Experience Beijing: The Local Perspective

Discover the best of China’s capital while staying off the tourist-trodden path.

They stand out on any map of Beijing like little cartoons marking the good times you hope to have on your vacation. The Forbidden City is a green and red rectangle to the south of the city’s modern center; to the northeast, the Badaling Expressway points the way to the towers and rambling walkways of the Great Wall. But as your plane begins its descent, you look out your window and for the first time you begin to understand just how sprawling Beijing actually is.

If this is your first visit to Beijing, your instinct to head straight to these landmarks is right on; but that doesn’t mean that you need to stick to the beaten path. Since landing in Beijing last spring, I’ve found ways to see the city’s top sites while avoiding the long tourist lines and saving time.

New Beijing Meets Old

Capital Museum

Before you head for the ancient red walls of the Forbidden City, head to the Capital Museum to brush up on your Beijing history. Located due west of the Forbidden City (too far to walk) at 16 Fuxingmenwai Dajie, the museum opened in 2005. Its massive entrance hall is grand and its collection of jade, calligraphy and bronzes, impressive. It also has reconstructions of the city’s old hutong neighborhoods, which are fast disappearing from the streets of Beijing, and a replica of a traditional opera stage, along with some eye-catching opera masks.

Kids will most enjoy the Old Beijing Folk Customs exhibit. It uses colorful New Year’s lanterns in the shape of animals, life-size lion dance models and explanations of Chinese street snacks and fireworks traditions, all to show how the Chinese celebrate New Year, their most important holiday. Here you will also find a collection of traditional toys and children’s clothing. Try to find the map of Old Beijing tucked away in the corner of the exhibit, where you can see the ancient city wall and the Forbidden City in its original surroundings.

The museum has two activity areas—one inside the folk customs exhibit, and the other on the lower level. Organized activities take place most days from 9 to 11:30 a.m. and 1 to 4:30 p.m., but they are led in Chinese so they may have a little trouble keeping your kids’ attention. As of March 2008, admission is free, and the admission quota has been increased to 4,000 visitors per day. In busy season, it may pay to reserve in advance.

Forbidden City

Once you’ve learned the difference between Ming and Qing, head to the Forbidden City (entrance fee is 40 RMB/$6 USD during the off season Nov. 1 to March 31, 60 RMB/$8.75 USD during peak season, April 1 to Oct. 31), which was built in the 15th century (Ming Dynasty) and functioned as the imperial palace until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. Just make sure to get there before 2:30 p.m., as new guests are not allowed in after 3 p.m., and you will have to wait in line to buy your tickets. Inside, make sure to explore to the left and right of the main drag, where you’ll find dozens of rooms with exhibits on everything from ancient clothing to wedding customs to swords and guns.

The Forbidden City is more than half a mile long and almost half a mile wide, big enough to spend the better part of a day. After walking the ancient streets of the imperial palace, cross Chang’An Avenue to get a look at how Beijing architecture has changed in 600 years.

National Grand Theatre

Back in the direction of the Capital Museum, the new National Grand Theatre, designed by French architect Paul Andreu, is a stark contrast to the Ming Forbidden City and the Communist-style Great Hall of the People. Its local nickname is the Big Egg because the glass and titanium structure has an oblong shape and sits in the middle of a round reflecting pool like a half-submerged egg.

Other sites in the immediate area include Chairman Mao Mausoleum, where an embalmed Mao lies in state; and Tiananmen Square, a huge plaza and the site of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, where pro-democracy protesters were gunned down in an incident that shocked the world but is now rarely spoken of among Chinese.

The Great Wall: Back to School

A day trip out to the Great Wall is a must for any first-time Beijing visitor. The 4,000-mile structure winds through a mountainous landscape, protecting China’s one-time northern border. It was first built in the 5th century B.C.; most parts within a short driving distance of Beijing are well restored to accommodate the tourists who flock there. While a hike along a remote and crumbled section of the wall is a great experience, the busier sections offer more conveniences like bathrooms, restaurants and cable cars.

For an easy trip out to the wall that still incorporates a different flavor than many visitors will get, head to the Mutianyu section (a driver arranged through your hotel should cost about 600 RMB/$88 USD). Before or after your wall climbing, head to the Schoolhouse at Mutianyu. A joint venture between foreigners and locals, the Schoolhouse is a sustainable tourism project that turned an old elementary school into a restaurant, glass-blowing studio and activity center. The Schoolhouse Canteen offers an Italian menu, a broad array of desserts and a kids’ menu. For directions, events and more information check out www.theschoolhouseatmutianyu.com.

Yonghegong Lama Temple and Ditan Park

As Beijing’s most accessible Buddhist temple (it sits right above the Yonghegong subway station), the Yonghegong Lama Temple (entrance fee is 25 RMB/$3.75) makes it onto a lot of tourist itineraries. It dates to 1723, and contains some cultural treasures of about the same age.

The temple grounds don’t take long to explore, so when you finish there head north, just across the Second Ring Road, to Ditan Park (entrance fee is 2 RMB/$0.30 USD). There, you can let the kids run off some steam and watch old Beijing folks enjoy the park in the Chinese fashion—doing tai chi, playing badminton, dancing together and putting on impromptu performances with traditional instruments. Enjoy the open space and tall trees before heading to the north end of the park, where you can drive go-karts, ride the merry-go-round or jump to your heart’s delight in a bouncy castle.

Dining Near Ditan Park

If all that running around has worked up your appetite, you’re in the right place. Between the park and the temple are two dining gems. Right outside of Ditan’s south entrance, at 77 Hepingling Xi Jie, is the Jin Heping Restaurant—easy to spot thanks to two giant lion statues outside. It has multiple floors, an extensive menu including a good dim sum selection and lots of renao, a Chinese word that loosely translates as “liveliness.”

If you need a break from the Chinese fare or have tired of tea and want a good cup of coffee, Rive Café, just three doors down from Jin Heping, serves a good cappuccino as well as a small but scrumptious selection of western staples like pizza. It has a few cozy semi-private rooms with couches to flop on, as well as free Wi-Fi, and a small fish and turtle pond in the courtyard.

Bunking in Beijing

Beijing is a city under construction, with cranes and hard hats a familiar sight all over town. Many of those projects are new hotels. If you have a favorite international brand—whether it’s Sofitel, Marriott, Sheraton or Peninsula—you can find it in Beijing. (Read our previous Beijing hotel article.) But entrepreneurs and smaller companies have built new hotels that are worth consideration, as well. Here are some family-friendly alternatives to chain hotels, for three different budgets:

Red Lantern Guesthouse

The Red Lantern is located in a hutong, inside two different traditional courtyard-style homes. Though many of the courtyard homes lack modern plumbing, the Red Lantern is fully equipped, including hot showers. Other amenities include free Internet access, air conditioning and heating in the rooms. Families can split up and stay in doubles, or take one of the six-bed or eight-bed hostel rooms at a rate of 50 RMB/$7.50 USD per bed. All room categories are clean and comfortable, but spare. The staff is friendly and experienced and speaks English well enough to make you feel comfortable.

Standard price: 300 RMB/$44 USD per night for a six-person room with a shared bath or 200 to 260 RMB/$29.25 to $38 USD for a double with a private bath. Tel. +86-10-66115771, www.redlanternhouse.com.

Cambridge Hotel

The Cambridge Hotel opened in April 2008 just off the Third Ring Road, about a 15-minute walk from the China World towers and a seven-minute walk from the Shuangjing stop on the new Line 10 subway. It offers a room category for four people that includes two bedrooms with a shared entryway and bathroom.

Standard price: 668 RMB/$98 USD for a four-person, two-bedroom suite. Tel. +86-10-67713355.

Beijing Jinqiao Apartment Hotel

Jinqiao is an all-suite 290-room hotel in the central business district very near the China World towers. Rooms come equipped with a kitchen and a desktop computer with Internet access. Jinqiao gets a lot of long-term guests, but takes short-stay visitors as well. It has the same easy accessibility to things like a fitness center, restaurants and shopping that you would expect from a four-star hotel in an urban center.

Standard price: 1,880 RMB/$275 USD for a standard room; apartment-style room for a family of four, 2,500 RMB/$366 USD. Tel. +86-10-67137788. 

Destinations: Beijing, China

Themes: Family Travel, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Eat, Sightseeing, Sleep

User Comments

The opening ceremony looked spectacular! Just checking out the SI photos. Can't wait to watch it tonight. Wish I was there! _gallery/0808/oly.beijing.opening.ceremonies/content.1.html?eref=T1

Makes me want to go But I'll wait until after the Olympics.