Beijing is a vast metropolis and home to more than 22 million people. And for many visitors they may feel rather overwhelmed by the number of people and the number of cars on the roads.
Tiananmen Square in the centre of the city attracts both tourists and local Chinese, though the square itself is essentially just that, a large empty square with very little to see. However, surrounding the square are several important buildings and tourist attractions.
To the west is the Great Hall of the People which is used for legislative and ceremonial activities by the PRC and the Communist Party of China. On the east side is the National Museum of China which holds vast collections related to the arts and history of China. Admission to the museum is free but visitors should note that security for this and many other attractions is very tight.
Food and drinks may often be inspected and in some cases confiscated. Luggage is also required to be checked and may have to be deposited. Pets are not allowed in the museum and similar restrictions as seen at airports may also be applied with knives, lighters and other dangerous items being banned. Some places may also restrict the use or even entry with cameras or other such devices so it may be worth checking ahead of time!
Within the square itself stands Mao’s mausoleum. Commonly known as the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong or the Mao Mausoleum, it is the final resting place of Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China. Admission is free but note that bags, backpacks, cameras and video cameras, cups and drinks as well as dangerous items are all forbidden.
Despite its name the Forbidden City is not so concerned about cameras and there are many photographic opportunities as one delves back into China’s imperialist past. After passing through Tiananmen Gate and under the large portrait of Mao one will enter the vast grounds of the palace complex. To visit the main palace itself one will need to purchase a ticket. The cost is between 40 and 60 RMB, depending on the time of year, and you will need several hours to really take in what this historical complex has to offer.
Exiting the north side of the palace grounds one will find oneself at the entrance to Jingshan Park. There is a small entrance fee of 1 RMB, common practice with most Chinese parks, but if you have time it is well worth a visit especially for the hill top views across the city.
There are several other great vantage points to take in the city. On a clear day take a trip to the CCTV tower in the west of town. Now known as the Central Radio & TV Tower it offers amazing views in all directions. For a more comfortable and relaxing view of the city drop by the Atmosphere Bar which is located on the 80th floor of the World Trade Center in the Chaoyang District, or central business district, of Beijing.
On a clear day one can see the mountains that surround this vast city. And it is in these mountains that one will find one of China’s most famous historical monuments, the Great Wall.
There are several sections of wall, and while they cover many hundred kilometres many sections are separate from each other and were built during different eras. Many sections are also in a state of disrepair. However there are other sections which are well preserved.
The most well known section is Badaling which is around 60 km to the northwest of Beijing. While most sections of the wall open to tourists are somewhat commercial, this is perhaps to most commercialised with ski-lifts, restaurants, hotels and other amenities situated close to the attraction. Badaling can also be one of the most crowded sections of wall.
For a more tranquil experience try to visit Mutianyu which is 70 km northeast of central Beijing. While much older, construction began in the 6th century and continued for many centuries thereafter, Mutianyu has been well maintained and restored. Furthermore it has some amazing views, especially at sunset.
Even further afield is Jinshanling which is some 125 km northeast of Beijing. While some parts are well preserved, this section is very much in a state of ruin. But for some, sections of so-called ‘wild wall’ provide a better insight and feel to the past rather than the clinical restored sections.
Wherever you decide to visit and at whatever season, there are few people that won’t be astounded at the sheer scale of the wall, and its beauty. Even in winter the wall provides an amazing backdrop for photos, though getting there in knee deep snow may prove a problem.
In early 2010 an attempt to get to the Juyongguan section some 50 km outside of Beijing proved to be a real adventure. As temperatures fell as low as -18°C and heavy snow covered much of Beijing public transport came to a stop. Taxis too were hard to find but eventually we managed to find a private hire driver.
Avoiding blocked highways full of snowbound trucks, past several accidents along the way, we ploughed through the back roads before eventually arriving at the wall, a journey which took nearly two hours.
Despite road conditions some tourist coaches had still managed to get through the snow, though many had difficulty returning as conditions worsening into the evening!
For more mundane shopping why not head to the Tianyi Market at 259 Fuchengmen Outer Street in Xicheng district. This massive arcade is home to hundreds of stores selling almost everything under the sun and at very cheap prices.
Another great store for your average shopping experience is the Bairong World Trade Center at 101 Yongdingmen Outer Street, in the Dongcheng district of Beijing. This is a massive shopping centre in south Beijing in which one can buy almost anything, There are several floors and the entire complex covers 39,000 square metres. Each floor specialises in different products, from women's clothing, consumer products, toys, men's clothing etc. There are also several places to eat mostly at the front of the building on the ground floor. While catering more to local clientèle, expats will also likely find the store accommodating to their needs. Don't expect to see everything in a day, it would take weeks to see everything here.
Of course if scorpions aren’t to your taste there are many other dishes to be enjoyed in this huge city. From Korean barbecue, Japanese sushi and all manner of Chinese cuisine, Beijing is a culinary adventure. There are few good western style restaurants, and they tend to be expensive, though for those suffering withdrawal symptoms can pop into the many branches of McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Burger King that are dotted all over town. One of the better pizza restaurants is Annies where you can get a tasty Margherita for as little as 38 RMB.
For those with a liking for Sichuan flavours head to one of the many branches of Spice Spirit [麻辣诱惑] or one of the several Yu Xin [渝信] Sichuan restaurants.
There are dozens of great restaurants, but sadly one has not space to refer to them all.
For a more cultural evening perhaps you might like to relax at the National Centre for Performing Arts listening to some Tchaikovsky or watching a ballet at the Tian Qiao Theatre.
As said, such a short article cannot cover everything there is to see in Beijing. There are many interesting hutongs and streets, dozens of museums, countless historical attractions, many beautiful parks, interesting and exotic bars, restaurants and clubs, and a shopping experience to die for.
Indeed you’ll certainly leave Beijing exhausted, but with some great memories. And more than likely you’ll want to return to this interesting and diverse capital; a city of tradition, culture and entertainment. We hope at least you enjoyed this little taste of Beijing.