Beijing Guide: Planning Your Trip

View from above of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China

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Traveling in Beijing is equal parts challenging and exciting. There is a learning curve, but some diligence can help. You'll certainly feel a jolt of nervous excitement when the wheels of your plane touch down with a squeak! and the fun begins. Will you know what to do in one of the busiest cities in the world?

Our Beijing guide has you covered and can help you stay on a budget while enjoying the best Beijing has to offer. Learn where to base yourself for enjoying the top things to do and what to expect as you explore Beijing.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Autumn is the best time to visit Beijing for mild weather, but plan around the National Day holiday on Oct. 1 when the city becomes extraordinarily busy! Yes, enjoying fall foliage from the Great Wall is an option.
  • Language: Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese) is the official language in China, however, different languages and dialects are spoken throughout. Cantonese is heard more often in Hong Kong and southern provinces. Staff working with tourists usually speak some English but don't expect the average person on the street to understand you.
  • Currency: Renminbi (Â¥), abbreviated as RMB or CNY, is the official currency of China. One yuan is divided into 10 sen and then further into 10 fen.
  • Getting Around: Beijing's subway is crowded but extensive; it's best for avoiding traffic on the surface. Metered taxis are also an option, but drivers rarely speak English.
  • Travel Tip: Have the staff from your hotel write in Chinese all the places you would like to visit in a day. You can show this to taxi drivers and when asking for directions. Remember to take the hotel's card with you for getting back home later.

    Things to Do

    With a totally different culture and ancient history in every direction, simply wandering around Beijing is interesting enough. Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and adjacent parks could keep you busy for days. When things feel a little too busy in the city (they often do), you have options such as summer palaces and remote sections of the Great Wall for escaping to the outskirts.

    • Visit the Great Wall: There are a handful of good choices for seeing China's most famous landmark. Sections farther from Beijing require more effort to reach, but you'll enjoy more room and get better photos.
    • Wander Tiananmen Square: Interactions with local residents are often the most enjoyable and enlightening moments of a trip. You'll have plenty as you wander around parks, the Forbidden City, and the many monuments in the area.
    • See the Hutongs: The ancient streets and alleyways in Beijing are rapidly disappearing, but a few remain defiant against modernization. Some hutongs haven't changed much over the centuries while others are now lined with hip bars and cafes for tourists.

      Learn about more things to do with our full-length articles on the best shopping streets in Beijing, the best tours of Beijing, and what to do with three days in Beijing.

      What to Eat and Drink

      Unsurprisingly, the food in Beijing is nothing like the Americanized cuisine you know from home. Food differs drastically by region in China, and Beijing has restaurants serving the best from all corners of the country. Peking duck is the most famous dish from "imperial cuisine," forbidden dishes that were once eaten only by royalty. A few restaurants provide dinner experiences with imperial cuisine and traditional entertainment. To avoid a dreaded case of stomach upset, stick to eating cooked foods from busy eateries.

      Skip the salads and raw vegetables unless you're certain they're safe.

      Beer and baijiu (rice wine) are easy to find in Beijing. Drinking with locals is more fun when you apply a little Chinese drinking etiquette, so give an enthusiastic ganbei! before each drink taken with someone. Sanlitun is one of Beijing's go-to entertainment districts for nightlife; Houhai is another. Be prepared for some serious karaoke at both. A few trendy hutongs transform into nightlife epicenters once the sun goes down.

      Where to Stay

      Staying in the Qianmen Street area is ideal for first-time visitors, although you'll pay a premium for the central location. Budget travelers may want to look along Dashilan (away from the shopping area) for smaller hotels. Both neighborhoods are walking distance to Tiananmen Square, shopping, and good food.

      Wangfujing is a popular area for tourists just one subway stop from the Forbidden City. Staying in boutique guesthouses in the many suburban hutongs is a nice option, but you'll spend more time getting around with the subway or fighting traffic.

      Most importantly, ensure you are booking at a tourist-friendly hotel accustomed to helping Western travelers. The staff at your reception can be a valuable resource for suggestions and navigating the language barrier.

      Check out our recommendations for the best hotels in Beijing.

      Getting There

      The new Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX) opened in June 2019 to become the largest airport terminal in the world. Many flights are being slowly shifted to the new airport to provide Beijing's busy PEK airport some relief.

      • Getting From PEK: The Capital Airport Express rail links up with Beijing's subway and is the fastest way to the city. If fighting the subway at rush hour doesn't sound fun, taxi and airport buses are also options.
      • Getting From PKX: A sprawling ground-transportation hub is located beneath the airport. The Daxing Airport Express railway connects up with Beijing's subway.

      Culture and Customs

      Traveling in Beijing requires a little more patience than, say, Bangkok. After all, you have to share limited space with 21.5 million other people! Personal space can be a luxury. Stand your ground and use your elbows in queues when waiting to pay or buy tickets. If not, you may look up from your phone to discover several people have upgraded to the position in front of you.

      Even with Hollywood helping and millions of tourists arriving each year, Western travelers can still be a bit of a novelty in China—particularly outside of touristy areas. The staring and occasional pointing are usually done in good nature. The word laowai you'll hear means "foreigner" and probably has something to do with your presence.

      Knowing how to properly say hello and a few other useful words in Mandarin Chinese really comes in handy for better interactions.

      Money-Saving Tips

      • Entrance fees for foreigners can feel steep compared to other costs in Beijing. If you're a student, always show your student card and ask for a discount (many are up to 50 percent).
      • Eating is inexpensive in Beijing, but drinking in the wrong places can be costly. As you stroll neighborhoods such as Wangfujing, keep an eye out for signs advertising happy hours.
      • Pickpocketing can be a problem on the subway and in some crowded tourist areas such as Dashilan. Keep your phone and wallet in a secure pocket.
      • The prices written and spoken in Mandarin are often less than those in English. You can actually save money by being able to say or recognize written numbers in Mandarin.
      • Being roped into a tea ceremony is one of the oldest scams in China. If anyone approaches you on the street and begins talking about tea, run!
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