Beijing’s history dates back nearly one thousand years. Despite embracing modernity, the capital is densely packed with enough culture, art, and architecture to keep you busy for weeks! Many of Beijing’s 21.5 million residents buzz through daily life on streets that have soaked up centuries’ worth of stories.
Most of the top things to do in Beijing can be enjoyed independently without a guide, but you’ll need to have patience as you squeeze in to enjoy the often-crowded attractions. Fortunately, Beijing is blessed with ancient parks and urban green spaces that are perfect for preventing burnout while sightseeing — mix up your itinerary!
Unsurprisingly, the Forbidden City (Palace Museum) is the most visited of the big attractions in Beijing. The labyrinthine structure was finished in 1420 and served as the seat of the Ming dynasty. The grounds sprawl across 178 acres (720,000 square meters). Be ready: You’ll have done a lot of hiking on stone and concrete by time you finish exploring the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and adjacent parks!
The Forbidden City sits at the northern end of Tiananmen Square. Look for the iconic “Gate of Heavenly Peace” with the large portrait of Chairman Mao hanging above.
A full day could be spent wandering around Tiananmen Square and visiting the nearby monuments, museums, and sights. Plus, the people watching is unmatched. If you’re short on time in Beijing, proceed directly to Tiananmen Square — you won’t be disappointed!
Tiananmen is claimed to be the largest public square in the world and can reportedly hold over 600,000 people. If you visit during a major holiday such as National Day (October 1) or Labor Day (May 1), you’ll get an opportunity to experience the famous square at what feels like full capacity.
Along with abundant opportunities for interacting with local residents, Tiananmen Square is home to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the National Museum of China. Many other monuments, museums, and sights are in the area.
China’s Great Wall is actually a collection of sections and segments rather than one contiguous structure. And which of those sections you choose will determine your enjoyment while visiting the longest man-made structure on earth.
- Badaling: Around a two-hour drive from Beijing, Badaling is the most crowded section of the Great Wall. Many tours combine a trip to Badaling with visits to the nearby Ming Tombs.
- Mutianyu: Most foreign tourists opt for the Mutianyu section (90 minutes from Beijing). Mutianyu also stays busy, however, it’s the longest restored section of the wall. The extra watchtowers allow a little more room for photos.
- Simatai: The Simatai section is illuminated at night, creating a very unique ambiance.
- Jiankou: If you have the time and fitness level, the Jiankou section (3 hours from Beijing) is only partially restored with plenty of steep scrambles and wild settings.
Visiting the Great Wall independently is possible but can be complicated. You’ll have a smoother experience opting for either a group excursion or private tour to eliminate language-barrier challenges.
Contrary to popular myth, the Great Wall of China isn’t visible from space without help from technology!
Stroll Wangfujing Street
Perhaps the biggest allure of walking along Wangfujing is that it is pedestrian friendly. The famous shopping-and-eating district is one of the few streets in Beijing where you can wander freely without watching for errant drivers.
From modern shopping malls to “folk” sections where you can buy anything and everything peddled by street vendors, Wangfujing will cover your snacking and shopping aspirations in Beijing. You’ll certainly want to sample dumplings and nibble along the way as you stroll — trying the insects sold as snacks is optional.
Get to Wangfujing by walking 20 minutes east from the Forbidden City or take the subway (Line 1) one stop to Wangfujing station.
Get a Glimpse of Taoist Hell at Dongyue Temple
The Temple of the Eastern Peak is a Taoist temple completed in 1322 and restored many times since. Tourists often miss this unusual place, either due to temple burnout or because there are many “bigger” things to see and do in Beijing.
Inside Dongyue Temple, you’ll explore 376 rooms filled with relics and bizarre, gruesome scenes depicting the horrors of Taoist hell in the afterlife. Note: Many of the scenes depicted inside the Dongyue Temple could be considered disturbing. There may be better things to do in Beijing with young children.
Enjoy Scenery at the Summer Palace
Located on the northwestern outskirts of Beijing, the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) is a popular attraction in Beijing. The sprawling grounds around the palace are scenic and loaded with history. Paddle boats are available on Kunming Lake, a man-made water reservoir that spans 540 acres.
You’ll want comfortable shoes for climbing the many stairs up to scenic overlooks with views of the lake and mountains. Many of the buildings are closed to tourists; the scenery is considered the primary attraction. Plan on around 45 minutes by taxi from Tiananmen Square to the Summer Palace.
The lake at the Summer Palace freezes in winter, prompting people to rent skates and sled-bike hybrids to ride on the ice.
Visit the Old Summer Palace
One summer palace deserves another! The Old Summer Palace and accompanying Yuanmingyuan Park are located just to the east of the busier Summer Palace. Although largely in ruins now, the “Old” Summer Palace was constructed in 1709 making it considerably newer than the better-restored Summer Palace.
A sizable park wraps around what’s left of the Old Summer Palace. Although most of the area is unrestored, it lacks the crowds of other top attractions in Beijing. You’ll have way more room for exploration.
Like the other Summer Palace, you’ll probably want to take a taxi or Uber there (approximately 40 minutes).
Escape to Ba Da Chu Park
Even farther west than the summer palaces, Ba Da Chu Park is a collection of temples, monasteries, and nunneries dotted along scenic hills. The area is a green, family-friendly escape from the urban pace of Beijing; a cable car is available if you don’t prefer to hike up.
The easiest way to reach Ba Da Chu Park is by taxi or Uber (1 hour). If you want to try Beijing's busy bus network, numerous public buses (972, 958, 347, and others) stop at the park.
Check Out the 798 Art District
The hip heart of Beijing’s blossoming art scene is undeniably the 798 Art District (also referred to as Dashanzi Art District or Factory 798, the name of one of the venues). Abandoned military factories have been repurposed into sprawling art spaces where sometimes-controversial artists and their works lurk. Many of the lofts and venues have an industrial, bohemian vibe but the industrial neighborhood predictably suffers from gentrification.
Before visiting, check for events such as local-designer fashion shows hosted in the 798 Art District. You’ll also find numerous places to grab fusion food, coffee, and craft beer.
The 798 Art District is located in the northeast corner of urban Beijing. You’ll want to take a taxi or Uber (25 minutes).
Watch Tai Chi at the Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven was constructed at the start of the 15th century by the same emperor who oversaw construction of the Forbidden City. As expected, it is impressive enough architecturally to merit a visit. But perhaps the real draw is for the opportunity to watch — and optionally join — groups of local residents who practice tai chi, dance, and aerobics in the park. Many groups warmly welcome beginners.
Although the temple complex spans 660 acres, the exercise areas can get crowded later in the day. Arrive earlier in the morning for the best opportunities to practice tai chi and kung fu.
The Temple of Heaven park is located south of Tiananmen Square (around a 20-minute drive / 45-minute walk).
Get Lost in the Hutongs
You haven’t really experienced Beijing until you’ve wandered one or many of the ancient hutongs that defiantly remain against modernization. Hutongs are often, but not always, narrow streets and alleys where daily life unfolds amidst historical backdrops.
No two hutongs are alike! Tobacco Pouch Street is perhaps one of the most famous and popular hutongs to walk, however, with a little research, you’ll find quieter hutongs less touched by tourism. Some hutongs such as Wudaoying have numerous cafes and eateries catering to laowai visitors. The oldest remaining hutong is Sanmiaojie.
Although hutong tours are ubiquitous, invading the narrow streets en masse isn’t as memorable as wandering independently or hiring your own rickshaw driver (they’re everywhere).
Experience a Beijing Opera
When you need an indoor activity in Beijing, seek out a culture-filled Peking Opera performance. Although you may not completely understand the themes, shows pleasantly contain colorful costumes, visual theatrics, traditional instruments, dance, and even impressive acrobatics.
You’ll probably see plenty of wushu (martial arts) integrated into the show, but if that’s your favorite part, consider looking for a pure wushu performance or Shaolin monk demonstration. The Red Theatre Beijing Kung Fu Show is one such option.
Tip: If you really want to experience kung fu in China, consider going farther afield to the famous Shaolin Temple where all martial arts originated.
Meet People in Beihai Botanical Park
Located north of the Forbidden City is Beihai Botanical Park, believed to be the oldest and largest imperial garden in China. The landscaped park, lake, and island occupy around 175 acres in the heart of Beijing.
Aside from the ornate buildings and pavilions, one of the real draws of Beihai Botanical Park is the opportunity to interact with curious locals. You’ll most likely be approached for friendly attempts at conversation and maybe even some group photos.
Beihai Park is easy to reach: Take the subway (line 6) and alight at Beihai Bei Station.
Try Peking Duck
What better place to try the famous dish than where it originated? Duck has been roasted in China since the 4th century, but it became what we call Peking duck sometime during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The famous dish was designated as “imperial cuisine” during the rule of Kublai Khan.
Quanjude is a famous chain specializing in Peking duck. Duck de Chine is another popular option; however, you’ll see the maroon-tinted ducks displayed in eatery windows throughout Beijing so there's no shortage of options. Locals inevitably have their favorite hole-in-the-wall spot for enjoying the classic dish — don't be afraid to ask around!
Enjoy Imperial Cuisine
Don’t just stop with Peking duck — the “imperial cuisine” once available only to the ruling families of China can now be experienced by anyone with the time and budget.
Enjoying an imperial cuisine experience usually requires paying a set fee for the course and perhaps some light entertainment in a classical setting. Fangshan, opened in 1925, is located in Beihai Park and one of the most affordable options on the tourist radar, although authenticity is sometimes debated. Be ready to splurge on the meal; some of the most unforgettable imperial cuisine experiences can cost as much as $120 per seat!
Take in Good Views at Jingshan Park
Jingshan Park backs up to the northern edge of the Forbidden City and is due east (across the street) from Beihai Botanical Park. You’ll appreciate the trees after so many hours of pounding concrete while exploring the Forbidden City. But the best part of Jingshan Park is the hill and view from the top.
The man-made hill in Jingshan Park, constructed with the dirt excavated while building the Forbidden City’s moat, provides some of the best views and photo opportunities of ancient Beijing. You’ll need to climb many stairs to earn the panorama.
Sanlitun is an entertainment district not far from downtown Beijing, around a 20-minute taxi ride from Tiananmen Square. The busy strip is home to numerous shops for luxurious Western brands, but at night the expat-oriented nightlife scene comes to life. Bar Street is reportedly home to over half of Beijing’s bars. Many of the slummiest dive bars and go-go bars were demolished in 2017 as part of a government effort to clean up the strip, but quite a few survived and remain.
With many international embassies in the neighborhood, expect restaurant prices to be a little higher in the Sanlitun area — but you’ll have no problem finding a busy, thriving strip for pub hopping.
A cluster of gay-friendly bars and restaurants is located close to Sanlitun.
Eat and Shop Along Dashilan
If pricey Sanlitun isn’t for you, Dashilan (Da Zha Lan) will come to the rescue. Like other popular shopping streets, Dashilan and the adjacent hutongs get crowded. The inexpensive shops appeal to travelers who don’t demand authenticity; plus, the eateries are far less expensive than those in Sanlitun. The ancient street actually dates back many centuries and was a hub of commercial activity during the Ming dynasty.
Dashilan is only a 15-minute walk south of Tiananmen Square. Keep an eye out for the many con-men who target Western tourists in the area.
Visit the Lama Temple
Perhaps one of the most popular things to do in Beijing is to visit the "Lama Temple" (Yonghe Temple). Construction of Yonghe Temple began in 1694. The temple once served as an imperial palace for a prince, mausoleum for an emperor, and monastery for Tibetan monks.
Along with other impressive artwork, the Lama Temple contains a 59-foot-tall sandalwood Buddha statue recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as being the tallest in the world.
The Lama Temple is a working center for Tibetan Buddhism. As one would expect, no mention is made of the 1950 Chinese invasion and ongoing occupation of Tibet.