You've done your trips to the Imperial Palace Museum and the National Museum and, sure, they were great, but maybe just a little bit passé
. Luckily, the city is home to a whole host of diverse and niche historical establishments that commemorate and celebrate things you didn't even think could be commemorated and celebrated. Watermelons?
Beijing Tap Water Museum
As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to the history of the city’s underground water pipe system. Wait! Stick with us – it’s more interesting than you might think. The museum tracks the progress from the city’s first pumps – when residents were wary of water that never saw the sun – to the present day. What’s more, there are enough models, photos, water meters and various instruments to bring out the latent civil engineer in anyone. Whatever your level of interest, a stroll in the area’s well-kept grounds – replete with turn-of-the-century architecture of Beijing’s first water works, with wells, steam towers and big pipes aplenty – will please anyone.
Estimated time One hour.
Don’t miss The outdoor pumps with irony-free signs advising visitors not to drink the water.
The Bee Museum
Tucked away in the north-west corner of the Beijing Botanical Garden is a small museum that tells you everything you need to know – and perhaps a little bit more – about honey bees. The five small rooms are full of floor-to-ceiling info boards (mostly in Mandarin) with everything from their origins, evolution and habitat to a detailed explanation of beeswax and the honey production processes. It closes for winter in the middle of this month [November], however, so head out there soon! Estimated time
30 minutes for the museum itself; up to three hours with the surrounding gardens.
Don’t miss The exhibition of real bee hives and honeycombs.
Watermelon Museum of China
There’s nothing seedy about the Watermelon Museum of China. In fact it’s a modern, well-laid-out shrine to China’s favourite summer fruit. The museum is filled with facts about cultivation, breeding technology, distribution and more. Unsurprisingly it is not geared towards foreigners, so be prepared to rely on pictures for information – although, really, this place is all about the novelty.
Estimated time Two hours.
Don’t miss The unintentionally hilarious statues in the sculpture garden.
Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall
Packed full of scale models of past, present and future Beijing, a visit to the Planning Exhibition Hall is like taking a trip to a souped-up Liliput. Sound like fun? You bet it is. Seemingly aware that their subject matter is as dry as the city’s air, the museum has made an extra effort to be engaging. The second floor is packed with plenty of hightech, interactive attractions, but the real prize is the huge model of current-day Beijing (above), all laid out in incredible detail.
Estimated time Two hours.
Don’t miss Use the special binoculars to look at certain landmarks on the model, and info about the real structures will pop up.
Red Star Erguotou Museum
The Red Star Erguotou Museum – way up in Huairou district – is worth the journey. Incredibly clean and well-maintained, the entire complex is a factory that’s still used to distil vats and vats of Erguotou – a brand of the throat-burning clear spirit, baijiu. At the entrance a (Mandarin-speaking) guide greets you and takes you on a journey through Erguotou’s brewing process and extensive history, and even allows you to sample a bit (if you can handle it). There is also, inexplicably, a kids’ funhouse. Estimated time
Guided tours last 30 mins.
Don’t miss An obscure collection of 1950s photographs of Mao Zedong.
Beijing Police Museum
Nothing to do with Sting, this is actually a masterclass in subtle agitprop, full of pictures of smiling coppers saving lives. The museum gives a full history of the city’s police from the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) to the present day, using old uniforms, official papers and so on. Some halls document more prosaic aspects, such as dog registration and vehicle licence-plates – including plates for horse-drawn carts as late as the 1980s.
Estimated time One-to-two hours.
Don’t miss The many weapons and firearms, including gold-plated pistols.
When high-end shopping mall Oriental Plaza was built in 1996, developers stumbled upon ancient fossils while digging the foundations. They brought in archaeologists who discovered human fossils, bone tools and other artefacts used by early man 25,000 years ago. This small, one-room museum – built on the site of the discovery – displays these ancient artefacts in a no-nonsense setting. The fossils alone are interesting, but the juxtaposition with the modern surroundings? Truly unique.
Estimated time 20 minutes.
Don’t miss The human remains.