Whether you're a long-term resident of Beijing or just stopping by, the city's tour operators have something for everyone.
We've picked out the best of the bunch, all of whom are committed to providing memorable experiences with no hidden costs, hidden agendas or hidden trips to their friend's shop.
So whichever of Beijing's plentiful sights you're hoping to delve into, they'll leave you feeling informed and intrigued, maybe even inspired.
Best for the major city sights
The majority of the city's operators host highlights tours, often customised to help you tick the big-hitters off of your Beijing bucket list, including Newman Tours, China Culture Center and Tour Beijing.
If you're looking for more of an in-depth insight into each particular site, local culture hub The Hutong is a trusted fountain of knowledge among tourists and residents alike, offering dedicated tours of Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and the Lama Temple, among others.
Scheduled public tours 300RMB per person (260RMB for members).
Best for the Forbidden City
As the geographical and historical heart of the capital, the Forbidden City rightly finds its way to the top of most Beijing must-see lists, and makes a logical starting point for any trip. Given the continual rush of tourists through its sizeable grounds, though, a measured and informative tour from an expert guide can make all the difference, and The Hutong and Bespoke Travel Company offer just that.
Newman's Forbidden City Tour is led by native English-speaking guides with extensive experience in China, who expertly tell tales of the emperors, eunuchs, scandals and scoundrels that marked the Imperial Palace's history. The interactive tours make use of iPads, and there's the additional option of trying your hand at archery – a favourite past-time of one of the palace's most notable residents, Emperor Qianlong. Public and private tours are offered, as well as Newman's extended Select tour, an exclusive further exploration of the historical residence.
Public tours 290RMB per person; private tours 330RMB per person; Select tours 390RMB per person; additional cost for archery session. Discounts for children under 14; Forbidden City ticket is included in all prices.
Best for the Great Wall
In a city where scamsters will try all the tricks to steal a quick buck off tourists keen to reach the Great Wall, taking a tour with a certified operator is a safer (and likely more successful) option. Newman, China Culture Center and The Hutong all offer great value day excursions to the ever-reliable Mutianyu section – less Disneyfied than Badaling, less dangerous than unrestored, wild portions.
As one of its Signature Experiences, personalised premium tour operator Bespoke's Great Wall Tour offers the unique opportunity to take a five- to seven-hour walk along a section of your choosing, led by one of the world’s foremost Great Wall historians and explorers, William Lindesay OBE. Given his three decades' experience walking the Wall, as well as his published books and National Geographic documentaries on the subject, you’ll struggle to find a better guide out there.
Price on enquiry, dependent on group size and section of the Wall being visited.
Best for unrestored Great Wall
For those seeking a wilder experience away from the crowds of Badaling and Mutianyu, a trip with Beijing Hikers is a safe and trusted way to get out to the hard-to-reach unrestored portions of the Wall. The Hikers have over 15 years' experience beating path and blazing trail through Beijing's wilderness, and their various treks at sections such as Gubeikou, Jiankou and Huanghuacheng are graded in difficulty, so there's a hike out there for everyone.
Scheduled public hikes start at 400RMB; private tours start at 550RMB per person, depending on group size.
Overnight trips to the Wall are a unique and unforgettable experience, and are becoming more and more popular with tourists and foreign residents. Beijing Hikers also offers camping trips, supplying equipment, water and snacks, though you'll be the one lugging it up and down the mountainside!
Scheduled camping trips start at 1,300RMB; private tours negotiated on request.
Best for exploring the hutongs
Walking is the best way to discover a city’s hidden nooks and crannies, and there's certainly a few to be explored around Beijing's labyrinth of hutongs. It's easy to lose your way, so aptly named The Hutong, as well as Bespoke, Newman and China Culture Center have a range of different tours available for those keen to get a feel for the city's traditional dwellings.
Founded by Beijing-based historian, writer and all-round China Hand, Jeremiah Jenne, the expert knowledge of he and his experienced team of guides at Beijing by Foot is indispensable in these sprawling networks of narrow streets, and a fantastic insight into the construction, history and future of the hutongs. They also offer a variety of other historian-led tours across the city.
Public tours are run in conjunction with The Hutong and are 260RMB per person; private tours start at 1400RMB for up to five people.
Best for food
Food is one of the joys of any foreign adventure, and many believe that the best way to explore a new city and truly understand its culture and history is via the stomach.
Lost Plate's formula of visits to authentic local restaurants, private tuk tuk transportation and unlimited beer has been a huge success in Chengdu and Xi'an, and, although new to the capital, the group's Beijing tours have already proven to be quite the hit. Led by informative local guides, their dinner tour makes five stops at hidden hutong eateries, including a Beijing barbecue joint, a cosy family noodle restaurant and a traditional dessert diner, before finishing with a round of drinks at a local brewery.
For all the hop tourists out there, Lost Plate also offer a tour of Beijing's burgeoning craft brewing scene, stopping off at four of the city's best taprooms, as well as taking a much-needed food break along the way. As ever, travel is by tuk tuk, which is also – as ever – stashed full of extra beers.
All tours 450RMB per person.
UnTour are just the bunch to help you start the day the old Beijing way with their Hutong Breakfast tour, a four-stop eating expedition taking in more than ten different morning snacks, including silky tofu and Chinese-style crêpes (jianbing). Their guides also take groups out for an Old Beijing Dinner, sampling hotpot, dumplings, donkey burgers and more in one evening's degustation, and all in the delightfully charming setting of Beijing's hutongs.
Breakfast 350RMB per person; Dinner 400RMB per person; private tours start at 2,100RMB for groups of up to six people.
Best for tea
There are plenty of ways to learn about China’s rich and distinguished tea culture here in Beijing, among them the notorious tea scam, but for a safer and more consensual experience, The Hutong's Maliandao Tea City tour is a proven palate-pleaser. Sampling a whole host of green, Pu'er, Oolong, herbal and fermented teas, participants will hear from shopkeepers, experts and connoisseurs for a crash-course in Chinese leafy refreshment.
Scheduled public tours 300RMB per person (includes lunch); 260RMB for members.
Best for architectural tours
From the Bird's Nest stadium to the CCTV headquarters and National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing is home to some of the world's most ambitious modern structures, and its ever-changing skyline is being shaped by the world's pre-eminent architects.
For those looking to learn about their conception and construction, e-architect is the standout choice. The group offer guided architectural tours in 76 cities across the world, and what sets them apart is that all tours are conducted by practicing architects or architecturally trained guides, offering an unparalleled level of expertise and in-depth knowledge. Tours are private and tailored to your interests and requests, and should be booked at least two weeks in advance.
Prices vary, charged at hourly rate; three hours recommended.
Best for art
Beijing's art districts are hugely popular destinations for art aficionados and beginners alike, and various operators offer tours of the city's lively and ever-evolving art scene.
In the often bewildering world of modern art, an expert guide can help bridge the gap between abstraction and understanding. Bespoke's 798 Art District and Studio tour is led by a Beijing-born art specialist who has curated exhibitions both here in the capital and in New York and Germany, and is sure to give valuable insight into the dynamic and developing Chinese art world.
Starting at 4,000RMB for a two-hour tour.
Likewise, Context Travel, an online network of private tour guides for the 'intellectually curious', offers a 798 tour led by Beijing-based Austrian curator and expert Alexandra Gaspar, and Xixi Wu, a Beijinger trained in fine arts and heavily involved in the goings-on around the district.
Scheduled tours roughly 550RMB per person; private tours roughly 2,500RMB.
For those keen to head further afield, China Culture Center take art enthusiasts to the quieter and more intimate art zones, on their Caochangdi Artists' Village and Home Studios and Songzhuang Contemporary Artists' Village tours.
Private tours only; prices vary, enquire for more information.
Best on wheels
Jump into the sidecar, or hop on the back of a vintage motorcycle and experience Beijing in a totally unique way. The petrolheads at Beijing Sideways offer two-hour, four-hour and full-day city tours, night rides, as well day trips to and overnight stays at the Great Wall.
Trips are customisable, allowing you to take in the sights you want, and their experienced driver-guides come from around the world, though all are fluent in English and have lived in Beijing for at least two years.
Starting at 1,100RMB for one passenger; 600RMB for the second.
Best for history buffs
Most guided excursions will incorporate some discussion of China's 5,000-year history and beyond, but for an in-depth historical experience with a unique approach, Newman's History of China in 50 Objects is a well-packaged option. Over the two-hour walk around the National Museum of China, situated at the east of Tiananmen Square, guests will journey through the country's epic human history, witnessing the implements and inventions that have shaped this nation and beyond, including weapons, bronzeware and extravagant imperial jewel collections.
Public tours 190RMB per person; private tours 260RMB per person; extended Select tour 340RMB per person. Museum entry is included, and there are discounts for children under 14.
For those who are in search of Old Peking, Beijing By Foot hosts regular walking tours through Beijing’s former legation quarter. Over the two-hour walk, uncover the history of the capital's international settlement, including the Anglo-French invasion of 1860, the Boxer War, and the Japanese Occupation. Meet some of the people who lived there alone the way, search for what remains of the architectural legacy left by the pre-revolutionary foreign community, and dish on some of the dark secrets, strange tales, and unsolved mysteries which still haunt the streets and lanes of the Legation Quarter and its environs.
Price: 300RMB (260RMB for members of The Hutong)
Alternatively, for those looking ahead, Newman also offers the Beijing Future Tour, at the Planning Exhibition Hall. Taking in an impressive scale model of Beijing and and a virtual flight around the capital, the two-hour tour explores the demographic and environmental challenges faced by Beijing planners, as well as the implications of China's most recent Five Year Plan.
Private tours 360RMB per person; extended Select tours 440RMB per person. Entrance to Planning Exhibition Hall is included, and there are discounts for children under 14.
Best for book lovers
Following the success of Paul French's New York Times Bestseller murder mystery Midnight in Peking, premium tour company Bespoke has teamed up with Penguin Books China to offer the official Midnight in Peking Tour. Guided by French's account of the brutal 1937 murder of British teenager Pamela Werner, in-depth historical study and newly released police reports, this gritty walking tour explores the key crime scenes and mysterious circumstances in this tragic case. Led by Beijing Postcards' Lars Ulrik Thom, the tour now packs in even more than before, from a whole raft of recently uncovered new material about the case that even French hadn't seen, including original Chinese police reports.
388RMB per person for public tours (last Saturday of every month); private tours available on request.
Best for something completely different
Whether you're visiting during the frightening festivities of Halloween or not, the Newman Beijing Ghost Tour is perfect for all the chill-seekers out there. Get into the spooky spirit over the two-hour tour, as guides take you on an eerie trail around haunted hutongs, telling tales of hangings, ghouls, vampires and, er, drug-smuggling Chinese zombies.
Public tours 240RMB; private tours 290RMB; extended Select tours 390RMB. Discounts for children under 14.
Best for religions
Besides historical attractions, Beijing is also home to plenty of carefully preserved and restored temples and mosques. They offer a unique glimpse into how religion has shaped the Chinese culture and history. Stay informed on the history and development of religions in the capital with a visit to various landmarks with an insider guide.
New Man’s Religion and Ritual Tour takes you through Beijing’s most iconic Buddhism and Taoism sites – the Temple of Confucius, Imperial Academy and Lama Temple, among others. Hear fascinating stories about feminist Buddhas, the most quoted (and sometimes the most misquoted) Confucian sayings and how they came to be, and at last, give it a go writing a famous Confucian saying and see if you got it right.
Price: private tours (two hours) starts from 330RMB; VIP tours (two and half hours) start from 390RMB. Inquire for more information.
For a more in-depth visit, Beijing Walking’s Off-the-beaten Temples and Religion Tour covers all the main religious sites in central Beijing. Over an eight-hour-long private tour, experience Buddhism and Muslim traditions and rituals first-hand in Lama Temple, Confucian Temple, Temple of Heaven, as well as Niujiu, the oldest and largest Muslim quarter in Beijing.
Price: from 500RMB. 100RMB discount for children under 12 years old
China Culture Centre’s Back Street Beijing Walk offers a private tour tailor-made for those who’re keen to learn more about the Islamic culture and heritage in the capital. Take a stroll through Niujie, the time-honoured Muslim quarter, meet and chat with local Muslim elders in less-trodden hutong alleyways, and snack up on some Muslim street food. Note: Visitors must dress appropriately to comply with the Muslim custom, e.g. shorts and sleeveless are not recommended.
Private tours only; prices vary, inquire for more information.