City Guide: Beijing

Background: More on our trip to China and Shanghai City Guide.

Do:

  1. Great Wall: Whenever I visit a top 100 world site, I always fear that it will not live up to the hype; that it will be crowded, miserable in some way, and I’ll be disappointed (ask me about my trip as a teenager to Pompeii – perhaps it is PTSD from that visit, I can still feel the heat and remember the smells of that visit). As we were driving to the wall, after a morning freezing in the city, I feared this was going to be one of those sites. I couldn’t imagine anything other than a packed site, I was already so cold, and going outside again seemed like torture. Thankfully, I was 100% wrong.The visit was awe-inspiring, beautiful, and nearly empty. In hindsight, I recommend a day tour or hike, rather than trying to do multiple Beijing city sites along with the wall, which is the tour we did. We did the Mutianu section. It has an easy chairlift or tram up, and you can either do those or a track sled down (along with an awesomely bad translated sign, capture in the pictures below).

2. Tiananmen Square. If you are in Beijing, you will be here, at least once. We ended up going twice, once on our own, and then again as part of our day tour (which was fine but not great, hence the lack of recommendation for the tour company). Note that you have to go through security to enter the square, and once you are in, it is in the same secured zone as Forbidden Palace, so aim to do both at the same time to avoid two lines. The tour wasn’t particularly helpful – reading up online or bringing a guide book is sufficient. We used Lonely Planet Beijing, which served as a good guide.

Photos of Tiananmen and Forbidden City

3. Forbidden City. Another required visit for anyone in Beijing. Again, skip a tour and go with written materials for a self-guided afternoon in the largest palace complex in the world. It is so large, that it would have been more fun to simply wander rather than tour at the same pace as a group.

4. National Museum of China. The National Museum was surprisingly great. It is one of the largest museums in the world (who knew?). The building itself is worth a visit, and there are dozens of exhibits to pick from – it would be impossible to try and visit all in one day. We are usually in and out of museums within an hour, but we were there for almost a half day. Some of our favorites were the history of China exhibit in the basement, and an exhibit that focused on state gifts from other countries to China. Here is Jerry for scale, and this is in the basement.

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5. Hutongs. Exploring the hutongs of Nanluogu Xiang to see life in old China. While much of the shopping and stores were under construction, we had fun wandering the alleyways and catching a glimpse of daily life.

We didn’t make it to the Summer Palace, Lama temple, or any fancy Peking Duck restaurants like Da Dong. Also, given it was freezing and winter, we didn’t explore the many urban parks.

Eat:

  1. Wangfujing Snack Street. Located nearby the large pedestrian shopping area of Wangfujing, the snack street is aimed towards tourists, but is still a lot of fun. With everything from scorpions to roast meat sticks, it has the absurd and the tasty. You will pay gringo prices, which are still relatively inexpensive.

2. Grandma’s. Freezing after walking around Wangfujing Dajie, we decided to find dinner in the neighborhood and ended up in the mall at Beijing’s Grandma’s, a famous Shanghai restaurant. It was recommended in the guidebook and we took it as a good sign there was a long wait very early in the evening. Put your name in on the electronic kiosk and wait to hear your number (or keep an eye on it if you aren’t with a Chinese speaker). The food was great, cheap, and quick. Worth a visit if you are in the area, or in Shanghai. Ask for an English menu once you get a table.

3. Ice cream churros. After bombing out recently in Mexico City in a days long attempt to find good churros, I was shocked to stumble upon tons of hot, fresh churro stands in Beijing. You can see here, they made them while you wait, and then add soft serve and your choice of fruit. I can’t express how hot and delicious these were. Especially given how cold it was! We found these along Nanluogu Xiang.

4. Baozi Pu. If you are wandering Nanluogu Xiang, find 108 Gulou Dongdijie and try the dumplings. For less than a $1, you get the this deliciousness. With beers, about $4 for two for an amazing lunch.

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Stay:

We stayed at the Fairmont, which is one of our primary go-to chains. We always have a lovely stay at an interesting property with great service. Given the holiday, we were able to upgrade to a snazzy one-bedroom suite which included the robust breakfast buffet. The hotel had a great, empty gym and pool to counteract breakfast. But the hotel itself was eerily deserted and bars/restaurants closed fairly early the week we were there. This isn’t the “W” – there is no party in the lobby.

We did notice something odd in the closet, a velvet bag labeled Gas Mask. We wondered whether this was something to use with the smog – as you can see, it was a bit more terrifying!

Hotel prices in Beijing were generally very low, with our basic room, pre-upgrade, refundable rate was around $130 USD per night.

Know:

  1. Remember US passport holders need a visa for stays over 72 hours. Always check out the latest on the state department website (and register your travel with STEP).
  2. China is relatively safe. Watch out for a few common scams, like being invited to a tea house, or a rick shaw hustling you at the North Gate of the forbidden city. And like everywhere in the world, make sure the taxi driver always turns on the meter.
  3. Have print outs with the Chinese characters for your hotel when you arrive, taxi drivers won’t speak English. Hotel websites have local directions to print.
  4. Air quality is a serious concern in Beijing, bring a filter mask if you have any sensitivities (and even if you don’t).

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    This is a real ad…
  5. Traffic in Beijing is horrible. It took us a few days to switch from taxi to subway, and we were glad we did. Subway is clean, safe, easy (stop names are in English), and cheap.
  6. While there are public toilets everywhere (awesome) many are squatty potties (less awesome) and most don’t have any TP. So bring your tissues, and use facilities at modern malls. And if it says it is a “4 Star” rated toilet – beware, because clearly it won’t be…
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