As the capital city of China, Beijing boasts a long list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as a modern, urban environment. It’s filled with places waiting to be explored — which just so happens to make it a great city to explore on your own.
Here’s a simple guide to help you get started on your solo adventure.
- Currency: Chinese Yuan Renminbi (CNY)
- Airport: Beijing Capital International Airport (BJS, PEK)
- Languages: Primarily Mandarin, with a sizable English-speaking community
- Best time to visit: Between September and November, or March and May
- Safety level: Excellent
- Navigation level: Easy
NAVIGATING THE CITY
Although the language barrier may serve as a problem for those traveling to China, Beijing is relatively savvy when it comes to the English language — the city’s subway system even offers maps, signs, and announcements in English. That said, if you have allergies of any kind, it’s probably best to have them written down in both Chinese and English and readily accessible just in case.
If you’re feeling nervous about the language barrier, you can also download a translation app on your phone. Note that many apps (like Pleco or Learn Chinese: Mandarin) do not require Internet access and are available offline.
In addition to offering amenities in English, the metro system in Beijing is clean, efficient, economical, and easy to navigate. And, with no less than 334 stations, it can pretty much take you anywhere you need to go (except for the Great Wall of China). Just remember to avoid subway platforms during rush hour, unless you’re a fan of intensely crowded spaces.
Note that if you do decide to take a taxi, most drivers won’t speak English, so have some Mandarin phrases handy, as well as the address of your destination.
WHERE TO STAY
When staying by yourself, we recommend choosing accommodation in or near the city center, that way you’ll be close to all of the major sites, attractions, and food options. There are plenty of hotels, hostels, and guest houses in the area, and many of them offer tours to some of Beijing’s top attractions like the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. No matter which option you choose, we suggest making the most of your stay and interacting with other travelers in your accommodation’s public spaces.
PLACES TO VISIT
Beijing is home to many of the country’s best-known monuments, ranging from ancient Chinese temples and pagodas to modern amusement parks and gardens.
The most noteworthy are: the Summer Palace (an imperial garden from the Qing Dynasty known for its lakes, pavilions, temples, gardens, and palaces), the Forbidden City (a palace complex and museum, and the former seat of the Imperial Chinese Dragon Throne), Tiananmen Square (the third largest city square in the world, containing the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong), the four temples of Beijing (Heaven, Sun, Moon, and Earth), the World Park (a theme park featuring scale models of unique world landmarks, including the Sphinx, Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, and Leaning Tower of Pisa), and the “Birds Nest” (the Beijing National Aquatics Center, where the Summer Olympic Games of 2008 were held).
Nearby, you’ll also find the Great Wall of China. When planning your visit, keep in mind that there are several viewing and transportation options. Although Badaling is technically the closest section of the Great Wall to Beijing (at a 1.5-hour drive), it is also the most crowded. For that reason, we recommend visiting Mutianyu for a leisurely adventure or Jinshaling for a strenuous, but rewarding, hiking experience (both of which are a two-hour drive from Beijing). In order to reach the Great Wall, you’ll need to take a bus or hire a car, but the easiest option would be to book a tour. Downtown Backpackers tours are great for solo travelers, as they include transportation, admission, and lunch at less than half the cost of a private driver.
THINGS TO DO
In addition to visiting the city’s major landmarks, there are plenty of other things to do in Beijing. Explore its many interesting villages and temples, experience local architecture and music first-hand, or even bike through some of Beijing’s most famous neighborhoods.
Beijing is also home to a number of lovely parks, including Beihai Park, Jingshan Park, Houhai Park, and Zhongshan Park. The Chinese have an amazing sense of community, and their parks reflect just that, as they are filled people participating in shared activities — from drawing and calligraphy to Tai Chi and hacky sack, you’re sure to see it all. So whether you’re looking to participate or people-watch, Beijing’s parks are the place to be!
Another thing to note is that Beijing is known for its excellent shopping, nightlife, and restaurant scenes. Head to the 798 Art District — which is full of galleries, cafés, and trendy boutiques — to enjoy a lazy afternoon of wandering. If your budget allows, also check out the Peking Opera, which puts on spectacular shows in centuries-old tradition.
WHAT TO EAT
The food in Beijing has a great reputation, so why not use your solo-time to dive in and enjoy the cultural food experience? Don’t worry — you’ll be a master of chopsticks in no time.
It really doesn’t get more traditional than the classic steamed bun. Baozi are not only a cultural and culinary treat that every traveler should experience, they are also wonderfully portable. Baozi are dough-wrapped packages of various meats and vegetables that will keep you fueled all day long — or, until you find your next meal. They are considered finger food, which makes them perfect for packed lunches or snacks on the go, if don’t want to sit in a restaurant by yourself.
Red Bean Buns
If you’re craving sweets, red bean buns are the Chinese equivalent to Little Debbie snack cakes. Made in the same way as baozi, these buns are filled with a sugary, bean paste filling and make for a scrumptious pick-me-up at any time of the day. Note: don’t be turned off by the word “bean.” They’re sweet snacks that resemble Fig Newtons.
Typically wrapped in bamboo leaves, these glutinous rice dumplings are either boiled or steamed and can be found throughout Asia. Although zongzi doesn’t look very appetizing at first glance, beneath their leafy exterior, you can expect to find tasty fillings such as chicken, pork, peanuts, jujubes, or even red bean paste.
Often sold from tiny food stalls, this flatbread is often found in the Muslim districts of Chinese cities. Náng is another treat that can be easily wrapped and stowed away for later snacking. Different stands will use a variety of toppings and seasonings, but all are guaranteed to taste fresh and delicious.
Dried fruits can be found at any market in Beijing and are occasionally sold by street vendors as well. While you are likely to find Western standbys — such as banana chips, dried mango, and raisins — treat yourself to something new and try dried hawthorn berry or sugared ginger.
While this may sound like a strange combination, tea eggs are a Chinese snack everyone should try at least once. The eggs are hard-boiled, then cracked and soaked in a mixture of tea and spices that gives them an unbelievable flavor. A typical blend includes cinnamon, star anise, fennel, clove, and Szechuan peppercorn. You’re likely to see pots of tea eggs soaking in street vendor stalls and restaurants alike, so keep an eye out!
Although solo travel can sometimes seem like an overwhelming or daunting experience, it’s also extremely rewarding and eye-opening. We hope that this guide encourages you to go out and explore the far corners of Beijing. There’s more than enough to keep you busy, so remember to have fun and leave room for spontaneity.