It is hard to conceptualize a city like Beijing unless you experience it first-hand. With almost 22 million people milling around, going about their daily lives, ambitious urban projects underway in the background, all one well-oiled machine, working in perfect harmony day after day, growing and expanding with layers of culture and history over three millennia. Jam-packed with ancient sites and marvels of modern architecture, Beijing, the sprawling capital of China, is representative of everything modern China is about – the good and the bad. Reminders of former imperial glory such as the magnificent Forbidden City stand side-by-side with Tiananmen Square, the site of Mao Zedong’s mausoleum and a permanent reminder of the communist revolution that transformed China’s political and cultural identity. But Beijing is so much more – with numerous exciting cultural events happening year-round, with attractive art exhibitions, picturesque gardens, sprawling architectural complexes, and seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in or around the city, including The Great Wall, a timeless man-made wonder meandering through the surrounding valleys and mountains. If China is the future, then Beijing is both its prow and its anchor, at the forefront of all new developments, but still deeply rooted in history and centuries-old cultural identity.
WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT BEIJING?
There are two major things to take into account when choosing when to visit Beijing. One of them is the weather, and the other one the Chinese national holidays that you will have to try to plan your trip around in case you want to avoid high hotel rates and long waiting lines basically everywhere you go. The weather in Beijing is relatively typical, with four distinct seasons. The spring is quite short and windy, the summers are long and hot, the autumn pleasant and cool, and the winter long and freezing. To avoid the extremes (37 °C/99 °F in August and July, -15 °C/5 °F in January), the best time to visit Beijing is either between March and May or September to October.
Overall, autumn is the best season due to warm, dry and sunny days and pleasant, cool evenings. As for the holidays, steer clear of International New Year, Chinese New Year, Qing Ming Jie (Tomb Sweeping Day) in April, Labor Day (May 1st), Dragon Boat Festival in June, Mid-Autumn Festival in September, and the National Holiday (October 1st-7th). The reason why these holidays may be a poor choice are the high prices and overcrowded public areas. However, if you are a fan of festivals, you might as well give it a go.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT BEIJING
With history going back 3,000 years, Beijing is among the oldest cities in the world, close to the same age as London. The area of Beijing is also one of the oldest inhabited areas, with recovered fossils of the Peking Man (Homo Erectus) indicating that human ancestors inhabited the area from 770,000 to 230,000 years ago. Today, the fossils can be seen at the Peking Man World Heritage Site at Zhoukoudian. During the course of its history, Beijing had many names, such as Jicheng (‘City of Ji’), Beiping (‘Central Peace’), Yanjing (Capital of Yan’), Zhongdu (‘Central Capital’), Nanjing (‘Southern Capital’), Dadu (‘Great Capital’), and many others.
The name Beijing, meaning ‘Northern Capital’, was the city’s 16th name, adopted in 1403. As mentioned earlier, Beijing has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These are the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Ming Tombs, the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian, parts of the Great Wall, and the Grand Canal, also known the Jing–Hang Grand Canal among the Chinese. When it comes to lesser-known facts, in 2022, Beijing will become the first city to host both the Summer and the Winter Olympic Games when the 2022 Winter Olympics are held there.
ONE DAY IN BEIJING ITINERARY
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Beijing.
Plan to Start Your Day Early
In order to have enough time for all the top things to do in Beijing, you will have to start your day early, around 6 AM. While it may seem too early, almost all visitors recommend getting to the most popular landmarks early in the day. In the afternoon, sometimes it is near-impossible to come close to a popular attraction.
For example, the Temple of Heaven sees most of its visitors around 3 PM. It is hard to predict how long you’ll have to wait in line in order to see a landmark or enter a museum, which is why you’ll have to take the wait times into consideration and make reservations in advance whenever you can to make your one day in Beijing as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.
Visit the Temple of Heaven First
Located in the southeastern part of central Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is a famous imperial temple complex built in 1420. Occupying 267 hectares (660 acres), the Temple of Heaven (with the surrounding complex) is the largest religious building in China. In the past, it was used for prayer by the Ming and Qing emperors during annual ceremonies. Today, there are several playgrounds and recreation grounds within the complex, making it a popular destination for families and adults looking to relax or work out. Some of the side buildings and open spaces host regular presentations, choral shows, ethnic dances, and so on. The complex is open 6AM–8PM, although the central building closes earlier, at 4PM.
Explore Tiananmen Square
One of the most important places to see in Beijing after the Temple of Heaven is Tiananmen Square, situated almost directly to the north. If you hail a taxi, you can get there in 15 minutes, while walking the entire 3.7 km stretch may take around 45 minutes. The square is one of the largest city squares in the world, notable for its impressive 37m obelisk and other landmarks such as the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and others.
Mao’s embalmed body is housed in the Memorial Hall, which is symbolic since Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square on October 1st 1949. The anniversary is still celebrated on the square, attracting up to 1 million people, all of them standing shoulder-to-shoulder. In the West, the square is famous for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests or the June Fourth Incident as the Chinese call it, which produced (among other things) the iconic “Tank Man” image, now a widely recognizable symbol of civil disobedience. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, you are required to show your passport upon entering the square.
Consider Visiting the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong
If you want, you can enter the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall and see his embalmed body in a crystal coffin. Depending on who you ask, the experience can be described as eerie, ridiculous, or exciting, but it is undoubtedly among the more unusual things to do in Beijing. There is a huge queue that forms every morning, but it moves fast, and you have about a minute in the Central Hall to feel the atmosphere of reverence and the heavy weight of history hanging over the place.
Take a Trip Back in Time at the Forbidden City
The next stop, the legendary Forbidden City, is located about 1.4 km north of Tiananmen Square, so you can easily get there in 15 minutes or less on foot. The Forbidden City’s monumental entrance is just across Chang’an Avenue. Formerly an enormous imperial palace reflecting the unlimited power and wealth of the Chinese emperors from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty (between 1420 and 1912), the Forbidden City was more than just a lavish, opulent home. It as the de-facto seat of government and the most important political center in the country.
With 980 buildings in total, the complex occupies 72 hectares (more than 180 acres). A perfect example of traditional Chinese architecture, the Forbidden City has exerted an immense influence on the culture and architecture of the entire region in Asia, way beyond the borders of imperial China. Due to its immeasurable significance, it has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987, with a special emphasis placed on the Forbidden City being the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures anywhere in the world.
Explore the Palace Complex and the Museum
Today, the Forbidden City is managed by the Palace Museum (since 1925), with an unparalleled collection of ancient artefacts and artwork, containing the original imperial collections, as well as numerous priceless pieces that have been added since. You need to come prepared, knowing that the place will be very crowded. After all, 15 million visitors admire the exhibitions every year. It is worth it, though, and the audio guide is available in multiple languages, providing for an informative, exciting experience.
There is one thing you absolutely must do in Beijing, however. Always book everything in advance. You can buy the tickets to the Forbidden City here. After exploring the Forbidden City, stick around for a couple of minutes and check out the nearby Beihai Park, a gorgeous former imperial park with a large lake. In the vicinity, there are several “Hutong” streets. Hutong are a particular type of street/narrow alley usually associated with Beijing, formed by joining old courtyard residences and forming a neighborhood.
Take a Taxi to Lama Temple
Lama Temple is a colorful, masterfully built Buddhist temple on 12 Yonghegong Street, approx. 20 minutes by car from the Forbidden City due north. The temple was built in 1694 as a series of beautiful pavilions with bronze statues, incense burners, and a large fifty-four-foot high Buddha statue made from Tibetan sandalwood. The temple is a great place to seek refuge from the large spaces and hordes of tourists at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. You will love the serenity of the spread-out courtyards and halls.
If you want to see everything, it may take as much as an hour and a half, but you should just take a leisurely stroll, relax and feel the atmosphere, and move on as soon as you feel ready, in order to save some time for all of the other things to do in Beijing.
Choose a Nearby Restaurant for Lunch
After a hectic morning and a few moments of repose at Lama Temple, it should already be around 2 PM. Since you’ll probably feel pretty famished by then, plan to have lunch at a nearby restaurant. There are many great restaurants in Beijing, but not all of them serve food that is very popular among Westerners. Luckily, there’s a great option just across the street from Lama Temple.
King’s Joy Beijing is an upscale restaurant specializing in vegetarian and vegan food inspired by local Chinese and Asian cuisine. The restaurant is a favorite among Beijing’s elite, frequently attracting celebrities and dignitaries with creative menu entries such as sweet and sour monkey’s head mushrooms, savory tofu kebabs, and sushi-inspired dragonfruit rolls -all of them completely meat-free, yet compromising nothing when it comes to taste and diversity.
If you are just looking for a quick bite, however, the nearby KFC will do the trick, especially if you are not in the mood for experimentation and crave the reliability of an American fast-food chain.
Visit the Summer Palace
Located almost 19 km from King’s Joy Beijing and Lama Temple, the Summer Palace is another famous Beijing landmark that is best reached by car/taxi. It takes about 30 minutes to get to this stunning lakefront palace, formerly a cloistered retreat for members of the Chinese imperial family. The palace was first built in 1750, but was later mostly destroyed in the war of 1860. It was eventually completely restored in 1886, remaining to this day an exemplary masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design.
What makes the Summer Palace truly special is how artificial features such as palaces, pavilions, bridges, and temples perfectly complement the natural characteristics of the landscape, forming one harmonious whole with the open water and the lush green hills. Due to its unique aesthetic value and significance as an impressive symbol of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, the Summer Palace was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1998.
Go for a Short Walk to Kunming Lake
While at the Summer Palace, take the time to explore the palace grounds and the surrounding scenic spots, including numerous temples, bridges, secluded gardens, and narrow paths. Take a short walk south and admire Kunming Lake, the central lake on the palace grounds. It is a pretty shallow man-made lake, but it covers a large area – 2.2 square kilometers (0.8 sq. mi), nearly three quarters of the grounds.
The predecessors of Kunming Lake, Xihu Lake and Wengshan (Jar Hill) had been used for irrigation over a period of three-and-a-half millennia before being developed into a reservoir for the capital in 1291. When the gardens around the Summer Palace were being created, 10,000 laborers were put to work on digging up and expanding the lake. When you look upon the serene waters and the large expanse that the lake is covering, it is hard to imagine that this could be the work of human hands.
Go for a stroll along the lake and explore the area until nightfall. The long land bridge separating Kunming Lake and West Lake diagonally is a perfect spot to snap some amazing photos of the Summer Palace from across the water, especially around sunset, with golden rays of sunshine falling over the ornate rooftops.
Try the Original Peking Duck
Trying the legendary Peking duck is one of those things that you absolutely must do in Beijing. A famous dish that has been prepared since the Imperial era, Peking duck is characterized by its crisp, thin skin and special seasoning. For the ultimate roasted duck in Beijing, whether you are looking for the traditional experience (mostly just skin, very little meat), or a contemporary take on the renowned dish, visit Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant. The interior feels very 80s, and you can tell that it doesn’t try to impress with upscale décor and touristy bells and whistles. Instead, the focus is on the food itself, and, seeing as a lot of locals go there, they must be doing something right.
If you are looking for unusual things to do in Beijing and you’d love to try something completely new, order the duck intestines with green pepper or chili sauce or the braised duck gizzard. The restaurant is located on 11 Beixiangfeng Hutong in Dongcheng Qu district). You can get there by hopping aboard the Subway Line 4 Daxing Line from Beigongmen. Hiring a taxi may be a good option, too.
WHERE TO STAY IN BEIJING?
Beijing Hotel NUO Forbidden City
33 East Chang An Avenue, Block B, Dongcheng
A beautiful historical property with a supreme location, Beijing Hotel NUO Forbidden City showcases the timeless charm of Old China, at the same time uncompromisingly featuring all the modern amenities expected from a hotel of its rank, including an indoor pool with a spa, free Wi-Fi throughout the property, and air-conditioned rooms with flat-screen satellite TVs. The rooms are beautifully furnished, with gorgeous and tasteful period furniture complimenting the hotel’s classic French-Orient architecture.
Hotel Kapok – Forbidden City
No.16 Donghuamen Street, Dongcheng, 100006 Beijing
With chic design elements inspired by traditional concepts, Hotel Kapok – Forbidden City lives and breathes the true spirit of Beijing as a modern metropolis still firmly rooted in its history. The hotel feels clean and fresh with its straight lines, smooths surfaces, and airy open spaces bathed in natural light. Staying at Hotel Kapok – Forbidden City is a joy due to its perfect location (just 200 m from the Forbidden City, hence the name) and numerous amenities, including a spa with a fitness center, and flat-screen TVs with cable channels in each room. The property is the perfect starting point for exploring the city, made easier by bicycle and car rentals available at the property for all guests.
Beijing 161 hotel LeZaiNanluo Boutique Hotel
No. 3, Shajing Hutong., Dongcheng, 100009 Beijing
A charming hotel that feels very warm and welcoming due to its many design elements made of stone and wood, Beijing 161 hotel LeZaiNanluo Boutique Hotel seems to sprout from Beijing’s gardens and gorgeously manicured parks. While not as close to the city center as the previous two entries, this property is stilly very well connected. It is located less than 500 m from Nanluoguxiang Subway Station (Line 6 & 8), with the forbidden city just a 10-minute drive away. All of the rooms are well-appointed, spacious, and fitted with flat-screen cable TVs and air conditioning. You can enjoy a view of the garden from your room or enjoy some time outside on the hotel’s sun terrace.
Simple Family Beijing
Floor 16, Unit 1, Yongli International Building West Block, No. 21 Gongti North Road, Chaoyang
Although Simple Family Beijing is a bit peripheral, you will fall in love with its amazing visuals, whether you choose to stay in a room with a private bathroom or the cleverly decorated tent area, with ethnic elements and small details meant to remind you of camping in the wilderness. The tipi-like tents will wake up the kid inside you, like you are at your friend’s house for a sleepover and you are building forts. The friendly, accommodating staff at the front desk speak both Russian and English, making things much easier in case you don’t speak Mandarin.
DAY TRIPS FROM BEIJING
There are so many things to do in Beijing that you will never be able to do it all if you’ve only got one day to spend. And Beijing is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the surrounding area has to offer. If you choose to extend your stay and spend more than one day in Beijing, here are some ideas on how you might spend your time. Obviously, doing the Great Wall tour from Beijing is a must.
The Great Wall of Badaling is a particularly famous portion of the Great Wall that rises to 3,282 feet and can easily be reached on a day trip from Beijing. This section of the wall is the best-preserved and the most complete and is quite easy to climb compared to some other sections. When it comes to other Beijing day tours, a lot of the best ones can be done by air.
For example, there is the Day Trip to Chengdu from Beijing by Air, as well as the Full Day Tour of Shanghai from Beijing by Air. In case you want to see two of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites in China in one day, consider the Great Wall of China at Badaling and Ming Tombs Day Tour from Beijing. For an overview of these and other Beijing day tours with recommendations and special offers, check out this article.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING BEIJING
-Most businesses nowadays in China accept credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard, although UnionPay is still the more widely accepted card scheme. Nevertheless, you will still need to carry cash – in some parts, it is the only payment method.
-In the same vein, don’t expect that you will be able to pay with dollars or euros. The only currency that vendors will consider is the yuan, the official Chinese currency.
-Also, notify your bank if you intend to travel to China and use your cards there. Otherwise, your cards may get cancelled mid-trip due to “suspicious activity”.
-If you don’t speak Mandarin, you may want to print the name of your hotel and its address as it is written in Chinese characters. Google Maps screenshots of the hotel’s location also help if you want your taxi driver to know where you’re going.
–Beijing is a safe city to visit in spite of its huge size. Pickpocketing isn’t exceedingly common, and foreigners aren’t specifically targeted.
–Don’t drink the tap water in Beijing and other parts of China as it is not safe to drink.
-Blowing your nose in public is considered very impolite in China. –Consider getting a local SIM card to avoid steep international roaming charges.
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Anca is a travel writer and the founder of One Day Itinerary - the biggest collection of travel itineraries for those who are time-limited or just want to maximize their time while traveling. Although she easily becomes homesick for Croatia, she thinks travel is essential to her happiness. She has traveled to more countries than she is years old and doesn’t plan on changing that fact. In her travel guides she aims to inspire people to travel whenever they have a spare day (or two).