‘To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.’
‘Why China?’ the Italian passport officer asked me with sincere curiosity as he handed me back my passport.
‘Why not?” I responded, ready for the long plane ride ahead.
China isn’t the most common winter destination, but my husband and I decided to spend the holidays there anyway. Perhaps sun, sand and sea are front of mind for some of you (myself included), however, winter proved an ideal time to visit Beijing. The weather was cold but not as unbearable as the sprawling city’s unbearably hot summers. Plus, tourists were practically non-existent, so we were able to fully immerse ourselves in centuries of unadulterated culture.
With thousands of years of history, one trip to China will merely scratch the surface of this fascinating country, but Beijing is a great place to start! A cultural hub and the capital of this ancient civilization, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Here are seven things I suggest you do in Beijing.
1. Wangfujing Snack Street
Take an exciting stroll down Wangfujing Snack Street and to sample a variety of typical Chinese snacks on display. For the brave of heart and strong of stomach, there are a variety of edible creatures served on a stick such as scorpions, starfish, centipedes, grasshoppers and seahorses, to name a few. Not to fear though, you can also find delicious Chinese cakes, sugar-coated fruit, fried chestnuts and tons of souvenirs, including any pictures you take! Note: This is a good place to just ‘window shop’ because vendors often increase prices for travelers.
Subway stop: Wangfujing station Exit C
Tip: From the subway, look for the traditionally decorated archway called the ‘Paifang’ that marks the east entrance of the alley of snack street.
2. Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant
The Chinese have prepared Peking duck a since the imperial era as a delicacy for the emperors themselves. Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, established in 1864 holds the trademark and longstanding culinary reputation of the Peking Roast Duck in Beijing. The preparation, taste, interior design and traditional dining of this Chinese delicacy is truly a one-of-a-kind cultural experience.
Subway stop: Wangfujing station Exit B
Tip: Six-minute walk north of subway stop, located at 9 Shuaifuyuan Hutong.
3. Try a Hot Pot
Hot Pot is a traditional Chinese dish that you can find at one of the many authentic Hot Pot restaurants around the city. It’s as delicious as it is fun! Served at your table as a simmering pot of soup stock (spicy or mild), you then order what fresh ingredients you want and cook them yourself. Some common ingredients are thinly sliced beef, mushrooms, wontons, prawns, and leafy vegetables, cooked and dipped in your choice of rich sauces such as peanut or sesame butter, fresh garlic and hot sauce. Yum.
Tip: Look for restaurants with pictures on the menu to make ordering ingredients a lot easier.
4. The Great Wall of China
This is definitely a must when traveling to Beijing. For more tips on how to plan for this incredible experience, check out my article on The Great Wall of China.
5. Wu Dao Ying ‘Hu Tong’
Venture off the beaten path to Wudaoying Alley, a long and narrow ‘hutong’ with loads of interesting artisanal shops, quality restaurants, cafes and unique lounge bars such as a cat café. Here, you can snuggle with a kitty while you sip on a specialty coffee, a warm cup of tea or a chilled glass of wine! There are also many hand-made jewelry stores, arts and crafts. About a fifteen-minute walk away is Xian’r Lao Man, the best dumpling restaurant I’ve ever visited. Its slogan, ‘Our dumplings are the fullest’ is quite appropriate. Pair this adventure with Lama Temple (see below), as it is also within walking distance.
6. Yonghe Temple (Lama Temple)
A wonderful surprise and probably one of my favorite sites in Beijing! The architecture of this Buddhist temple is spectacular and provides a spiritual experience with its Zen-like courtyards and aroma of burning incense. At the end of a peaceful walk through the monastery complex, within the last large building, look up at a towering Maitreya Buddha eighteen meters tall, the statue is carved from one solid piece of white sandalwood and painted entirely in gold.
Subway stop: Yonghegong Lama Temple
7. The Forbidden City & Temple of Heaven
Historical and cultural centerpieces, The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven are important parts of your visit to Beijing. They will give you a more detailed perspective of the region’s history and leave you enchanted. At The Forbidden City, you can also take a look at the iconic Tiananmen Square across the street.
Tip: Arrive early and always check for operating hours and potential holiday closures.