Beijing's not just the capital of China, it's also home to plenty of unique things to do and experiences that you literally can't find anywhere else in the world. We also lay claim to the dubious claim of hosting the world's longest traffic jam – a whopping 12-day, 100-kilometre beast back in 2010, aka the Great Stall of China – which may be more of a thing to don't. Pileups aside, read on for some of the more appealing Beijing-only things to do.
1. Meet your Special Godfather
Respect for elders has long formed an important pillar of Chinese culture, and there are a few really old folks kicking around our capital to pay homage to, among them Yuanmou Man – or his teeth, at least. Housed in the National Museum, these dated dentures were originally believed to be as old as 1.7 million years, though recent study suggests closer to 600,000. Further afield is Zhoukoudian, better known as the site of Yuanmou’s homo erectus contemporary, Peking Man.
2. Meet Your Communist Godfather
Staring at embalmed world leaders is one of the more peculiar strands of tourism, but if you simply have to complete your kicked-the-bucket list, then the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall is a Beijing must. Situated at the dead centre of Tiananmen Square, the recently renovated mausoleum sees a continual procession of venerating visitors from early morn till midday, passing within just a few metres (and panes of safety glass) of the founding father’s pickled remains. Ho Chi Minh and Lenin, as well as Kims Il-sung and Jong-il are his fellows whose remains remain on permanent display. Gotta catch ’em all.
3. Visit more Unesco World Heritage Sites than any Other Cities
Discussion rages as to how this one is totted up, but by most accounts, Beijing is home to more Unesco-approved sites of historical awesomeness than any contemporary, with seven. As well as the Ming Tombs, Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian, the Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven, we boast the epic Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City – the world’s largest collection of ancient wooden structures and most visited museum, with more than 14.5 million estimated visitors passing through yearly. Last but not least is our northern terminus of the Grand Canal, the longest canal or artificial river in the world, which happens to end in Houhai.
4. Watch a Flag-raising Ceremony in Tian'anmen Square
Start the day the patriotic way. While a Chinese flag seems to be flying at almost every turn here, none are given as much attention as this one in the heart of Beijing. Every dawn (and dusk), immaculately regimented guards emerge from beneath Mao Zedong’s iconic portrait upon the Tian'anmen gate, before marching towards the flagpole, unfurling and raising the whopping red banner in a perfectly preened ceremony, backed by the national anthem. It takes just two minutes and seven seconds to reach the top, climaxing at the same time as sunrise, so arrive in good time beforehand to snag the front row from the smartphone- and selfie stick-wielding crowds.
5. Visit the Oldest Surviving Church in China
Now, we use the word 'survive' pretty loosely here, as the site of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception has taken a few knocks over its 412-year existence, with various emperors, earthquakes, fires and rebels periodically tearing down the house of God. However, as a still-active Roman Catholic church, it is home to the oldest continuous congregation in China, while the current, Baroque-style structure is also the oldest church in Beijing, dating back to 1904.
6. Drink at the 'World's First Baijiu Bar' -Rice Wine Bar
While the practice of necking baijiu is a time-honoured tradition in China, the spirit has long drawn criticism from skeptical yet 'oh-f**k-it-go-on-then' Western visitors, perhaps unfairly so. After all, it’s the world’s most consumed spirit, and those who help knock back 5 billion litres a year can’t be so wrong, although they may be fairly tipsy. Newly moved in with its spirit-spawn The Distillery, Capital Spirits claims to be the world’s first specialist baijiu bar, and has been doing a pretty good job of converting the non-believers over the last few years, promoting the tipple in its various forms and stirring up some impressive baijiu-based cocktails.
7. Eat the Most Authentic Peking Duck
The debate over who has perfected the art of Peking Duck may never be settled, but with a history that can be traced back as far as 1416 and the Ming dynasty, Bianyifang lays claim to being the city’s oldest surviving duck-peddling chain. That’s in fact four years older than the Forbidden City, though it was only in 1855 that they moved into the Qianmen branch that still stands today as the city’s oldest duck restaurant. Its fame and touristy location can make it a bit hectic at times, but its closed-oven slow-roasted quacker has a distinct flavour and mouthwatering tenderness that many rave about.
8. Eat the most Authentic Peking Dick
While restaurants across the world may offer the odd animal genital-based dish, few can claim to have as wide and diverse a menu as Beijing’s infamous Guolizhuang, fine purveyors in all things penile. From horse, lamb and deer, to water buffalo and yak danglies, all members are said to have medicinal benefits, being good for complexions and, of course, male virility. It ain’t coming cheap, though, so expect to pay around 200RMB for individual dishes, and over the 1,000RMB mark for a schlong-sampling platter. It feels like a bit of a secret dick-dining society though, with locations tough to find and reservations required well in advance. Multiple locations across town. Call 8411 6666 for more information.
9. Catch an Ear-splitting Peking Opera at a 300-year old Theatre
The shrills and trills of Peking Opera might not be to everyone’s aural pleasure, but you can’t deny the colourful shows can be quite the spectacle, and there are few spots better to watch a performance than at the historic Zhengyici – the oldest still-intact wooden theatre in China. Originally built as an ancestral shrine back in 1688, it soon became an important venue for Peking opera, as well as the lesser-known Kunqu opera. Its intimate stage now also hosts a variety of performing arts, including a stand-up set from American comedian Louis CK back in 2012.
10. Eat Dinner in the Qing Royal Family's former Fridge-freezer
The Royal Icehouse, on the east side of Beihai Park, was – as the name suggests – used by the imperial family to store ice during the Qing dynasty. A hutong location and ornate architecture make it a beautiful spot to stroll to on a warm summer’s evening, and the cavernous stone walls still do a pretty good job of keeping you chilled. While billed as a fine dining restaurant, the traditional Beijing fare is distinctly on the average side; the main reason to visit is to explore the still-functioning underground cellars, and catch whatever sports match is being shown on the giant flat-screen TV in the dining room.
11. Watch a Movie in China's Oldest Cinema
First opening its doors in 1903, Dashilan's Daguanlou is the oldest movie theatre in China and, while it’s somewhat of a disputed title, it also claims to be the 'longest-running cinema in the world'. An exhibit inside even credits founder Ren Qingtai with coining the Chinese word for film (电 影, dianying), as well as directing the first Chinese motion picture in 1905. In recent years, the cinema has been renovated, and while it has lost just a touch of its historic charm, an updated space means you can catch everything from new domestic releases to recent Hollywood blockbusters in 3D (from 39RMB; some of the cheapest in town) at the birthplace of China’s film industry.
12. Splash about in an Olympic Swimming Venue
The iconic Water Cube, the famous site of Michael Phelps’ eight gold medal haul in 2008, is now home to an almost psychedelic indoor water park (entry 200RMB adults; 160RMB children), complete with the looping slide of your nightmares, a lazy river, wave pool and wacky lighting. Because what better way to celebrate the sporting feats of your Olympic and Paralympic heroes than by hurtling along a trippy terror tube and being plummeted through a loop-the-loop into a watery trough? Alternatively, if you’re not so wont to splash about, you can swim a few laps in the actual 50-metre pool athletes trained in during the games.
13. Gaze from one of the World's Oldest Obervatories
There aren’t many places left in the world where you can do exactly what people have been doing there for nearly a millennium, but the Beijing Ancient Observatory (20RMB; 10RMB for concessions) is one such rare gem. Operating in some form since 1442, this unassuming grey slab and its various apparatus helped emperors past scour the skies, and are still pointing skyward today, even if the surrounding skyscrapers are a new addition. It’s only open until 5pm, so constellations might not be on the agenda, but head up late on a clear day to gaze up and become uncomfortably aware of just how small and insignificant you are compared to the universe and the CBD.
14. Take the World's Fastest Train
Five hours already seemed like a pretty reasonable time to cover the 1,318km between here and Shanghai, but time is money, and if you can shave off another half hour, then put the pedal to the metal, shifu. Following a tragic crash in 2011, China’s 350kmh max speed bullet trains were shelved, until being recently revamped and relaunched with improved safety at the end of last month; the Fuxing service now boasts a top speed of 400kmh, carting passengers between the two metropoleis in just 4 hours and 34 minutes.
15. Ride the Busiest Subway System in the World
If you like a bit of company on your commute, then you’re in the right city: 3.66 billion trips were taken on the Beijing subway system in 2016 (just the cosy 10 million a day, on average), a figure unrivalled anywhere else. Unfortunately, Shanghai currently pips us to the title of longest subway system by a mere 14km of track, though by the time you’ve finished reading this sentence, a new line may have opened here in Beijing, such is the pace of expansion; plans are in place to extend the current system of 574km to 999km over 28 lines by 2021. Whoosh.
16. Rub Shoulders with more Billionaires than in any Other City
With 94 tycoons walking among us, Beijing was earlier this year named the billionaire (in USD) capital of the world, according to the Hurun Global Rich List. That’s actually six less than the previous year, but still eight more than New York, and enough to see the crown retained for a second straight year. Where do billionaires go to play though? Answers on the back of 100RMB bills only, please. We’re banking on meeting our sugar daddies and mammas in the Gongti clubs.
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