best things to do in beijing

The Top Things to do in Beijing

Visiting China and not going to Beijing would be like visiting England and not seeing London. I suspect for some it’s the only part of China that they see.

Beijing in July is no one’s idea of fun. It’s hot, we topped out at 96 degrees most days, its smoggy, and its very, very busy. We spent most days with sweat running down our backs and coughing up smog in the evening. For some reason a lot of other folks decided to be in Beijing when we were there too.


Subway - look at the length of the carriage
Subway – look at the length of the carriage
Using the Beijing Buses
Using the Beijing Buses

As a westerner in China you’re in a tiny minority. While we expected it to be different in Beijing, it was still the same, although there were a few more western faces. There do appear to be some concessions to westerners visiting.  The subway for instance is great, mostly in English.  It’s very easy to navigate, gloriously air conditioned and cheap, very cheap to use.  Its onlyy 2 RMB – or 20pence, 0.30 USD per trip anywhere on the subway system!.

It’s easy to find hostels and hotels where English is spoken well enough for you to feel a little more comfortable.  It’s also not hard to find restaurants where the menu has been translated while retaining some semblance of sense.

Beijing is confusing, frustrating, massive and it surprises you.


We tackled the Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City on a Sunday, along with half of China. We experience the security, the lines, the unique Chinese lining up, which involves ignoring any Westerners in a line, unless you want a photo of them.

We frustrated ourselves senseless with the “GPS automatic English Audio Tours” for the Forbidden City, which seem to work intermittently and cut off mid stream. If you’re contemplating spending the money for them there or in the Summer Palace, my advice is don’t and buy a guidebook instead.

Tourists in the Main Hutong
Tourists in the Main Hutong
Street Market Vendor
Street Market Vendor

We wandered through the famous hutongs of Beijing, with half of the rest of the China still with us, drank a beer at the PassBy Bar, accepted a free beer when the owner wanted to move us to a different table to accommodate a big group and we watched the world go by.

Duck ready to eat
Duck ready to eat

We found the Drum and Bell Tower closed for the busiest part of the season, but the much vaunted pub nearby wasn’t. We ate Peking Duck at the oldest Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing (Peking).  We paid handsomely for it to find out that its’ pretty much the same taste as the UK, but just served somewhat differently.


We found peace (eventually) in the Temple of Heaven, but it was hard work, canned music from speakers throughout the park doesn’t help. We yomped through the Summer Palace, not realizing how big the park was, or how hot it was going to be.

Summer Palace Kunming Lake
Summer Palace Kunming Lake
Sun behind the smog
Sun behind the smog

At the third attempt we got to see Chairman Mao in his mausoleum.  It involved moving swiftly past the comedy moment when you first see him.  The bizarre orange glow around his head strange to us.  We also avoided paying 3 RMB to lay a white flower in a completely different room to the bad waxwork like body.

Adopting the Mao Look
Adopting the Mao Look

We took subways and public buses all over the city, and when we couldn’t find the right stop we walked back to the hotel.  Sauntering through a local hutong 30 minutes north of the Temple of Heaven area and ate the “best Tofu ever” from a street vendor for 1/40th the cost of that Peking Duck.

We were waited on by a small Chinese girl in a family restaurant, where we ordered, as usual by pointing and where she painstakingly wrote down the Chinese characters. At another local restaurant where a bowl of hot coals was the centrepoint to our table, the griddle on top where we were supposed to cook our own food, we had the cooking taken out of our hands, by the waitress, who clearly saw that she’d not get the table back before midnight unless she took matters into her own hands.

Our Young Waitress
Our Young Waitress

And when all was frustrating us about Beijing, about no English, about lining up, about the heat and the pollution there was also the Wall. But that’s for next time..


  • Read our Common Sense Guide to VPNs – and why you need one especially in China
  • Peking Duck in Beijing – Quanjude
  • What to see in Beijing
    • Temple of Heaven Park
    • Bell and Drum Towers
    • The Pearl Market
    • The Water Cube at Olympic Park
    • The Birds Nest at Olympic Park
    • Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall
    • Forbidden City Palace Museum
    • Tiananmen Square
    • Summer Palace

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in China

If you like visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites, then our guides to these Chinese World Heritage sites will be useful

Travel Tips for Exploring China

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