The sprawling capital of China has endless attractions to keep anyone busy. The colourful nightlife and access to numerous historic sites make it a necessary travel destination.
Finding things to do in Beijing isn’t hard. Actually, deciding what you can fit into your trip can sometimes be a logistical nightmare. You simply don’t have time to see it all. Instead of trying to see everything, you should focus on some of the most interesting sights in Beijing.
Don’t know where to go? Start planning your itinerary with this guide to the best Beijing attractions…
Table of Contents
- What to do in Beijing: The top attractions & best places to visit
- Wander across Tiananmen Square
- Explore the labyrinth that is the Forbidden City
- Enjoy fresh air and nature at the Imperial Beihai Park
- Take in the multitude of colours at the Lama Temple
- Get lost in the winding side streets of Nanluoguxiang
- Retreat from the city to the Summer Palace
- Marvel at the Great Wall of China
- Unwind with a few drinks on Sanlitun Bar Street
- Where to stay: The best hotels for sightseeing in Beijing
What to do in Beijing: The top attractions & best places to visit
Wander across Tiananmen Square
One of the first places to see in Beijing is Tiananmen Square. It’s perhaps one of the world’s most famous (or, rather, infamous) public squares and part of modern history thanks to the student-led demonstrations of 1989. It’s also situated in front of the Imperial Palace and surrounded by some other famous Beijing landmarks.
When you look north, you’ll see a massive portrait of Chairman Mao. You can also walk directly to the Imperial Palace and Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. Most of the nearby attractions require admission fees. However, the square is open to the public for free.
The square is bigger than you may imagine from seeing it in photos. Even walking around with the other tourists, you’ll surely be impressed with the sheer size of the open area.
Explore the labyrinth that is the Forbidden City
Beijing sightseeing isn’t complete without a trip to the Forbidden City, which is really the Imperial Palace. When the palace was first built about 600 years ago, commoners were forbidden to enter the palace, which is why it’s known as the Forbidden City.
The palace was home to emperors and monarchs for over five centuries until the last emperor of China was removed from power in 1912. Since 1925, it’s been managed by the Palace Museum.
After you pass through the gates to the palace, a must for any Beijing itinerary, you’ll find a labyrinth of halls, pavilions, and temples. There’s also priceless Chinese art, historic relics, and a gift shop.
With so many halls and pavilions, you could almost get lost here. Luckily, you can only travel north through the palace after entering from the south, and so everyone travels in the same direction and follows a similar route.
Enjoy fresh air and nature at the Imperial Beihai Park
When you exit the palace, the next likely destination is Beihai Park, one of the oldest and largest imperial gardens. This park is just east of the palace. In fact, it offers one of the best spots to view one of the corner turrets that guard the palace.
It was first built over 1,000 years ago, but has only been open to the public since 1925. The park spans about 175 acres and is built around a large lake. The entire park, with its structures and scenes, is considered a masterpiece of unique Chinese garden art.
In the middle of the lake, you’ll find the Jade Flowery Islet, which includes a large dagoba with multiple scenic areas.
As you work your way to the corner of the park, you’ll come to the Circular City. It’s a complex of towers, halls, and pavilions. You’ll also find an extremely valuable jade Buddha statue.
Take in the multitude of colours at the Lama Temple
One of the most overlooked things to see in Beijing is the Lama Temple. It’s really called the Yonghe Temple and is a temple and monastery for Tibetan Buddhists.
The complex of buildings stands out compared to other Tibetan temples. While it features the same type of architecture, the buildings are incredibly colourful due to the Han dynasty influence on the Tibetan style. The halls and structures are full of bright yellow, red, and green colors.
Wandering around and looking at the interesting buildings is fun. The top attraction, however, is an eight-metre-tall statue of The Maitreya Buddha carved from one piece of white Tibetan sandalwood.
Surprisingly, the statue was carved in Tibet. The Buddha was a gift from the 7th Dalai Lama to Quinlong Emperor and took three years to transport from Tibet to Beijing.
Get lost in the winding side streets of Nanluoguxiang
The Chinese hutongs are dense neighborhoods featuring tiny side streets. They’re often similar to mini-labyrinths and a great example of how the Chinese lived over a hundred years ago.
While many of the hutongs are disappearing due to commercialization, the Nanluoguxiang neighborhood remains mostly intact, giving you a glimpse into the past. It still features a mixture of shops, restaurants, markets, and residential areas, all intertwined in a web of narrow side streets. Exploring these interesting corners at leisure is undoubtedly one of the coolest offbeat experiences to have while in Beijing!
You can have a great time in Nanluoguxiang whether you visit during the day or night. During the day, you can shop at the crowded markets; in the evening, there are tons of late-night bars and restaurants serving some of the best food in Beijing to explore.
Retreat from the city to the Summer Palace
When monarchs still ruled China, they would retreat from the Imperial Palace in the capital to the Summer Palace just north of the city. You can retrace their steps and check out their summer getaway.
The Summer Palace is more than just a palace. It’s a collection of lakes, temples, pavilions, and gardens. It also includes the largest imperial garden in the country.
The palace grounds include numerous historic buildings and gates that are worth exploring. You may, however, want to work your way to the northern edge of the lake. There you’ll find the large marble boat (also known as “The Boat of Purity and Ease”).
Erected in 1755, the intricately decorated marble boat is the only structure in the park that features Western-style architecture. It resembles a petrified houseboat and at one time featured coloured bricks, windows, and wheels.
Marvel at the Great Wall of China
You simply can’t visit Beijing without at least considering a trip to the Great Wall. It’s the most famous landmark in China and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. And with good reason.
While many of the sections of the wall are almost perpetually packed with tourists, it’s still a remarkable sight. The entire wall and all of its branches span over an impressive 13,171 miles and (allegedly) can even be seen from space.
Just north of Beijing, you’ll find the most common entry points for visiting the wall. However, there are dozens of other spots that take you up to the wall and allow you to walk along the top.
If you want to get away from the tourists, consider going to the Simatai or Jinshanling section instead of the popular Badaling section. Even better is to plan an epic 3-day Great Wall hike to get really off-the-beaten-path!
Unwind with a few drinks on Sanlitun Bar Street
Beijing has many bar streets lined with watering holes serving all types of beer and cocktails. During your stay in the city, make sure that you enjoy at least one drink on Sanlitun Bar Street.
Sanlitun is the most well known of the Beijing bar streets and a popular destination for students, young people, and expatriates.
The area has a lively nightlife scene with bars and restaurants open all hours of the night. It’s also a trendy area in the middle of the Chaoyang District, which also includes many great markets and shopping areas.
If you’ve got the time, spend an entire day exploring this vibrant neighbourhood and the surrounding area.
Where to stay: The best hotels for sightseeing in Beijing
With the immense size of the city, it’s no surprise that choosing where to stay in Beijing isn’t always so simple. Not only is the city spread far and wide, there are literally thousands of accommodations to choose from covering a vast range in quality.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few of the top hotels in Beijing for travellers:
- ibis Beijing Tiantandongmen Metro Station Hotel: A modern budget-friendly hotel located close to the Temple of Heaven. The Tiantandongmen Subway Station is located within minutes by foot to take you anywhere you want to go in Beijing and beyond.
- New World Beijing Hotel: An excellent mid-range hotel that’s centrally located to take on the city’s best attractions with full gusto. The rooms are expansive and contemporary but it’s the amenities that really push the boundaries here. Have a float in the pool, sweat it out in the sauna or get a relaxing massage to taper off your day.
- The Peninsula Beijing: One of Asia’s top luxury hotels, this 5-star sets the bar high for luxurious stays in Beijing. Besides enjoying your massive suite, settle into the indoor pool or dabble in one of the delectable on-site restaurants for traditional Cantonese, French and international cuisine to maximize your stay at this legendary hotel.