Beijing is China’s capital, and the first city most people visit in China. The city is best known for its imperial history, and most people will stay for a few days to see the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and to take a visit out to the Great Wall.
However, there is more to Beijing than first meets the eye. Delve past the main sights and you will find more than one hidden treasure. Having lived in Beijing for several years, here are some of my top picks for an extended or a second visit to the capital:
798 Art District
This converted factory district in the north of the city has long been a favourite among artists and expats, but is often overlooked by tourists. With a range of exhibition spaces, outdoor sculptures, and boutique cafes, you could easily spend a full day here, soaking up the atmosphere and getting to grips with a side of modern China many people never consider. As the 798 District has become more popular, some artists have spilled out to the nearby Caochangdi Art Village, which is a smaller and less commercialised experience.
Old Summer Palace
While the newer Summer Palace site gets all the fame and glory, these old ruins in the northwest of the city offer a tranquil reprise from the chaos of the city. The ruins themselves are fascinating to explore, and the peaceful surrounding park is a serene place to spend a relaxing afternoon.
Fragrant Hills (Xiangshan)
The Fragrant Hills are located outside the city and feature a combination of beautiful scenery and imperial grandeur. On a clear day it is well worth the hike or cable car ride to the summit to get a view across almost the entire city. The park covers a large area, so allocate a full half day or more to explore in full. The nearby Botanical Gardens are also a peaceful place to explore, with an astonishing array of plants and trees.
While this little gem is nowhere near as famous as other Beijing temples, it offers a bizarre experience you are unlikely to forget. Featuring a different room for each of the Taoist ‘departments’ - from the ‘department for accumulating wealth’ to the ‘department for implementing 15 kinds of violent death’ - each room holds a number of (occasionally quite gruesome) statues depicting scenes from the Taoist supernatural world.
Prince Gong’s Mansion
Located in the north of the Shichahai hutong district this is the largest and best-preserved Qing Dynasty Mansion in the capital. The architecture and courtyards are stunning, but the ornamental gardens are the real draw here. There is a lot to see so allocate a few hours for your visit to get the most out of it.
Panjiayuan Antiques Market
This sprawling open-air antiques market in the southeast of the city is well worth a visit. The best time to visit is early in the morning at the weekend. While the authenticity of some of the products is hard to guarantee, the experience of walking around is worth the trip alone and you may find a unique souvenir to take home.
If you are ever at a loss for something to do in Beijing, just head down to the closest park and watch the locals sing, dance, tell stories, play games, and just generally socialise out in the open. There are a surprising number of picturesque parks to be found in Beijing, so you are never too far away from a green space. Ritan (Temple of the Sun) & Ditan (Temple of the earth), Chaoyang, Beihai and Jingshan are some of our favourites near the centre of the city.
For a more sophisticated experience in Beijing, why not take to the skies for a drink in the highest bar in Beijing. Located on the 80th floor of the China World Summit Wing Hotel, this is the perfect place to sit back, sip a cocktail and look out over the stunning views of Beijing at night. Try to time your visit with a clear day to get the best views.
Great Leap Brewery
If you prefer a slightly more down to earth drinking venue the Great Leap Brewery offers a real east meets west experience, in a true Beijing setting. They have a few branches across the city now, but the original location (#6) is hidden away down a hutong near the Drum Tower. This popular but laid-back bar offers craft beers Chinese style in a traditional courtyard setting. We recommend the Honey Ma Gold!