Going to China has been a challenge for a lot of international travellers. The long flight, language barrier and lengthy visa processes are enough to put off even the most intrepid explorers. But things just got easier with a new policy that allows foreign visitors to explore Beijing – sans visa – for up to 72 hours.
Beijing is a big city, and with limited time to see all the sights, visitors need to be strategic. For accommodation, find a place within the Second Ring Road. This highway outlines Imperial Beijing’s ancient city wall – in former days, the land outside of the city wall was a no man’s land for exiles, enemies and prisoners. Nowadays, it marks the boundary between the city centre and the suburbs. Here’s a succinct three-day guide covering all that this ancient capital has to offer, including history, architecture, art, cuisine, music and more.
See the Forbidden City from above at Jingshan Park
Start the first day with a hike up the steep hillside of Jingshan Park, which is directly across from the north gate of the Forbidden City. The pagoda at the top of this hillside, which was created from earth dug out from around the imperial palace to create a moat, offers one of the best views of the city. From here, you can see across the central meridian of the Forbidden City, where 24 emperors lived for hundreds of years. In Marco Polo’s description of the Forbidden City, he wrote that the palace’s interior walls and ceilings were covered with glittering gilt and paintings of dragons and horsemen. The roof was multi-coloured and “so brilliantly varnished that it glitters like crystal and the sparkle of it can be seen from far away”. In modern times, though, appearances have changed. The Forbidden City is a vast, empty space devoid of these embellishments. Therefore, while the Forbidden City may be top the list for most visitors, for those with limited time, this viewpoint from the park is a better alternative.
It took a long time for the Chinese capital to embrace the bitter, earthy flavours of freshly roasted coffee. Even today, most middle-aged locals stick resolutely to their flasks of tea. But if you know where to look, there’s a budding coffee scene in Beijing, and the Big Small Coffee is one of its major players. This chain is not only serving bog-standard lattes and flat whites; it’s fusing local and foreign flavours and tastes to create something entirely different. Think tea-infused cappuccinos and coffee-flavoured baijiu cocktails. Visit the branch near Jingshan Park, which is situated on the first of the former Beijing Traders Hotel, to experience some of the chain’s more classical offerings. You’ll be hard pressed to find alternative coffee joints serving comparable brews for the same price point.
Careen north through the hutongs up to the Drum and Bell Towers. These structures, while they may look modest today, dominated the skyline of old Beijing. Spend some time in the space between these two ancient towers, where locals like to congregate to play games and roller skate.
It is not a burger per se, as it’s more similar to a deli sandwich. Delicately thin slices of donkey meat are marinated until they are soft and full of flavour. They’re then mixed with slivers of green pepper and laid on a long, crispy bun. Donkey soup, a savoury broth, pairs great with the sandwich.
Vibrantly coloured and shrouded with plumes of incense smoke, this vibrant Tibetan Buddhism temple offers a look at the spiritual side of Beijing. Monks of all ages draped in swathes of deep maroon bustle around the grounds, enlivening the scene. Stop here to admire the architecture and enjoy a moment of reflection.
Another lively scene, Ritan Park is great for people watching. Beijingers, especially retirees, gather here at all times of day. People bring portable speakers, handheld microphones and sing their hearts out from dawn ’til dusk. Groups of middle-aged women work on coordinated dances, and small children get a chance to run wild.
This popular national chain is a sure bet – the dishes are delicious, and the environment feels both comfortable and well-serviced. The cuisine is Cantonese-style, so think small, steamed baskets that are good for sharing. This particular location near Ritan Park is three levels tall and open 24 hours. The curved wooden awnings, warm lights and burning incense lends a nice ambience.
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Start the day right with the LGBTQ-friendly Bear Brew Café, which offers the best coffee shop view in the city. From its converted hutong rooftop, you can gaze at the towering White Cloud Pagoda, one of the earliest Tibetan Buddhism structures in the city.
A short walk from Bear Brew is a five-metre-tall (16-foot) pagoda from the mid-13th century. The pagoda itself is not particularly impressive, and the grounds are nothing special. However, it is free to enter, and the small shop here offers an excellent collection of Lord Rabbit figurines; it is one of the few places in the city where one can find this old Beijing folk religion deity.
Known as Church of the Saviour, this Catholic cathedral was built in 1703 and is in pristine condition. Look closely, and you’ll notice some interesting architectural and aesthetic contrasts – for instance, the front of the church is buffeted by two pagodas, and the stained-glass windows feature images of the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven.
For lunch, feat on one of China’s most beloved culinary creations – the dumpling. Just north of the Xisi subway station is a bustling, multi-floor dumpling joint. It’s easy to spot due to the intricately carved, multi-coloured wooden facade. The English name translates as HuiFeng Old Beijing Dumpling House, or spot the characters: 惠丰老北京饺子楼.
With a full belly, walk to the former residence of Lao She, recognised as one of the most significant authors of 20th-century Chinese literature. Lao was born and raised in Beijing, and his works are known for their use of the distinctive Beijing dialect and portrayal of local life.
Discover the history of hutongs at the Shijia Hutong Museum
Since the Mongol Empire, Beijing has been structured through grids of hutongs and siheyuans. While their presence is less obvious now than they once were, they’re still a huge part of Beijing’s architectural aesthetic. Organisations like Shijia Hutong Museum are working to preserve their presence in the capital against pressures to replace them with highways and multimillion-yuan apartment complexes.
Arguably the city’s most well-known dish, its deliciousness makes up for the high cholesterol. Close to Shijia is DaDong, a popular, upscale purveyor of this Beijing classic. The decor is refined, with plush high-backed chairs and a minimalist colour palate. The classic crispy lean roast duck burger combo comes in four flavours and pairs well with the zhajiang noodles.
Pair a latte with jazz and a rooftop at Soloist Coffee Co.
Cafe, Dessert, Contemporary, $$$
The best days start with a good cup of coffee. Soloist Coffee Co., the original location for this popular Beijing coffee shop chain, is located on the main thoroughfare of the Dashilar neighbourhood. Incredibly, the café roasts its own beans to the point that no sugar is needed. As the neon sign by the door boasts: “The coffee isn’t bitter.” The original exposed brick, well-selected jazz and cosy rooftop patio come together to make this place a hipster haven.
Walk and talk with tour guides from the Beijing Postcard Museum
Dedicated to preserving the Chinese capital’s visual history, the Beijing Postcard Museum has curated a huge collection of photos, maps and prints. Each postcard comes with a description of the image’s historical context, cultural trademarks and surrounding events, helping visitors not just appreciate the image but also to understand its significance.
The beautifully designed, multi-floor Page One bookstore is a central feature of the new Beijing Fun commercial centre, just opposite the Qianmen (Front Gate). With its massive selection, there are plenty of English-language magazines and books to browse.
The Great Helmsman left an indelible impression on the People’s Republic; the story of his own life is also a fascinating reflection of China’s vicissitudes over the past century. Remember that when visiting the mausoleum, flip-flops or other less presentable clothing may get you turned away. Also, you must bring a passport and check any bags at a nearby locker. The line will be long, but it moves quickly as no one is allowed to linger as people stream past the crystal coffin.
Enjoy an evening of Peking opera at the Temple Theatre
In the evening, brace your ears for some spine-shaking Peking opera. Located in a lux, gorgeously preserved structure from 1667, this building was at first an ancestral shine, and then a popular playhouse that hosted masters of the art. The Temple Theatre venue is the perfect spot to experience a performance that is admittedly an acquired taste. Make sure to check the site for show times.