Beijing boasts countless big-ticket attractions, but here are a few lesser-known corners of the Chinese capital to discover.
The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, the Olympic precinct, eye-popping temples around every corner – Beijing is home to a lengthy list of huge tourist drawcards that attract equally huge crowds. But if you’re looking for attractions that you might not find in the guidebooks, try these unusual things to do around the Chinese capital.
Beijing is brimming with plenty of weird museums – there’s the Museum of Tap Water, the China Honey Bee Museum, even the Daxing Watermelon Museum. However, the standout is Mao’s Mausoleum – formally the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall – where China’s iconic communist statesman lies in state for visitors to gawk at. The ‘Great Helmsman’ died in 1976 before his body was embalmed and laid to rest in a grand building in Tiananmen Square, although conspiracy theorists will tell you a wax sculpture has been placed over the actual corpse.
Kung fu is the umbrella term for Chinese martial arts, and an evening at the Red Theatre is your best introduction to this ancient art. Occupying a glitzy building near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing’s south, the Red Theatre leads the audience through six all-action scenes: initiation, learning, casting, illusion, remorse and passing through the gate, before culminating in enlightenment. If you’re more interested in the acrobatic side of martial arts, try a show at the Chaoyang Theatre as well.
If kung fu sounds a little too high octane, then try some tai chi instead. This slow-paced martial art is practised more for its health benefits than as self-defence, making graceful movements in the name of meditation and mindfulness. Locals converge on the idyllic gardens surrounding the Temple of Heaven every morning – get there before 8am to beat the crowds – as well as other tranquil public places like Jingshan Park and the Summer Palace.
Beijing’s National Stadium and National Aquatics Centre – better known as the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube after the 2008 Olympics – are must-see landmarks for sports nuts, sitting on the northern edge of the city. But even amateur swimmers can dive into the real Olympic pool, which has been converted into the ‘Happy Magic Water Cube Waterpark’, with zany tubes and slides swirling around the US$200 million venue.
While the Wangfujing Snack Street might be touristy, there’s no doubt that it’s unusual. Scorpions on a stick, silkworms, rabbit heads, seahorses, donkey meat, boiled tripe, snake, wasp larvae, pig brains, lamb spine, the infamous fermented ‘stinky tofu’ – these dishes certainly aren’t what Western visitors are used to seeing on the menu. You’ll find similar stalls at the Donghuamen Night Market near the Forbidden City, too.
The sections of the Great Wall of China closest to Beijing are choked with day-trip tourists making a whistle-stop visit from the Chinese capital. However, venture a little farther, and you’ll find unrestored segments of this 2,000-year-old wonder where you’ll feel like you’ve got the whole thing to yourself. The walk from Simatai to Jinshanling is spectacular, while the Mutianyu section is also relatively untouched – apart from the thrilling toboggan ride hugging a portion of the wall.
Dongyue isn’t Beijing’s most famous temple – the Temple of Heaven, the Lama Temple and the temples perched along the Shichahai waterfront all have stronger claims to that honour. However, this Taoist temple just south of the Workers’ Stadium in Sanlitun is one of Beijing’s most unusual places of worship thanks to its colourful statues representing the 76 ‘departments’ of the supernatural world, from the ‘Department of Distribution of Medication’ to the ‘Department of Paying Back Evil with Evil’.
Located 45 kilometres (28 miles) north of Beijing, the Dingling Tomb is a subterranean mausoleum offering a glimpse into China’s imperial past. While Chairman Mao raided many of the other 13 famous Ming Dynasty Tombs during the Cultural Revolution, this one was opened as a museum in 1959, inviting visitors inside the haunting 400-year-old burial place of the Wanli emperor and his two empresses.
What’s the most popular spirit in the world? Whiskey, maybe? Or vodka? How about rum? Nope. The answer is baijiu, a liquor distilled from grain that has an enormous fan base in China; every single year, the nation guzzles 20 billion bottles of the stuff. The taste is impossible to describe and certainly not to everyone’s taste, but the best bar for your first baijiu experience is Capital Spirits – a modern craft distillery inhabiting an atmospheric Dongcheng hutong.
Hurry up and tick this one off your bucket list while you still can. As hutong after hutong is being torn down for new developments, institutions like Shuang Xing Tang come under threat. Built in 1916, Beijing’s oldest bathhouse is also one of its last ones left standing. The 30,000-square-metre (322,917-square-foot) facility in the south of the city features two baths, acupuncture and massage services, and an irreplaceable space for elderly Beijingers to hang out over a game of mahjong.