Tomorrow's LNY Eve, and two writers of my acquaintance are about to go to Beijing, and this time last year (this time lunar-wise, not gregorian) I was in Beijing wishing the fireworks would stop, and it means I've been thinking a lot about Beijing lately.
So I thought I'd put together this list.
If you are severely, severely limited by time, take them in this order until you run out of time.
- Hire a bike
You can hire a bike from just about any bike shop, and although the subway is cheap and extensive, if you're staying (and playing) within the 3rd ring road, bike is the way to see Beijing. Sure there's pollution and lots of cars, but I fell in love with Beijing from the saddle of my bike, weaving my way around the original city's walls and in and out of the hutongs. The bike lanes are huge, the city is flat and there is no wind, and there's a bike repair dude on every major intersection.
- Eat hotpot for dinner on Ghost Street
Below I recommend places to eat, and Haidilao hotpot is on there. It's awesome, I love it as a food chain, and the food is the best of the chains I've been to. But for an experience, I recommend wandering down Ghost Street at night, and being sung into Little Sheep by the staff out the front wearing sashes after avoiding all the hawkers, having a man with noodles dance for you, and yelling across the restaurant. It's lots of fun. Order the tofu mix dish. You'll recognise Little Sheep by its flourescent ugly green lighting and signage.
- Dawn/early morning out at the Lakes Specifically Beihai, early in the morning when the sun is bright and clear and the oldies are doing their competing Taichi battles. It's musical and beautiful and hilarious and so China all at once.
- Take a biking tour You can and should guide yourself, but there's heaps of guided bike tours led by Beijing-ren who have lived in the hutongs their whole lives and know lots of random facts, and I really recommend it as a pleasant two hours to see the lakes district. I went with Chihaner, which is run by a friend of a friend, but I've heard good things about the ones run by the China Culture Centre (where I learnt to paint).
- Visit 798, the art district
If you have any interest in art, visit 798. Located in an ex-warehouse district, it's filled with art of every kind by Chinese artists, tens of galleries and public art spaces and just a whole lot of awesomeness. When I was living in Beijing I visited at least once every two or three months. Definitely visit the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art .
- Take a Cooking Class
The Hutong Kitchen is an awesome cooking and cultural school in an old Courtyard House, run by an Australian. They're super accommodating of my vegan requirements, and also sell the most delicious infused white teas. Email them in advance to book a place and let them know about dietary requirements.
- Eat at the Veggie Table (six times)
The Veggie Table is the only western vego restaurant in Beijing. It's got great couches, free wifi, and is next to the fixies and juggling store! It's located in Wudaoying Hutong, which is a great place to visit.
- Visit the Great Wall
This is the only big famous thing I'm recommending. The Forbidden City is fine but it's huge and crowded and tiring and you'll have time for it later. The Summer Palace is pretty (go if you have time, for sure), and Tiananmen is iconic, but the Great Wall is the Number One Must See of these big historic locations. It would also be higher on the list except that it takes up basically a whole day, so can be difficult for someone on a tight schedule. Please note however that not all parts of 长城 are made equal - don't go to Badaling, go to Mutianyu or Jinshaling sections. And take the go cart down the wall.
bonus: top three places to eat
- Haidilao, various locations around Beijing. Haidilao is a hotpot chain across Beijing. It's delicious and fun. It's not a vegetarian restaurant but several of the stock soups are, and everything comes out separately so it's all good.
- Sunao, Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng. Fancy-pants vegan Chinese tea house. If you go at lunchtime either read Chinese or bring a friend who does, but dinner has a colour, multilingual menu. Eat the fish. It's delicious.
- The Veggie Table, Yonghegong, Dongcheng. Vegan western food. The chocolate cake is so good, and it's the only place I was able to get a vegan pizza in Beijing.
- Wangfujing Bookstore, heaps of books, including a floor in English; a great array of learning books (ie, books that are in characters with pinyin subtitles); and lots of fun tourist maps and the greatest of postcards.
- Xidan Bookstore. Overwhelming but comprehensive. No English.
- The Bookworm. Expensive but fun. Mostly in English. For a subscription fee you can become a member and borrow books. Just try to return them (unlike my friend J).