When the thermometer plummets seasonally in China’s capital, things can get brutal. On most winter days, temperatures are unwaveringly Siberian and the air quality can leave you speechless, not to mention breathless. But don’t get left out in the cold after seeing the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square outdoors – here are our best-loved things to see and do in Beijing in winter.
Beijing’s Atmosphere bar floats 80 storeys above the city: an otherworldly place where live jazz plays and cocktail shakers rattle, while you look down upon lesser skyscrapers, twinkling in the cloudy night. When it’s freezing outside, a perch at the bar here warms the proverbial cockles, as you summon a tot of whisky from the bar’s impressive international line-up. Or ask if they’ll pour you a glass of baijiu, the fiery Chinese spirit distilled from grain that’s been around for about 5,000 years and has an irresistible kick, like vodka.
Still have some energy to burn after your Beijing sightseeing? Head to Latitude Trampoline Park, in the Shunyi District, and you can climb, hop and fly away your excess energy. The vast room full of interconnected trampolines is certainly the highlight, but if bouncing isn’t your thing you’ll find dodgeball courts, basketball lanes and indoor rock climbing too. As you can imagine, Latitude is a popular pick for families, and there’s even a kid-friendly zone for tots under five.
Winter evenings out in Beijing can be more social than you’d think. Sign up for the Wednesday (English language) trivia night at Plan B, and you can spend a few hours meeting other foreigners in Beijing while scrambling for the answers to head-scratching quiz questions. It’s free to enter, so there’s no pressure to do well – though the winning team gets a prize, plus a 400RMB voucher to cover off a hefty future dinner of bacon double cheeseburgers, nachos and cajun-style wings.
What’s better than warming up over a steaming cup of coffee? Doing it with a bunch of cuddly felines. At this cat cafe near the must-see Drum Tower, your caffeine hit comes with the opportunity to meet snuggly kitties, watching while they play with cat toys or curl up in straw baskets. Plenty of stronger – alcoholic – tipples are on hand if you visit in the afternoon, and after you say bye to the cats you can hang around to feast on pizza in the lobby.
To celebrate the winter season, the city hosts an Ice Lantern Festival every year at Beijing’s Longqing Gorge. Roll up and admire more than 400 ice sculptures: extravagant likenesses of temples, dragons, and ice castles that you can hardly imagine were chiselled by hand. While you’re here, take a look around – there are other must-photograph attractions, from dance performances to firework displays. All that and endless rainbows of colorful lights makes for a multi-sensory celebration of the icy season.
Every year, when Houhai Lake freezes over, the Shichahai Skating Rink springs into action. The lake has history – with origins in the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) – and its natural, tree-lined beauty draws people in all seasons. But in winter everyone steps out, not least because skating is good value – a couple of dollars for as long as you want. And if you don’t fancy practising to be the next Dancing on Ice winner? No problem – for a few dollars more you can rent a sleigh, muffle up, sit back and do a few laps in luxury style.
Every Wednesday night at the Modernista, a swanky bar in the the narrow streets of Baochao Hutong, they host swing nights. Professional instructors in balboa, the California dance style of the 1930s, will soon have you out on the floor – this is an all-out dancing affair. It’s very social, so even if you don’t dance, you can still warm up with a glass of mulled wine at a cosy table and people watch. One way or another, on the dancefloor or at the bar, you’re going to beat the chill.
In the bleak midwinter, freshly made mulled wine finds its way onto the menus of restaurants and bars citywide, drawing frozen Beijingers in for a head-spinning thaw. Establishments including the Rug, beside Chaoyang Park, send the soul-warming tipple out in pitchers that are just perfect for sharing with friends over a long, lazy brunch of lattes and eggs benedict. Afterwards you can get your coats on and take in the snowy beauty of the park and its stark winter trees.
Ellie Hurley contributed additional reporting to this article.