China’s capital city sometimes gets a bad rep, particularly in terms of overcrowding and pollution but I had such a great experience in Beijing as a solo traveller. There are so many interesting and beautiful places to see and you can visit the incredible Great Wall of China from the city.
I’d say that Beijing (and obviously the Great Wall) are must visits on any trip to China. There was no pollution when I was there and found the city to be clean and not very crowded. It’s such a sprawling city that I felt like there was lots of space, unlike many Asian cities that I’ve visited. In fact, I almost missed that sense of hustle and bustle I’ve come to love in that part of the world!
Beijing is China’s major transport hub and it’s super easy to fly there from international airports. If you’re travelling to Beijing from within China, I’d highly recommend taking the train; they’re fast, reasonable priced and punctual (unlike internal flights which are more often than not delayed!).
A word of warning if you’re arriving in to Beijing railway station- the taxi queue can be extremely long, so you may want to pre-arrange one or jump on the metro in to the city.
Beijing is huge and so it is difficult to explore completely on foot. I’d definitely recommend walking around as much as you can but with massive distances to cover, you’ll need to use a taxi or public transport at some point.
Taxis are pretty affordable but can be difficult to flag down. Take extra care on festival days- I tried to get a taxi to the airport during the Autumn Festival and really struggled, as many people were at home with their families and so there weren’t many taxis available.
The metro is really straightforward to use and it’s cheap too. Allow some extra time for getting through security- there are personal and baggage scanners at each station.
Where to stay
There are so many accommodation options in Beijing, from super fancy hotels down to budget hostels, but overall, it’s not that cheap, as you’d probably expect in a capital city.
The Wangfujing and Qianmen districts are both centrally-located and ideal for travellers to stay in. I stayed in a couple of different accommodations in Beijing and would really recommend both.
The first was a private room at Peking Station Hostel. The hostel is really nice, with helpful reception staff and a beautiful common area filled with an array of plants. Although it’s located down a bit of a dingy street, it’s a great location; with restaurants and shops close by, plus a major metro station a few minutes’ walk away.
The second was a great boutique hotel, complete with rooftop bar and pool, The Emperor Qianmen. It was quite a lot more expensive but had an amazing location, really cool rooms, a delicious breakfast buffet and a free mini bar!
Booking.com has plenty of options, use this link for £15 off your next stay: https://www.booking.com/s/34_6/rls10090
What to see and do
There are many, many things to see and do in Beijing. Lots of the attractions and areas are really spread out, so you’ll need to prioritise unless you’re in the city for an extended length of time.
I spent four days there (with one day visiting the Great Wall) and it was nowhere near enough time to do everything I wanted!
Here are some of the major things to see and do that you may want to add to your itinerary:
Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
The Forbidden City is probably Beijing’s most well-known tourist attraction and it’s a must-see when visiting China’s capital. The former Chinese imperial palace is a magnificent complex made up of 980 buildings spread over 180 acres. It served as an imperial palace for 24 emperors during both the Ming and Qing dynasties.
It’s located in the centre of the city, so is easy to reach by metro, bus or on foot. It can get extremely busy, especially in the mornings. I visited in the early afternoon during September and it was really quiet as all the tour groups that arrive first thing had been and gone. Avoid weekends and Chinese holidays if you can.
Tiananmen, which translates as “Gate of Heavenly Peace”, is known for all the wrong reasons, but it’s worth seeing just to appreciate the scale of this huge city square.
Use metro stations Tiananmen East, Tiananmen West or Qianmen.
Temple of Heaven Park
Constructed during the Ming dynasty in 1420, the Temple of Heaven is an imperial complex that was visited annually by emperors who prayed for good harvests.
The temple itself is insanely beautiful and unique but there’s much more to see on your visit, including a beautiful leafy park.
Again, it’s really easy to reach by public transport; just head to Tiantan Dongmen station.
Located in north west Beijing, around 15km outside the city centre, is the beautiful Summer Palace. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site made up of gardens, lakes and palaces.
You’ll need to at least 2-3 hours here; half a day would be ideal.
Stroll through the Hutongs
Hutongs are narrow streets and alleys common in China, with traditional courtyards on either side. Beijing has many of them and I’d highly recommend spending some time exploring at least one.
Nanluoguxiang is a good choice, it’s lined with cute shops and places to grab food. It’s quite touristy but well worth a visit. You can find a list of other famous Hutongs here.
Wander down Wangfujing Pedestrian Street
One of the most famous shopping streets in Beijing, Wangfujing is lined with international shops and is home to the popular “snack street”, where you can try all manner of street foods.
Get off at Wangfujing metro station, which is on line 1.
Visit Lama Temple
Also known as the Yonghe temple, Lama is the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It’s an active place of worship, where you’ll see many locals praying alongside the hordes of tourists that also visit.
It’s a beautiful temple but I did find that the crowds of people put me off a little!
The nearest metro station is Yonghegong.
Attend a tea ceremony
Tea is an important part of Chinese culture and tradition, with locals spending hours enjoying the drink at teahouses around the country.
There are many different teahouses to choose from but it can be tricky to enjoy the experience as a solo traveller, as these are social places where groups of people congregate and share large pots of tea.
I visited Alice’s Tea House in the Qianmen district after seeing reviews online and I loved it.
Alice is from the Fujian province in China, which is known for tea, and has studied China’s favourite drink to an extremely high level. She runs small tea ceremonies, that cost around £4 per person. I had a one on one ceremony and we tried several different teas and Alice passed on lots of her knowledge to me.
You can also buy the teas and pots if you like; I left with Pu’er and Lychee tea, both of which were unique and delicious.
I just turned up and was lucky to find Alice there, but I think it’s recommended that you email beforehand to ensure availability. There are loads of details on Trip Advisor.
Alice’s Tea House was one of the highlights of my time in Beijing and I’d urge you to check it out if you love tea!
Explore the Qianmen District
Qianmen, which translates as “front gate”, is one Beijing’s most popular tourist destinations. Qianmen Street is a pedestrian street with gorgeous architecture, lined with shops and restaurants.
The area around the main street is bustling and has a really nice vibe. The buildings look lovely at night, I’d recommend experiencing the area after dark if you can.
You can reach the area by heading to Qianmen metro station.
Where to eat and drink
Finding good places to eat was the part I found most challenging about visiting China. With lack of English and not as many reviews online as for other countries, it can be difficult to track down the best places to eat. Here are a couple of recommendations of what dishes to eat and where you can try them:
Try some Peking duck
Providing you’re a meat eater, you should definitely try Peking Duck when in Beijing, it’s so tasty. There are loads of places to try this famous dish; I went to Sijimifu. There are several branches dotted around the city, I visited the one close to Wangfujing street. The service was quite slow but the duck was delicious and the atmosphere was great. I ordered half a duck and struggled to finish it.
Quanjude is possibly the most famous place to eat duck and is renowned; here’s an article detailing plenty of other places too.
Enjoy some street food
As mentioned already, you can grab street food within the Hutongs and on snack street off Wangfujing. Meat on a stick is popular, as is fruit. There are plenty of teas and sweet snacks such as fresh fruit ice lollies and pretty ice creams to help you cool down in warm weather too.
Have a drink with some fellow travellers
If like me, you’re craving Western style or vegetarian food (it’s really difficult to find meat free dishes in China!), head to Long Table in the Qianmen district.
It’s full of backpackers from all around the world, serves a yummy veggie burger and lots of alcoholic drinks to enjoy with your new companions.
To be quite honest, I didn’t manage to find many great restaurants in Beijing and I went for sushi a couple of times, as I was craving veggie and fish dishes. I’m not a huge meat eater, so did struggle after a while. In one restaurant, I ordered braised aubergine and it arrived mixed with minced pork even though there was no mention of this on the menu!
As I’m not much help in this department, The Beijinger website has lots of great suggestions, check it out here.
Tips and advice for solo travellers in Beijing
- Beijing felt really safe as a female solo traveller, even at night. As with anywhere, use common sense and you should be fine.
- Make sure that you’ve always got plenty of cash; it’s really difficult to find banks that accept international cards, otherwise you might find yourself short and unable to draw out money.
VISITING THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
Known as one of the wonders of the world, any trip to China should include a trip to the incredible Great Wall.
The original purpose of the Great Wall was to protect the Chinese Empire from the Mongolians and other invaders. Most the wall that remains was built during the Ming dynasty and it took over 2,000 year to construct fully.
It’s over 6000km long with many sections in varying states of repair. It would take around 18 months to walk the full wall, madness!
There are a number of different sections, all in varying states of repair, and the most famous parts are all easily reached from Beijing.
Badaling and Mutianyu are two sections widely visited by tourists, as they’re well restored. This means big crowds and sometimes a less than authentic experience.
I visited the Jinshanling section of the wall and would highly recommend it! Although it’s mostly well-restored, there aren’t too many people there. It’s relatively challenging to hike but not too bad if you have a reasonable level of fitness.
I joined the tour run through Peking Station hostel and it was incredible- the guide was great and there was a lovely mix of travellers from all over the world. It was also really affordable, with transport to and from the Wall included.
Although you can reach the wall by public transport, I’d highly recommend joining a group tour if you’re a solo traveller. I met some lovely people and they made the experience even better. We all enjoyed a beer together on the Wall at the end of the hike, which was really cool!
You can book tours from most hotels and hostels but be aware that sometimes you are also taken to shops, restaurants etc in return for commission, which can be unwanted. Research the tour you’ll be taking before you book or think about booking through a site like Viator, where you can read reviews. This is the tour I went on, although I booked directly through the hostel.
Hiking the Great Wall was undoubtedly one of my best experiences so far; it was completely breathtaking and even better than I imagined it would be. The views were out of this world.
A few tips for visiting the Jinshanling section of the Wall:
- Make sure that you’re wearing shoes with really good grip! Even in my brand new trainers, I found it difficult to get a good grip on some of the steeper parts of the wall.
- Take drinks and snacks with you for sustenance. There are sellers along the wall where you can buy snacks and drinks but of course the prices are inflated.
- Beware of engaging with the sellers walking the wall if you don’t want to buy souvenirs or be ripped off. A lovely old lady helped pull me up a particularly steep part of the wall and seemed to be genuinely enjoying chatting to me. Then she tried to sell me t-shirts for crazy high prices and wouldn’t leave me alone until the guys I was with pulled me away from her grip. When we got back to the bus, some other people on the tour has bought two t-shirts for about a quarter of the price the lady was trying to charge me for one!
- Go to toilet before you hike the wall, there are some pretty decent toilets at the start and end points. Avoid using the toilets when you stop at a services en route to the Wall, the ones we stopped at were quite frankly the most disgusting place I’ve ever been to.
China is a fascinating country but can be difficult for travellers to navigate. If it’s your first visit, you may want to check out my guide for first-time visitors, which is packed full of tips and tricks to make your tip as smooth as possible. You can read it here.