I lived in Beijing for 5 months and never really did enjoy it. Sure, I found a lot of rather nice spots, especially a lot of really nice restaurants and pubs, but the city as a whole was not for me. I think that the main reason was that Beijing seems to hate pedestrians – walking around Beijing is such a chore! The distances are enormous, for long stretches you see nothing worthwhile and crossing streets is usually fraught with danger. There are a few gems, but they are far and few between. I thought I’d share the ones I did find in this post.
My number one tip is the 798 Art District. It’s a rather big, former factory district with a lot of really cool old brick factory buildings most of which are filled with art galleries. There is also lots of cool graffiti and art pieces strewn around the area and lots of nice design shops with all sorts of trinkets and knick-knacks. You can easily spend an entire day here and I especially recommend it if you have an interest in photography since there are just so many cool unexpected motifs just waiting to be discovered. To get there you either take a taxi or go to Jiangtai station on line 14 and walk north along Jiuxiangqiao road until you see the signs – a little over a kilometer.
Another favorite is the Panjiayuan market. It’s at the subway stop by the same name and it’s a very large market with tons and tons of art, clothes, books, souvenirs and jewelry. Just don’t think you’ll find any actual antiques here, it’s almost certainly all copies. A full day is stretching it, but you can easily spend an afternoon or a few hours here. Around this station they also have lot of stores selling eyewear, so if you’re looking for good and cheap sunglasses it’s worth a look.
In terms of eating, Beijing has a lot to offer! I’ve actually had one of the best pizzas I’ve ever tasted in Beijing. The chain is called Gung Ho! (make sure you get the whole-wheat dough) and has a handful of locations throughout town, where the most accessible one is next to the Hooters in Sanlitun. There is also one near Lido hotel in Wangjing where I lived (which is also fairly close to 798 Art District). Some of the best burgers I’ve had was at The Local, a pub in Sanlitun. They have an avocado burger that is really good, and their chicken filet burger is very good too! Make sure to try their drinks as well, especially the Mint Berry.
A spot that mixes both tourism and good grub is the Lama Temple. Get off at Yonghegong station (north part of the ring line) and first visit the temple. It has a bigass wooden Buddha statue and some nice architecture and is one of the more worthwhile temples in town in my opinion. Afterward you walk back toward the station but turn left into Wudaoying Hutong just before you reach KFC and the big crossing. Now you will find yourself in a cramped little street with lots of knick-knack stores, cafes, microbreweries and restaurants, even a vegetarian one called The Veggie Table (吃素的：东城区五道营胡同甲19号 – for more vegetarian options, see this blog post). If you walk almost to the end of it, there is a Mexican restaurant on your left that is very good (Pebbles Courtyard 卵石庭院). Looking at Google maps I also see that there apparently is a donkey meat restaurant there if you walk even further. My friend Tanhsin introduced me to this tasty treat after a hard day of snowboarding outside of town. Basically you get gyros style donkey meat in what is more or less a pita bread and it actually even tastes a lot like gyros as well. You should absolutely try it if you get the chance (The Beijinger has a short article on the subject: The Best Ass in Town). If you want to make sure you find it you should show the characters 驴肉火烧 to a Chinese person and I’m sure they’ll be happy to help you.
Another part worth visiting is Houhai lake and the adjacent Hutongs. Lake Houhai is rather touristy but still very nice. In the summer you will see a lot of people flying kites and even people going for a swim. There are a lot of salesmen around the lake, along with souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants, but it’s still nice for a leisurely afternoon walk. A little bit to the east of the lake there is Di’anmen Outer Street which leads to the Drum and Bell towers, both popular tourist locations, and if you continue east (well, I actually suggest you get on the green line subway and go to Nanluoguxiang station and get out at exit E) you get to South Lougu Alley. This is another rather touristy site, but if you go there outside peak hours and peak season, it can be quite nice. There is a lot of knick-knack shops and little restaurants, and if you continue all the way up to Gulou East Street you can turn right and find even more cool little shops.
You can just walk around the hutongs on your own, but to get the best experience I suggest you book a walking tour with Nelly at www.beijingbyheart.com. She’s really well read and does an excellent job of showing you around all the nooks and crannies and telling you about the history of the place. They also do other themed tours at the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City for instance. Speaking of the Forbidden City; I suppose you kind of have to go there if you visit Beijing but I’m not a huge fan of it. The sheer scale of it is the most impressive part, but it very soon gets rather repetitive and dull. My favorite part is the little garden at northern end of it which has a lot of meticulously groomed trees and plants. Also, if you cross the street just outside the north gate you can go up to the temple on the hill for a nice view of the Forbidden City complex. You can also go down into the park on the other side of the temple and if it’s on a weekend, expect to find people doing all sorts of fun stuff in there. You might see people singing, dancing, working out (usually by kicking something that looks like an oversized shuttlecock like a hacky-sack), flying kites, walking backwards (it’s some sort of crazy health thing). It’s all very entertaining and I highly recommend it. Another good park to wander in is Tiantan, which has the Temple of Heaven, touted as one of the must-sees of Beijing. Personally I’m not that fond of it. Sure, it’s big, old and generally impressive and you may see a wedding photoshoot if you’re lucky. It is good for people watching though, especially if you come in the early morning when all the Tai Chi practitioners are out.
Right next to Tiantan park you have the Pearl Market. How much you enjoy this place depends a lot on how good your tolerance is for insistent salesmen. Suddenly you find yourself in one of the few places of Beijing where everyone speaks English and even other languages as well. I’ve even had one try Swedish to get my attention! The Pearl Market is probably the worst one of the markets, I like Yashow better which is up close to Sanlitun (where the surrounding area is also much nicer to walk around in). There is a third one which is a bit of a hassle to get to; the Silk Street market. I was only there once, but found it to be the nicest of them by far. The store owners are far less pushy and there is fewer people there. You need to remember that haggling is mandatory here. The store owners will start out with different prices depending on what ethnicity they think you are. If you’re American you will get the highest price, northern Europeans the middle and southern Europeans the lowest price since they generally already come from a tradition of haggling and know what’s up. If you haggle well it’s not uncommon to pay something like 20-30% of the originally quoted price.
If you’re up for a bit of walking, the area west of the CCTV building is rather nice. (the CCTV building is the iconic one that reminds you of a man squatting to take a dump). You take the subway to Jintaixizhao station and get out at exit A, then go down to Jinghua Street and head west. There are a lot of cool buildings to look at and some small parks to break up the cityscape. Keep going until you hit ‘The Place’ which basically is a square with roof. The roof is a bit special though since it’s actually a giant screen and as soon as it gets dark they will play videos on it. At the time of writing it still holds the Guinness world record for largest screen at 7500 m2. If you continue past the place and then turn right onto Dongdaqiao Road you will find the pretty cool Parkview Green mall on your left. It’s a really big glass building, reminiscent of the Louvre pyramid, and much like its French counterpart, it’s also packed with art! You have Gundam robots, a Volkswagen Beetle rolled up into a ball, Stormtroopers, a giant dog eating the Road Runner and lots more. It’s well worth spending an evening just wandering around here and look at all the weird stuff. The architecture is also very cool with gangways all over the place.
I have a few recommendations that wouldn’t fit in with the rest that I’ll just dump here at the end:
Peking Duck – If you’re in Beijing, you should of course try the Peking Duck. I’m sure there are lots of terrific places, but a lot of them are huge impersonal restaurants with dining rooms that are 50 m across and the ceiling is 10 m high. One I really liked was the Peking Duck Private Kitchen. It has excellent duck and side dishes, but the main thing for me is the very cozy setting.
8-bit Bar (link) – A really cozy place for having a Nintendo themed drink and playing a round of Duck Hunt or Mortal Kombat. They also have a decent selection of beers if that’s your thing.
The Great Wall – Well, I suppose you really can’t go to Beijing without visiting the Great Wall. Easiest is to just hire a driver through your hotel that takes you all the way there and back. Expect to pay around 600 RMB for this. You can of course also take the bus and just get a driver for the last bit like I did and get away with just 150 RMB, but honestly the headache of figuring out from where the bus leaves and then where to get off makes it not worth it. Oh, also don’t go to the Badaling section of the wall, that’s by far the most touristy section! A far better choice would be the Mutianyu where you as a bonus have a quite fun toboggan run for the way down.
Melo Lounge (link) – Towards the end of my stay in Beijing I found the swanky Melo Lounge just around the corner from where I lived. The staff remember your name and what you like and the snacks are really great. It was really fun when my friends came to visit and I could just breeze in there and get treated like royalty. The decor is rather strange, but really nice and the drinks are expertly mixed. It’s on the expensive side, but if you want to treat yourself to a really nice evening, I’d be hard pressed to think of a nicer place.