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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card
If you were lucky enough to get the American Airlines $462 Business Class mistake fare to Beijing, you’re already used to the satisfaction that comes after working through confusing restrictions and finding your way through crowded thoroughfares and dead ends—perfect preparation for a visit to the Chinese capital. New TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten rewards your perseverance with this guide to Beijing. (Except where indicated, all photos are by the writer).
So you’re headed to Beijing—have you gotten your visa yet? China allows for a 72-hour transit visit without a visa, but anything longer will require one. The visa process can take several weeks, so plan accordingly.
Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) is located about 16 miles northeast of Beijing’s city center. Get into town by airport shuttle bus or express rail, both of which connect to the excellent subway, or by taxi.
Internet service is shockingly unreliable for such a huge world-class city. And when you can get on, you’ll find sites like Facebook, The New York Times, YouTube, and Twitter blocked by the government. Paying for a virtual private network (VPN) can be worth it if you need to stay connected. Either way, don’t say anything online (or on the phone) that you don’t want the Chinese government to know. And be careful of saying anything critical or revolutionary (e.g., “I think people have basic human rights”), especially in or near Tiananmen Square.
The people of Beijing generally find Americans fascinating, if a bit gullible. If you don’t look Asian, get used to standing out in a crowd and being solicited for a tea ceremony (scam) and/or English language practice (scam).
Beijing offers a great mix of luxury and budget hotels, many of which can be redeemed for with points. As a major world city, you’ll find properties listed with all the major hotel rewards programs, including Hilton HHonors, Club Carlson, Starwood Preferred Guest, Hyatt Gold Passport, and IHG.
Many travelers report great success with AirBnB properties, which often provide travelers a more authentic Beijing experience, including unfiltered recommendations from actual residents.
The Radisson Blu Hotel Beijing offers a central location, full service, and Western amenities. If you’re a Club Carlson Visa cardholder, take advantage of the Bonus Award Night to get your last night free when booking with Gold points (28,000 points for one night becomes 14,000 for each of two!). Otherwise, you’re looking at about 945 CNY /$156 per night.
The Waldorf-Astoria Beijing is a Hilton HHonors Category 9 hotel, costing you 70,000 HHonors points nightly—or if your prefer, free for the weekend with the certificate you earned from the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card. Still prefer to pay? It’ll set you back 2200 CNY / $360 per night.
Those wishing to stay off the modern streets and enjoy an authentic Beijing Hutong should check out Michael’s House, a boutique hotel with modern courtyard for about 685 CNY / $110 per night. Or, if you have a Chase credit card (like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus), book through the Chase Ultimate Rewards site for about 8,400 UR points per night.
Forget what you think you know about Chinese food: if you’re in Beijing and get served Beef with Broccoli, you’re doing it wrong.
Many Westerners used to call Beijing “Peking,” as in Peking Roast Duck—which is a dish worth having while you’re here. Westerners get sent to DaDong, where you can’t go DaWrong (sorry) in the roomy, well-lit multilevel establishment bustling with activity and succulent fowl. But you won’t have a better duck than at Li-Qun in the Hutongs. Hard to find (look for the duck painting on the alley wall) but worth the effort, Li-Qun serves up the real deal with less flair and far fewer celebrity photos lining the wall.
Ghost Street offers a mixed bag of local flavors with service catering to Westerners. Wherever you go, make sure to try an authentic Hot Pot—a cauldron of boiling broth at your table. Locals recommend Man Fu Lou, located just behind the Forbidden City.
If your goal is to eat the most unusual foods in the shortest amount of time, make sure to visit the Night Food Market. Where else but China can you find grilled scorpion, stir-fried bee cocoon, and pig penis on a stick—all within one city block?
In Beijing, street food is plentiful, cheap and delicious. It’s not uncommon to find a bicycle modified to carry a chestnut roaster, a potato baker, or a dumpling-steamer. Literally everything from soup to nuts can be found on the back of a bike. Take advantage.
It sometimes seems like everything in Beijing is a sight (assuming you can see anything through the air pollution), but some attractions warrant a close-up look.
Visit the obvious: the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, and The Summer Palace (perhaps even more beautiful in winter). Tour guides aren’t necessary here, and on The Wall can in fact be a nuisance. Consider taking a taxi and downloading an audio guide to your MP3 player.
There are many beautiful parks in Beijing and allowing a time for an unstructured stroll will always yield surprises—be it a rehearsing dance troupe, a marketplace for bird-owners, or a drum circle you’ll be coaxed into joining.
Want to get off the beaten path? Beijing Hikers does excursions (some of them overnight and out of town) for reasonable prices. For those who prefer sitting and/or being indoors, the new China National Film Museum offers exhibitions, screenings, and seasonal events.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more varied shopping experience than you’ll have in Beijing, from expensive authentic antiques to cheap (and fake) name-brand electronics and clothing. This is best embodied in one place: The Dirt Market. Feast your eyes on an 18 foot-high Buddha and shield your eyes from the buzzing and blinking sex toys. We’d never encourage you to buy bootleg DVDs of your favorite TV shows and movies for about $1 per disc, nor would we point you to the banana clips for AK-47 machine guns–mainly because you could risk your Global Entry status.
Other shopping highlights include the Silk Market (great pajamas and bedding), The Pearl Market (great for, well, pearls) and Ya Show (great for a custom-made suit). Beijing may be the world’s capital for gag gifts, imitation Apple products, and zillions of products with misspelled English words.
Beijing can seem more difficult to figure than a credit card’s Terms & Conditions, but the rewards are worth it.
Did you snag one of American Airlines’ amazing mistake-fares to Beijing—or have you visited the city before? Share your plans and experiences in the comments! If you're a frequent American flyer but don't have status, additional perks that come with this card like first free checked bag on domestic AA itineraries, preferred boarding on American flights and 10% of your redeemed AA miles back (up to 10,000 miles each year) can be extremely valuable.
If you're a frequent American flyer but don't have status, additional perks that come with this card like first free checked bag on domestic AA itineraries, preferred boarding on American flights and 10% of your redeemed AA miles back (up to 10,000 miles each year) can be extremely valuable.