When to fly
Autumn (September to October) is the most popular time to visit Beijing, as the skies are blue, temperatures are mild and rain is limited. September and October are known as the "Golden Autumn" months due to the beautiful crisp yellow leaves of the maidenhair trees. Another attraction to visitors, during this time, is National Day. This celebration marks the establishment of the Central People’s Government in 1949. On this public holiday, a number of government events take place, as well as concerts and fireworks. If you’re in the area, head over to Tiananmen Square which is decorated for the festivities.
Generally speaking, Beijing is dry and windy (and sometimes a little dusty) during spring (April to May), which makes it another great time to visit.
In contrast, summer (June to August) and winter (November to March) see weather extremes which put off some tourists. Summer is the rainy season and also extremely hot. The time can be very busy due to a large number of domestic tourists. Winter, on the other hand, can be incredibly cold with strong winds. If you can cope with these conditions then this is the best time to try and find cheap flights to Beijing and discounted accommodation rates. The winter season also hosts the Chinese New Year celebrations. This festival is widely celebrated and the most important on the lunar calendar. Expect public transport to verge on the chaotic side, due to the majority of people travelling home to celebrate with friends and family.
Other busy times include school and public holidays, which leave Beijing very crowded.
China's capital and second-largest city (after Shanghai) is more than 3,000 years old but it moves at a dizzying pace. Thousands of tourists book flights to Beijing, the home to some of the most notable attractions such as Tiananmen Square, the largest open-urban square in the world, the Forbidden City and its Palace Museum, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven and the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Chairman Mao is also here - embalmed in his mausoleum. For a visit through old Beijing, a hutong (narrow alleyways) tour in a rickshaw under swaying, red lanterns is a great way to soak up the atmosphere of this amazing city.
For the Olympic Games in 2008, Beijing started an ambitious building programme and its architectural legacy includes the National Stadium ("Bird's Nest") and the National Swimming Centre ("Water Cube"). For art and culture, visit the Dashanzi Art District. For shopping, head to Oriental Plaza shopping mall, Wangfujing Street and Panjiayuan Market where you can pick up almost-perfect counterfeit fashion.
The Forbidden City is the largest palace complex in the world and one of the must see when you take your flights to Beijing. It was closed off to the public for 500 years. Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and their families, servants and court members lived luxuriously behind these walls in the centre of Beijing. Now open to the public, the Forbidden City and its central palace represent the largest and best preserved ancient Chinese buildings. A permanent restoration squad works year-round to maintain the 800 buildings, first constructed in 1407.
Arguably the most iconic spot in all of Beijing, Tiananmen Square annually attracts thousands of tourists eager to see the historical landmark. The largest urban square in the world, it was conceived and constructed as a gathering place for residents of the capital city, including government officials. Visitors today remember it primarily as the site of the 1989 massacre, where hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators rallied. Stroll the massive public space and admire nearby monuments – like Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People and the Chinese National museum – before visiting the Forbidden City, located directly across the street.
A wonderful relief from the bustle of Beijing’s city centre, the Summer Palace is situated 6 miles northwest of the city. Take a bus to the masterfully designed landscape, once a summer getaway for Chinese emperors. Built in 1750, the 290-acre park welcomes tourists year-round to admire ancient temples, bridges and pavilions nestled beside a serene lake. Have your camera handy – an afternoon is easily devoured simply by wandering in and out of picturesque tea houses, shops and ruins in this breathtaking walled-off palace.
Beijing has four distinct seasons, a short windy spring, long hot summer, cool pleasant autumn and long cold winter. The ideal conditions during autumn and spring make these popular times to visit, which in turn results in increased prices for flights and accommodation.Getting downtown from the airportThe closest airport to Beijing is Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) and is situated 17 miles north of Beijing. Shuttle buses run regularly to the city centre and major hotels. Metered taxis are also available, but it is recommended that passengers have their destination written in Chinese to avoid confusion. Travelling time to the city is about an hour.
Getting around Beijing
There are plenty of ways to get around this enormous city. Beijing has an extensive bus and subway network to get you where you need to go. The subway is fastest and easiest, but will be very crowded during rush hour. Buses are always crowded. The taxis run off of meters, and are very easy to find, but many drivers don’t speak English, so it helps to have your destination written in Chinese. Cycle rickshaws are another option, but you will have to bargain your rate, and some drivers demand more when you arrive at your destination. You can also rent a car and driver for the day, or rent your own car. Be aware that you won’t be able to leave the city limits if you’re driving.
The city is too large to walk, but you can certainly take public transport or a taxi to a particular area and then explore on foot. If you are brave enough, rent a bicycle and ride alongside the busy traffic.
Biking is very popular in Beijing and bike lanes are clearly marked. If you get overwhelmed, go with the flow of cycling traffic, especially when crossing streets.
Beijing insider information
- Sampling the Chinese food in Beijing is an absolute must. But don’t just to stick to Western favourites (albeit also Beijing specialities) such as roast duck, dumplings or hotpot. A Cantonese proverb says that if something walks, swims or flies with its back to the sun it is edible – and you’ll find anything and everything in Beijing, especially from the street markets. Be brave and sample something you wouldn’t dream of eating back home, such as silkworms, scorpions, sparrows, pigeons or cicadas. Try the street traders at Wangfujing (which you can reach by the metro) for a taste of the exotic.
- If you’re visiting the Forbidden City (which almost every tourist will), take a detour to the roads to the north around the lakes. The houses here give a good sense of the way Beijing used to be. Rickshaws are available to hire if the walk seems too much.
- The Underground City in Beijing is said to be better known by tourists than by Beijing residents. Built as a bomb shelter during the 1970s, it has been open to the public since 2000 and is a maze of 18 miles (30 km) worth of tunnels. The tunnels were originally dug by volunteers and local citizens, even school children, on Chairman Mao Zedong’s orders and were intended to house at least 40 per cent of the city’s population if needed. Today they are an eerie reminder of the past conflict, standing deserted with more than 1,000 air raid shelters and spaces intended for shops, hospitals, schools and restaurants.
- Don’t just visit Tiananmen Square in the day. At night, the entire square is lit up and the atmosphere changes completely to the bustle of the day. Worth watching is the lowering of the flag at sunset by the army. However, don’t stay too late. At 10.30pm on the dot, the army moves everyone out of the square and locks it up for the night.