- Airport – Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK)
- Currency – Chinese Yuan
- Official Language – Mandarin
- Population – 11.5 million
- GDP – $10.4 trillion (2nd Overall)
Before you board the thirteen-and-a-half-hour flight from JFK International Airport to Beijing Capital International Airport, the second busiest airport in the world by passenger traffic (or from wherever you may be flying), you will need to have both a valid US Passport and a US Visa in China if you are an American citizen. There is some paperwork to fill out, documentation to provide, and you’ll have to complete a DS-160 Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form, but you can find everything you’ll need at the US Embassy in Beijing’s website. Alternatively, you can outsource this by working with an expediting service (we recommend ItsEasy).
Once you’ve gotten the technicalities taken care of, there are some important health concerns for you to consider as well. There are currently no required vaccinations for traveling to China from the United States, but we always confirm checking in with your doctor for recommended inoculations while planning your travels. Apart from those, you should also consider taking some basic health care and medical items for emergency use such as Band-Aids, cold medicine, Tylenol (or similar OTC pain reliever) and medicine for indigestion. As always when traveling abroad, avoid drinking non-bottled water. Most hotels across China will give you several free bottles of water every night of your stay. Another thing to note is the air quality. Beijing, unfortunately, does suffer from high levels of air pollution, although we did not have any issues when going.
With a history tracing back three millennia, Beijing is an ancient and alluring city; renowned not only as a center of art and culture but also as the political capital of the People’s Republic of China and the seventh most populous city in the world. If you’re planning on spending some time in this city, known as much for its marvels of a time long past (such as the world-famous Great Wall of China) as for its complex more recent history (like the events that occurred at Tiananmen Square), here are some can’t-miss tips and attractions that every visitor to Beijing should check out!
Explore the City
Once you’ve arrived in Beijing, you’ll want to take in everything the city has to offer. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could spend the day roaming around the traditional hutongs, or residential neighborhoods made up of small alleys lined by beautiful courtyard homes. Hutongs have historically represented an important part of Beijing culture, the oldest of them having been built nearly eight-hundred years ago when the city was rebuilt following its sack at the hands of Genghis Khan and his Mongol invaders. Today, the hutongs offer a chance to get away from the modern urban sprawl and to get a glimpse into life in the capital as it once was.
There are several guided hutong tours you can take that stop at different famous locations like Liulichang Cultural Street, which is home to one of China’s largest antique markets. We recommend just wandering around on your own and even getting a little lost (with Apple Maps as a back-up just in case! – Google Maps, along with Gmail and many other sites, was blocked during our stay). With a city as filled with history as Beijing, you’re almost guaranteed to find something interesting along one alley or another. Just keep the address of your hotel or Airbnb written in your pocket so you can take a traditional rickshaw ride back if you get too turned around.
Apart from the hutongs, Beijing has countless other cultural attractions for you to enjoy. If you’re into art, you might want to check out the National Art Museum Of China (NAMOC). NAMOC was created by Chairman Mao in 1963 as a tool of propaganda to glamorize Communist China, but today it displays works from artists of all political leanings. You could also go to a Peking Opera, a traditional dramatic musical performance known as Jingju in Beijing. If you’re a history buff, you won’t want to miss Beijing’s ancient and well-preserved pagodas, some of which, like the Pagoda of Tianning Temple have been around since the Liao Dynasty (1100 A.D. -1200 A.D.)!
The Forbidden City
As would be expected of a city with more than three thousand years’ worth of history, there is no shortage of amazing ancient marvels to behold in Beijing. One of the most famous is The Forbidden City, the huge imperial palace complex of Chinese emperors for almost five hundred years. Construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406 and continued for fourteen years before all 980 buildings were completed. The entrance to the Forbidden City is located directly North of Tiananmen Square. It is easily accessible by subway via either Line 1 (to Tiananmen East Station, walk North from the Tiananmen tower) or 2 (to Qianmen Station, walk North through Tiananmen Square past the Tower and through the Meridian Gate). Admission during the Summer (April to October) costs CNY 60 ($9 USD) and CNY 40 ($6 USD) during the Winter (October to March).
Tours vary in length and detail with three or four hours being enough to cover the essentials and whole days dedicated to in-depth discovery sessions. Most tours cost about $40 USD but some can be as much as $100 USD so be sure to shop around to find what’s right for you. A basic tour would take you through the Meridian Gate, where every winter solstice the emperor would announce the start of a new lunar calendar, to the Outer Court, made up of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. The largest of these, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, houses the emperors’ Dragon Throne. Next, you’ll pass through the Gate of Heavenly Peace to the Inner Court area. Like the Outer Court, the Inner Court is also made up of three main structures. The first is the Palace of Heavenly Peace, which is where the emperor slept. Directly behind the first Palace is the Palace of Union and Peace, which was a storage area for the imperial seals. Finally comes the emperor’s wedding room, more commonly known as the Hall of Terrestrial Tranquility. Continuing North, you will pass through the Imperial Garden and out through the main exit gate, called the Gate of Divine Might.
The Great Wall of China
One of the greatest wonders of the world, The Great Wall of China spans more than 5,000 miles and is the result of construction that began as early as the 7th Century BCE! Later combined with larger and stronger fortifications, this Wall was built to protect the original Chinese provinces from attacks and invasions from the northern borders from various different groups.
Given our limited time in Beijing, we opted for a private driver and tour guide to take us to the Mutianyu section of the wall. However, longer tours are available to see more sections of the wall, and larger group offerings are also available to reduce the cost of the tour.
A final must-see location for you to explore on your trip to Beijing is Tiananmen Square, a large central square named for the Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City to the North. Tiananmen Square is one of the ten largest city squares in the world and is home to various monuments to China’s revolutionary heroes such as the National Museum of China and the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, Mao’s final resting place.
It was in this Square on October 1st, 1949 that Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China to his countrymen and the world. Tiananmen Square is also infamous worldwide as the site of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 at which the infamous “Tank Man” video was shot, symbolizing the bloody protests in a single image.
Beijing is certainly familiar to many in the world as a center of historical attractions and delicious food. While many are big fans of its Peking duck, dumplings, and many more delicacies, the many types of food in Beijing, much like all Chinese food in general, has a complex history and characteristics, the specifics of which unfamiliar to many. Not to worry! This article is a complete guide to the foods in Beijing, what is interesting about them, and where to find the best of them.
History of Beijing Cuisine
Beijing’s cuisine is delicate and well crafted: it’s really quite an art. It is a multifaceted combination of many different cuisines across the large country. With different people traveling to or gathering in Beijing throughout its history, its food does not really have a root that can be traced back. Rather, being the political and economic capital, constantly hosting royal feasts for both the incoming important figures and the royal families themselves, Beijing has been able to absorb and amalgamate the essence of many different regal dishes from across China. This diversity and creativity in cooking was necessary to satisfy the Emperors of all dynasties, who needed to enjoy the most delicious, fancy meals. The royal house had their own private kitchen, known as the Yushan Fang, to prepare daily meals, afternoon tea, and various snacks for the Emperor, Empress, and the wife and concubines. These meals were strict in terms of ingredients used, and meals of different levels of fanciness were assigned for people of different levels of importance in the palace. The dishes for the leaders and the royalties thus became part of the Beijing cuisine, and they are known for their lavishness and intricacy. Most of these dishes, while luxurious and fine, were not distinctive enough to become famous dishes in the modern time; some, however, survived to be known and enjoyed even now, including the renowned Peking Duck, Swift’s Nest Stew, and various delicate pastries.
However, most of the regular citizens in Beijing cannot even afford to pay to look at these fancy dishes, let alone enjoy a taste. Thus, an interesting dichotomy of cuisine in Beijing takes place. On the one hand, Beijing is known for its palatial dishes. On the other, it is also the home of some of the most famous everyday food, such as dumplings, steamed corn buns, corn chowder, bean curd, and more. These snacks or dishes are usually cheap, accessible to the citizens, but definitely no less sophisticated in terms of the making process and flavors.
A Few Iconic Dishes
The Peking Duck
A very common dish available to many now, Peking Duck used to be a delicacy for the royalties and powerful during the Ming dynasty. It was even recorded that the Ming Emperor Yuanzhang Zhu had to eat one Peking Duck every day. After the Qing dynasty began and Beijing became China’s capital, the technique used to make Peking Duck was developed and popularized. Peking Duck is generally best enjoyed either winter or spring. The ducks will have developed an appropriate amount of fat beneath the skin, and the meat is more tender and juicy.
Traditionally prepared roasted, and even more typically roasted hanged up, the Peking Duck is roasted whole without offal usually for 35 tot 40 minutes. The duck needs to be turned, and brushed with oil and sauces a few times in between its cooking time, and the procedure is highly standardized and needs to be carried out meticulously before it is considered fully cooked and ready to be served. The duck would then be carved by the chef into thin slices, and served with julienned cucumber and spring onion, and tianmian sauce, a sauce similar to hoisin sauce but is sweeter and has no subtle seafood flavors. These accompaniments are chosen for particular reasons: the spring onion and cucumber are meant to ease the oiliness of the duck, and the tianmian sauce, with its unique savory and sweet combination, is meant to add to the duck a different flavor profile. Typically wrapped in unseasoned wheat pancakes, Peking Duck can also be eaten in hollowed sesame crackers. The duck dish is simple yet sophisticated both in its preparation and flavor.
Where to get the best Peking Duck?
- Quan Ju De
This would be a go-to place for traditional Peking Duck. It has almost over 150 years of history that began when the restaurant opened in Ming Dynasty. It remains today to be the single most famous restaurant for Peking Duck.
- Da Dong
Da Dong’s Peking Duck is a unique one in the city. Making unconventional innovations on the traditional recipe and preparation process, Chef Dong’s duck is a lot less fatty than the traditional Peking Duck one might find everywhere in Beijing; Da Dong’s Peking Duck has a flaky and crispy skin that melts in the mouth.
- Xi He Ya Yuan
A little gem hidden in the city, this restaurant serves a wide array of different accompaniments for the duck: blueberry sauce and pop rocks to go with the duck skin, Dijon mustard with seeds to go with the lean duck breast, and traditional tianmian sauce for the Peking Duck slices. It is definitely a fun choice!
The Dumpling is perhaps one of the most famous, traditional dishes in China. As a dish that has many international variations, dumpling actually has a deep-rooted history that can be dated back to hundreds of years ago. Even now it is often said, “the most delicious dish in the world cannot compare to dumplings,” and thus it is apparent the place dumpling holds in most people’s heart.
Apart from being a delicious, common meal in the households, dumpling also has significant cultural and festive implications. It is first and foremost considered an indispensable part of the Spring Festival, and is viewed as the symbol of New Year and family reunion.
One important detail to note is that the dumpling is not to be mistaken with the potsticker. Dumplings are closed on all sides and boiled in water, whereas potstickers can be opened up on either end and are pan-fried, never boiled or steamed.
Zha Jiang Noodles (Fried Sauce Noodles)
The Zha Jiang Noodle is another typical Beijing dish. It has its roots in Beijing city, and is a famous dish both for tourists and for Beijing citizens. The essence of Zha Jiang Noodle is in the fried sauce, which consists of yellow soybean paste, tianmian sauce, and minced or diced pork. One can make the sauce simply by first frying off the pork, then adding the two sauces, and stewing the combination for up to 30 minutes. This seemingly easy recipe will give you a dish that has the most amazing flavor and texture. Traditional Zha Jiang Noodle also comes with a set of eight julienned accompaniments: bean sprouts, celery, green beans, cucumber, radishes, Chinese cabbage, green garlic, and garlic.
Where to get the best Zha Jiang Noodle?
Hai Wan Ju
Hai Wan Ju is without a doubt one of the most renowned restaurants that serves Zha Jiang Noodle. With a long history, impressive technique, and accurate accompaniments, this place can make no mistake when it comes to this famous Beijing dish.
International Cuisine around Beijing
When it comes to food, Beijing is certainly one of the few cities in China that presents its citizens and tourists with food from not only all over China, but also different parts of the world. Whether you are looking for a paella, a relaxing brunch, or simply chocolate strawberries for your afternoon stroll, Beijing gives you access to almost everything you crave.
A Few Recommendations
- Yi Zuo Yi Wang Lijiang Restaurant (一坐一忘丽江主题餐厅)
This restaurant that features many of the classic dishes from Yunnan, China will surely make your palate explode! From pineapple rice to bamboo rice wine, this gem in the city is not to be missed.
- Wu Yu Tai Ice Cream (吴裕泰冰激凌)
Originally a teahouse that has had over a hundred years of history, Wu Yu Tai did not disappoint when it started selling jasmine tea and green tea flavored soft serve. It has locations all over Beijing and is a must for tea lovers!
- The Rug
A quiet, beautiful spot for a typical American brunch, The Rug serves all kinds of brunch items, from yogurt with berries and granola, to Eggs Benedict, to quinoa salads. Simple and fresh, this place will remind you of your go-to farm-to-table restaurant, wherever you are from.
Hidden in a busy neighborhood, Agua is a Spanish restaurant that not only serves all different types of paellas, but also a roasted pig leg that is to die for.