Beijing: top 10 things to see and do

The entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing

The entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing

For all our previous city breaks we had limited the stay to no more than five days as this would usually be enough time to see the major attractions and to explore. This was not the case in Beijing.

We had originally booked five nights then were going to head to another region of China, but Beijing is so big and there is so much to see that we ended up extending to 10 nights. Seriously, there is enough to see and do in Beijing to warrant this amount of time.

For example, most cities will have a central area where many of its top attractions are located, central Beijing is so vast that the distance from the main railway station to the Olympic Park is more than 11km – that’s a decent two-and-a-half-hour walk for anyone.

Staying at the Harmony Hotel, close to the main Beijing Railway Station in the Dongcheng area, we were, according to Google maps, pretty close to Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China and the Forbidden City. It was pretty close, but for Beijing pretty close means at least a half-hour walk.

That wasn’t a issue as we prefer to walk around a city, but one travel tip I will give is to also make use of the excellent subway system. Another tip I would say is to plan your routes before a day’s exploring. If you are staying in Beijing for a short amount of time make sure you see as much as possible.

Beijing is so rich in culture, both historical and modern, that this list could easily have been a top 20 – but here is my top 10 however (in no particular order)…

Top 10 things to see and do in Beijing 

Inside the Forbidden City in Beijing

Inside the Forbidden City in Beijing

1. The Forbidden City

The city within a city. If you think a visit to the Forbidden City will take a couple of hours, think again. With beautiful buildings, gardens, museums and palaces inside the city walls you should take your time and really explore this amazing attraction.

The 'Bird's Nest' stadium at Beijing Olympic Park

The 'Bird's Nest' stadium at Beijing Olympic Park

2. Beijing Olympic Park

Watching Usain Bolt smash the 100m record at the 2008 Olympic Games was, in my opinion, one of the greatest sporting moments ever – however, I only saw it on TV unfortunately. Despite being three years too late, I finally got to see the amazing ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, the Beijing Aquatic Stadium and walk around the Olympic Park. The facilities are impressive and worth seeing on a trip to the Chinese capital.

A hutong in the Houhai area of Beijing

A hutong in the Houhai area of Beijing

3. Walk around a hutong

Hutongs are narrow alleyways and streets that can be found all over neighbourhoods in Beijing. Rich in culture and tradition many hutongs are lined with shops and housing and many feature courtyards. We walked around the hutongs in the Houhai area of Beijing.

There are some great places to eat in Houhai, Beijing

There are some great places to eat in Houhai

4. Spend an evening in Houhai

Since Beijing’s old town was given a makeover the Houhai area has become one of the top places to be seen. Based around Houhai lake, there is a huge amount of funky bars, restaurants and entertainment to enjoy.

Inside the grounds of the Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Inside the grounds of the Summer Palace

5. Summer Palace

Don’t go to the Summer Palace thinking it will be just one building – the grounds are spread out over an area of more than 700 acres. Inside the grounds of the Summer Palace you will find towers, bridges, statues, a boat made of marble plus the beautiful Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill. The Summer Palace is just stunning and a great place in which to relax and unwind.

One of the pandas at Beijing Zoo

One of the pandas at Beijing Zoo

6. Visit the pandas at Beijing Zoo

There may be more than 5,000 animals at Beijing Zoo and Aquarium but there is one main reason why visitors flock there – the pandas. When buying tickets for Beijing Zoo make sure you ask for entrance to the Panda House, as this is an extra fee. Entrance to the Aquarium is also a separate charge.

Wangfujing Night Market and snack street

I'll take two of each please...

7. Wangfujing snack street and night market

If eating scorpions, seahorses and insects are your kind of thing then you had better visit the night market and snack street in Wangfujing. (Note: I was too much of a coward to even try…)

Silk Street Shopping Arcade, Beijing, China

Silk Street (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

8. Silk Street shopping arcade

It may be called Silk Street but silk is not the only thing to buy and it isn’t really a street. Located on Chang An avenue, Silk Street is a five-level indoor market where you can shop till your drop. Make sure you perfect your haggling skills as you will definitely need them.

The lake and island at Beihei Park, Beijing, China

The lake and island at Beihei Park

9. Beihei Park

Located north-west from the Forbidden City, Beihei Park is one of Beijing’s top outdoor attractions. You can spend your time wandering the park and gardens or hire a boat and drift around the lake. Beihei Park’s highlight is the White Dagoba on Qiónghuá Island (pictured above).

The Great Wall of China at Badaling

The Great Wall of China at Badaling

10. The Great Wall of China at Badaling

You just have to see the Great Wall of China and being only 50 miles away from Beijing, Badaling is within easy reach. Even though the Badaling section of the Wall is the most visited, we went on a grey drizzly day when there were hardly any tourists around. Come back to the blog to see my post on train travel to the Great Wall of China…

Travel details

Dates we travelled to Beijing: September 5-15, 2011

Where we stayed: Harmony Hotel, No. 9 Youtong Street, Dongcheng, Beijing

Beijing tourist information:

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3 thoughts on “Beijing: top 10 things to see and do

  1. Pingback: Inside the Forbidden City – Beijing, China « The Starling Files

  2. This seems like the most touristy thing to do while in BJ. Some of the places are worth seeing and some, in reality, are not.

    As a person who’s lived in BJ a bit, I’d recommend to get to know the local people’s life, local artists areas, crashing all sorts of grand openings (which is surprisingly easy for decently dressed smiling ‘white’ person) and so forth perhaps unusual things for a tourist to do. Otherwise a great list and I do love top lists.

    • Thanks for your feedback Willem and thanks for the recommendations. When we head back to Beijing in the future I would definitely want to be immersed more in the local culture – especially the artists areas.

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