As the political hub of China, Beijing is the perfect place to soak up the country’s rich history while immersing yourself in the changing society of modern China. While many tourists restrict their stay to just a few days, I recently spent an action-packed ten days there. So (for the more intrepid travelers), I’ll let you in on some less well-known spots, just off the beaten track, to help you experience more of this vibrant city.
12 Things you Have to See in Beijing
1. HUTONG HANGOUT
Escape from the chaos of inner-city Beijing crowds and walk among the leafy streets where the old heart of Beijing rests. Tucked away beneath towering skyscrapers, the hutongs have been under threat of demolition for years in the name of modernization. Rent a bike or take a rickshaw and explore the narrow streets of communities that are tightly holding on to their heritage. With surprises hidden around every corner, from tea houses to museums, you’ll soon discover your favorite quirks.
2. 798 ART ZONE
Amidst the surroundings of disused military factories, Beijing’s 798 art district plays host to a thriving art scene. Spend the day café hopping and attempt to understand the weird and fabulous contemporary art in this strip of (mostly) free galleries.
3. DANCE LIKE NOBODY’S WATCHING
Spend an evening with a group of ‘dancing grandmas.’ Yes, you read that right. Throughout Beijing, groups of mainly older women will populate any open space and boogie to some of their favorite Chinese tunes. I recommend familiarising yourself with ‘little apple’ by the Chopsticks Brothers, a choreographed song in China that is set to rival Gangnam style
4. SING LIKE NOBODY’S LISTENING
Another viral pastime (which also leaves no room for inhibitions) is KTV, a chain of glitzy karaoke bars with private rooms you can rent out. Grab some Dutch courage at the front-of-house drink store and gather a group of friends for a night full of laughter. Don’t worry; there is plenty of western music to choose from (they don’t expect you to start singing in Chinese quite yet.)
5. MOUNT TAI
Cheating a bit here as this is a whole day trip away from Beijing, but sacred Mount Tai is a welcome break from the chaos of urban Chinese life. If you’re feeling brave, it’s 6293 steps from the base to the summit. Alternatively, you can start halfway and still feel some sense of achievement! Stand above the clouds, take that view and breathe in that much-needed fresh mountain air (rather than smog). Ride the cable car back down the mountain.
6. SPEED DOWN THE GREAT WALL
No visit to Beijing is complete without walking along the iconic Great Wall of China. The view of the turrets stretching over endless miles of rolling hills will take your breath away. There are several sections you can visit near Beijing, but the Mutianyu section is the best preserved and is much less crowded. Plus, the highest point of Mutianyu has an exhilarating toboggan ride to take you down the mountain!
7. GO TO A CHINESE FOOTBALL GAME
Even if soccer isn’t your thing (it certainly isn’t mine), jumping in a pit of Chinese soccer hooligans while chanting obscenities at the opposition is never boring (trust me). For a more lively experience, make sure you secure a place in the standing section of the stadium. You can even grab a football shirt for £2! The Olympic soccer stadium is an hour and a half on the high-speed train to Jinan.
8. TAKE A BREAK AT THE TEMPLES
Burn incense beneath the gaze of an 18m high gold Buddha at the Lama temple; it’s the most renowned Buddhist temple outside Tibet. Then, take a short subway ride (just 20yuan a lift) to the temple of heaven. Play cards with the locals in the long ornate corridor where the emperors used to walk.
9. HOT SPRINGS
Soothe your tired limbs in one of the many hot springs dotted around Beijing. Head to the Feng Shang Resort, near the Ming Tombs (also worth a look in), and opt for one of the simple outdoor stone beds. All you need to do now is sit back, be at one with nature, and take in the mountain views. Lovely.
10. SHAOLIN MONASTERY
If you enjoyed the temples, visiting the Shaolin monastery is worth considering. Away from the prying eyes of Beijing tourists, the sanctuary offers a more accurate view of Zen Buddhism in China from its birthplace. Learn kung fu with the resident teachers or meditate with a monk atop the mountain. This place is something special.
11. CHALLENGE YOURSELF
There’s much more to Chinese cuisine than Kung Po chicken. After all, you haven’t come all this way to order dishes on offer at your local restaurant. Make sure you try dumplings and Hot pots. Hot Pot it’s a great communal meal where you boil up an assortment of meat and veg in a spicy sauce. Just be careful of the Szechuan version (it will quite literally blow your head off). Have a go at ordering in mandarin, too; the locals will appreciate the effort.
12. DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY
If you’re craving a party, there’s a strip of western-style bars called ‘Sanlitun’ and a host of clubs near the worker’s stadium. Nightclubs seem to be populated with expensive booths rather than a dance floor, so I’d recommend seeking out some of the hutong rock bars instead, one in particular called ‘Mao House.’