An Expat's Guide to Beijing, China


It takes about fourteen hours to fly from New York City to Beijing, China. Once you get there, prepare to be overwhelmed by the sights, the smells, the sounds, and the smog. If you're like most Western tourists, you won't know quite where to begin and we're here to help. First, we recommend picking up a good Mandarin-English phrase book or dictionary. We've bonded with more than one taxi driver and salesperson by extending our phrasebook in the spirit of friendship and common understanding. If you're familiar with big city transit systems you'll have no problems getting around but everyone should venture out with a good street and subway map to help you find your way around with a minimum of confusion. Now you can get out there and enjoy your time in one of the most fascinating international capitals in the world.

Climb the Great Wall of China, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world
If you're like most tourists, you already arranged a trip to The Great Wall of China before you left, but if you haven't, you can easily book through your hotel -- and you absolutely should. The Badling Great Wall of China is closest to the city, accessible via the freeway and the most popular option for day-trippers. The Wall itself is a series of man-made fortifications built along the historical east-west border of northern China. Depending on your schedule and your skill level, you can choose a well-traveled, relatively easy stretch or a more challenging section that will thrill serious hikers and climbers. The atmosphere at the more popular sections has a party atmosphere and theme-park feel, but in a good way with intriguing souvenir stalls and snack vendors parked all along the wall. If you decide to geek out and stop at the one of the stalls to buy an "I Climbed the Great Wall" t-shirt, we say go ahead, you've earned it.

Wander the gardens and take some amazing pictures at the Temple of Heaven
Located on 270 acres of tranquil parkland in southeast Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is a complex of temples, gardens and other buildings built in the 15th century according to strict feng shui requirements, designed to symbolize the relationship between earth and heaven. Visitors are free to wander among the beautiful temples, gardens and other buildings as they please and if the weather is nice, tranquil way to spend an afternoon away from Beijing's urban landscape and enjoy a little bit of nature, spirituality and the outdoors.

Practice your haggling skills at the Hongquiao Pearl Market
Everything is for sale at the world famous Hongquiao Pearl Market, known for the staggering amount of pearl and semi-precious jewelry vendors located on the upper floors of this indoor market. The jewelers will help you select your stones and settings or you can purchase a pre-made piece. Haggling isn't just permitted, it's required and expected. Vendors will give you a calculator so you can key in a price. They'll key in another price and so on until you reach a deal. We spotted a lovely piece of Chinese porcelain here and were told it cost more than we wanted to pay. We shrugged and began to walk away but the saleswoman chased us down the crowded aisle shouting pricing alternatives. That lovely figurine now sits in our living room and is a testament to our mad bargaining skills. You'll find some wonderful souvenirs here if you look carefully and bargain enthusiastically. Beware of the knockoffs of Western brands clogging the lower floors and just off the escalators on every floor.

Eat a starfish, a seahorse or just an egg roll at the Donghuamen Night Market
Make sure you save at least one day to explore Beijing's Wanfujing Street a downtown stretch of department stores, high-end souvenir shops and intriguing specialtiy stores of all kinds. You must also make sure you have at least one meal at the Donghuamen Night Market . One of the city's most famous 'snack streets,' the entrance to the market is at the northern entrance of Wangfujing. The sights and sounds of the market, particularly at night when it's brightly lit up gives it a mysterious and exotic air and makes a memorable dining experience. It's great fun to wander from stall to stall collecting your appetizer, main course and desert as you go. You can choose from row after row of Chinese treats from all over the country. Some will be familiar (egg rolls, chicken skewers, lo mein noodles) and others most definitely will not (seahorses, crickets, lamb hearts.) Prices are quite low and menus are almost always in Mandarin and in English so don't worry about mistakenly eating anything you'd rather not. Some of the stalls have tables for your to sit and enjoy your snacks or you can carry your food away and enjoy it while shopping and sightseeing.

Try some American food and a little pub trivia at Lush Beijing
Located near near Beijing and Tsinghua Universities in the heart of the Wudaokou, Beijing's hip student district, Lush occupies an airy space on the second floor next to O2 Sun, a popular English language bookshop. Lush is one of the best-known student and ex-pat hangouts in the city because after a steady diet of Chinese food and halting not always successful conversations in Mandarin with waiters, shop owners, teachers and/or bosses, Lush knows how to take care of the homesick blues. The servers will start you off with a complimentary bowl of popcorn a selection of burgers and pizza and a selection of "genuine" alcoholic beverages (faux or counterfeit liquors have been a problem in recent years) to make you feel like you never left home. Lush is extremely popular with American and British students who come for the burgers, the trivia nights and the imported Western music. If you are a little bit homesick or just need a break from language immersion, this is the place for you.

Get to know your fellow expat book lovers at The Bookworm
Paris has Shakespeare and Company, New York has The Strand and Beijing has The Bookworm, one of the largest and most interesting English language bookstores in the city. The Bookworm is a bright airy bookstore whose owners say they stock over 16,000 of new and used English language titles at last count. Like any good bookstore, Bookworm regularly hosts readings, films, live performances and has a small but interesting selection of gift items. There's plenty of room to sit and read, work, study, catch up with friends or just enjoy the delicious cafe menu with its interesting selection of whiskeys and cocktails. If you're going to be around for a while, you can join the lending library and check out two books for two weeks at a time.

Pay a visit to historic -- and censored- -Tiananmen Square
Censorship is alive and well in China. If you try to search for Tiananmen Square on Baidu (the Chinese language version of Google), you'll get a map and not much else. Similarly, The New York Times and most other major Western media is also blocked by what has become known as The Great Firewall of China. This is part of what makes a visit to Tiananmen so essential. Located in the heart of Beijing, not far from The Forbidden City, the days of the lone protester and the giant tank are long gone and the enormous open square is filled with tourists instead of protesters. Standing here, so close to the heart of China's political and cultural epicenter gives visitors a sense of the often turbulent history of modern China.

Wander through a classic Beijing Hutong neighborhood before it disappears
Beijing may look like a jungle of bland high rise apartments, hotels and office towers, but if you venture off the beaten path and explore some of the side streets surrounding the Forbidden City or take a stroll between the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower or any of these locations, you'll find yourself in one of Beijing's old neighborhoods or hutongs and it will open up a whole new world of Chinese life. Hutong is a Mongolian word that has come to mean a lane or small street that originated during the Yuan Dynasty in the 12th and 13th century. They are small neighborhoods mad up of private homes, gathering places, small bodegas and cafes. Here you can stroll along quiet lanes, admire the ancient architecture and maybe stop for a soda or some soy milk and perhaps chat with the residents. Many hutongs were demolished to make way for the 2008 Olympics and more high rise apartments so making time for a visit will take you to the heart of a rapidly vanishing way Beijing life.

Wander the palaces, gardens and theaters of the (no longer) Forbidden City
Along with the Great Wall, the Forbidden City should be at the very top of your Beijing to-do list. Walking across the bridge that leads tourists into the former home of China's royal dynasties for over 500 years is an iconic once-in-a-lifetime experience. Located in the heart of the Beijing, the Forbidden City is China's largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings. Previously off-limits to commoners like us, a nominal admission fee will give you access to almost every building. There's no need to hire a guide, let your mood lead you through the museums, restaurants, shops, gardens and royal palaces at your own pace. You'll need at least a half a day to roam around, but if you really want to see it all, plan on a day or two. Two quick caveats: first, beware of people claiming to be art students offering to sell you "original artworks." This is almost always a scam. And don't bother looking for the famous Starbucks that used to be located just inside the gates. The cafe was closed amid a bit of controversy in 2007.


Frances Katz is a travel writer, journalist and part-time globetrotter. She spent several months living in Beijing and traveled across China and Tibet while attending Tsinghua University. She finally learned to hail a cab in Mandarin and is addicted to Jian Bing (Chinese breakfast pancakes). Her superpower is currency conversion. You can read some of her travel essays at Catapult, or you can order some take out and hang out with her on Twitter.