With its slew of ancient palaces, temples and hutongs (old neighborhoods), Beijing is a city that is so emblematic of China that you can’t come to this part of the world and not spend time here. Having developed so rapidly in the past decade, the Chinese capital is both old and new, slow and fast at the same time. Despite the skyscrapers and modern infrastructure, Beijing still has so many traditional enclaves and pockets of interesting culture to uncover.
There’s so much to see and explore here, you’ll need at least a week to soak it all in; but tor those with only two days in the city, here are some of the best things to do and see:
The First 24 Hours
VISIT: Tiananmen Square. Start your exploration at Beijing’s most prominent spot, Tiananmen Square, most famous for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, a pro-democracy movement which ended with the declaration of martial law by the government and the death of several hundred or possibly thousands of civilians. Here you’ll find Chairmao Mao Memorial Hall where you can pay respects to China’s revered founder in his mausoleum.
The Tiananmen Gate. Photo courtesy Nellie Huang,
VISIT: Forbidden City. Cross over to the Tiananmen Gate and make your way into the Forbidden City, the most important imperial palace in China that served as the home of emperors for almost 500 years. Take a crash course in Chinese history and learn all about the milestones and major events that took place in this massive palace.
Inside the Forbidden City. Photo courtesy Nellie Huang,
VISIT: Jingshan Park. Across the road from the Forbidden City is the Jingshan Park, designed based on the principles of fengshui and to protect the palace from northern winds. Today you can climb the short hill for fantastic 360-degree views across the Forbidden City and Beihai Park.
VISIT: Drum and Bell Towers and Nanluogu Xiang. Continue on to the Drum and Bell Towers, one of the best places in Beijing to get lost while exploring the sprawling traditional hutongs and old Qing Dynasty courtyard homes. You can even hire a rickshaw guide to show you around the nooks and crannies of this area. For lunch, head to Nanluogu Xiang, a hutong lined with restaurants, cafés and boutiques that has become a hip and cool district in modern Beijing. Don’t miss Mao Livehouse, one of the happening hubs of Beijing’s burgeoning rock music scene.
Rickshaw riders in the hutong. Photo courtesy Nellie Huang,
EAT: Wangfujing Street. For a night of shopping and eating, head to Beijing’s most famous pedestrianized shopping street lined with a slew of antique shops, modern fashion stores, souvenir stands and street food kiosks. Food choices range from exotic fare like deep-fried scorpions and star fish to lamb meat skewers and tang hu lu (candied fruits on a stick).
Exotic food at Wangfujing. Photo courtesy Nellie Huang.
The Next 24 Hours
VISIT: The Great Wall of China. While it may be quite hectic to squeeze in a daytrip to the Great Wall, it’s definitely an impressive sight you don’t want to miss. Badaling is the closest bit of the wall to Beijing and bustles with visitors. To see the wall at its rugged best, head a little further from the city to other quieter sections such as Gubeikou, Jinshanling, Huanghuacheng and Jiankou. They are far more rugged and spectacular and still lie within 2-3 hours of Beijing. For speed things up, you can easily book a daytrip or transfers from your hotel/hostel.
Badaling section of the Great Wall. Photo courtesy Nellie Huang.
VISIT: Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven. If you still have some time in the late afternoon, make your way to the Summer Palace and then take a boat trip on Kunming Lake to get to the Temple of Heaven where you may find impromptu performances of Chinese opera, crowds intently observing games of Chinese chess, fan dances and more.
The summer palace. Photo courtesy Nellie Huang.
EAT: Beijing duck. You can’t come to Beijing and not try the famous Peking duck. Its paper crispy skin and tender succulent meat are best savored with plum sauce and thinly sliced cucumber all rolled up in wafer thin pancakes. There are plenty of good duck restaurants in Beijing, but one of the most famous in town is Quanjude – it may be a restaurant chain but it’s had a loyal following since 1864.
LOCAL: Chinese Acrobats. It’s fun, entertaining and thrilling. Beijing’s impressive acrobats will keep you at the edge of your seat with an array of juggling acts, contortionist performance and mask-changing stunts. Tianqiao Acrobatics Theater is the oldest acrobatics theater in Beijing, with nightly performances at 7.15pm.
An acrobatic show in Beijing. Photo courtesy Nellie Huang.