If you think you can cover Beijing in a weekend, think again. The capital is mind-bogglingly large and can be overwhelming for first-timers, particularly those who do not speak Chinese. Not to worry: these useful tips will bring you up to speed and ensure you make the most of the city’s culture, tasty cuisine and historic sites.
If you aren’t a terribly patient traveler, then you’ll want to avoid public holidays at all costs. When the country is on vacation, domestic travelers flock to the famous sites and, for most, Beijing’s Forbidden City and Great Wall of China are high atop the bucket list.
Watch the weather
Beijing is famous for its smoggy skies, but it’s not necessarily a given that you’ll encounter alarming pollution. If you time the trip right and arrive in early spring or early fall, it could be all blue skies and sunshine.
Budget enough time
The city doesn’t look all that intimidating on a map, but trust us: it’s gigantic. If you’re cabbing about town, budget at least 30 minutes between sites and about 1.5 hours to get from one side of the city to the other in moderate traffic using the ring roads.
For a more leisurely trip, set aside at least four or five days to see Beijing, which would allow for a hike on the Great Wall and, perhaps, an overnight stay in the nearby countryside.
Wake up early
If you have your heart set on seeing the Great Wall or the Palace Museum in Beijing (also known as the Forbidden City), then you need to make the most of your mornings. Not only will it help you avoid the largest crowds and queues, but most tourist sites close by 4 p.m.
It’s also important to note that the Forbidden City has a limit of 80,000 visitors a day; however, you can book tickets in advance to secure a spot.
Splurge a little
If you want any hope of relaxing after a busy day in the big city, it’s worth splurging on accommodations. Beijing is home to some stunning hotels, including Aman at Summer Palace. This Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star property is built in a historic courtyard-style setting, featuring colorful pavilions and peaceful gardens. It’s quiet and sophisticated, with luxurious suites and sexy bathrooms.
There’s even a secret entrance to the popular Summer Palace, China’s largest royal park, so you can sneak in for a stroll before the crowds arrive in the morning.
Explore the Great Wall
So, you finally have a chance to see this wonder of the world, but which part of it will you go to? You could do Badaling, but it feels a bit like Disneyland. Then there’s Mutianyu, recently renovated but also quite crowded. If you are looking for a more off-the-beaten path experience, try Jiankou Great Wall, a picturesque section that’s still in its original condition and far from the maddening crowds.
Most travelers can complete the challenging hike in about four hours, starting from Xizhazi Village and finishing in Mutianyu. Just be sure to wear proper hiking shoes, as well as bring water and sun protection.
Download a virtual private network
Another headache while traveling in China is, of course, the Great Firewall. You won’t be able to access common websites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Google, unless you download a virtual private network. One VPN option is Betternet, which works seamlessly on your mobile phone.
Hire an English–speaking driver
If you don’t speak Chinese and are planning to travel outside of Beijing, you will want to have a driver who speaks English. It’s relatively easy to get by without Chinese language skills in the city but, in the countryside, very few people speak English.
Hang out in the hutongs
There’s a right way and a wrong way to explore Beijing’s famous hutongs — the old-school neighborhoods that pay tribute to the past. On paper, Guijie (or Ghost Street) sounds pretty appealing with its street food and shops. But in person, it’s kitschy and crowded — a terrible combination.
Instead, stroll away from the busy street in pretty much any direction for a more authentic hutong experience. You’ll catch a glimpse of local life and will likely stumble across a hidden coffee shop, bar or local artisan shop.
Beijing has one of the best nightlife scenes in China, with cocktail bars and craft beer pubs around every corner. One of the most atmospheric spots is tucked away at Rosewood Beijing’s MEI, a space that comes alive with a spacious outdoor terrace, an adjacent wine bar and DJ beats as the night goes on.