The Last of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China
Reaching our last destination on this trip we arrived to the capital city of China. The heart of the country where the former emperor flair can still be felt in the air in the spectacular palatial constructions. Royal temples, palaces, gardens and broad avenues dating back to the Qing and Ming Dynasties, where the center of power of the vast empire, the Forbidden City, was (and is) located at the very heart, with the rest of the city following concentric rings on an ever expanding city.
Having been before in Shanghai which apparently is a larger city than Beijing, you do not get this feeling once in Beijing. You will come across a vast city where sights are so distant one to another as you surely did not really expect before when planning your trip. Have this really in consideration as the time you will spend commuting around is going to be really incredible long.
But having said quite a positive introduction, the unfortunate reality can change your mind rapidly. Yes, no one can argue about the impressive sights and history on them, but how about what is in the middle of the way between the sites; this is, the city itself? Well, that is the downside here. It is a complete disaster in architectural taste. Horrible apartment high-rises simply everywhere possible, ugly streets without any taste; huge avenues where pedestrians are the less considered. Only congestion, pollution, noise and traffic at any time of the day.
We’ve been to many cities before with this same issue, but it is much notorious in Beijing because of the enormous distances in between. The subway network does not cover even half of the tourist sights, buses? Good luck trying to figure out destination, and if you do, prepare to get old in them by spending so much time in traffic jams. So what’s the last option? Taxis. Yes, they are super cheap and great of course, but trying to get into one is mission impossible and frustrating. First of all, 99% of them are occupied, and then, the few free ones won;t stop for foreigners! Great isn’t it? So a trick we could work out is going to the nearest hotel and ask them to order one for you. But even in this case, be patient, you might need to wait over 30 minutes most of the times. And now think you need to do this every time you want to move to a different area. Really a waste of precious time and stressful situation, but you have no other choice unless you prefer walk kilometers and kilometers in the ugly polluted streets. No thanks.
But other that the transportation issues, you will find like for any other major Chinese city, very clean streets, well cared gardens and more or less pretty good organisation everywhere. Only major downside? Their habit of spitting in the floor.
Talking about food well, it shall not be of any problem! You are in Beijing which means one of the greatest places on earth for food. Whatever you like, whatever you desire can be found in the city, but of course there are basic rules you should follow and eat as locals do. After wall what will be the point of looking for a western restaurant chain? Pointless and a waste of opportunity. And very important, there might be areas in the city where you will actually not find places to eat, but don’t worry nor judge the bad luck. There are entire neighbourhoods where every street is packed with restaurants.
The most famous and renown dish from the city is without doubt Peking Roast Duck. And believe me if I tell you I am not a big fan of duck, but you must try it! The way it’s done and served is with thin pancakes, plum sauce, slivers of scallions and cucumbers. You spread the sauce on the pancake the put a few pieces of duck, cucumber and scallions. Really enjoyable and delicious.
Savory pancakes (煎饼果子 Jiānbĭng guŏzi) are another of the specialities from northern China region in general. It’s a pancake with a grilled egg and it’s common street food. Mutton Hotpot (涮羊肉 shuàn yáng ròu) is also very common and famous among locals. It is the same as a hotpot elsewhere in Southeast Asia where you are given a broth and you cook yourself the vegetables and meat/seafood you like, how you like and as long as you like. Around the city centre expect to pay ¥40 per person. One of the best places for street food is Gui Street (簋街), located within Dongzhimen district, while Guijie Street (簋街/鬼街 Guǐjiē) in Dongcheng District is great for dining in.
And of course as how I mentioned in the previous guides for Shanghai and Seoul, dumplings are very famous and popular. They are delicious and with so much varieties. Gladly on this I can strongly recommend a chain of restaurants which we happened to find while visiting Taipei back in April this year. What we did not expect was for it to be an Asian chain. The only 1 Michelin star restaurant chain! OK, just a bit more pricey than any other place, but the quality of the dumplings is something you probably never had before. They are to die for! The place is called Din Tai Fung and there are few restaurants around Beijing.
For more information about Beijing check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. China’s currency is the Renminbi (¥, CNY). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Beijing
- Xicheng (西城区; Xīchéngqū) Which means West City. Is the area to the north west of the Forbidden City.
-Jingshan Park (北海 Běihǎi) From where you will get great views of the Forbidden City. The park has nice landscaped gardens, pavilions and gates. Entrance fee of ¥10.
-Beihai Park Described as a masterpiece of Chinese gardening art also has nice pavilions and monuments scattered around lakes. It was an Imperial Garden since it’s inception in the 11th century. Located to the west of Jingshan Park.
–White Cloud Temple (白云观 Báiyúnguàn) Houses the Chinese Taoist Association. Originally established in 793. 08:30-16:00 ¥10.
-Lidai Diwang Miao Temple (历代帝王庙 Lìdàidìwángmiào) Also known as the Temple to Emperors of Past Ages. One of the oldest, built in 1530 used to sacrifice to past emperors. 09:00-16:00 ¥20.
–Deshengmen (德胜门箭楼 Déshèngménjiànlóu) Is an archery tower and a barbican, remaining from the former city walls built in 1437. It hosts inside a coin collection, 09:00-16:00 ¥10.
-Xidan Area Where you will find plenty of malls and shopping streets. Right by Xidan metro station.
- Dongcheng District (东城区 Dōngchéng Qū) Meaning East City is the area to the north east of the Forbidden City.
-Tian’anmen Square Is without any equal, the largest city square in the world and one of the key tourist sights in Beijing for the many imposing buildings that surround it and location of the major sight at one of the sides, the Forbidden City. There are three metro stations serving the square: Qianmen Station on line 2 and Tian’anmen East and Tian’anmen West on line 1.
–Mao’s Mausoleum Opposite the Forbidden City. Although lengthily queues those move quick. It is not surely known if the body is real or a wax replacement.
–Monument to the People’s Heroes Located at the centre of the square.
-Great Hall of the People Located on the western side, it’s the parliament building and can be visited for ¥30.
–Chinese National Museum Located on the eastern side. Open from 09:00 to 17:00. except Monday which is closed. Free admission.
–Tian’anmen Gate (天安门 Gate of Heavenly Peace) Located on the northern end of the square. You can visit the museum inside for ¥15.
–National Centre for the Performing Arts Is one of the largest opera houses in the city, a must see even of not attending a concert for it’s spectacular architecture. Located just to the west of Tian’anmen Square.
-Zhongshan Park Right in the front of the Forbidden City has very nice landscaped gardens, monuments and gates. ¥3.
-Forbidden City Open from 08:30 to 17:00, ¥60. Sight number one in Beijing, an UNESCO World Heritage Site in its full. Was the heart of power during the Imperial China dynasties Ming and Qing. Plan ahead with time, this place is so vast it will easily can take you over half a day to visit.
-Drum Tower and Bell Tower The Drum Tower was originally built in 1272 although reconstructed in the 1800s. The Bell Tower was built in 1700s. Both were built to play music although later to mark the time. You can visit both for ¥30, or separately at a cost of ¥20 and ¥15 respectively, open from 09:00 to 17:00. Located to the north of the Forbidden City near Gulou Dajie station on lines 2 and 8.
–Yonghegong (雍和宮) Also known as Lama Temple or Palace of Peace. Built by Chinese emperors in Tibetan version of Buddhism. There is a 18m statue of Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood. Nearest metro station Yonghegong Lama Temple on lines 2 and 5. Open from 09.00 to 16.00 ¥25.
–Confucius Temple (孔庙; Kǒngmiào) Built in 1302 it depicts pavilions with displays about Confucius and the history of Confucianism. Nearest metro station Yonghegong on lines 2 and 5, literally opposite the Yonghegong temple. 09:00-17:00 ¥30 including admission to the Imperia Academy.
–Imperial Academy (国子监 Guózǐjiàn) Just west of the Confucius Temple. It was the highest level college and location of examinations for the civil service in Imperial China.
–Zhihua Temple On the borders of the 2nd Ring Road to the east of the Forbidden City. It’s one of the best preserved wooden temples in Beijing dating back to 1443. 06.00-18.00 ¥20.
–Ancient Observatory (古欢象台 Gǔhuānxiàngtái) Near Beijing Railway Station on Jianguomen metro station line 1/2. Located on top of an old watchtower of the city walls, was built in 1442. 09:00-16:00 ¥10.
–Hutongs This area of the city is famous for those traditional old neighbourhoods and alleyways of Beijing. Dongcheng’s are among the most extensive and best preserved. The best area for exploration is between the Bell Tower and the Lama Temple.
- Xuanwu Disctrict (宣武区 Xuānwǔ Qū) Located to the south west of the Forbidden City. It is one of the districts with the less sights though still interesting to come if you have plenty of time, otherwise concentrate in the other areas first and if any time left then come over here.
–Niu Street Mosque (牛街礼拜寺 Niújiēlǐbàisì) One of the oldest mosques in Beijing, originally built in 996 combining traditional Chinese and typical Arabic motives where red colour is the most prominent. ¥10.
-Grand View Garden Located on the edges of the 2nd Ring Road has nice gardens, pavilions and monuments. Open from 07.30 to 17.00, ¥40.
–Taoranting Park A much larger park that the Grand View, also located on the souther edge of the 2nd Ring Road. Nice traditional landscaped gardens around the lakes and islands with bridges and pavilions.
–Fayuan Temple (法源寺 Fǎyuánsì) Is the oldest Buddhist temple in Beijing, originally built in 645 then rebuilt between 1436 and 1449. Nearest metro station Changchunjie St on line 2, open from 07:00 to 16:30, ¥5.
–Baoguo Temple (报国寺 Bàoguósì) Founded in 1103. Open from 07:00 to 16:30, free admission.
- Chongwen District (崇文区 Chóngwén Qū) To the south east of the Forbidden City, it is together with Dongcheng one of the most famous and historical districts due to the amount of great sights and beautiful architecture you will find.
-Temple of Heaven (天坛 Tiāntán) Is the symbol of Beijing, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties were coming for ceremonies of prayers to Heaven for good harvest. Not only that the temple is beautiful but the vast traditional gardens make it also one of the nicest places in the city. The nearest metro station is Tiantandongmen in line 5. Open from 08.00 to 16.00, ¥35.
-Ming Dynasty City Wall Site Park (明城墙遗址公园 Míng Chéngqiáng Yízhǐ Gōngyuán) The original city walls were built by 1435 and stretched for over 23 km. Nowadays only a small section remains of around 1.5 km, fully restored and open to visitors for ¥10 if you want to go inside the tower. The park itself is free. The nearest metro station is Chongwenmen.
- Chaoyang District (朝阳区 Cháoyáng Qū) Covering an extensive area to the north east outside of the 2nd Ring Road and up to the 5th and beyond. Although not many tourist sights in here, there are great shopping areas the the Central Business District with many of the shiny impressive new towers and frenetic construction everywhere.
-Dongyue Temple (东岳庙 Dōngyuèmiào) Small Taoist temple founded in 1319 housing the Beijing Folk Arts Museum. Open from 08:30 to 16:30, ¥10.
-CBD Central Business District Of recent construction is the latest addition to the city for business and banking, showcasing the rapid growth of the city and China overall. The tallest skyscrapers in the city are located in this area and many buildings have become already 21st century landmarks.
-CCTV Building Nicknamed The Underpants or Bird Legs has become a symbol of the raising and booming economy in the city.
-World Trade Center Tower III Is another great example of the contemporary architecture that now fills every possible space around this area. There is an observation deck at floor 81.
-Ritan Park (日坛公园) Is one of the most beautiful parks in Beijing, near the metro station Yonganli line 1. Open from 06:00 to 18:00. From the top of one of the hills you will get great views of the CBD.
-Temple of the Sun Built in 1530 during the late Ming Dynasty for use in ritual sacrifice to the sun by the Emperor of China.
-Ditan Park Located right outside of the 2nd Ring Road on the north east, and literally right across the road from the Lama Temple (which is within the 2nd Ring Road in the neighbouring district of Dongcheng).
-Temple of Earth One of the largest temple complexes in the city and a truly must visit for it’s beauty. The nearest metro station is Lama Temple.
- Haidian District (海淀 Hǎidiàn) Covering the north west portion of the city from the 2nd ring road and beyond the 5th.
-Summer Palace (颐和园 Yíhéyuán) An UNESCO World Heritage Site and major tourist sight in the city. Used to be the summer residence of the Qing Imperial Family. You can take buses 690 and 808 from Tian’anmen Square to the last stop, the Summer Palace. Bus 826 goes from Temple of Heaven to the Summer Palace. The nearest metro station is Xiyuan in line 4. ¥30.
-Old Summer Palace (圆明园) Built in the 18th and early 19th centuries were home of emperors and Qing court. Destroyed by British and French troops in 1860 they were never rebuilt and lay in ruins ever since. Bus 690 from Tian’anmen Square or Xiyuan metro station on line 4. ¥10.
-Great Bell Temple & Museum (大钟寺古钟博物馆 Dàzhōng Sì Gǔzhōng Bówùguǎn) Known as the Temple of Awakening Life (觉生寺Juéshēng Sì) houses the 15th century Yongle Great Bell, the largest bell in China. Nearest metro station Dazhongsi on line 13.
-Yuetan Park and Temple of the Moon Built in 1530 was where emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties offered tribute to the God of the Moon and the Gods of the Stars.
- Fengtai District (丰台 Fēngtái) Covers pretty much the whole south of the city from the 2nd Ring Road up to the 5th and beyond.
-Lugou Bridge (卢沟桥 Lúgōu Qiáo) Dating back to the late 1100s is one of the finest bridges built from the era across the Yongding River. Was in this spot that in 1937 the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War started. The nearest metro station is Wanshou Lu on line 1, then change to Bus 624.
-Wanping Fortress (宛平城 Wǎnpíng Chéng) Right across the Lugou Bridge. A fortress built during the Ming Dynasty.
-Beijing West Train Station Is the largest train station serving the city, largest in China and among the largest in the world.
- The Great Wall of China (长城 Chángchéng) UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Badaling section of the Great Wall is the most famous due to it’s convenient location and great shape, but expect hundreds of thousands of people having the same idea of visiting it as you. Other sections include Jinshanling, Simatai and Mutianyu, much less visited than Badaling. Open from 06:30 to 18:30, ¥45, plus another ¥80 single or ¥100 if you want to take the cable car. You can reach Badaling by train from Beijing North Station (metro Xizhimen Station) for ¥12 or ¥6 with a Beijing Metro Smart Card per way on the S2 commuter line, direction Yanqing. Some convenient departures are 07.58 (S203), 08.34 (S205) and 9.02am (S207), travel time is little over 1 hour. As for some return times, optimal are 15.07 (S218), 15.38 (S220) and 16.06 pm (S222). If you prefer getting by bus this is also pretty straightforward and will take you the same time as if by train. Buses depart from Deshengmen Arrow Tower (metro Jishuitan station on line 2, Exit A). Buses 880 and 919 depart from the bus station, while express 887 departs from the parking lot north of the Deshengmen Arrow Tower. ¥12.
- Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty Is the ancient burial site of thirteen Ming emperors, an UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name of Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Located outside of the city will be worth to visit only if you can count with enough time to first visit everything else in Beijing.
Beijing Capital Airports is one of the largest and busiest airports in the world, ranking 2nd by number of passengers as data taken from 2013. Located 26 km to the north is well linked by public transport to anywhere in the city. The fastest way is via the Airport Express trains which connect all terminals with Sanyuanqiao Station (where metro line 10 meets) and Dongzhimen Station (with metro lines 2 and 13). The cost is ¥25 and takes approximately 20 minutes. The only cheaper option is to take the Express Buses (机场巴士 Jīchǎng Bāshì) with a cost of ¥16 and to multiple destinations, but beware due to heavy traffic this will not be a quick decision. A great explanation of each bus line is described in the Wikitravel page for Beijing under “Get in section”. As last, for those on a really extremely low budget, local bus number 359 connects the airport with Dongzhimen metro station for just ¥2, and of course, after a very lengthy journey.
Arriving to Beijing by train from elsewhere in China is the next preferred choice after plane, and specially nowadays that the high speed network is really connecting with the most important cities along very fast corridors. Trains are very efficient and frequent and while costing much less that a plane in most of the cases, it also will save you time than if flying (of course depending on the route and distance). But anywhere along north-south, east-west corridors won’t be longer than 5 hours for example to reach Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Chengdu or Xi’An to name a few. Trains to elsewhere in China are plentiful though might not be in high speed, and also trains to North Korea, Russia or Mongolia. There are many train stations in Beijing therefore make sure to check which one you will be arriving/departing.
The same way as explained above for trains applies to buses. Here is very important you know which station you need as there are over 20 long distance bus stations in Beijing.
Within the city there is a huge network of metro and buses constantly expanding, therefore you will not have any troubles in reaching almost any possible tourist sight efficiently from wherever you are. Furthermore, there is a flat fare of ¥2 on the metro does not matter on the distance travelled, making it the cheapest transit system of any city of the scale of Beijing. Should you plan on taking the metro frequently (as I am sure it will be the case), consider getting a pre-paid card (Smart Card Yīkātōng, 一卡通 ). This costs a refundable deposit of ¥20 and can be topped up with any amount, this way it will save you time and hassle free than having to buy each time a single ticket at the station. It is also accepted on buses reducing their fare by 60%. The entire metro system is in both English and Mandarin so you should not have any troubles finding directions or getting tickets. As opposed, the bus network is almost “inaccessible” for tourists as everything is in Mandarin. So unless you figure out the nearest buses to you or your hotel if you plan on taking them, do not loose any time on it.
Should you take any taxi, you should always make sure they switch one the taximeter. There is a starting fee of ¥13, and an additional ¥2.3 per kilometer after the first 3 kilometers. A ¥1 fuel tax will always be added to the total of the ride. Taxi meters keep running when the speed is slower than 12 km/h and 5 minutes of waiting time equals to 1 km running.
As you can imagine for one of the largest cities in the world, accommodation is also of vast choice and variety. Finding anything to suit your needs is not difficult at all, but you should have in mind that 5* hotels are not as cheap as you might have thought, not even to compare to the prices you pay in Southeast Asia which are definitely much lower. In Beijing, like for the rest of China, good hotels can get expensive, but of course it also depends on time of the year and location.
During high season months, which are between May and September expect like in everywhere else, higher prices and more limited choice. Beijing is becoming more and more trendy and super easy accessible from anywhere in the world, therefore there are millions of visitors not only foreign, but Chinese. Although as a western tourist, I cannot imagine going over winter months to China for holidays and experience the snow and well below 0 Centigrade temperatures. A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
Getting a good deal should not be too complicated looking deeply around the usual hotel websites. In our case we found a nice hotel on the west side of the central zone, the Holiday Inn Central Plaza, No. 1 Caiyuanjie, intersection with Nanxiange and Guanganmen streets. A great property with everything we needed from comfort to facilities, and although not directly by a metro station, the nearest one was Changchunjie some 15 minutes walking distance. Beijing West Train Station is a short taxi ride. The staff was very nice, rooms big and clean, with nice beds, and huge breakfast. Among the facilities their pool and jacuzzi were great treat after the long sightseeing days. Definitely will recommend to anyone.
Album for the city of Beijing
Albumf for the Badaling Pass of the Great Wall