Best things to do & places to stay:
Beijing destination guide
The Chinese capital sits at the heart of the national consciousness as its political, cultural and emotional nexus.
A vast city, Beijing is best known for its ancient temples, palaces and proximity to the Great Wall of China, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a thriving contemporary art scene, walkable old neighbourhoods with stylish cafes and boutiques, and a culinary safari of regional Chinese delicacies.
A megacity in the making, vast malls and skyscrapers are juxtaposed with a shrinking number of charming traditional hutong (historic residential alleyways) and backstreet lanes.
Greater affluence and an increasingly youthful vibe have created a diverse dining and nightlife scene, while mall shopping is a well-catered-to pastime for Beijingers.
A huge city with a population of more than 20 million (if you include the outer districts), Beijing’s major sights extend along the city’s historical north-south central axis, with the Forbidden City dead centre, adjoining the vast concrete expanse of Tiananmen Square.
Neighbouring Wangfujing is home to shopping malls and the city’s best hotels, while to the south is the Temple of Heaven.
The leafy hutong neighbourhoods around the Drum and Bell Towers and Houhai Lakes offer a more relaxed, village-y vibe.
A number of temples and palaces are dispersed across the urban landscape, including the Sumer Palace in the northwestern suburbs. Prime attractions like the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs are beyond the city itself. Sanlitun is the destination of choice for nightlife and international dining, while the hutong alleyways are home to hip cafes, boutique hotels and cocktail bars.
The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination
Great Wall of China [hiking & helicopter flights]
Often cited as the greatest ever man-made construction, the Great Wall snakes along China’s 5,000-mile-long northern boundary. Up to 8m tall and 9m wide, this ancient defensive wall traverses the stupendous mountain scenery of northern China, with numerous sections that can be hiked.
Best for ages: 8+ | Free
Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest
‘Old’ Summer Palace
Destroyed by British and French armies during the Second Opium War, what was one of the world’s greatest classical Chinese gardens is now wistful ruins, lakes and parkland. A relaxing place for a wander, it sees far fewer crowds than the ‘new’ Summer Palace nearby.
Best for ages: 18+ | £2
Beijing Ancient Observatory
A fantastic array of arcane astronomical contraptions, cast in bronze and carved with writhing dragons, can be seen at this museum on the site of a Chinese observatory formerly built into Beijing’s mighty city walls.
Best for ages: 13+ | £2
The city’s best historical walking tours, covering everything from concubines to Communism. As well as a tour company, Beijing Postcards has a hutong shop selling old city maps, quirky souvenirs and framed black and white prints of early 20th century Beijing.
Best for ages: 13+ | £40 | 2-3 hours
Our selection of the best Viator tours of this destination, plus helpful tickets and transfers
2-Day Small-Group Tour of Beijing Highlights
$278 | Rating 4.95 / 5 [183 ratings]
Beijing Private Tour: 2 Days Forbidden City and Mutianyu Great Wall VIP Tour
$365 | Rating 5 / 5 [29 ratings]
2-Day Beijing Highlights Small-Group Tour
$198 | Rating 4.90 / 5 [22 ratings]
2-Day Private Beijing Tour with Forbidden City and Great Wall
$418 | Rating 4.90 / 5 [53 ratings]
Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination
When to go
The weather is at its most pleasant in spring, from May to June, and in autumn, from September to early November. Hotels are busier and prices are higher during these periods.
Summer (July and August) can be intolerably hot and humid. The freezing winter months (December to March) are quieter, and the icy lakes and hot pot feasts lend Beijing a unique seasonal appeal.
Beijing gets very crowded with Chinese tourists during the week-long public holidays of Chinese New Year (late January or February) and National Day (from 1 October).
Getting there and away
Beijing has two major international airports. The closest to the city is Beijing Capital Airport, a thirty-minute ride via the Airport Express train into central Beijing.
Beijing Daxing Airport, opened in 2019, is about 1 hour and 10 minutes from the city centre, using a combination of Airport Express and subway.
A taxi from Beijing Capital Airport takes 30-45 minutes to downtown. From Daxing Airport, allow at least an hour.
The high-speed ‘bullet’ train arrives from most major Chinese cities into one of Beijing’s three main stations: Beijing Railway Station, Beijing West Railway Station, and Beijing South Railway Station.
Beijing is a huge, spread-out city, and distances on maps often look shorter than in reality. Utilise taxis and the subway to full effect to save unnecessary walking time.
Taxis are plentiful, but drivers don’t speak English so have your destination written in Chinese characters and ensure the driver uses the meter. Uber isn’t used in China, but the equivalent Chinese app, Didi Chuxing, has an English interface and can be used by overseas tourists to hail metered taxis (not private cars), paying with cash at the end of the journey.
The subway system is cheap, efficient and easy to navigate. Car rental is not an option unless you have a Chinese driving licence. Traffic can get congested, so leave plenty of time for your journey, especially at rush hours.
With dedicated cycle lanes on many roads, cycling can be a great way to explore, especially through the quiet hutong lanes. You’ll see dockless hire bikes everywhere, but you will need to enlist the help of a Chinese person to use them.
Where to stay
For first-time visitors, Beijing can seem rather spread out and sprawling, so it’s important to choose your hotel location carefully.
Wangfujing is the safest all-round bet – it’s central, with a huge choice of places to stay, and within walking distance of the Forbidden City. A little further out, the Central Business District has some very swanky international hotels and good subway links.
Sanlitun, with its trendy design hotels, is the location of choice for night owls, while those seeking a more authentic hutong experience can opt for the neighbourhoods around the Drum and Bell Tower and Houhai Lakes, home to a few notable boutique hotels.
Health & Safety
Petty crime rates are low, but always take sensible precautions especially in crowded areas and on public transport. Traffic is very congested during weekdays, and Beijing drivers are impatient so cross streets with care. Pay special heed to zippy electric scooters, which you won’t hear coming.
Although improving year on year, air pollution can still be an issue, particularly in winter. The summer heat and humidity is draining. Tap water is not safe to drink, but safe bottled water is sold everywhere.
If English-speaking Chinese approach you outside major tourist sites, it might be one of two well-known scams. One leads to a hard-sell on student art, the other is the infamous tea scam, where an invite to drink tea could mean end up footing a hefty bill.
Get a VPN (Virtual Private Network) subscription if you want to use Google, Facebook or other banned sites extensively while away. Note that these while these sites are blocked over Wi-Fi and local mobile networks, they are still accessible if you use your own carrier’s roaming service.