Caught between its ancient imperial grandeur and lust for modern acclamation, the country’s capital breathes confidence and lacks but little. Boasting the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City, you can check off many of the heavy hitters in only a weekend. But, if time is on your side but money isn’t, hitting only the major highlights will leave you dry in a matter of minutes. If you’re OK to leave out the favored few, experience the city instead on this budget-friendly itinerary:
Biking Through Beijing’s Hutongs
Most of Beijing’s attractions must be reached by metro or bus. But, with a little more time and a little less reservation, you can discover more of what the city has to offer while simply walking its streets. Or, my favorite, by riding a bike. Rental stations can be found outside a few underground stations and at youth hostels for about Y20 to Y30 a day (about $5), but prepare for a hefty refundable deposit. Test the brakes and bell before you leave the station — both are necessary but the latter is essential.
A popular cycling tour starts just outside metro stop Tiananmen Dong and continues up Nanchizi Dajie, through Tiananmen Square and in front of the Forbidden City. If you continue just west of the palace on Beichang Jie, hanging a right on Jingshan Xijie, you’ll find Jingshan Park, a flower-filled mini-mountain oasis with spectacular views of the palace. But don’t disembark just yet. Up ahead lie multiple hutongs — historic alleyways, Nanluogu Xiang being the most popular — as well as several little lakes and the Drum and Bell Towers, both of which originally date back to Ming times.
The best kept secret of Beijing, the mini mountain at Jingshan Park was formed from the earth excavated to create the palace moat. From the gates it looks like nothing too special: grass, trees, flowers and gazebos. But at the south end, panoramic views looking into the Forbidden City cause an audible aww from almost everyone who reaches the top. Park entrance costs Y5.
Live and Let Live at Lama Temple
A renowned Tibetan Buddhist Temple, this site is worth even the most visited temple-goer’s time. Depending on how much you see in China, after awhile, many of the temples will merge together, seemingly the same: throngs of people, persistent hopeful tour guides, unchanging architecture, etc. But the Lama Temple exudes a much different feeling, creating a much more reverent affair. Quiet patrons send a message of respect, showing worshipers their humbled recognition of the invitation to witness such worship. If your timing is right, in the main hall you’ll catch a ceremoniously chant, seated months surrounded by lit candles. A peaceful retreat from the outside bustling city, admission to the temple is Y25 (about $4). Get there by metro, stop Yonghe Gong.
Free Walk Down Memory Lane
I originally dreamed of China in 2008, as the world watched Olympic hopefuls compete for the gold in the National Stadium and National Aquatics Center, now lovingly known as the Bird’s Next and Water Cube, respectively. Worth the toll it takes on your body and wallet, admission into the 2.6 square mile forest park is free. Enjoy the Olympic structures from the outside, and you can easily spend a half day devoted to exercise and people watching.
Sing and Squabble through Silk Street
Lastly, for the sake of enjoying a round of haggling with China’s finest, head to Silk Street, a vendor-filled market sprawling several floors. Well-known for its knock-offs, you can also barter for souvenir-style trinkets such as chopsticks, china, traditional clothing, T-shirts and almost anything with Mao Zedong’s face on it. Though budget-friendly, the real fun isn’t what you walk away with but instead getting to know the one watches you as you go, either shaking her fist or slightly smirking.