Want to experience an incredible mix of old and new? Beijing. Want to eat dumplings until you’re a dumpling yourself? Beijing. Want to stick to what you know and only eat foods you can pronounce? Not Beijing. But if the first two sound good, read on.
Here are the top ten reasons you should visit Beijing:
1. The history
Beijing’s history dates back 3,000 years, and is peppered with captivating myths and memorable personalities. (If you thought Game of Thrones’ Dragon Queen was intense, just wait until you learn about Empress Dowager Cixi, a.k.a the original “dragon lady.”) Of course, while Beijing’s ancient history is fascinating, there’s so much to learn about its modern events, ranging from the protests at Tiananmen Square to its current role in the global economy.
2. The food
From the Chinese takeout dishes you know and love to foods you’ve never witnessed before, this city is fit for any foodie. Most menus are written in Chinese, which means ordering can turn into quite the guessing game. Bite into a sumptuous looking dumpling and you might find anything from bean paste to barbecued pork to an unidentified mush that’s as mouthwatering as it is mysterious. Our best advice is to be adventurous and open-minded (just be careful if you have any allergies or food restrictions). Plus, you can check out our seven must-munch foods here.
3. The architecture
Put simply, Beijing’s architecture is breathtaking. It’s completely unlike anything we’re used to back in the States. For a good starting point, head to the Forbidden City, a palace complex that (as hinted by its name) used to be prohibited to the public. In addition to its impressive walls and gates, cast your eyes upwards to find “roof charms.” These beast statuettes are only found on the roofs of the Chinese empire’s official buildings.
4. The Great Wall
What’s so great about the Great Wall? Well for one, this architectural feat is the largest man-made structure ever built. Parts of it date all the way back to the 7th century B.C., and its construction was taken on by several different dynasties. While there are many sections you can visit, we love the portion known as Badaling. Not only is it the best-preserved, it also makes for an easy day trip from Beijing.
5. The Summer Palace
With its intricately painted buildings, stunning royal gardens, and envious views of the Kunming Lake, the Summer Palace might be the most beautiful place in all of Beijing—and that’s saying something. Once the imperial family’s favorite summer getaway, it was designed as a place to achieve harmony with nature. More than 250 years later, it’s just as harmonious as ever, and also the best-preserved imperial garden in the world.
6. The hutongs
Get transported back in time as you wander through Beijing’s hutongs, or alleyways that surround traditional courtyard residences. These beautifully preserved neighborhoods look almost identical to how they did when they were built hundreds of years ago. Plus, EF travelers get to fully immerse themselves in residential hutong life, enjoying a decadent dinner at a local family’s home. To finish off your visit and explore the rest of the neighborhood, hop on a rickshaw—a bike-like vehicle that’s pulled by a cyclist.
7. The tea
Put down the Starbucks—Beijing is all about tea culture. In addition to starting each day with a strong cup, visitors should make sure to enjoy at least one traditional tea ceremony. Here, tea masters expertly prepare several types of tea, often including oolong, green, and black varieties. Guests are invited to sample and smell each serving, using two specially designed cups. Fun fact: Instead of verbally thanking the tea master, guests tap their index and middle fingers on the table as a sign of gratitude.
8. The pandas
No, pandas do not roam free among this urban metropolis’ bustling cars and motorbikes. However, you can still ooh and ahh at the country’s cutest ambassadors when you head to the Beijing Zoo. Here, you can witness giant pandas showing their fluffy stuff as they sit in grassy patches, sit nibbling on bamboo, or sit in their own personal hammock. (They do a lot of sitting—but laziness has never looked so adorable.) Need even more pandas in your life? Schedule a trip to Chengdu to visit its world-class panda research center.
9. The shopping
Experiences are greater than things—but let’s be honest, you’re not leaving Beijing without a few souvenirs. Bartering is part of Chinese culture, and when you head to a market, it’s expected that shoppers will negotiate prices. For an exhilarating (albeit overwhelming) experience, head to Pearl Market for five floors’ worth of goods. Just set a budget for yourself before you go in and don’t settle for anything less than a bargain.
10. The culture shock (or lack thereof)
We’re huge proponents of stepping outside of one’s comfort zone—and traveling halfway across the world definitely falls into that category. However, while there was plenty to adjust to (ex: not speaking the language, ridiculous traffic, squat toilets) Beijing was far more recognizable than we would have thought. With easy public transportation, convenient stores around every corner, and ubiquitously friendly people, it was easy to find and get everything we needed. Plus, if ever there was an uncomfortable moment, it was nothing dumplings (read: the ultimate comfort food) couldn’t assuage.
Want to visit Beijing with your students? Check out all of our tours to China here.