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Qianmen Hutong in Beijing | © Carlos Twose / Flickr
Qianmen Hutong in Beijing | © Carlos Twose / Flickr

5 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Beijing

Picture of Jim Boyce
Updated: 14 February 2017

Beijing is a city that embraces both present and past. Modern skyscrapers offer views of the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven. Luxury cars share the streets with gas-powered rickshaws. Top-notch Western restaurants are just a short walk from vendors selling time-honored snacks. The contrasts underscore the range of potential experiences. Here are five things to remember for a good street sense of Beijing.

Stay in the hutongs

There are lots of well-known international hotel chains in Beijing, but you’ll get a better feel by heading to the hutongs, the alleyways that have long defined the city. The Orchid hotel, set along the secluded Baochao Hutong, is a short walk from the historical Drum Tower and Bell Tower area and its wealth of restaurants, cafés, tea houses, and shops. Grab some dumplings or kebabs, walk to nearby Houhai lake, and watch street life pass by, all while a cozy hotel room awaits.
Beijing's alleyways hold plenty of surprises | © Mitch Altman | Flickr

Beijing’s hutongs (alleyways) have long since defined the city | © Mitch Altman / Flickr

Take the subway

Beijing’s subway is the country’s busiest, with 10 million riders using the 327-mile (527km) long system each weekday. Rides start at just 2 kuai (30 cents), while announcements and ticket machines are availabl in both English and Chinese, and all station names are romanized. The system is easy to use and the stops include the airport: riders can zip there from central Beijing in 25-30 minutes. The subway does get packed during peaks hours, but that’s part of the experience.Bring toilet paper
Those who are staying in the hutongs and spending all day in the streets might wonder about the options, should nature call. Beijing has no shortage of public toilets, with the men’s and women’s sections easily spotted by signage. Some even have a lofty four-star ranking by the authorities. Public options are used not only by random visitors, but also the patrons of cafés and restaurants that lack their own facilities. Expect to squat. While the facilities themselves might be plentiful, toilet paper is not, so bring a small stash. However, things are thought to dramatically improve across the country, as the government just announced a “toilet revolution”, which will see up to 100,000 renovations.
Beijing's public facilities are ubiquitous but toilet paper is not | © Kiran Jonnalagadda | Flickr

Beijing’s public facilities are ubiquitous, but toilet paper is not | © Kiran Jonnalagadda / Flickr

Protect your lungs

While Beijing is a joy to visit on blue-sky days, it’s another story when smog accumulates. It’s not uncommon for the pollution index to top 300 parts per million, or even 500, which is 20 times the safe one-day limit set by the World Health Organization. Expect stinging eyes, heavier breath, and photos that look like they were taken beside a smoke machine. At the very least, wear a mask. Aim for one labeled at least N95 or higher: that means it removes 95 percent of particles greater than 0.3 microns.

Try the local drop

Few people realize the richness of the local beverage scene. Craft beer pubs are blooming across the city and most feature at least a brew or two with a local twist, whether that means using Sichuan peppercorns or fruit sourced from nearby farms. Try them at venues such as Arrow Factory, Great Leap Brewing, and Slow Boat Brewery. Chinese wine is also attracting interest, thanks to its success in international contests. Look for brands such as Grace Vineyard, Silver Heights, Kanaan, and Helan Qing Xue. And while little known outside China, the country’s national tipple, baijiu (bye-joe), outsells vodka, rum, and whisky globally. It’s potent stuff, often served lukewarm as a shot at 52 percent, although more bars are now using it in cocktails. Visitors can get a crash course by trying a few flights at baijiu-centric bar Capital Spirits. And if you’re on the receiving end of the words “ganbei” (gan-bay), that simply means bottoms up.
Patrons enjoy baijiu at the bar Capital Spirits | © Capital Spirits / Flickr

Patrons enjoy baijiu at the bar Capital Spirits | © Capital Spirits / Flickr