Beijing is the cultural, artistic, and political heart of China. It proudly combines centuries of history with a modern-day hustle and ingenuity. Clocking in at about 22 million inhabitants, it is home to more people than you could meet in a lifetime, as well as more sites of interest than you could check out in just one trip.
Beijing is a place that can put you in a fog in more ways than one. Beyond the infamously paltry air, the local language poses a challenge, and the geographic parameters of the place can only be described as epic. Then, there is the casual disregard for order, although everything keeps moving in its own way.
But Beijing will also beguile you with a local culture that emphasizes hospitality, a culinary culture second to none, and streets that are safe to walk any time of day or night.
The city’s well-known draws are Peking duck, acrobatic shows, and the Forbidden City, but there’s plenty to experience beyond these first-timer treats: arthouse films at a retro-inspired bar, cozy farm-to-table breakfast joints, and designer shops that proclaim their wares are both “made in China” and “designed in China.” Here’s everything you need to know about making the most of your stay in Beijing.
Beijing has four distinct seasons, with autumn widely acknowledged as the most comfortable. Chilly winter months can be dry enough to induce nosebleeds, and a 5:30 PM sunset might hamper visitors’ sightseeing time. Sweltering summers in an inland concrete jungle are made somewhat more bearable by ample air conditioning. Local men indulge in the “Beijing belly” look as they roll up tank tops to reveal and cool their stomachs. Spring in the ‘Jing is when sand storms from the Gobi Desert come rolling in but also a time when the manicured greenery around the city blooms — who knew roses could be so resilient?
Beyond weather, another factor is the vacation schedule for local companies and schools, which is overwhelmingly uniform and concentrated on a couple national holidays. The Chinese New Year, or “Spring Festival,” regularly tops records as a frenetic feat of mass migration. Hundreds of millions of people use their longest vacation period of the year to travel back home to see parents and elders still living far away from city centers. During this period, it is challenging to travel domestically within China. On the other hand, cities like Beijing and Shanghai, which host large migrant worker populations, are significantly less populated than usual. China’s National Day on October 1 is also a major holiday with a week of leave. Domestic travel within the PRC is challenging for locals during this time and likely even more so for visitors.
For an extended layover: 24-hour direct transit. If you will be in the country for fewer than 24 hours and aren’t flying into Shenzhen, Yanji, Mudanjiang, or Fuzhou, no visa is required for almost all nationalities. The government allows transit travel in and out without a visa, including the ability to leave the airport and spend one night -- just apply for a Temporary Stay Permit upon arrival and make sure you’re back on the plane in less than the allotted time.
For a quick trip: 72-hour visa-free transit. Foreign nationals from 53 countries, including the US and Canada, can remain in the country for 72 hours (three days) while transiting via Beijing Capital Airport, Shanghai Pudong Airport, Shanghai Hongqiao Airport, and the airports of Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenyang, Dalian, Harbin, Xi'an, Guilin, Kunming, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Tianjin, Qingdao, Nanjing, Changsha, and Xiamen.
For trips up to six days: 144-hour exemption. Foreign nationals from 53 countries, including the US and Canada, can transit in Guangdong Province, Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang region, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, Liaoning Province, or Chinese cities of Chengdu, Xiamen, Qingdao, Wuhan, and Kunming for 144 hours (six days) without needing a visa. You must have a passport valid for six months beyond your stay and be able to present onward travel plans, such as the confirmation of your flight out of the country, to the customs agent upon entering the country.
10-year visa. For all stays longer than six days, and for visitors not from the 53 countries approved for the 144-hour exemption, a full visa to enter China must be obtained. The good news is that once you have the visa, you’re all set for 10 years. Come and go, enter and leave, take a weekend trip to Hong Kong — get through this process once and it’s all within reach. Here’s how to get the visa.
The official name of China’s currency is renminbi, which literally translates to “the people’s currency” and is abbreviated as RMB. It is also known as yuan, which is why on exchange rate boards it will be listed as CNY (Chinese yuan). The rate is 6.38 per 1 USD
Tipping is not done in China — not in restaurants, bars, hotels, or taxis. You may tip tour guides or in really high-end restaurants, but again, it’s really not expected.
Mandarin Chinese is the lingua franca for the PRC. It is a tonal language, which means that pronouncing words in different tones changes the meaning of the word. Mandarin may present an initial learning curve to English speakers, but a few earnestly attempted phrases will go a long way. Locals will be unanimously encouraging — “Oh, your Chinese is <em>so</em> good!”
The Beijing subway network is a vast web composed of 21 lines (plus an express airport line) and just under 400 subway stops throughout the metro area. Generally speaking, the sites of interest for visitors are all within a reasonable walk from a subway station.
In fact, most sites are within the second ring road, which was the former city wall for imperial Beijing. Focusing on this area can make the city seem much more manageable. Taking the metro is the best public way to get around since commuter traffic chokes the roadways twice a day for several hours. However, the experience of riding the subway will also be affected by commuters on their way to and from work.
At about 6:00 PM, there will be thick clumps of people just trying to get into the street level entrance of the subway. The packed shuffling will continue down the stairs into the station, past the security check (bags must be put through a perfunctory x-ray scan), and down to the train platform.
Truth be told, the most enjoyable way to get around Beijing is by bike or scooter. It offers the most freedom, the most convenience, is probably the fastest method, and is better for the environment.
There are several brands of pick-up-and-go bikes to choose from, with Mobike being at the top of the list. Note that the phone app must be downloaded in order to use them. There are also e-bike tours around the city; one to check out is B Electric, which offers group and private electric scooter tours around the city.
There’s loads to do in Beijing, but you’d better prepare every detail of your trip before you set off to China’s capital because, once there, you won’t be able to use the internet in the same way you do when at home. You can’t simply hop onto Google Maps and route yourself to cool spots, ask for recommendations from your Facebook crew, or email someone for advice from your trusty Gmail account. The Chinese government’s Golden Shield Project has strict regulations in place that limit or censor everything from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to email service providers and cell phone data.
That said, there are ways to get around The Great Firewall of China. Installing a VPN (Virtual Private Network) such as Buffered, ExpressVPN, or Astrill onto your laptop before you leave is your ticket to punking this overly protective watchdog by fooling the web into thinking you’re located somewhere else. A VPN creates a new IP address for your computer, located somewhere outside of the People’s Republic, so that websites you visit think you are actually there and thus not subjugated to the rules of the Chinese government. You’re essentially hopping into a private gondola car that lifts you over the Great Firewall and drops you safely on the other side where your Facebook, YouTube, and Gmail accounts eagerly await. Opt for paid service (between $5 and $20 per month depending on what you choose) as free ones tend to be blocked by the Chinese government.
The biggest concern you’ll face in Beijing is the smog, though recent efforts (or at least, pledges for efforts) have been made by the government to improve on this. While you will see many locals wearing face masks, it probably isn’t necessary most days unless you are sensitive to air pollution. But if it is a particularly rough day for smog (if the air quality index reaches above 150), you may consider wearing an airtight face mask — not a surgical mask, which does literally nothing unless you plan on performing surgery.
But what Beijing may lack in clean air, it makes up for in superb public safety. Using normal caution, you can safely walk around pretty much all areas at night. Foreigners stand out visually and are assumed to be wealthy, so typical traveling precautions should be exercised — such as carrying a limited amount of cash and keeping your wallet and cell phone in a secure pocket.
Visitors should also be mindful when taking taxis as some drivers will hope to make a couple extra bucks by taking advantage of outsiders. Make sure that the meter starts when the trip does, and ensure that the fare is determined by the meter, rather than by negotiation. If the rate still seems strange, the information of the driver is displayed on the dashboard, along with the company phone number. Remember, if you think that there is something fishy, you can always stop the ride, get out, and catch one of the other thousands of taxis driving by.