21 Must-Do Experiences in Beijing, China

From cooking classes to high tea, and from pedicab tours to sidecar excursions, some experiences just shouldn’t be missed in China’s capital city.

3 Hufang Rd, Xicheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
While visiting Beijing on a Fulbright over the summer, we were given the opportunity to attend a traditional Peking Opera. Though the show was entirely in Mandarin, it was highly entertaining and lively. The vibrant colors of the venue, coupled with a mystic, historic ambiance makes the Huguang Guild Opera Theatre, the oldest Peking opera house, one of the most atmospheric.
2 Jiuxianqiao Rd, Chaoyang Qu, Beijing Shi, China
How a complex of German-built factories became one of East Asia’s hottest art destinations is also the story of modern China. When construction on a number of electronics factories began in Dashanzi in 1956, the area was farmland. Joint Factory 718 was built and a decade later divided into smaller factories, including Factory 798. By the mid-’90s, the factories had shut down and Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, lured by cheap space, had moved out to Dashanzi. Interest snowballed, and soon more artists were setting up shop in these abandoned industrial spaces. Today, 798 is a powerhouse of contemporary Chinese art, with major galleries like UCCA, Long March Space, and Pace Beijing, as well as a few restaurants, shops, and even hotels.
12 Yonghegong St, Dongcheng Qu, China, 100007
To understand China, it’s imperative to understand the important role religion and philosophy play in the culture. Buddhism is one such influence, and this gorgeous temple tells a bit of that story. Yonghegong is in the northern part of Beijing and is easily accessible by bus or subway. Go late in the afternoon to avoid the tour buses and catch monks in the midst of their ceremonies.

Yonghegong is also known as the Yonghe Temple, Yonghe Lamasery, and Lama Temple.
Lu Gu Lu
Although this bicycle company was founded in the 1930s in Tianjin by a Japanese businessman, today it’s iconically Chinese, particularly in Beijing. This is Beijing’s flagship Flying Pigeon, where you can buy 22-, 24-, and 28-inch frames. Bikes retro, modern, electric, and foldable are on display here, and everything but the electric bikes can be checked in a bicycle box and brought home. While the contemporary models are perfectly fine, it’s the handsome vintage-style bikes in Dutch-cruiser or English-roadster style that make the best souvenirs, inspiring envy and looks of awe when you ride them in the streets at home.
62 Yang Mei Zhu Xie Jie
Within the rapidly trendifying area of Dashilar is Ubi Gallery, founded by Dutch former diplomat and art enthusiast Machtelt Schelling. Ubi showcases and sells ceramics and “wearable art,” aka contemporary jewelry. The featured artists are a slew of nationalities, with a handful from China and Holland. Everything is unique and handmade, with prices to match, although there are enough moderately priced pieces to please most visitors. Look out for black-and-white-polka-dot cuff links by Malin Jansson, Japanese-style striped tea bowls by Arita, and a set of angular celadon cups by Park Mun Hee.
Houhai Lake, Shichahai, Xicheng, China, 100009
If you’ve kids in a tow, hiring a boat for a float around Houhai is a great way to relax. Houhai is a man-made lake that was once the royal family’s private pool. Today, it’s a popular place for families who come here to cycle around the lake, as well as couples who stroll hand in hand. Renting a covered paddleboat is ultra popular at the weekends, and you’d do well to arrive early, especially on sunny spring or fall days. Rentals at the boathouse are cash only, and you’ll need to leave a deposit, so bring a couple hundred renminbi.
Beijing, China
The Great Wall of China runs more than 21,000 kilometers (over 13,000 miles), not as one continuous wall but rather as fortified wall sections. Some of the sections date back more than 2,500 years, though only 8.2 percent of the existing wall is original. The Mutianyu Great Wall is one of the more accessible portions. Hike (because that is what you’ll be doing, even on the wall itself) up the Great Wall, then slide down the side of the mountain on a toboggan. Alternatively, explore the Simatai Great Wall, which retains a more authentic feel—save, of course, for the fake water town at the bottom. Even more remote is the Jiankou section, which is largely unrestored, so book with an experienced group like Beijing Hikers or Wild Great Wall.
Dongcheng, China
Despite its name, within this mall are shops selling all manner of electronics, watches, clothing, handbags, suitcases, and, of course, jewelry, including hundreds of pearls in every conceivable shape, size, and color. You can buy jewelry already on display—necklaces, earrings, brooches, bracelets, etc.—or choose your pearls and have something custom made. Unless the design is very complicated, a pearl necklace or bracelet made to your specifications can generally be done on the spot or within an hour or two. Hongqiao Market is a popular place for buying souvenirs, especially tea sets, calligraphy scrolls, paper fans, and chopsticks. Bargaining is essential here, particularly for jewelry. Note that there is a market of the same name and style in Shanghai.
19 Xinjiangongmen Rd, Haidian Qu, China, 100091
The present-day Summer Palace is China’s largest royal park and was once called the Garden of Cultivated Harmony. It took its current name when Empress Dowager Cixi, in a controversial action, used some money earmarked for the navy and rebuilt the park, which had been destroyed during the second Opium War in the mid-19th century. It was damaged again during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Imperial rule in China ended in 1901, and in 1924 the Summer Palace opened to the public. The grounds are covered in traditional Chinese pavilions, halls, and temples. A nice way to take a load off after touring the palace’s extensive grounds and buildings is to tool around the placid lake in a pedal boat or rowboat.
1 Tiantan E Rd, Dongcheng Qu, China, 100061
This complex of Taoist religious buildings was constructed in the early 15th century under the Yongle Emperor, who also commissioned the Forbidden City, just to the north. The temple’s central building is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a 38-meter-high (125-foot), three-tiered structure atop a three-tiered marble base. The wooden hall was built entirely without nails. Inside, the beautifully painted walls and ceiling make it a riot of color. On spring and summer mornings and on sunny winter afternoons, locals gather here to sing, dance, play games such as mah-jongg, and sip tea while catching up on neighborhood gossip.
Xicheng, Beijing, China, 100006
The Forbidden City gets top billing in Beijing, and that’s good news for visitors to Jingshan Park. The 23-hectare (57-acre) park is just north of the Forbidden City, separated by a moat. A former imperial park dating to the 11th century, this was where the emperor and his family, living in the Forbidden City, would come to stroll. The big draw here is the hill (shan means mountain) with five summits, each of which has a mid-16th-century pavilion that once housed copper Buddha statues, destroyed at the beginning of the 20th century. Stake out a spot on Wanchun (Ten Thousand Spring) Pavilion from where, on a clear day, you have a stunning view of the entire Forbidden City, the Bell and Drum towers, Miaoying Temple, and Beihai Park.
China, Beijing Shi, Xicheng Qu, ShiChaHai, 地安门西大街甲25 邮政编码: 100009
Head to any Chinese park on a sunny afternoon or weekend and look up: Flitting through the sky, carried by the winds, are dozens of colorful kites. These are being flown by pint-size kids, laughing couples hand in hand, and smiling grandparents showing their prowess off to the next generation. Kites are delightfully old-school, and a handmade one is a wonderfully retro Beijing souvenir. For the best, head to Three Stone Kite, located within walking distance of the Forbidden City. This cheerful shop is chockablock with colorful kites—birds, fish, butterflies, and dragons, with frames made of bamboo. The Liu family has been making kites by hand for three generations, and what’s for sale here are works of art.
Dongzhimen, Dongcheng, Beijing, China
When Beijing’s hutongs—narrow alleyways that connect to form mazelike neighborhoods—were originally built, they were lined with stone houses that had central courtyards. In 1949, with the founding of the People’s Republic of China, there were more than 3,000 hutongs; so many have been razed since that time that there are now fewer than 1,000. The remaining hutongs are where locals chat with their neighbors, sit outside on hot summer nights, buy fruit, and tend to their gardens, all without leaving their own alleyway. Seeing this side of traditional Beijing life is delightful and serves as a marked contrast to the many shops, restaurants, cafés, and bars that now occupy the courtyard homes lining the alleyways.
4 Jingshan Front St, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100009
Beijing’s number one tourist attraction is a massive former imperial palace known as the Forbidden City. Between 1416 and 1911, it was home to 24 Ming and Qing dynasty emperors and their families and staff. In 1912, after the abdication of Puyi—the last emperor of China, who ascended the throne when he was not yet three years old—the Outer Court opened to the public; in 1925 the Palace Museum was opened, with a collection of nearly 1 million Chinese antiquities. The Forbidden City has almost 1,000 buildings spread across 72 hectares (178 acres), making it the world’s largest palace complex.
Xicheng District, Beijing, China
The world’s seventh-largest public square is best known in the West for the 1989 student protests, but this is also where, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China. The square was named for Tiananmen (which translates as “Gate of Heavenly Peace”), one of the gates of the former imperial city. It was built in 1651, then expanded in 1958 to four times its original size, and enlarged even further in 1976 with the construction of Mao’s mausoleum. Arrive at sunrise to watch the solemn flag-raising ceremony, performed with pride, precision, and a touch of flair.
18号 华威里
On a weekend morning, hop on Metro Line 10 to the Panjiayuan station and take exit B. Just down the road is the sprawling Panjiayuan Market, where hundreds of vendors sell their wares. It’s essential to bring cash, patience, and a willingness to bargain. While there aren’t authentic antiques here, you will find loads of curios from the 1950s onward, including a superb selection of colorful propaganda posters at a fraction of what they sell for in central Beijing shops, as well as lacquerware, teapots and cups, jewelry, chopsticks, and textiles. Larger items, like traditional carved-wood furniture and substantial framed paintings, can easily be stowed in one of the taxis that wait patiently near the entrance for happy shoppers.
On the east side of Tiananmen Square sits this massive museum, its dozens of halls filled with rare artifacts and antiquities. The exhibitions span Chinese history, beginning nearly two million years ago, with two teeth belonging to Yuanmou Man, up through 1912, the final year of China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing. The permanent collection has more than a million pieces, including bronzes, coins, porcelain and ceramic objects, tools, and even clothing. Especially impressive are the cases of jade pieces, many several hundred years old, which shine bright as ever. The museum can feel a bit overwhelming but, as it’s free, you can return as many times as you like, taking it in in more manageable bites.
甲9 Fuxing Road, Beijing, Haidian Qu, Beijing Shi, China
This museum on the west side of Beijing curates interesting, but less publicized exhibitions. Head next door to the military museum. The building is huge with high ceilings, giving the visitor the impression that everything is built on a massive scale.
4 Jingshan Front St, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100009
The Forbidden City is not so forbidden any longer...based on the thousands and thousands of people there visiting it! I love the huge city, however it’s a hard sight to visit because of all of the people, the massive space to cover (178 Acres), and the lack of trees! I was absolutely exhausted after our 3 hours there. It consists of 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and 8,704 rooms. And I had to work really hard to find a few hidden spots to take pictures with very few people in them. And of course it was those quiet areas that were my favorite.

My advice for avoiding the crowds is to head to the Palace Museum. You can see ancient treasures of the dynasty - or you can simply enjoy the quiet gardens and less people!
3 Xinbi St, Xicheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100051
This gleaming performing arts center, sometimes called the Giant Egg, was designed by French architect Paul Andreu and inaugurated in 2007. The ellipsoid dome, made of titanium and glass and surrounded by a man-made lake, looks a bit like a spaceship. Within are nearly 4,500 seats across three halls. The spaces are used for kunqu and Western opera, acrobatics shows, ballets such as Swan Lake, Chinese and Western classical music concerts, and visiting foreign troupes performing classics like Hamlet. The building is about a 20-minute walk from Tiananmen Square; even if you don’t have tickets to a performance, it’s worth coming to ogle this enormous architectural feat.
6 Maliandao Road
If you’re keen on buying moderately priced tea sets and a variety of Chinese teas, this massive indoor market is the place to come. Charming it’s not—it can be crowded and the stalls are fluorescent-lit—but hundreds of teas from across China are sold here. Sip malty pu’er tea from southern Yunnan Province, vegetal longjing green tea from the fields of Hangzhou, and floral jasmine from Fujian Province. Most shops sell teas in quantities of 100 grams, though you’ll get a better price if you buy half a kilo. Although Beijing is easy enough to navigate on your own, this is one place where, if you don’t speak Mandarin, a guide is extremely helpful.
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