Amazing Things to do in Beijing
China is a fascinating place to travel! It can be difficult in some ways (okay, many ways), but it’s so exotic and educational that it’s totally worth any discomfort or inconvenience. In fact, this is our second time visiting China as a family.
Our first time was so much fun that we dreamed of returning for over ten years. We finally made it — woohoo!
Travel is such a fantastic way to educate your children. It initiates interest in other places and cultures and history, so that the your children will begin to ask questions and seek out answers.
Our views about other ethnicities and cultures are enlarged as we travel, and we grow to understand that, despite all of our differences, we are all the same deep down in our hearts. Prejudice is eliminated.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
Travel is probably the best way to seek to understand the political, economic and social structure of the modern world. The above are the reasons we work so hard to include traveling as part of our homeschool.
We like to learn about the places we are visiting prior to our visit, and our visits also usually lead to further questions, which lead to further reading upon our return.
A fantastic book that will teach you the history of the Summer Palace and help you understand Chinese history and culture is Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. Not only is it historically accurate, but it’s also incredibly entertaining. I couldn’t put it down!
Another favorite book for helping us understand Chinese contemporary history was Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China also by Jung Chang. This was another page turner!
Getting Around Beijing
Transportation in China has improved vastly over the last ten years! I was incredibly impressed with Beijing’s metro system, and especially with the rail system and all the high speed trains between cities.
The metro in Beijing covers the entire city, all the way out into the suburbs. You can easily get to all of the places on this list except for the Lakeside Great Wall, which is a couple of hours outside of Beijing.
Metro maps and signs are printed in both English and Chinese, and are easy to understand. The metro is pretty crowded, but it’s efficient, clean and modern.
Buses are much more difficult, because they only have signs in Chinese, so you have to know where you’re going. And taxis are also difficult for several reasons: roads are terrible (Chinese infrastructure is not keeping up with growth in the cities), taxi drivers often won’t stop for foreigners and Didi (the Chinese version of Uber) won’t work without a Chinese bankcard (which requires a residence card).
Private drivers are plentiful (though illegal) and they cater to foreigners so they often speak enough English well enough to be able to communicate. Private drivers are also very helpful and will show you where to purchase tickets for attractions and such. Install WeChat on your phone, and your hotel concierge will be able to give you the contact cards of local private drivers.
Top 10 Things to do in Beijing:
1. The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace is located 3 minutes West of Exit D of the Beigongmen stop on Line 4, about 9 miles from downtown Beijing. It covers a vast area. We spent almost an entire day here and most of us enjoyed every minute of it. Of all the things to do in Beijing, this was probably our favorite.
During the late 1800’s, Empress Dowager Cixi, originally a concubine, usurped control of the government and embezzled money from the navy to build the Summer Palace, where she chose to rule from. I can’t say I blame her, as it’s far more pleasant than the Forbidden City.
To your left as you enter is an interesting place called Suzhou street. The royals were forbidden from associating with commoners, but they wished to do common things, like shopping. So the royals had Suzhou street constructed to resemble a pretty little shopping street with a waterway down it’s center. It’s very picturesque and a fun place to buy ice cream and souvenirs.
Beyond Suzhou Street is the Four Great Regions, a Tibetan Style temple.
and then you can walk around to the palace that faces the lake. Longevity Hill, on which the palace is built, is incredibly steep. We couldn’t help but feel sorry for the royal family having to climb all those stairs daily, especially wearing elaborate royal clothing and possibly with bound feet.
Note the yellow, tiled roofs. They are exclusive to the Summer Palace.
This pagoda stands at the top of Longevity Hill. It’s occupied by the bronze relief of the woman with many arms. There is a legend about her giving her hands to her father and being rewarded with many arms and hands. Some reward!
You get the best views of the palace and the pagoda from out on Kunming Lake, in front of Longevity Hill. You can rent paddle boats or motor boats and spend your afternoon enjoying the breeze on the lake. The diamond shape on the flat rectangle holding up the pagoda is hundreds of stairs!
We laughed about this gigantic boat made of marble. Apparently, the royal family liked to entertain on the lak, but there had been trouble with wooden boats burning, and Empress Cixi was terrified of fire. So they built this boat of marble for entertaining.
I’ll share one last interesting tidbit. You’ll see animals adorning the edges of all the historic Chinese buildings. The number of animals is significant. More animals signify a more important building and fewer animals signify a building of lesser importance. So count the animals to determine the importance of the building you are entering.
It cost 60 RMB per person to enjoy the Summer Palace, (buy the combo pass so you can explore all of the awesome areas) and an additional 80 RMB per hour to rent the paddle boats.
2. Hou Hai Lake and the Hutongs
Houhai is one of 3 back lakes, close to the Bell & Drum Towers. Take Metro Line 8 to Shichahai Station and leave from Exit A2, then follow the crowds around the corner.
We loved exploring the hutongs (winding alleys) around the lake. We found tons of gorgeous buildings and bright scenery alongside yummy snack booths, cafes and boutiques. They are some the best things to do in Beijing.
You can rent paddle boats on the lake or ride rickshaws around the lake, but never accept the first price offered, and be sure the price you agree on is for your entire party rather than per person. Rickshaw drivers will agree to a certain length of time for a drive, and then will take you to a family house you can tour for a price.
Once your time is up, the driver will insist that you pay the agreed upon price per person instead of per ride. It’s a common scam, so just be wary and careful to agree on everything upfront, and then be as stubborn about holding the driver to the agreement as he is to scam you. The rickshaw drivers will probably want to charge you 180 RMB for a rickshaw ride. Just know that locals pay around 60 RMB, so that should give you a target price.
I don’t want to deter you from the hutongs or rickshaw rides or paddle boats. They were some of our favorite activities in Beijing. I just want you to be forewarned.
The Bell & Drum Towers are located just down the street from Hou Hai Lake, making it easy to see them all the same afternoon. Look to your left as you exit the lake are, and you’ll see the back of the drum tower. We skipped them because we had toured the ones in Xi’An just a few days prior.
3. Lakeside Great Wall (aka Huanghuacheng Great wall)
One of the most iconic things to do in Beijing — you have to walk on the Great Wall!
But there are thousands of different places at which to see the Great Wall of China. It follows the perimeter of one of the largest countries in the world, after all! Not all of the wall is accessible, though, and only a few places are close to Beijing.
My sister lived in Beijing for awhile and told us which portions of the Great Wall not to visit. Chinese tourist sites can be kitschy. And by kitschy I mean totally not legit.
Money takes precedence over authenticity any day of the week, so the Chinese will drag in fake relics and then slap up sled tracks all over the side of the great wall, add a couple of bears in concrete pits, then bus in hordes of tourists. No, thank you!
The Lakeside section is a little farther out than the Badaling or Mutianyu sections of the Great Wall, but it’s less commercial, more authentic, and totally worth it to have the place almost completely to yourself! We paid a private driver 1000 RMB to drive us out there and wait for us, as there is no direct public transportation. Huanghuacheng village charges a small fee for entrance to the park.
It looks like this section of the wall is being developed into a park, too, (It looked like they were adding sled tracks) so it may not be as beautiful or pristine the next time we visit China. But the Chinese did one thing right, here. They only restored a portion of the wall for walking on, leaving the rest authentic, and covered an partially restored section with glass (2nd photo above) so tourists could see how it had been restored.
We enjoyed the amenities at this location, too. The large, log building houses a snack bar, restaurant and restrooms with clean, western toilets. And the beach area was a lot of fun for a change of pace from walking the city.
4. Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square is located at the Tiananmen Dong stop on Metro Line 1.
This is just a huge, empty plaza, but it is surrounded by government buildings on one side, the Forbidden City on another side, and Mao’s Mausoleum (complete with a couple of socialist laborer statues) on a third side. So it’s worth visiting even if you just walk across it as you talk with your kiddos about it’s role in Chinese history and politics in general.
Probably the most interesting thing about Tiananmen Square is that it has no significance to the Chinese. There are no plaques or signs, and nobody even seems to remember what happened there in 1989. A gigantic painting of Chairman Mao, hanging on an exterior wall of the Forbidden City, gazes over Tiananmen Square as if he were a beloved, benevolent dictator. It’s all so strange to me that such a huge citizenry seems to neither know nor care about his atrocities.
If all of our photos look a bit hazy, it’s because Beijing is terribly polluted. After a couple of hours of breathing the grit builds up in your mouth and you feel like you could chew the air. I can’t imagine what it does to the lungs. Most of the locals wear face masks, but I hadn’t thought to bring any with us.
5. Mao’s Mausoleum
My kiddos thought it was horrible that I was dragging them through a building to see a dead guy. They know that Mao is hands-down responsible for more deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined. They’ve read Wild Swans — they know the atrocities this man committed during his Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. And yet, it just weirded them out.
The stairs leading up to the building were dirty and badly worn. The lobby of the building was full of flowers, and many of the Chinese people in line carried flowers to add to the collection in the lobby. The line moved so rapidly that the entire experience probably took us less than 20 minutes.
Upon leaving the lobby, the line is ushered down a hall and into a large room, within which is a very large, glass enclosure containing Chairman Mao’s body or perhaps a wax replica. Nobody is allowed to stop and stand and gawk, so it’s hard to tell. He looked so orange, though, that I imagine it was a real body, because surely they would have taken care to make a replica look more realistic.
You are then ushered out the back door onto the rear plaza. Be aware that the memorial closes at noon and no bags or hats are allowed inside.
I hope that seeing Mao’s body would forever impress upon my children the seriousness of political morality and wise economic policies. We’ll see!
6. Forbidden City
Despite not ending up on our favorites list, the Forbidden City is a must-see stop on your itinerary of things to do in Beijing. Everyone should see the royal courts, however briefly.
I just know that if the Forbidden City would hire some actors and dress them up in awesome period costumes, fill the courts with reproduction antique furniture, put the ancient systems (heating, cooking, sewage) on display, and have the actors carry out daily life in an ancient, Chinese, royal court while explaining the goings-on, that it would be far more interesting. In other words, make it more like Mount Vernon or Colonial Williamsburg.
Unfortunately, there was no suggestion box, and the Forbidden City didn’t seem to be hiring a Director-of-lets-make-this-more-interesting. So maybe someday.
In the meantime, let me tell you how to make it bearable if you have a passel of children, like I do: keep your visit brief.
The Forbidden City consists of multiple (I’m talking dozens!) courts, back to back. They all look similar, if not exactly the same. A few of the buildings contain exhibits, like the collection of Buddhist statuary pictured below. But 95% of them are empty.
All those courts look the same, and they are completely empty.
Don’t hire a tour guide who wants to spend 2 hours feeding you names and dynasties that you’ll never remember. Just get an audio guide and listen to the recording for the first court, and possibly the second court, too, if your kids are still interested.
My kids don’t have abnormally short attention spans, and they only lasted through two courts. Then turn your audio guide off and walk straight to the garden at the rear of the Forbidden City. Spend some time in the garden, and then leave and head across the street to Jingshan Park.
I honestly recommend spending about 30 minutes in the Forbidden City courts and another 30 minutes in the garden, unless you are really into Chinese history.
7. Jingshan Park
Jingshan Park has a gigantic hill right in the very center. The views from the top are amazing! It’s the perfect place to photograph the Forbidden City.
Parks in China (including the playgrounds) are all about adults and not children. Playgrounds at parks are typically used by the elderly for exercise. We were stunned when we got kicked off the equipment at the park at Temple of Heaven!
But they sure have a knack for beautiful landscaping and intricate pathways. You’ll want to spend some time wandering the gardens and people-watching. Ladies congregate at parks to dance together (like line dancing) and men congregate to play homemade instruments or show off their whip-cracking skills or martial arts skills.
They also take their birds or other pets for walks at the park. We saw hundreds of older people walking birds; some with a leg tied by a length of yarn and others in cages.
You can count on getting an eyeful and an earful every time you visit a Chinese park! Jingshan Park is one of the most beautiful things to do in Beijing.
We spent over a month in China, and by the end we missed our favorite American foods pretty badly. But never at any point were we in danger of starvation. China has amazing food, and eating like a local is one of the best things to do in Beijing!
There is a muslim noodle restaurant on every corner, and homemade-dumpling stalls abound in the hutongs. You can always find something yummy. But you will really be missing out if you don’t try a good hotpot restaurant.
You can find hotpot places easily by just looking in the windows as you walk down the street. When you see tables with a metal depression in the middle (like a sink) you’ll know you’ve found a hotpot restaurant.
We ate at several hotpot places, but my favorite was Hai Di Lao in a mall in Beijing. We were on a wonky schedule from jetlag so we stopped for an early dinner, and we were glad we did because when we left the entire hallway of the mall was filled with families waiting for a table.
Hotpot restaurants all provide a variety of ingredients for a dipping sauce, and diners create their own combinations. Diners sit around a large pot of boiling stock, cooking fresh, thinly sliced meats and vegetables. Once the meats and vegetables have been eaten, the noodle man will come to your table and dance while he pulls lumps of homemade dough into long, thin noodles. When pulled sufficiently thin, he plops them into your boiling stock to cook. It’s quite the show!
The coolest thing about Hai Di Lao was that they brought out cribs on wheels to families with babies, and they provided free snacks and games to their waiting patrons. It made me laugh because it kind of looked like they were all camped out in the mall.
9. Temple of Heaven
If you’ve ever visited Asia, you know that there’s a temple on every corner. That might be a slight exaggeration, but seriously — there are a holy ton of temples.
So I actually contemplated skipping the Temple of Heaven because we were feeling a little templed out. But I’m so glad we went! The Temple of Heaven is very different from all the other temples you’ve seen.
The surrounding gardens are a great place to watch elderly Chinese locals. We were amazed to see how flexible and athletic they were, exercising on the playground equipment. Lots of them gathered in the pavilions to play card games and gamble. Many of them bring their birds along. It’s a great place to soak in Beijing life.
Tourists aren’t admitted into the Temple of Heaven itself, you just get to peek inside through the doorway, pictured below. The last photo, of the green-tiled kiln, is where animal sacrifices were made.
10. Catch an Acrobat show in Beijing
Chaoyang Theater, located next to exit C1 at the Hujialou exit on Metro line 10, is the place to go if you want to see an amazing acrobat show. The show is over an hour long, but it felt like just a few minutes because we were on the edges of our seats the entire time.
You’ve probably seen acts similar to ones in this show (like motorcycles riding around a spherical cage), but you haven’t seen them performed quite like this, because of mandatory safety precautions elsewhere in the world. The acrobats at Chaoyang Theater were pushing downright unsafe and taking their lives in their hands. These stunts really made the circus look tame, and we loved the oriental bent to everything.
We bought our tickets (200 RMB per person) ahead of time because we had heard that they usually sell out, but you can also buy them directly from the box office at the theater. When we were there the theater was only about 75% full and it seemed like most of the attendees were purchasing their tickets from the box office.
11. Beijing Zoo
Take the Dongwuyuan stop from Metro Line 4 and walk through the underground circus (an area in the metro with rides, game machines, loud music, fast food restaurants and food stalls), go up the stairs and cross the street to the zoo.
I recommend visiting the Beijing Zoo, not because the zoo is one of the best things to do in Beijing, but because they have such a fantastic Giant Panda habitat. The rest of the zoo is much more sad than our local zoo, with animals in tighter quarters and not at all made to emulate like their native environments.
But watching the pandas up close and personal was more than worth the small zoo admission fee (I think it was 15 RMB, which is just over $2USD). The aquarium at the rear of the zoo is actually much more interesting and well done than the zoo itself, and is worth the additional admission charge.
Don’t even try to eat lunch at the zoo, because the cafeteria is located inside the same building (and is surrounded by) the hippos and several other very stinky animals.
Are you visiting other Chinese cities, too? Check out:
Have you been to China? I’d love to hear about your favorite things to do in Beijing in the comments below!