home of the Chinese emperor and home to one of the world’s best-preserved imperial gardens. The entire Summer Palace complex is a beautiful collection of lakes, gardens, and palaces that have been lovingly maintained to approximate what they were at the heights of the Qing Dynasty. The entire property is 2.9 square-kilometres, making it the largest of its kind in China. You can stroll through gardens and admire imperial architecture. For the best experience, take a dragon boat onto Kunming Lake or head up Longevity Hill for views of the whole area.
Do Tai Chi at the Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven is one of the most beautiful buildings in Beijing. Like the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, it’s also inextricably linked to imperial China, as it’s where the emperor would visit each year to perform his annual prayers to heaven. But even today, it’s an architectural masterpiece and one of the most significant religious complexes in the country. Each morning, you’ll find folks doing Tai Chi in the square out front. If you want to experience the temple like a local, while on your trip to China, book a one-hour class and practice one of the country’s most respected martial art forms while admiring the breathtaking temple. It’s a quintessentially Chinese experience.
Stroll around Beijing Olympic Park
The 2008 Summer Olympics were among the most memorable of recent decades and the centre of the action was the Beijing Olympic Park and the National Stadium. Constructed in the lead-up to the Olympics, Beijing Olympic Park remains one of the most stunning sports complexes in the world. The stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest and partially designed by Ai Weiwei, remains the world’s largest steel structure and a stunning example of postmodern Chinese design. Similarly, the Water Cube or National Aquatics Center, is another example of Beijing’s 21st-century spectacle. If you can, visit the park at night to see these marvels lit up in red and blue. You’ll also see the park on television again in 2022 when Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics.
Get your art on in the 798 Art District
Like Beijing Olympic Park, 798 Art District showcases modern China at its most dynamic and creative. Located in the northeastern part of the city, 798 Art District transforms former military factories into a series of creative spaces and shops showcasing Beijing at its most fashionable and quirky. You’ll find cafes, shops, and art galleries in old factories with exposed bricks and visible piping. Do some shopping for cutting-edge clothes or admire the street art or exhibitions of emerging Chinese artists in the gallery spaces.
Do some shopping at Silk Street
Silk Street is also known as Silk Market or Silk Street Market. It’s a shopping centre in the Chaoyang District featuring 1,700 retail vendors selling all manner of goods. If you’ve ever wanted to experience China’s famously busy shopping scene and stock up on inexpensive clothes, gifts, and trinkets, this is the place to head to. As well, this is where you’ll find some of the infamous counterfeit items that drive top fashion brands crazy.
Watch a Peking Opera at the National Center for the Performing Arts
The Peking Opera showcases many of the classical forms of Chinese performance in one format. It’s an elaborate opera with stylized performances, bright costumes, and melodramatic storytelling. At the National Center for the Performing Arts, you can take in a performance, which will introduce you to classical methods of singing, acting, and dancing. Even if you’re daunted by the notion of seeing a foreign opera, you should seek out a Peking Opera performance as it also showcases some of the stunning acrobatics that China is famous for.
Eat Peking Duck at a local restaurant
If there’s one dish to eat while in Beijing on China tours, this is it. The elaborately-prepared and presented dish of Peking Duck captures Beijing cuisine in one experience. It’s classical, iconic, and delicious to boot. The thin, crispy skin is especially fantastic. You’ll find thousands of restaurants in Beijing serving Peking Duck, so you won’t have a problem ordering it. However, restaurants like Quanjude, Dadong, Jing Yaa Tang, and Duck de Chine are good options to seek out if you want to be assured of quality.