Beijing Travel Tips

Landed in Beijing and not sure how to get around? Follow these tips to ensure an enjoyable and relaxing vacation.


With a population of 17 million people and counting, Beijing can be overwhelming for most visitors from the United States on their first trip to China never more so than when they leave their hotels for the first time in a jet-lagged haze. But with its ancient history and a modern economic boom, Beijing can offer amazing rewards for the patient traveler willing to go with the flow.

A few tips to ease your trip:

  • The subway can be your friend—and should be. Beijing traffic is very bad and is only going to get worse. (The most commonly cited statistic is that there are 20,000 new cars on China’s roads each day.) The bus system is good, dependable, and you’ll need to use it often while you’re there. But the buses must also share those congested streets.

    Want to save time? Take the subway when possible. Beijing has several subway lines that can take you to key sights around the city (three more lines just opened for the Olympics). They’re cheap (about 50 cents one way), and it’s not that hard to figure out where you’re going with a map (one of the key subway lines makes a square loop in central Beijing). Yes, the cars are very crowded, but you’ll find yourself saving considerable time.
  • Have your specific destination written down in Mandarin before getting into a cab. The government may have asked cabbies to learn some English, but based on my experience, that effort failed miserably. Cabbies want your destination written down in Mandarin. But that’s not all. They sometimes want to know the precise intersection in Mandarin—and directions, too. You don’t know how to get there, but the doorman or concierge might.

    When our concierge wrote only the address of the restaurant we wanted to visit, the cabbie simply left us off in an entirely different neighborhood. As it turns out, we had a solid meal at a nearby Malaysian restaurant, but that wasn’t our intention.
  • When asking strangers for direction or help, ask yourself: Does this person really seem confident about what he or she is telling you? “Saving face” or avoiding embarrassment, is still a part of the Chinese culture. Often when someone seems to be communicating in broken English, they will insist that they know the answer to your question when clearly they don’t have a clue of what you’re talking about. There’s no magic solution here, but ask yourself if that person who kept saying “yes” repeatedly really seemed to be guiding you. If the answer or message seemed pretty vague, try asking a few other folks.
  • Get off the beaten path whenever possible, even at the major attractions. At some of the more famous attractions (Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven), you’ll see big tour buses and domestic tour groups, all dressed in matching colored shirts so as not to get separated and think to yourself, Is this really what I want? Am I trapped in tourist hell? But keep in mind, these groups have a very regimented schedule and can be avoided.

    The Forbidden City is so huge that you can wander around many rooms with nary a tour group in sight. We visited a museum within the Forbidden City that had one of the better public calligraphy collections in the country; only a handful of tourists were inside. There were even fewer people who enjoyed looking at the Nine Dragon Screen, a beautiful glazed-tile fence from the 18th century. Similarly, when we went to the Great Wall, we went to the Jinshaling section about four hours outside Beijing and had a great hike without the throngs of tourists at the Badaling section, which is a shorter bus trip from the city.
  • Patience, patience, patience. This is obviously true in any country where you don’t speak the language, but never have I found it more important to draw on those reserves than when I went to China. The cities are enormous. It takes a long time to get around. The locals speak less broken English than in other Asian countries I’ve visited; local officials have never been trained to be helpful until recently, for the Olympics.

    You’re going to get lost. It’s going to take a long time to get around the city. You’re going to be confused. You’re going to get frustrated. A little Zen attitude will make a world of difference.


Destinations: Beijing, China

Themes: Urban Endeavors

Activities: Sightseeing

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