Beijing has been the economic, political and cultural capital of China for more than 700 years. While there has never been any shortage of travellers (business or leisure) taking cheap flights to Beijing, the Olympics in 2008 showcased the city in spectacular style. Beijing has rocketed up – much like those famous fireworks during the opening ceremony – the must-visit lists.
Beijing sprawls more than Shanghai or Hong Kong – Tiananmen Square alone is big enough to accommodate one million people – but luckily, most of the iconic landmarks are fairly close to each other, and if you flag, taxis are very cheap. It is laid out in a grid. At its centre is the Forbidden City (in Dongcheng District), the enormous complex, home to the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The beautiful Temple of Heaven in Chongwen District is south east of Tiananmen Square, and is also notable for the wonderful park that surrounds the temple.
The Olympics added many new sights to the city including the National Stadium (also known as the “Bird’s Nest”), the National Aquatics Centre (the “Water Cube”) and the CCTV site.
After the sight-seeing, sample some Beijing cuisine. An excellent place to do this is at the Wangfujing Snack Street, a night market where you can feast on tanghulu (a traditional treat, sugar-coated fruit on a stick) or baodu (quick-boiled tripe).
Beijing has a monsoon-influenced climate. The summers are hot and humid and the winters are cold and dry.
June to August is peak season, when most travellers arrive on cheap flights to Beijing. Chinese New Year (end of January/February), Labour Day (May 1) and National Day (October 1) are also very busy times, when most of China, it seems, is on the move and flights and accommodation are heavily booked.
Winter is low season.
Spring and autumn are shoulder season times when there are fewer tourists and lower rates. September and October are known as the “Golden Autumn” months.
It’s not necessary to rent a car in Beijing (foreigners are allowed to rent cars now) as taxis are very cheap and the public transport system is excellent. The subway is fast, clean, punctual and cheap. The bus network is comprehensive and enormous. There are about 500 routes, but numbers 1-199 should be sufficient for getting around the city centre.