50 things to do in Beijing: sights & activities

Experience life in Beijing: do this

Beijing has plenty of must-see historical sights but there are also plenty of present day things to do and see that we reckon are pretty unmissable.

Where else but Beijing could you get a public trim from a hutong street barber, dance along with a crowd of ladies getting down to Chinese pop and shout at the ref with Beijing's football fanatics at a Guoan match (probably all in one day)? Nowhere.

This article is part of our 50 things to do in Beijing feature.

Get into the arts

Beijing has China’s most vibrant arts scene. Sure, some of the work is derivative (isn’t that the case everywhere?) and the 798 Art District may be overly commercialised, but it’s still one of the strongest scenes in Asia.

Whether you spend an afternoon at the UCCA, arguably China’s most internationally credible gallery, or exploring the smaller galleries in Caochangdi and Songzhuang, seeing what the city’s artists have to offer is a must-do.

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Go leaf peeping in Fragrant Hills

Every year in October and November, locals and tourists alike throng to the Fragrant Hills to see the brilliant colours of the changing leaves.

The hillsides are blanketed in reds, oranges and golds – a truly spectacular landscape. You will have to brave the crowds (erm, which can reach the tens of thousands), but consider it an anthropological study.

Where else will you find high-heeled hikers for a day out on a nature trail?

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Exercise like a Beijinger

Put your Fitbit in the drawer.

Cross-fit is for sissies, the 82-year-old at our local outdoor gym told us on his hundredth pull-up.

The government’s been dropping these exercise areas since 1998 and locals have taken to them with gusto. Get involved.

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Get a trim from a street-side barber

Hair salons are everywhere in this city. The most common variety is the glitzy, glammed-out beauty parlours showcasing baby-faced stylists with show-stopping, Korean-inspired haircuts.

On the other end of the spectrum are the pavement barbers. These tradesmen set up stools and mirrors in hutongs and on quiet streets to trim their trade.

If you’re not so precious about your locks, you can cop a haircut for 5RMB. Even if you are, live on the edge – it grows back.

Get down with the ladies

As soon as the evenings hit 15 degrees, every public square in Beijing is teeming with dancers. Out come the boom-boxes, the speakers pounding with intolerable Chinese pop. Mostly, it’s the middle-age woman demographic, but older men join in too. On warm summer nights, we’ve always enjoyed having a beer as spectators, but one day we’ll get over it and join the club. Subway stations are your best bet to have a dance. We hear Xisi off Line 4 has a popping scene.

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Take a dip in Houhai

We’re not really certain if there should be hygiene concerns here, but one dip couldn’t hurt, could it?

Anyway, enough people are popping in and out of Qianhai and Houhai, so it must be safe. This might not be on the average tourist checklist, but if you’ve signed a lease, go the next step and baptise yourself in the waters of Shichahai.

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Watch Chinese actors in an Italian opera

Say what you want about some of the modern architecture in Beijing, but the National Centre for the Performing Arts is stunning. Surrounded by an artificial lake, this low-lying titanium-and-glass dome glimmers off the edge of Tiananmen Square. Nicknamed ‘The Egg’, it’s the capital’s premier venue for classical music acts and theatre productions.

There’s any number of international performances that you could see here, but for a ‘China only’ experience, we recommend Italian opera sung by a Chinese cast. Talented as their voices are, it’s far rarer to catch them outside the country than in the capital itself.

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Spend a night away from the noise

Located in the mountains of Mentougou district west of Beijing, the historic village Cuandixia features courtyards dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties. It’s a stark contrast to the bustle of modern Beijing.

Stay the night on a traditional kang bed in one of the village homes and visit the stunning Yi Xian Tian Gorge, a short hike away, the next day. Winter’s a glum time to visit the Beijing countryside (better spent indoors sipping hot toddies), so plan your trips for warm weather and avoid the weekends if possible, as the village can fill with tourists.

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Be a tourist in Tianjin

We’re unabashed fans of Tianjin – it’s half an hour away on the bullet train and small enough to digest in a weekend. Architecture in the foreign concessions is unlike anything in Beijing.

Stay at The Astor Hotel, once frequented by luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin and Emperor Puyi. The five-star hotel offers reasonable stay-cation packages. Or for the plushest luxury, albeit less history, stay at the Ritz-Carlton across the way and pop over to The Astor for a tour.

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Cycle Beijing

Beijing’s a city meant for two wheels. The day when bicycles outnumbered cars on the road is not far from many residents’ memories. Arguably, riding through hutongs on an old Flying Pigeon bicycle is the only way to experience China’s capital. City blocks are unusually long, making walking tiresome, and taxi cabs have a difficult time navigating the smaller streets – not to mention the traffic.

Bike Beijing: Bicycle Kingdom Tours offers various lengths of guided tours around the city as well as offering daily or weekly bike rental. For fixed gear rental, check out Natooke.

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Go ice karting

At 2.2 square kilometres, Kunming Lake stretches across the better part of the Summer Palace Grounds.

As gorgeous as it is in warmer months, when the temperature drops, the frozen lake is stunning. Strangely, ice skating’s not allowed – but that’s old news anyways.

The future’s all about ice-karts and ice-bicycles, if you ask us.

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Spend Chinese New Year here

If you flee to a South-east Asian island retreat for Chinese New Year every year, you’re missing out.

It’s cold and grey, but it’s a Beijing you never see: empty and peaceful. Until the fireworks start. But this faux-warfare is reason enough on its own. Spring Festival may be all about family, but for transplants to the city it often means a great night out on Lunar NYE and a spectacular show of fireworks over the ice at Houhai.

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Dance until dawn at Migas

This Spanish-run club boasts the city’s hottest rooftop. On summer nights it’s a melting pot of white-collar professionals throwing back raspberry daiquiris, younger kids getting down to nu-disco and everything in between.

With a solid dance floor and enough space to take a breather, plus top-tier drinks to keep things lubricated, it’s no struggle staying till the sun peeks over the horizon and day breaks over the Sanlitun skyline.

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Get the best views of Beijing from the CCTV Tower

Although the CCTV Tower resides in the shadow of its controversial sister building, the ‘Big Pants’ (formally known as the CCTV Headquarters), it is in fact the tallest structure in the City.

If it's a sprawling cityscape you're after, the 360-degree viewing platform is perfect for a better view of Beijing's notorious landmarks and (weather permitting, of course) the mountain ranges beyond.

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See a movie at Beijing's Moma

The Beijing Moma has nothing to do with modern art: it's the best spot for seeing arthouse films in Beijing.

Broadway Cinematheque Moma (BC Moma to friends), northwest of Dongzhimen, is a fantastic venue, graced with a striking exterior, a comfortable, spacious interior and a pretty great shop.

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See a Guoan game

Game's on! If football is your thing, then this is definitely one not to miss.

Okay, okay, it might not be the match of the year... But what the CSL (Chinese Super League, obvs) lacks in experience, it certainly makes up for in spirit. Go and get some fresh(ish) air and head over to the Worker's Stadium for some on-pitch action and die-hard fans.

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Get tailor-made clothes

The good bit: Tailored clothes in China are supposed to be two things - High in quality and low in price. So, if you've been on the look-out for a stylish suit made-to-measure, then track down a tailor during your stay.

The not-so-good bit: Not all tailors deliver the high quality that they will (undoubtedly) offer. Have a flick through our handy guide for some hints and tips on what to look out for, to make sure you get yourself a suit that measures up to your expectations.

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Experience the vibrant experimental and rock music scene

From guitar folk to hip hop, with plenty of post-rock along the way, Beijing's music scene has plenty of different genres and bands to offer.

Dig into Beijing’s music scene by finding local bands to fit your musical tastes.

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Do a Hey!Robics class

Let's face it, working out in the (almost) fresh air as part of a group is way better than slogging it at the gym alone - especially with some sexy Swedes leading the way.

Hey!Robics is a Swedish based company that offers a variety of unusual workouts around Beijing for all levels of fitness. If you fancy shaping up and don't mind trying something different, these classes could be for you.

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Pick up some knick-knacks at the 'Dirt Market'

If you're a sucker for antiques, Panjiayuan Antique Market is definitely worth a visit.

Fondly known as the 'Dirt Market', it is the biggest and best known antique market in the city. Admittedly, a lot of the antiques are fake nowadays, but it is still the perfect place to pick up souvenirs and presents for the whole family.

You can find all sorts of bits and bobs: from Buddha heads, to revolutionary memorabilia and everything in between.

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Window shop – or really shop – at these local boutiques

Beijing's boutiques are the perfect places to get a real feel for the city's fashion and design scene.

Why not step off the high street and discover Beijing's signature style?

Don't know where to start? Read more for some insider tips to the city's best boutiques.

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