Don't leave Beijing without...

Where to being with China's manic, foggy yet fascinating capital city? Add these top 9 things to do to your trip itinerary; believe us, they really shouldn't be missed
Summer Palace with historical architecture, lake and boat in Beijing. Photo: Shutterstock
Summer Palace with historical architecture, lake and boat in Beijing. Photo: Shutterstock

Apart from its immediately apparent structures of unparalleled grandiosity, Beijing’s greatest treasures and things to do are hidden, tucked into hutongs (alleyways) and corners, best accessible through patient, on-the-ground exploration. Here's how to find them...

1. Exploring the hutongs on two wheels

This is the best way to get a feel for the old city. Bicycles can be hired from a point just east of the Drum Tower or at various spots around Houhai for about 10 yuan per hour, plus a deposit. For the more serious rider, Natooke (19 Wudaoying Hutong; tel: 8402 6925; daily 10.30am–7pm) hires vintage Flying Pigeon and fixed gear bikes by the day. Cycle with a local guide to learn about Beijing's history and culture as you explore: talk to our local experts to add this experience to your China trip itinerary

2. Checking out Beijing’s burgeoning art scene

After you’ve finished touring the iconic 798 factory district, swing by Red Gate in Chongwenmen for cutting-edge contemporary Chinese artists in a restored guard tower, the Poly Museum for beautiful cultural artefacts or one of the numerous small hutong galleries to see what the local creative types are up to.

3. Taking an early-morning walk in the park

Chinese get up early year round to practice Tai Chi, calligraphy, music and dancing in these public spaces, which open up a window onto local culture. Best bets are Coal Hill Park, Ditan Park and the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven. Add a session to your Beijing trip itinerary with Insight Guides; our China and Tibet: An Unforgettable Adventure itinerary includes time at the Temple of Heaven.

Practicing tai chi chuan gymnastics in Beijing. Photo: ShutterstockPracticing tai chi chuan gymnastics in Beijing. Photo: Shutterstock

4. Partying like the locals do, with karaoke!

Chinese style ballading, known as KTV, involves renting a private room, decked out with couches, a TV screen and a sound system, and belting out the hits with your friends for a few hours. A typical parlour is huge, decorated in cheesy kitsch, and a few higher-end places even have goofy but fun themed rooms.

5. Catching a gig at one of the city’s music venues

Beijing’s music calendar could be the best in China, ranging from Mongolian folk to heavy metal to indie rock with Chinese characteristics. See the local English language listings magazines for the latest bands.

6. Sampling regional Chinese cuisine

As the capital, Beijing offers everything from spicy Sichuanese, hearty Xinjiang and fragrant Yunnanese, all as authentic as they come. A great place to start is at the provincial Chinese restaurants, located in what are essentially embassies for their home province, scattered around the city. Market tours, cooking classes and samplings are often our travellers' favourite activities; talk to our local experts to add Beijing's food experiences to your trip itinerary. 

7. Getting a taste of tea culture at Maliandao, Beijing’s tea market

Casually browse the over 1,000 tea retailers, restaurants and importers offering top blends, with many offering free samples of everything from everyday blends to boutique leaves.

China tea tasting in Beijing market. Photo: ShutterstockChinese tea tasting in Beijing market. Photo: Shutterstock

8. Visiting the Summer Palace by boat

Travel in the style Cixi would have been accustomed to. Craft leave from Purple Bamboo Park every hour in summer with the voyage to the palace’s south gate taking about an hour. A visit is already included on Insight Guides' The Best of China trip itinerary; add a guided boat tour with the help of our local experts.

9. Taking a cultural class

Deepen your understanding with an educational class. The Hutong offers relaxed group cooking classes on regional cuisines, covering necessary skills from noodle pulling to knife handling, followed by a meal of your creations. Alternatively add a cooking class with the help of our local experts to any of our tours to China, which include stops in Beijing

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