The alternative Beijing tourist guide

Beijingers and tourists alike can check out these less-seen sights

Done with swamped tourist traps? Check out these alternative things to do in Beijing, great for both savvy tourists and Beijingers alike.

Ancient architecture


temple of successive dynasties
Temple of Successive Dynasties

If you like The Forbidden City
Constructed from 1406 through 1420 during the Ming Dynasty, the Forbidden City – the world’s largest walled palace – served as China’s imperial palace until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, housing a total of 24 emperors. A Unesco World Heritage Site and the home of the Palace Museum, the (not-so) Forbidden City now opens its gilded gates for anything up to 80,000 tourists per day. Open 8.30am-5pm daily (peak season). 40-60RMB. Subway station: Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West.

Try Working People's Cultural Palace
Break away from the masses heading to the Forbidden City and duck off east at the Working People’s Cultural Palace. Despite its prime location between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, this palace park remains largely unexplored by tourists ticking the Beijing landmarks off their bucket lists. Designed in the same style as the rest of the Forbidden City, the Workers Cultural Palace – originally the 'Royal Ancestral Temple' before it was renamed by Mao – was an important place of worship for emperors. Now a tranquil space away from the madding crowds, it’s a great spot to get the Forbidden City-feel, but with smaller halls, cheaper entry and more space to breathe. Open 6.30am-7.30pm daily. 2RMB. Subway station: Tiananmen East.

Try Temple of Successive Dynasties
Originally built in 1530, the Temple of Successive Dynasties (Lidai Diwang Miao), was used by rulers of the Ming and Qing dynasties to offer sacrifices to past emperors and, later, to hold a memorial service for Republic of China leader Sun Yat-sen. Unfolding across a 21,500sqm perimeter, the grand buildings are touted for their architectural likeness to the Forbidden City, even featuring the same yellow-gold bricks used to pave the floor in the main hall. Despite the fact that this mini Forbidden City opened to tourists in 2004 after a lengthy restoration project, it’s never really made its way on to the typical tourist hit list. While there’s no English audio tour to help you navigate the halls, info tablets explaining the roles and achievements of the honoured emperors are available in the East Annex Hall. 131 Fuchengmennei Daijie.Open 9am-4.30pm Wed-Sun. 20RMB. Subway station: Xisi.

Stunning views



view from jingshan
View from Jingshan

If you like The Summer Palace
The largest royal garden in Beijing, the Summer Palace was essentially a deluxe, giant play area for imperial families. Today, the throngs pile in to see temples and pagodas dotted across Longevity Hill. Climb to the top for beautiful views of Kunming Lake. 19 Xinjian Gongmen Lu. Open 7am-7pm daily (peak season). 30-60RMB. Subway station:Beigongmen.

Try Jingshan Park
Originally a private garden located just north of the Forbidden City, Jingshan offers impressive aerial views of the imperial palace in its entirety. On a clear day, walking around the viewing platform – the highest point of land in central Beijing – you can expect striking panoramic views of the entire (non-forbidden) city. Jingshan Qianjie. Open 6.30am-9pm daily. 2-10RMB. Subway station: Dongsi.

Try Atmosphere
A booze-fuelled alternative to Jingshan, 80 stories up the China World Summit Wing building, Atmosphere – aka Beijing’s highest bar – has some of the finest views the city has to offer. Situated smack-bang in the CBD, you can look down over the CCTV 'pants' building, Beihai Park, the Workers’ Stadium, the National Centre for the Performing Arts, the Forbidden City and more – weather permitting. As part of a pop-up cocktail series, you can also order a range of Forbidden City-themed tipples. 80th Floor, China World Summit Wing Beijing, 1 Jianguomenwai Dajie. Open midday-2am Sun-Thu; midday-4am Fri-Sat. Subway station: Guomao.

Atmosphere Bar nightview
Atmosphere at night


Photo opportunities



graffiti wall
Baiziwan Lu Graffiti Wall

If you like The Mao portrait
Located at the north side of Tiananmen Square, Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) and the Mao portrait that hangs high at its centre is one of Beijing’s most iconic sights. A snapshot recognised the world over, you’ll be lucky if you find a spot to squeeze in with your selfie stick. Subway station: Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West.

Try Baiziwan Lu Graffiti Wall
Shake up your Beijing backdrop at this colourful urban canvas on Baiziwan Lu. A recent addition to Beijing’s street-art scene, the 800sqm wall features works of visiting artists from all over the Mainland, Asia and Europe. The mural is also located opposite 22 International Art Plaza, Shuangjing’s answer to 798, housing contemporary galleries, shops and restaurants. 32 Baiziwan Lu. Subway station: Shuangjing


Communism


798
798 Art District

If you like Tiananmen Square
A focal point for the still-revered communist revolutionary Mao Zedong’s vision of greatness for China, Tiananmen Square is adorned with Soviet-style buildings and communist monuments. For a truly patriotic experience, catch the national flag raising ceremony at sunrise and pair it with a visit to Mao’s mausoleum at the south side of the square. Allegedly the final resting spot of the Great Helmsman himself, devout supporters from all over the country make the pilgrimage to Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to his (so we’re told) embalmed body at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. South side of Tiananmen Square. Open 7am-midday Tue-Sun (hours may vary). Subway station: Tiananmen East or West.

Try 798 Art District
Despite its reputation among hip Beijingers as a stuffy, over-commercialised art district with overpriced cafés and gentrified boutiques, 798 is actually a good spot to get a feel for communist Beijing in its heyday. The art district is a former industrial zone, and the decommissioned factories and warehouses – made with a little help from East Germany in the infancy of the PRC in the '50s – are a reminder of China’s communist past. At 798 Art Factory the writing is (quite literally) on the walls: the grey factory hall is plastered with motivational Maoist slogans. Heading further east, beyond the train track that saw the arrival of trains from East Germany, take a walk over the steel highline walkway running north to south to get a good view of the German Bauhaus-style buildings in their entirety. As you walk along, you’ll notice a number of additional Maoist slogans still dotted around the space. For a full communist experience, Bespoke Beijing offers a guided tour through the area. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu. Subway station: Jiangtai.


Temples


lama temple
Lama Temple

If you like Lama Temple
Still an active space of worship, Yonghegong is one of China’s most well-known and important lamaseries (a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks). While its ornate, incense-filled halls and 18-metre-tall sandalwood statue of the Maitreya Buddha in the final hall attract pilgrims from all over the world, they also lure in the masses. 12 Yonghegong Dajie. Open 9am-4.30pm daily (peak season). 25RMB. Subway station: Yonghegong.

Try Miaoyang Temple
Tucked away in one of the city’s treasured low-rise districts, Miaoying Temple, also known as Baitasi, is generally overlooked in favour of its glitzier counterparts. But what it lacks in stature, it makes up for in historical significance and solitude. Originally built during the Yuan Dynasty on the orders of Kublai Khan in 1271, the temple was an important political symbol of unification between Tibet and the rest of the empire. The white dagoba (Tibetan-style pagoda) that sits inside its wall remains the tallest and one of the oldest in China. The temple halls house a collection of Tibetan Buddhist artefacts, including a number of scriptures and statues. 171 Fuchengmennei Dajie. Open 9am-4pm Tue-Sun. 20RMB. Subway station: Fuchengmen or Xisi.


Modern architecture


parkview green
Parkview Green mall

If you like Beijing National Stadium
The 2008 Beijing Olympics may be long gone, but its legacy lives on. The Beijing National Stadium, aka the Bird’s Nest, remains a shrine to China’s grand entrance onto the world stage. The largest steel structure in the world, the giant and intricately designed nest holds up to 80,000 spectators and should withstand an earthquake up to eight on the Richter Scale. Used to hold the athletics events and the opening and closing ceremonies during the 2008 Olympics, the stadium’s main purpose now is to draw in the tourists to fund its yearly maintenance fees of 11 milion USD. Beijing National Stadium Nan Lu. Open 9am-7pm daily (peak season). 50RMB. Subway station: Olympic Sports Center.

Try Parkview Green mall
Built using materials specifically chosen for their sustainability factor, this large glass pyramid has its very own self-regulating microclimate and uses 50 percent less energy than most buildings its size. Plus it looks magnificent. If that isn’t enough reason to stay forever, the high-end mall houses a private collection of valuable art works from around the world, including one of the greatest private collections of Salvador Dali’s work outside of Barcelona. Sprinkle in a smattering of Beijing’s best restaurants, high-end shops and a five-star hotel and you have the complete shop-eat-stay package. 9 Dongdaqiao Lu. Open 10am-10pm daily. Subway station: Dongdaqiao.


Parks


ritan park
Ritan Park

If you like Temple of Heaven
The most prominent of four well-known sacrificial temples in Beijing, the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) was originally constructed in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty and used by emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties to appease the heavens and pray for good crops. Sitting in a large park, the three main altars – the iconic Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar – draw in the crowds all year round. Tiantan Dong Lu. Open 8am-5.30pm daily (peak season). 10-35RMB. Subway station: Tiantan Dongmen.

Try Ritan Park
When you can no longer face the hordes, reprieve awaits at Ritan Park. The home of the Temple of Sun, the altar was originally built in 1530 and used by Ming and Qing emperors to offer sacrifices to the sun gods. While you can expect to see similar, albeit less impressive, altars to those at the Temple of Heaven, Ritan Park carries its own. Its relative anonymity makes it one of Beijing’s most peaceful parks, with beautiful pavilions overlooking the lake. It’s one of the best places to catch old folk practising tai chi, dancing or playing mah-jong without hordes of tourists flooding the place – and it won’t cost you a penny to enter. 6 Ritan Bei Lu. Open 6am-10pm daily (peak season). Subway station: Yonganli.


Shopping


fabric market
Muxiyuan Fabric Market

If you like Silk Market
Once upon a time recognised for its beautiful Chinese silk wares, the Silk Market, now one of Beijing’s most notorious shopping destinations, has been sucking in tourists and spitting out 'I heart BJ' t-shirts for close to two decades. The Silk Market’s eight floors are packed with stalls hawking all sorts of Beijing souvenirs alongside every kind of knockoff imaginable: from Prado bags to Fucci loafers and replicas of high-end electronics. And, of course, there’s a whole floor dedicated to 'silks' and tailored clothing. The merchants are fierce and well-versed when it comes to tourists and getting a real bargain takes haggling skills to match. 8 Xiushui Dongjie, Jianguomenwai Dajie. Open 9.30am-9.30pm daily. Subway stationL Yonganli.

Try Muxiyuan Fabric Market
Navigating your way through the stalls at this sleepy textile haven is a more refined affair than your typical Beijing market experience. A collection of wholesale fabric markets just south of Beijing’s Third Ring Road, here you’ll find every kind of fabric and clothing accessory you never knew you needed: cotton, silk, cashmere, faux fur (even real fur), lace, buttons, badges, feathers and more. The vendors won’t pester you, but are happy to offer advice. Fabrics are sold at very reasonable prices, making it a great spot to find material to take to the tailors – just remember to bring your measurements. And you’ll need to speak a little bit of Mandarin to make your visit worthwhile. Dahongmen Lu. Open 8am-5pm daily. Subway station: Dahongmen.

Try Boutiques
Expansive markets not your style? Fortunately there are plenty of boutiques where you can find one-of-a-kind souvenirs. Shard Box Store sells handcrafted trinket boxes and jewellery made using broken porcelain pieces that were thrown away during the Cultural Revolution. For pottery, Spin Ceramics has reasonably priced pieces made and fired in China’s ceramic capital, Jingdezhen. Alternatively, the Liu family have been crafting traditional bamboo-framed Chinese kites for three generations at Three Stone Kite. Choose from decorative and functional birds, butterflies, dragons and more. Explore our website for shop details.


'Antiquing'


panjiayuan 2
Panjiayuan Market

If you like Panjiayuan Market
This popular flea market is crammed with stalls flogging all manner of Beijing souvenirs, trinkets and (now mostly fake) antiques: PLA caps, jewellery, books, ancient coins, propaganda posters and more. While it’s usually bustling with enough tour groups to match its souvenir-shop status, if you get in early (it opens as early as 4.30am on summer weekends) you can usually snatch yourself a bargain. West of Panjiayuan Qiao. Open 8.30am-6pm MonFri, 4.30am-6pm Sat-Sun. Subway station: Panjiayuan.

Try Baoguosi Antiques Market
Once a Buddhist temple, the halls at Baoguosi are now filled with stalls selling treasures from across China: ancient coins, books, old weights, more coins, calligraphy, ornaments, some more coins, mirrors, maps, jewellery and more coins. Whatever you’re looking for, the weekend is the best time to visit as all vendors are out in full force. A bit of Mandarin will go a long way. 1 Guanganmennei Dajie. Open 9am-4pm daily. Subway station: Guanganmennei.

Try Liulichang Antiques Street
Known for its special-interest collection of old Chinese book and handcraft stores, at Liulichang Antiques Street you can find pottery, paintings, calligraphy materials, books and more. Even if you’re not looking to buy, this place is worth a visit, especially early evening: you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more peaceful and better-looking shopping area in Beijing. Liulichang Xijie, Liulichang Dongjie. Subway station: Hepingmen.


Street food


hugosi food
Some tasty treats from Hugosi Jie

If you like Wangfujing Snack Street
Famous for its 'exotic' offerings, largely comprised of insects on sticks, Wanfujing’s Donghuamen Night Market was forced to shutter its stalls back in June. But you can still get your scorpion-on-a-skewer fix at Wangfujing’s xiaochijie (snack street) just west of Wangfujing Dajie. Entering through the archway, you’ll join the hordes opting between overpriced scorpion and snake skewers. West off Wangfujing Dajie. Open 9.30am-10pm daily. Subway station: Wangfujing.

Try Huguosi Snack Street
You won’t find any insects down Huguosi Jie; old Beijing snacks are the main flavour here. Once the home of Huguo Temple, Huguosi Jie was well known for its monthly temple fair, and its temple fair snacks. Although the temple has gone, the tasty morsels remain. The best known restaurant on the street, Huguosi Xiaochidian (护国寺小吃店) has more than 80 varieties of Beijing delights. Grab a tray and take your pick from the sweet and savoury (often dough- or soy bean-based) offerings. Elsewhere on the street, you’ll find slender pan-fried dalian huoshao dumplings and crispy pan-fried donkey burgers. Huguosi Jie. Subway station: Pinganli.


Art


ucca
UCCA

If you like UCCA
Founded over 30 years ago, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) is Beijing’s most venerable and established contemporary art institution. The massive building is the prime attraction of Beijing’s 798 art district, where you can also check in on brand-name galleries such as Pace and Farschou Foundation. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu. Open 10am-7pm Tue-Sun. Admission prices vary. Subway station: Jiangtai.

Try Caochangdi
For a less commercial alternative to 798, head to the nearby Caochangdi art zone, which hosts a cluster of small galleries with less established names. Check the programmes of Pekin Fine Arts, Ying Space, Taikang Space or de Sarthe Gallery to see what’s on during your visit. Northeast of 798. No subway.

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