Beijing’s Ancient and Modern Family-Friendly Attractions

Beijing sights offer cultural insights from old to new, from historical sites to futuristic Olympics venues.


The city of Beijing takes itself pretty seriously and vast monuments like the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven can exhaust even the most patient child. That being said, Beijing has plenty of weird, wonderful and whimsical things that will delight children of all ages.

Seeing Red Sites

Tiananmen Square is the largest public square in the world and the scene of many major events in Chinese history. At the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, Mao’s embalmed body is the final addition to the Dead Communist Leader Triumvirate that includes Lenin in Moscow and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. Mao doesn’t look scary, or terribly real, but squeamish or young children might not find a corpse to be a vacation highlight. Goth teens shouldn’t miss it.

The sad tale of Beijing’s vanishing hutongs (alleys) and courtyard houses has been widely reported. Several companies offer tours of remaining hutongs by rickshaw and it’s not to be missed for a glimpse into Beijing’s historic past. Most tours also include a visit to the gigantic Bell and Drum Towers, which were used to tell the time (morning bell and dusk drum) from 1271 until the last emperor, Pu Yi, left the Forbidden City in 1911. The towers also offer spectacular panoramas of the city.

Modern Architecture in Old Beijing

Architecture buffs and kids who love the look of futuristic buildings will have their fill in post-Olympic Beijing. The Bird’s Nest (main stadium), Water Cube (aquatic center) and Central Chinese Television (CCTV) Tower are contemporary masterpieces designed by world-renowned architects.

The Beijing Aquarium is another architectural wonder: The world’s largest indoor aquarium is shaped like a mammoth conch shell. Children will enjoy the dolphin and sea lion shows that take place daily at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. After the show, kids can take close-up photos with the animals. Although the aquarium is located within the grounds of the Beijing Zoo, skip the zoo. The horrid condition in which the animals are kept, though improving, will just break your heart. If you want to see pandas, go to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. instead.

It’s a Small World After All

Before they were forced to clean up their act, officials at the Shijingshan Amusement Park saw no reason to let a little thing like trademark infringement get in their way. The park was populated with “coincidental” Disney wannabes including a Snow White look-alike trailed by seven Munchkins and a Mickey Mouse doppelganger that officials insisted was simply a “cat with big ears.” Alas, park officials bowed to international pressure, which makes it legal but less of a kick for parents. Nonetheless, if your kids like theme parks, this is a fun place to spend an afternoon.

At Beijing World Park, kids can tour the entire globe in an afternoon. The park has more than 100 miniature replicas of world monuments including the Egyptian pyramids, the Tower of London, the Eiffel Tower and the former twin towers of the World Trade Center. 

Literary and Artistic Pursuits

On a smaller scale, Kid’s Republic is a fanciful children’s bookshop offering picture books. The fantastical décor has white molded plastic shelves, circles and arches punctuated with colorful swirls and lights. Think Austin Powers meets Dr. Seuss. Lined circular seats where kids can do some light reading are tucked in amidst the shelves. Located at 1362, Tower13, JianWai SOHO, Middle Street, East 3rd Ring Road.

Parents with artistic teens should check out Studio 798, an avant-garde space that houses studios, galleries, cafés and a bookstore. The former military electronics factory is still covered with communist slogans from the Cultural Revolution. Studio 798 aspires to be Beijing’s Soho—and is well on its way.

Kid-Friendly Hotels

The contemporary Ritz-Carlton Financial Street is the city’s best hotel. It welcomes children with its Ritz Kids program, which includes toys and amenities including an adorable mini Ritz bathrobe.

The Peninsula Hotel Group created the Peninsula Academy to offer cool classes and experiences for both adults and kids at its Asian properties. Kid-friendly experiences in Beijing include making Beijing-style candy apples and dumplings or learning kite-making at the home of a master kite-maker. After class, kids can fly their handmade kites over Tiananmen Square. The Peninsula Beijing is another of the city’s top hotels.

You can spend the night in a hutong neighborhood at the Red Capital Residence, a kitschy courtyard house once occupied by Communist leader Lin Biao, who was widely expected to succeed Mao until he plotted to assassinate the party leader (oops). The residence, an Art Deco blast from the past, is a bit scruffy, but if your kids are history buffs, it’s a cool place to sleep. Classic movies from the Cultural Revolution are shown in the former bomb shelter at night. (Technically it’s a cigar bar, but if no one else is there, you and your family are free to commandeer the space.) 

The best way to visit the Great Wall is to spend a night at the Commune by the Great Wall, a boutique hotel in which the rooms are fantastic contemporary houses designed by 11 of Asia’s best young architects. (They’re also great for large families: Some can sleep up to 12 and all have kitchens and multiple bathrooms.) The Commune has a Kid’s Club that offers things like Great Wall hikes, kids’ movies and cooking lessons. This gives parents a chance to enjoy a cocktail at the Commune Club lounge, a sexy boîte with walls lined with peacock feathers.  

Destinations: Beijing, China

Themes: Amusement Parks, Family Travel, Historical Vacations

Activities: Sightseeing, Sleep

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