Photograph by KOKKAI, GETTY Images
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Shops, cafés, and homes line the alleys of Nanluoguxiang, one of Beijing’s traditional neighborhoods.

Photograph by KOKKAI, GETTY Images

What to know before you go to Beijing

From visa advice to foodie favorites, here are nine insider tips for a trip to China’s fascinating capital.

The 2008 Summer Olympics was Beijing’s coming-out party as one of the world’s most influential megacities. A further influx of investment, an ever-developing tourism sector, and a massive new airport expected to open in September 2019—the Beijing Daxing International, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects—make now a great time to plan a visit to China’s capital city. Let these pro tips guide you.

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Decide whether you need a visa

You can stop in the city en route to another country for up to 144 hours without a visa. For longer stays, apply for the multiple-entry visa, since it costs the same ($140) as the single-entry version.

Plan ahead for the Forbidden City

Daniel Newman of Newman Tours advises: “Book your tickets in advance, since the government limits admissions to 80,000 people per day. Don’t forget your passport, because you can’t enter without it.”

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Formerly a site of royal weddings and enthronements, the Forbidden City’s Hall of Supreme Harmony now draws travelers.

Make time to wander through a hutong

One of the best preserved hutongs (historic neighborhoods) is Nanluoguxiang. Rent a bike and pedal through the winding alleys, or have lunch in a family home with Discover Beijing Tours.

Gaze at stunning modern architecture

Beijing’s standout structures include the Galaxy Soho complex, the CCTV Headquarters, and the National Stadium (aka “Bird’s Nest”), built for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

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The “Bird’s Nest” stadium will host events for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Know about the New Year

During Chinese New Year (in 2020, it falls on January 25), the world’s largest human migration occurs as residents visit their hometowns. Many sites close, but you can still see vibrant temple fairs like the one at Ditan Park.

Get help from a language app

Most people in the tourism industry speak English, but if you plan to explore Beijing on your own and find your language skills lacking, download a translation app such as Pleco.

Sample the iconic dish

Taste a modern version of Peking duck at the Opposite House hotel’s swanky Jing Yaa Tang restaurant. Or, says the hotel’s Nick Gollner, “for old school charm, head to Liqun Roast Duck,” where the dish is served with cucumber slivers, leeks, and pancakes.

Be aware of the air quality

Although the air quality has improved in recent years, pollution levels can still run high, especially in winter. On smoggy days, go to indoor sites like the National Art Museum of China.

Take a great walk on the Great Wall

Newman says, “Travel to Mutianyu or Simatai to avoid crowds, or even to the Ming-era Huanghuacheng section, which was recently restored and offers panoramic views.”

Based in Los Angeles, Eric Rosen frequently contributes to National Geographic Travel. Follow his adventures on Instagram.
This article was published in the June/July 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.