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A friendly city brimming with history and culture, Beijing boasts a wealth of attractions and activities for people of all backgrounds. Expats have plenty to look forward to, with great shopping opportunities, vibrant nightlife and highly anticipated events at a range of exciting entertainment venues. The city also offers delicious local and international dining options, world-class sports facilities and stunning natural beauty.
Shopping in Beijing
There are endless options for shopping in Beijing, whether one is on the prowl for high-end products or cheap market items. Large malls and department stores are dotted around the city, while markets are ever-popular attractions throughout Beijing’s suburbs.
Wangfujing is arguably the most famous shopping street in Beijing, and expats are likely to find almost anything they’re looking for there, from international fashion brands to local Chinese trinkets and electronic goods. Other prominent shopping districts include Xidan Commercial Street and Taikoo Li Sanlitun.
Nightlife and entertainment in Beijing
The nightlife scene in Beijing is vibrant and extensive, offering a wide selection of clubs, karaoke bars and cocktail lounges catering to a variety of tastes. Many expats in Beijing are drawn to the lakeside Houhai area, as well as the foreigner-friendly establishments in Sanlitun. Gathering some friends and taking part in some good old Chinese karaoke always makes for an interesting and humorous night out, and is an obligatory initiation for many new arrivals.
Expats with cultured tastes can also enjoy traditional performances at places such as the Beijing Opera as well as venues like the Lao She Teahouse, which provides foreigners with an opportunity to enjoy traditional Chinese tea culture in a relaxed setting.
Outdoor activities in Beijing
Although the government occasionally issues warnings to limit the amount of time spent outside on days with high levels of air pollution, expats will have access to a variety of outdoor activities in Beijing. Hiking along the Great Wall is a popular pastime, with different sections offering distinct surroundings and a unique experience.
Beijing also enjoys a selection of traditional leisure activities, often centred on the city’s parks, such as kite flying, mahjong and tai chi. There are parks all over the city, with some of the most popular including the Beihai Park’s ornamental gardens and lake, the vast lawns and rollercoaster at Chaoyang Park, as well as the Ditan Park’s old-world charm.
Kids and family in Beijing
Popular activities for expat kids include field trips to major attractions such as the Great Wall of China, the Underground City and the Forbidden City, not forgetting modern offerings such as the interactive Sony ExploraScience Museum.
A day out at the Shijingshan Amusement Park is another popular activity for families. Themed after Grimms' Fairy Tales, parents will enjoy spotting where many of the park’s characters get their inspiration from, while kids can enjoy a range of attractions, such as rafting, the Ferris wheel and the Shenzou Coaster.
See and do in Beijing
Beijing is a city full of possibilities, and whether visiting as a tourist or settling down as an expat, there’s no lack of great food, culture and fun to be had. Be warned though, no matter where one goes, there will probably be crowds, especially on public transport and at tourist hotspots.
Still, it is worth fighting through the crowds to enjoy everything to see and do in Beijing.
Great Wall of China
There are various sites for expats to visit along China’s legendary Great Wall, but one of the best is Mutianyu. The site has a cable car that takes visitors up onto the wall and offers a toboggan slide down for those willing to walk far enough. As with most of the sites, getting there is the tricky part. The best bet would arguably be to hire a car for the day, although there are bus options available from inside the city.
National Museum of China
This is one of the largest museums in the world, boasting first-class facilities. Visitors can view a collection of over one million cultural relics housed in dozens of galleries. There are permanent exhibitions which focus on Ancient China and The Road of Rejuvenation, and a number of thematic and temporary international exhibitions. Most expats will need more than one visit to truly appreciate this attraction.
Panjiayuan Antiques Market
Located close to Panjiayuan Bridge, expats will find Beijing's most famous antique market, which has grown considerably from its humble beginnings as a flea market in the early 1990s. Shoppers will discover a whole array of paintings, calligraphy works, ceramics, jade, furniture, coins and Buddhist artefacts for sale among the thousands of stalls. Even people who are not shopping for anything in particular will enjoy wandering around the market.
The Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven is located in the southern part of central Beijing. If going early in the morning, expats will see locals out exercising and practising tai chi. The temple and altar can get crowded with tourists, but the massive park that surrounds the attractions is just as interesting. Visitors making their way to the east gate of the park will find themselves right across the street from the Pearl Market, where they can bargain to their heart’s content.
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
A given for anyone visiting Beijing, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are connected geographically and offer one of the best sightseeing experiences in Beijing. The square is enormous, as is the portrait of Mao Zedong at the entrance to the Forbidden City.
798 Art Zone
This is the place for modern art enthusiasts in Beijing. It makes for a refreshing change of pace and is a place where expats can avoid the throngs of tourists as they view some excellent modern art installations and exhibits. There are also plenty of elegant restaurants and shops in this district of Beijing.
What's on in Beijing
Known for being the cultural hub of China, Beijing is a modern metropolis built on ancient foundations, and the city's annual calendar is reflective of this. While exact dates are subject to change, here are some of the best events expats in Beijing can look forward to.
Spring Festival (January/February)
Also known as Chinese New Year, the Spring Festival is the most important traditional event of the year for most residents. The Spring Festival bursts with colour and activity, celebrating family across ethnic boundaries. Locals start cleaning their houses and stocking their pantries a week in advance as preparations for the festival begin. Many celebrate by eating dumplings and seafood or enjoying the festive atmosphere of Beijing’s streets.
Meet in Beijing Arts Festival (April/May)
Each year, the Meet in Beijing Arts Festival takes on a different theme. Thousands of artists from all over the world come together to perform to an ever-growing audience. Exhibitions and performances last for almost a month, and feature art, dance, music and drama from the classical to modern. The festival is a unique platform for cultural exchange from all over the world, and expats are guaranteed to find something to suit their tastes.
Great Wall Marathon (May)
Two annual races take place on the Great Wall of China, one of the longest man-made structures in the world. Beijing residents often head to the wall to cheer the runners on in either the 3-mile (5km) or 6-mile (10km) races, which are held on some of the steepest sections of the wall.
Dragon Boat Festival (May/June)
One of the most popular festivals in China, the Dragon Boat Festival is also one of the most significant. Said to date back over 2,000 years, the festival commemorates legendary Chinese poet and patriot Qu Yuan.
According to the best-known story, unable to bear the prospect of his state being taken over by the Qin Dynasty, he drowned himself in a nearby river. Residents were said to throw food in the river, as fishermen sailing in search of his body let off fireworks, to prevent the body being eaten by fish. This is re-enacted every year through dragon boat racing and eating zongzi, sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Mid-Autumn Festival (September/October)
A traditional harvest festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival was originally used for moon worship and offerings. Today, residents in Beijing exchange gifts, bake mooncakes and gaze at the moon from places such as the Summer Palace, or the reflective surface of the Beihai Park lake. The Wanping Town temple fair close to the Lugou Bridge is especially popular and features all kinds of local arts and crafts.
Beijing Music Festival (October)
Lasting almost the entire month of October, the Beijing Music Festival is a celebration of classical music, and features performances from orchestras, soloists and opera companies from around the world.
►For tips on transport, see Getting Around in Beijing
"Beijing is a vibrant international city that retains its Chinese roots while still offering plenty of the amenities that you would expect in a Western country. There’s always something new to explore here in the Chinese hutongs or elsewhere in the city! At the same time, there’s plenty of Western restaurants with almost any type of food you can imagine (with imported beer and wine!) that help when you’re missing home." Find out what else there is to enjoy in Beijing by reading our interview with Greg.
"It was easy to make friends in the housing compound where I am living and through the community of the school attended by my son. There are also international expats associations through where a newcomer can meet people." Read more in this expat interview with Alessandra Marin.
Are you an expat living in Beijing?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Beijing. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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