Some of the things to do in Beijing barely need mentioning. Seeing Tiananmen Square, hopping on a bullet train, roaming the Summer Palaces and squeezing in a spot of Tai Chi before walking the Great Wall. And then there’s the things to do in Beijing that take a bit of snuffling out. Finding the best place to try jianbing, learning to ride an ice bike and sliding down the Great Wall might not be on the top of your list, but perhaps they should be?
Slide down the Great Wall
Since 1958, Beijing’s visitors have been able to head out of the city and explore the Badaling section of the Great Wall. And as enticing as seeing the spring blossom or the rich reds of the autumn maples from this UNESCO behemoth are – nothing quite beats the exhilaration of sliding down one of the world’s most serious and sizeable fortifications. So when you’re done admiring the mountain ridges and beacon towers in Badaling, head north to Mutianyu. You’ll find a metal slide that’s delivering on Winter Olympic level luge vibes and a cart to brave the five minute descent in. A joystick in the cart is all that’s stopping you whizzing around the bends in record time. Do apply the brakes, just a little, if only for the eye-popping views.
Enter the Forbidden City
It’s tempting to describe this citadel as an open air museum, but it’s so much more than that. Home to 24 emperors over the centuries, the Forbidden City’s 180 acre site now represents both the world’s largest palace and China’s best collection of ancient structures. Strolling through the Meridian Gate, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed. Halls, palaces and gardens stretch out before you. All demanding far more than a quick zip round before moving on to a noodle bowl nearby. Set aside a full day for this opulent labyrinth.
Get hooked on jianbing
Exploring the Beijing food scene is a bewildering gastro-journey that sees you chowing on foodstuffs you never thought possible. In this city, finding some loofah in your noodle broth isn’t unusual. So it can come as quite a comfort to find a food truck frying up a familiar crepe with a Chinese twist. The eggy folds of the jianbing snack have been fuelling those on foot for 2,000 years – so there’s no reason to stop now. Order a jianbing as it comes or wedge it full of your favourite Beijing treats. Hoisin sauce and char siu pork make for a classic combo. Though, stir fried greens with enough chilli sauce to set your tastebuds on fire cut across the greasy slick of eggy pancake rather nicely. Enough to see you heading back for just. one. more jianbing before you leave.
Orbzii tip: The best jianbing in the city can be found near the Beijianzi Alley Vegetable Market. Look for Mr Niu’s Du Hua Jianbing food cart.
Browse the walls of the 798 Art District
Hats off to Beijing for up-cycling their old electronics factories into an art-stuffed district of colour, creativity and culture. One of the most inspiring things to do in Beijing is to take a stroll around the galleries, studios and architecture that make up the 798 Art District. Peer up at murals reaching several storeys high, nip into galleries to spot China’s up and coming artists or hang out in the uber-cool restaurants and cafes to plot your next move in the art space. Maybe you’ll plot out an exhibition of your own – or buy that piece you were just eyeing in a gallery? The best part of the district? You don’t need to spend a single yuan to enjoy it.
Pedal the rink on an ice bike
Katie Melua once told us that there are nine million bicycles in Beijing. But, did this include a tally of the city’s ice bikes? Let’s hope for the sake of musical and numerical accuracy it did as we take to the rink on the rickety – but oddly endearing contraptions. One wheel, three blades and a sense of the absurd are all you need to gracefully(?) make your way around the Zizhuyuan Park skating rink. Other modes of ice transport include ice ships, chairs and trolleys. In winter, the frozen surface of Lake Houhai is peppered with locals cycling their way across the ice.
Take scenic selfies from a floating UFO
Vertigo sufferers, this one isn’t for you. Getting up to the UFO-shaped glass deck perched at the top of Shilin Gorge is easy enough. But having the courage to walk out onto the glass floor to grab a selfie could be where you draw the line. Teetering out over the cliffs – there’s nothing below the glass floor for almost 33 metres. The UFO stylings of Beijing’s glass observation deck may sound a little gimmicky, but it’s one of the city’s many architectural wonders that’s worth a look. If you’re brave enough.
Mooch around the Ming Tombs
If the luxe category in your dark tourism has yet to be checked off, a browse of the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty adds a rather grand and colourful slant on the usual mausoleum vibe. Built for 13 of the 16 emperors that ruled during the Ming dynasty, this burial complex gives a glimpse into the funeral expectations of ruling families. But also a chance to peer into China’s history. During the cultural revolution, the Dingling tomb was ransacked, destroying the artefacts and remains of the Emperor. One of only three tombs open to the public, it marks much more than a final resting place.
Take time to visit the hutongs and siheyuan
Looking for the real Beijing? You’ll find it in the narrow alleyways, courtyards and dwellings known as hutongs and siheyuan. During the Ming Dynasty there were over 3,000 hutongs, criss-crossing over the city. Today, only around 1,000 remain. Treasured for their close-quarters living, strong community vibe and historical links, there are calls for the hutongs to become a protected monument of Beijing. Exploring the old town, you’re often more likely to find gift shops and noodle stands pushing out hutong residents – but it’s worth persevering to find stand out streets such as Guozijian Street, the only hutong to have retained its original architectural arches and decorations.
Grab a shot of the Beijing Stadium for your Insta feed
One of the most iconic buildings from the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing’s National Stadium is still drawing crowds of Instagrammers. But classic shots of the Bird’s Nest lit up in all its glory, don’t tell the whole story of this steel phenomenon. The only stadium to have ever hosted ceremonies for both summer and winter olympic games, it’s also the largest steel structure in the world. Forming the central part of the city’s Olympic Park, you can also drop into the Water Cube (National Aquatics Centre). Just be sure to drop by after dark, both buildings are far more impressive with the lights on.
Hike to the top of Fragrant Hill
The trees of Fragrant Hill – or Xiangshan Park, have been wowing amblers and ramblers since the 12th century. Over the years, ruling dynasties have made their mark adding horticultural touches and pavilions along the way. And, with a little help from some much-needed government intervention and restoration, Fragrant Hill is now a 400 acre forest of wonder. When autumn arrives, warm ambers build to scarlet reds as the sugar in the maple leaves works its botanical magic. The best route to see the best of the season’s colours starts at the East Gate follows the path past the Jingcui Lake on to the Xiangshan Temple and up to the hill top. Not visiting in autumn? The park is still a refreshingly green break from Beijing’s cosmopolitan mix of malls, hutongs and concrete alleys.