More insider guides for planning a trip to Beijing
Thanks to the 24 emperors who have called Beijing home since the Ming Dynasty, there are more things to do in the capital than any other Chinese city. The Forbidden City, the world’s largest palace complex, is just the start. Throw in the Summer Palace, the cosmologically aligned Temple of Heaven, the magisterial Drum and Bell Towers, the pleasure lakes of Beihai and Shichahai, and protecting it all from the barbarians beyond, the Great Wall snaking through the city’s northern mountains. Since 1949 you can add Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People, and umpteen other socialist monuments.
Walk the walls of the Forbidden City
Since 2015, sections of the Forbidden City’s eight-meter-high perimeter wall have been open to the public, offering a panoramic perspective on the world’s largest palace complex. So large, in fact, that once off-limits sections are coming online every year in a huge renovation drive, including a subterranean chamber used to store ice for the Imperial family, which is now home to a café.
Insider tip: You can also climb the Tiananmen (Heavenly Peace) Gate itself for views south over the square. You’ll need to buy a separate ticket from the northeast side of the gate.
Contact: 00 86 10 8500 7421; en.dpm.org.cn
Opening times: 8.30am-4.30pm
Nearest metro: Tiananmen East
Mess around in boats
Rent a pedal boat to explore Beihai (literally “northern sea”) Park, a royal lake and pleasure ground that dates back to the era of Kublai Khan and China’s Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Paddle out to Jade Islet for photographs of the 36m high White Dagoba, built in the 17th century to honour a visit by the Dalai Lama, then clamber up the top of the hill for terrific views over the Forbidden City’s rooftops.
Insider tip: Don’t miss the spectacular Nine Dragon Screen near the north gate, a 27m wide ‘spirit wall’ inlaid with colourful glazed tiles depicting writhing dragons.
Address: Di’anmen Wai Dajie
Opening times: 6.30am-8pm
Nearest metro: Beihai North
Bow to the Maitreya Buddha
In the fifth hall of Beijing’s most august and arresting temple, an 18m high statue of Maitreya Buddha, robed in yellow and said to be carved from a single piece of sandalwood, welcomes candle-wielding worshippers with a meditative smile. It’s just one of many riches at China’s most revered Tibetan temple, Lama Temple, originally an Imperial residence, and converted to a lamasery in 1744.
Insider tip: Shops lining the street beside the temple sell Buddha statues, incense, charms and talismans, while Wudaoying Hutong opposite is home to hip coffee roasters and local boutiques.
Address: 12 Yonghegong Dajie
Opening times: 9am-4.30pm
Nearest metro: Yonghegong – Lama Temple
Listen to the beat of Beijing
Time your visit to Beijing’s gulou (Drum Tower) to coincide with one of several daily drum performances, bashed out on around a dozen huge reproduction Ming Dynasty watch drums by a troupe of performers at the top of this 47m high, Qing Dynasty-era tower. Then skip across the square to its time-keeping counterpart zhonglou (Bell Tower), for panoramic city views and a tea-tasting ceremony.
Insider tip: In the Drum Tower, look for the battered Night Watchman’s Drum which is an original, and would have been sounded here to signal the changing of the night watchmen’s shift in old Beijing.
Address: Gulou Dong Dajie
Opening times: 9am-5pm
Nearest metro: Shichahai
Wander the city’s hutong alleyways
Beijing’s hutongs comprise a low-slung maze of historic inner-city architecture that survive in swathes of the old centre – the most extant and strollable chunks are to the north and west of the Forbidden City. Along these grey-brick lanes that divide the outer walls of courtyard homes, you’ll glimpse vignettes of local life: locals playing xiangqi (Chinese chess), gossiping grannies catching rays – even the occasional cleaver sharpener doing his rounds by bicycle.
Insider tip:Beijing-based Bespoke Travel Company offers an immersive hutong tour, which includes visiting the Drum Tower, a private folk museum, and the home of a champion trainer of fighting crickets.
Address: Xicheng district
Nearest metro: Xisi
Get up close and personal with priceless Chinese art
Halfway up a glass skyscraper is the last place you’d expect to find such a treasure trove of ancient Chinese artefacts. The Poly Art Museum is small but perfectly formed, inviting the few visitors who track it down to gaze unimpeded at priceless bronzeware, porcelain and Buddhist sculptures, displayed on artfully lit plinths.
Insider tip: Seek out six of the dozen ‘zodiac sculptures’ (modelled on the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac) that once adorned a fountain in the Old Summer Palace. The museum is still trying to round up the rest.
Address: New Poly Plaza Building, 14 Dongzhimen Nandajie
Contact: 00 86 10 6500 8117
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 9.30am-5pm
Nearest metro: Dongsishitiao
See the flag rise (or set) over the Middle Kingdom
Every day at dawn and dusk, soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army raise and lower the Five-starred Red Flag on Tiananmen Square, watched by a patriotic crowd of Chinese people. It was on this spot that the masses gathered in 1949 to hear Chairman Mao proclaim the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Today, Mao’s portrait hangs from the gate where he made the pronouncement. To the south, he lies embalmed in his mausoleum on the square, which you can also visit.
Insider tip:Aim to arrive at Tiananmen Square half an hour before sunrise or sunset to allow for security access on to the square.
Address: Chang’an Jie
Nearest metro: Tiananmen West
Take the train to the Great Wall
Most visitors reach the Great Wall by road, but a more scenic option is to go by rail, riding the ‘S’ train from Huangtudian Station out to Yanqing County. The route follows the old Imperial Peking to Zhangjiakou railway, the first railway designed and built by the Chinese towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, and passes crumbling battlements in the hills before climbing a switchback to Badaling, China’s most famous stretch of Great Wall.
Insider tip: You can use a Beijing subway card to ride the Great Wall train, which avoids having to queue up for a train ticket at the station.
Address: Yanqing County
Opening times: 7am-6pm (Badaling Great Wall)
Nearest metro: Huoying (for Huangtudian Station)
Tour the wild Ming Dynasty Great Wall with a history expert
A weekend at the ‘wild wall’ with William Lindesay OBE and his family is a bucket-list essential for history buffs. Hiking remote, unrestored stretches of battlements at sunrise, learning its story as you go, then returning to 'The Barracks' (their countryside home in Beijing's mountainous Huairou district) for hearty bacon and eggs, before doing it all over again, is an experience you won’t soon forget. Englishman Lindesay, hospitable host, guide, conservationist and author of five books on the Great Wall, has lived beside it and studied it for three decades.
Insider tip: Come well-armed with camera equipment; the views of the crumbling Great Wall snaking across the ridgeline of distant mountains are sensational.
Contact:wildwall.com; 00 86 185 1025 4530
Pass through the Spirit Way to the Ming Tombs
Earthly portal to the divine resting place of thirteen Ming emperors, the seven-kilometre-long ‘spirit way’ in the hills north of Beijing starts with an ornate stone archway, passing through a pavilion containing a 50-ton bixi (mythical tortoise) carrying an inscribed stele, before stretching into a long march between 18 pairs of carved stone guardians leading up to the tombs.
Insider tip: You don’t need to join a tour to visit the Ming Tombs; they are accessible by subway station on the new Changping line. But note that it is a forty-minute schlep from the station to the Spirit Way.
Address: Changping District
Contact: 00 86 10 6076 1422
Opening times: 8am-5.30pm
Nearest metro: Ming Tombs Scenic Area
Sojourn to Empress Cixi’s pleasure garden
A royal retreat of pagodas, temples, bridges and causeways enclosing an artificial lake, the Summer Palace was the preferred playground of Cixi, a concubine who became the Dowager Empress (1835-1908). Although the magnificent gardens have been awarded Unesco World Heritage status, this Summer Palace is in fact an inferior reboot of the original, razed to the ground by British and French troops in 1860 during the second Opium War.
Insider tip:Take enough cash (at least RMB 400/£45) to pay for a deposit on a pedal boat, which can be rented by the hour for jaunts across Kunming Lake.
Address: Haidian District
Opening times: 6.30am-6pm
Nearest metro: West Gate of Summer Palace
Take a helicopter flight over the Mutianyu Great Wall
A bona fide bucket list splurge, China Helicopter Tours (a local operator) offers 30-minute flights over the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, a rambling stretch of Ming-era brick and stone about 55km from Beijing, famous for its vertiginous dips and ascents, and lush mountain setting. The trip includes city transfers and lunch.
Insider tip: Although you can do it earlier in the year, flying from late May onwards will reveal the mountains at their greenest and most beautiful.
Contact: 00 86 18 6009 51266; chinahelicoptertours.com
Picnic among the ruins of the old Summer Palace
Abandoned after it was trashed by Anglo-French soldiers in 1860, and only reopened as a park of remembrance in the 1980s, Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) was once the gilded retreat of the Qianlong Emperor. Rambling and romantic, a few shattered lumps of stone are all that remain. Fix yourself a picnic and find a quiet corner within its wooded pathways and lotus-filled pools.
Insider tip: Yuanmingyuan is big (860 acres), and the most extensive ruins, known as the Western Mansions, are in the far north of the park, furthest from the entrance – but it’s worth the trek.
Address: Changping District
Contact: 00 86 10 6262 8501
Opening times: 7am-6pm
Nearest metro: Yuanmingyuan Nanmen
Get acquainted with ‘jingju’ at Beijing’s oldest opera theatre
The two-storey, wood-panelled Zhengyici Theatre is one of the oldest in China, originally built in 1668 on the site of a Buddhist temple. With around 100 seats, it’s an intimate setting to discover Peking opera (jingju), a style that came about after troupes from the south travelled to Beijing in 1790 to perform for Emperor Qianlong’s 80th birthday party. Peking opera great Mei Lanfang performed there.
Insider tip: Theatre Beijing is a reputable agent that can help with ticket purchases via email (in English) and deliver them to your hotel.
Address: 220 Qianmen Xi Heyan Jie
Contact: 00 86 10 6303 3104
Opening times: 7:30pm-9pm
Nearest metro: Hepingmen
See world class art in a Communist factory complex
When the production lines of Joint Factory 718 juddered to a halt in the 1990s, China’s rising art stars moved in, converting the Bauhaus workshops designed in the 1950s by East Germans into edgy studio space. Today, the 798 Art District has gentrified into an enclave of international galleries hosting must-see exhibitions from China and overseas. Thankfully, much of the industrial architecture – once the PRC’s model communist factory zone – has been preserved.
Insider tip:Fuel up in between galleries with a meal at Fodder Factory, a nostalgic shrine to China in the 1970s and 1980s serving spicy Sichuan and Hunan stir-fries.
Address: Jiuxianqiao Lu
Opening times: 9am-6pm (most galleries closed Mon)
Nearest metro: Wangjing South