I like to do a bit of research before I take off on global adventures. Some destinations need more research than others. When it came to Beijing, China, I glazed over a few articles I found online and asked some friends who had recently visited. True to my travel style more often than not, I had more of a, “don’t think, just do,” attitude. I’d been to other cities in Asia before, Beijing couldn’t be much different, right?
It quickly became clear to me that Beijing would be more complicated to navigate than expected. For a five-day trip, we had a few hiccups and mishaps along the way while still adventuring around Beijing and Xi’an.
Traveling to Beijing requires prior knowledge of what you’re getting into before you land and don’t have internet access to do any research – take it from someone who knows. Here are the key Beijing travel tips you need to know before you go.
The metro system in Beijing is your best bet to navigate the city. It’ll take you everywhere you want to go in Beiijng and is clean and organized. Keep a subway map handy; you’ll need it in the likely event you have to pay for your ticket at the metro stand instead of the automatic kiosks. I communicated by pointing to my end destination and didn’t have any trouble buying tickets. For some reason, the kiosks usually only worked when we paid with coins instead of cash, so most of the time we had to consult with a metro attendant when purchasing tickets.
Security is tight on the metro. This might slow you down a little, but it’s not the end of the world. Avoid the metro at peak commuting times because it gets really packed and can take a long time to get from Point A to Point B.
On the bright side, transportation is very built up in Beijing and surrounding areas. When our flight back to Beijing from Xi’an was canceled due to heavy rains, we quickly bought tickets on the high-speed bullet train. It took longer and foiled our plans for the rest of the day, but it was very cool to travel in China by train and see the countryside. The train was fast and really nice, too! If you experience inclement weather in the Beijing area, a transportation backup plan is easier to figure out than you’d think.
TripAdvisor is not as reliable for reviews of hotels in Beijing in comparison to other cities. In reality 3-star Bejing hotel on TripAdvisor = a 1 or 2-star hotel by US standards. It surprised me; it wasn’t like Bangkok in which even the hostels are modern and nice. There are so many hotels in Beijing that it’s so easy for hotels to be ranked as 3+ stars when they aren’t clean.
Trust me. We had a reservation at a hotel rated ~3 stars in Beijing. When we arrived, we realized we weren’t in a great part of the city, the non-smoking room smelled like smoke, and the room was quite dingy. For a girl who has stayed in some 100+ hostels in her life, I didn’t even want to take my shoes off. Also, I’m not at all a person who expects everyone to speak English. Still, most of the time in international hotels, there’s someone at the front desk who speaks English. We were not the only guests having a difficult time communicating with the front desk.
In the end, we moved to a better hotel, reconciling that the extra money is worth enjoying a trip and not feeling uncomfortable where we sleep. We stayed in the Business District, which wouldn’t be my first choice in most cities, but was centrally located and easy to navigate.
Make sure you have the name and address of your hotel in Chinese characters. It’s handy when you need to ask for directions when taking a cab or walking around the city. A screenshot of your hotel name will do just fine.
Summers are hot, humid, and rainy in Beijing. July is apparently the rainiest time of year. It rained about half the time on our July trip. Pack a poncho because it’ll probably rain while you’re at the Great Wall or sightseeing around the city.
I’m not sure it’s 100% the weather, but smog is a major buzz kill in Beijing. I didn’t feel like it affected my breathing in the one week I was there. The sky looks overcast almost all the time and it’s common to see locals wearing masks over their nose and mouth. There are apps to track smog and visibility if that’s important to you, but you get used to it. The best part about the summer rain? The next day is likely to have blue skies instead of smog!
Say goodbye to your regular social media apps, Google, and Yelp when in Beijing. Unless you pay for a VPN app for your phone, it’ll be difficult to use these apps because of strict Internet regulations in China (and even then, you’re not really supposed to use those apps). Take note of the places you want to go beforehand so you don’t have trouble researching at your hotel. TripAdvisor was still a useful tool when looking for restaurants instead of Yelp, which didn’t seem to have any recommendations.
Google Maps didn’t work well for navigating my way through the city and didn’t update my current location regularly, so I mostly used Triposo’s offline maps feature.
Credit card readers don’t always accept international cards at restaurants. You could get stuck having to find a bank to withdraw local currency if you don’t have any. This could pose a problem if you left your passport back at your accommodation (which is something I typically do).
Plain and simple: you might not need your passport to withdraw cash from the ATM, but you will if you exchange at a bank or currency exchange. Keep cash on hand.
Tipping isn’t common practice in China, but it doesn’t hurt to tip your tour guide or driver.
It can be difficult to communicate with locals since not many people speak English. Having a map and names of important places like your accommodation in Chinese characters is key.
Saying “Hello” (Nǐ hǎo) and “Thank you” (Xièxiè) in Chinese will go a long way. People in Beijing are very nice and willing to help!
Tourist sites and food
Be prepared for long security and entry lines at the major Beijing tourist sites. Security is tight everywhere, but especially at the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Carry only what you need and it’ll be a breeze.
Give yourself enough time to enjoy the tourist sites. Beijing is full of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and beautiful temples; it’s a shame to miss out on it because you didn’t carve out enough time to see everything. The long train ride from Xi’an to Beijing when our flight was canceled meant we only had a few hours to see the Temple of Heaven and Forbidden City. It wasn’t enough time and though this was not in our control, it was still disappointing to leave the Forbidden City without seeing all of it. Plan your time wisely if you only have a few days to explore Beijing.
Wear comfy shoes, bring a hat, and be ready for the heat if you’re visiting Beijing in summer. Don’t let the smog fool you, it’s still hot and humid outside! Many of Beijing’s tourist sites are in large parks or grounds, so prepare for long days of walking outside.
When it comes to food, splurge on Peking duck and hot pot! Beijing is known for its Peking duck and hot pot is simply one of the most fun dining experiences you can have in China. The amazing restaurant we went to in Xi’an had attendants for each table who provided aprons, hair ties, and helped cook the food!