The Best Things to Do in Beijing

The Great Wall of China Photo by Jonathan Corbet/Flickr
Beijing is the nerve center of Chinese civilization, anchored by foreboding temples and palaces, strafed by huge boulevards, and ordered by the concentric circles of its ring roads. But between these mighty surges of people and traffic, Beijing retains pockets of pedestrian charm. Get caught in the fast lane, and there’s nowhere more intense. Hang out in the gaps, where kites fly, tai chi flows, and old-timers chat, and Beijing can feel almost provincial.
It all adds up to a city that requires both time and patience but offers rich rewards. And for those seeking China’s essence, it’s unbeatable. Whether you’re after the upturned eaves and imperial palaces of ancient China, the pomp and power of communist China, or the malls, jackhammers, and gridlock of rising China, Beijing serves all needs. Here are our picks for the best things to do in this one-of-a-kind city. 

To learn more about the amazing sights and attractions in China, check out our EasyGuide to Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai.
The Palace of Heavenly Purity Photo by Oi Leen / FreeImages
A 720,000-square-meter (7.75-million-sq.-ft.) complex of red-walled pavilions and halls topped by a sea of glazed vermilion tile, the Forbidden City is the largest palace in the world. It receives more visitors than any other attraction in the country (more than nine million a year, according to the Chinese government) and has been celebrated in Western literature ever since the first Europeans laid eyes on it in the early 1600s. Despite the flood of superlatives, it is impervious to an excess of hype and is large and compelling enough to draw repeat visits from even the most jaded travelers.
The Great Wall of China Photo by via Wikimedia Commons
Seeing the Great Wall for the first time is sure to get the spine tingling, but for the full blood-pumping experience, you need to clamber up and walk. The section near Jinshanling is still in a pleasingly varied state of repair—some areas freshly restored, others thoroughly crumbling. It runs over steep peaks, through patches of astonishing wilderness, and is a worthy introduction to this magnificent monument.
Fruit vendors at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing Photo by Jirka Matousek / Flickr
For authentic, affordable Chinese cuisine, it's hard to beat the city's outdoor street stalls, which come alive after dark in the warmer months. At chaotic spots like the Donghuamen Night Market and Wangfujing Snack Street (pictured above), you can throw yourself into a whirl of jostling crowds and baying vendors selling homestyle noodles, kebabs, hot pot, and, for more adventurous diners, scorpions and other insects. For street-style fare without the fuss of the outdoor markets, try Lost Heaven (which also has an outpost in Shanghai). Perched just off Tiananmen Square, the restaurant transports customers to China’s tropical Southeast Asian fringe with dreamy decor, sensuous lighting, and dishes of vivid color.
Boats at the Summer Palace in Beijing Photo by Hermann Luyken via Wikimedia Commons

Beijing’s clamorous streets have become increasingly hazardous for those seeking to explore the capital on foot. The solution is a wander around the metropolis just below pavement level—on its manmade waterways. The network is a combination of ancient canals, historic moats, and modern water features. The mostly excellent pedestrian access guides hikers past gleaming skyscrapers and ramshackle hovels and beneath giant intersections.

Taimiao, the Imperial Ancestral Temple, Working People's Cultural Palace Photo by librarianidol / Flickr

This is a beautiful slice of imperial architecture that’s rarely busy, despite being located right next to the Forbidden City. The palace features much of the same architecture, grandeur, and historic gravitas of its famous neighbor, yet hardly anybody bothers to stop by on the dash for the big ticket. Don’t be put off by the rather dour name. Instead, thank the Maoist moniker for putting off the masses.

Skating at Shichahai in Beijing Photo by via Wikimedia Commons
The collective name for the network of three lakes that run north of the Forbidden City, Shichahai is pleasant year-round but essential if you visit Beijing from December to February, when Houhai—the southernmost lake—turns into a fabulous natural skate rink. There are also fun chair sleds for hire. Come back in the evening, when Houhai Lake serves as a backdrop for late-night dining, cocktails, and twilight boat rides.
Chairman Mao Memorial Hall Photo by Dean Franklin / Flickr
After Mao Zedong died in 1976, the Communist Party, which he had molded in his image, ignored his wish to be cremated and instead embalmed his body for permanent display. Mao’s crystal coffin is raised from its underground refrigeration unit each morning and there is a guaranteed line of devotees outside ready to pay their respects. Whatever your feelings about the Great Helmsman, it’s a worthy cultural experience.
The National Museum of China Photo by Daniel Case via Wikimedia Commons
After a mammoth restoration effort that cost nearly $400 million, the National Museum—three times the size of the Louvre in Paris—impresses with its trove of more than one million cultural relics from China’s lengthy history. Don’t miss the exhibit on Ancient China, which covers in exhaustive detail the prehistoric era through China’s final dynasty, the Qing.
Eastern Gate of the Summer Palace Photo by via Wikimedia Commons
Constructed from 1749 to 1764, this expanse of elaborate Qing-style pavilions, bridges, walkways, and gardens, scattered along the shores of immense Kunming Lake, is the grandest imperial playground in China. Between 1860 and 1903, the Summer Palace was twice leveled by foreign armies and then rebuilt. It's most often associated with the Empress Dowager Cixi, who made it her full-time residence.
Jingshan Park Photo by François Philipp / Flickr
If you want a clear aerial view of the Forbidden City, this is where you’ll find it. The park's central hill was created using earth left over from the digging of the imperial moat and was the highest point in the city during the Ming dynasty. A tree on the east side of the hill marks the spot where the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, supposedly hanged himself in 1644, just before Manchu and rebel armies overran the city. The original tree, derided as the “guilty sophora” during the Qing, was hacked down by Red Guards who failed to recognize a fellow anti-imperialist.
EasyGuide to Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai Photo by
We've only scratched the surface of all there is to do in Beijing. For a deeper dive into China's best attractions, pick up a copy of Frommer's EasyGuide to Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai.