China is a country of total sensory overload and culture shock, add a serious language barrier to the mix and it can feel like the brain takes a hammering in the first few days you are there. This is particularly true of Beijing, the historic capital city. It’s a country of wonders but also frustrations and if you are travelling there for the first time with children you may find yourself overwhelmed and wondering what to do. We loved our time there but it was also some of the most intense travelling we’ve done. Below are some of my recommendations for things to do. You’ll notice that the usual trips to The Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven are missing from my list; this is because I don’t think they are actually that suitable for young children. The Forbidden City will probably bore young ones, it is more of historical and political interest to adults. Temple of Heaven we found non-descript, and although ‘nice’ to see it wasn’t all that interesting. If you find yourself with a week in China’s capital city I would recommend the following as things to do that will keep little ones (and you engaged). Of course you may wish to visit The Forbidden City anyway, it’s on most people’s list after all; however just bear in mind it’s a trip for you and you may need to take the children to see something more interesting (in their eyes) afterwards.
1: The Great Wall of China 长城
You simply cannot visit Beijing or China without a visit to The Great Wall. This fabulous feat of human engineering and endurance is one of the most recognisable historic features of any country in the world. Conceived of by Emperor Qin Shi Huang with the actual building directed by General Meng Tian in 220BC, it stretched over 3000 miles and took thousands of soldiers, prisoners and labourers to build it. It has been added to, extended and restored ever since. The wall as you know it was built in the 14th and 15th Century during the Ming Dynasty and became an infamous symbol of China’s power, history and strength from the 18th Century onwards. No trip to China is complete without stepping foot on this ancient construction.
When in Beijing you have several ways in which you can visit the Great Wall which I will split into age appropriate sections. All sections are between 2 and 3 hours away from the city centre. It is worth remembering that most things in China (including rail travel) are free for children under 1.2/ 1.5 metres tall so remember to negotiate the price with your hotel/hostel accordingly. If you are happy to travel with a child on your lap for the journey they may well waive the fee altogether.
Nearly all hotels and hostels will operate organised trips to various sections of the wall and you can book on for about 280RMB (£30) per person. This will generally cover your transport, possibly some lunch (although not always) and the entrance fee onto the wall. Alternatively you can book a private driver through most hotels/hostels for about 750RMB (£85) which will afford you a car and driver to do whatever you want with for a whole day (so you can incorporate another trip if you wish). If you wish to be adventurous then it is possible to get buses very cheaply to each of the sections and I’d recommend the information given in the lonely planet guide as a way forward with this route.
Children 3 years and under:
I would recommend the Mutianyu section of the wall on a day trip if you have small children. Although this will be a busier section I recommend it as there is a cable car running to the wall from the bottom and a toboggan or return cable car trip for the way down. If you do book a trip with your hotel/hostel they may well do a hike along but you would be free to let them go ahead if you don’t fancy joining them, explore a smaller section by yourselves and meet them when they come back. we visited this section in October when by all rights it should have been packed; however we arrived early enough and although the queue for the cable car down was long it wasn’t horrendous and we enjoyed the day.
An alternative section to visit is the Huanghuacheng Great Wall. Although suitable for children under 3 years old this would also keep older children occupied with plenty to see and do. This section is about 70km outside of Beijing and took us about 2-3 hours to reach. We booked a private car and shared the trip with someone else from our hostel to reduce cost. As you have a private car one of the things you do when you visit this section is visit the huge aviation museum on the way back. This is the largest aviation museum in the world and is worth a look, especially if you have a driver for the day.
The Huanghuacheng section of the wall is notable due to the fact it’s submerged in a lake and is the only section in Beijing where this occurs. The visit is fun for children as you take a short boat across the lake, surrounded by impressive scenery. Once across the other side there’s an ancient cedar grove to explore as well as the wall. You can walk as much or as little of the wall as you wish with the option to hike as far as Jiankou if you are able. With smaller children however you can just walk a small section, climb the steps, visit one of the lookout towers and run through the cedar grove, all whilst seeing the wall stretch across the hillsides. There was also a small children area when we were there with diggers, sand pit and other activities for them to do for a small extra cost. During chestnut season you can collect chestnuts and have them roasted and I believe the area is particularly beautiful if visited during winter when the snows have arrived. During the summer the entire village is brought to life with stunning yellow flowers making this one of the most picturesque section to visit. Before you take the boat it is also possible to take a walk along the side of the hill to see beautiful view across the lake.
As mentioned, if you do book a private driver I would recommend visiting the aviation museum on your way back. It is possible to book this as a private tour on Trip Advisor or to just arrange yourself through your hotel or hostel which is what we did.
One thing to remember is that both of the above sections are considered ‘restored’ which means they will actually look pretty new. The wall is divided into 3 classifications: restored, unrestored and wild. I personally could not tell the difference between restored and unrestored and to me the wall had lost its ancient charm in this process. For this reason we went on a second trip where we purposefully sought out the wild sections of the wall. Technically you are not meant to walk on these sections, but given that there are many organised hikes to these sections I believe it is a ‘rule’ that is rarely enforced.
Children age 4 years +:
Depending on the physical fitness level of the family and whether you think your child can do this, one thing to do is to take the hike from Jiankou to Mutianyu. This is a full on day where you hike 10km through some pretty rough terrain. Having said this though, I took my wild 4.5 year old on this trip and she absolutely loved climbing, scrambling and walking this section. She hiked the whole 10km only getting tired at the end when we reached the ‘boring’ Mutianyu section. We had our driver take us to the start at Jiankou, he walked us about 45 minutes up the hill to find the start and we then left to finish the hike on our own. There were some incredibly steep section that looked pretty scary but it was all achievable with a child. It will be ‘free’ to get on the wall apart from a small fee to some locals who manage the ladder to get on the wall and then you can pay to take the cable car to the bottom. Our driver drove round to meet us here at the carpark and take us back to our hostel.
I would recommend sturdy shoes, drinks, food, snacks and sun lotion as it’s pretty exposed for the majority of this trip although you will need a warm fleece as you will like have set off early and it takes a while to warm up. Don’t be deterred by the scarily steep looking sections, they look worse than they are and this was genuinely one of the best things I did with my daughter whilst in China.
Another option is to camp on the wall. Many people camp at the Jiankou section I believe then wake up in the morning, watch the sunrise and head off to hike to Mutianyu. My daughter would have loved this and if we ever go back I’ll definitely book this trip. It costs approximately 1000RMB (£112) per person but you will most likely have the privilege of having the wall to yourself in the night and in the morning. All of these trips are easily arranged once in China or in advance through sites such as trip advisor. As mentioned, every hotel or hostel will have their own trips you can book on or they will at least know where you can book. They will always add a small premium for arranging but the prices quoted will be roughly accurate or within a ball park of what you can expect to pay.
2: The Legend of Kung Fu Show, The Red Theatre 红剧场
I highly recommend seeing one of the many shows Beijing has to offer. Young children in particular will enjoy the Kung Fu show at The Red Theatre. Shows in China are inexpensive compared to UK/US prices and this one was full of action, cool set designs and was a really good night out. I booked all our tickets on Theatre Beijing before we left on our trip. We got good discounts, or better seats for the same money via this site and were given good directions. However, if you prefer you can book yourself direct or just turn up at The Red Theatre as there is a show on every night. I wouldn’t actually recommend booking this type of ticket through the hostels and hotels, the prices I saw were raised significantly and even though it included transport to the venue (not back) it wasn’t worth the premium added. All the theatres we attended were easy to reach by public transport or it’s very cheap to get there by booking a Didi (Chinese Uber).
There are other shows to go and see such as the Chinese acrobatics and the Kung Fu Panda. all details an be found through Theater Beijing where tickets can be booked in advance and generally paid for on arrival in cash. Given our experiences you can’t really go wrong and for not a lot of money you’ll have a really good night out.
How to get there: Take the subway on line 5, to Tiantan east stop exit C, then you can walking to east 500 meters (Tiyuguan Rd.)
Address: 44 Xingfu Street, Chongwen District, Beijing
Cost: 140 RMB – 600 RMB (£15-£65) depending on seating arrangement. We booked the yellow zone at the sides for 190 RMB each and we were seated right at the front with a great view.
3: Wangfujing Night Market 王府井
A must see on most tourists lists is Wangfujing night market, one of the most famous shopping streets in beijing. This is where you will find the infamous roasted scorpions on sticks alongside other dubious looking bugs to buy and eat. I’d been warned of food poisoning risks, so although we didn’t sample the wares it was still fun to visit (putting the animal ethics aside). My daughter was pretty fascinated by wiggling scorpions although we both agreed we felt pretty sorry for them too. We bought plenty of other fun snacks and sweets, then headed up to the main street to visit a huge toy store and wander through the shops which are open very late night. There are plenty of tourist shops if you want to purchase gifts for people back home including traditional sweets, carved wooden toys and trinkets, fine silks and material and anything else you can think of. Highly accessible by the subway stop of the same name it was a fun night out for us and a pretty iconic place for tourists.
How to get there: Line 1 on the subway Wangfujing exit North
4: Ditan Park (Temple of Earth) 地坛
One thing that surprised me about China was that outdoor play parks are simply not a ‘thing’. we never found anywhere with swings, slides or a fun outdoor area that could amuse my daughter for free. When I asked Chinese people they confirmed that it just wasn’t something they provided. Little play areas were found in kindergarten grounds but not outdoors for the general public.
The next best thing were the free outdoor gyms that were put in place by the Beijing Olympics Committee. These can be found scattered around the city in many locations, if you keep an eye out you’ll soon stumble across one. However there is a beautiful little hidden gem to be found at Ditan Park. This is a really large public park that cost about 2RMB to enter (20p). Inside we found one of the largest outdoor gyms I’ve seen that basically had every piece of equipment available. Not only that, there was a multitude of things going on and it didn’t seem to be popular with tourists. There were many locals singing in choirs, dancing, playing traditional instruments and a whole host of other activities. The park seemed to be a regular place for a meet and greet with elderly men playing board games, Tai Chi happening in quiet corners, martial arts practice occurring and just life as you would really expect (or want) to see it in Beijing happening at every turn.
The gym itself was pretty busy until 11am but after that my daughter had an amazing time swinging on the bars, racing around playing with other children. I had a great workout despite my ego taking a knock when I was getting out-manouvered by 80 year old men on the monkey bars! Once you’ve had some exercise you can visit the ancient sacrificial square and one of five royal altars found in Beijing (Ditan Park is The Altar for the Earth), ride around the park in little electric buggies and enjoy an ice cream. The Altar for the Earth costs a further 5RMB to enter and the electric buggies weren’t too much but you only got to hire them for half an hour for around 50RMB I think. A 100RMB deposit was also required.
The park is open year round for 24 hours a day but its particularly pretty in Autumn when the gingko trees are turning. There is also a festival called Chinese Spring Festival held annually, where stalls of food will be available and large crowds are drawn to the area. A big draw for the park is the grand pailou (traditional Chinese archway), beautiful gardens and just the general hubbub of life going on in the walls. If you want to escape the usual tourist traps and visit somewhere fun for the whole family I really recommend a visit to Ditan Park. Arrive early to get the most out of your visit (before 10am) and plan to spend the day, or at least until about 2pm anyway. Once you leave we also found a great little hotpot restaurant around the corner from the east entrance where you can enjoy a big meal for very little money.
How to get there: The easiest way to get to Ditan Park is by taking the subway line 2 to lama temple and walking to the south gate. Get off at exit A and walk north for about 300m, crossing the large intersection and walking until you reach a road on the right that curves around the corner continuing north. There’s greenery on either side of this road. If you cross over and walk through this smaller park you will reach the south entrance to to Ditan Park. I did ask someone for directions so if you lose your bearings do ask people around you. You can also easily find this on the map in the lonely planet guide or on google maps of course which does continue to work in China despite the ban on the search engine.
Cost: 2RMB entry, 5RMB entry to further attractions, 50RMB to hire electric buggy (+100RMB deposit)
Address: Beijing, Dongcheng, An Ding Men Wai Da Jie, 安定门外大街
Phone: +86 10 6421 4657
5. Go to a Hotpot Restaurant 火锅
One of our favourite things to do was to go out and eat in one of the many hotpot restaurants of Beijing. They are inexpensive and you will find them on most streets either in specialised hotpot restaurants or a restaurant that serves other things but also has a hotpot on request. Some are more old fashioned with large metal urns with coals in the bottom comprising the hotpot on the table and others are more modern places with an electric table which a hotpot goes on. You will pay around 15-20RMB for the hotpot and then for each thing individually that you order. As with all food in China your bill will not be too much at the end despite what you order.
You can have all kinds of meats and vegetables, noodles, fish and then added cooked extras for side dishes as well. The general premise is that you cook these yourself in a boiling well of water. The water can have spice added to it for extra and in the modern restaurants you can have a divider in the hotpot and 2-4 different flavours to cook the food in. Usually spicy, hot and sour, a milky one and another type of spice. In the traditional hotpot you can also just have plain water.
My daughter loved cooking her food in these and was fascinated by the boiling water. We also ordered rice, savoury pancakes, plenty of fresh vegetables and mushrooms and then thin slices of beef and pork. I don’t have any specific recommendations for places as Beijing just has an abundance of great places to eat and these types of places are everywhere. We never got ill or had a bad meal so don’t worry and just pick one that looks good. We did tend to eat in busy places as it’s usually a good sign whatever country you are in.
Cost: Food in China and Beijing is very inexpensive. The hotpot itself costs 15-20 RMB and a family of 4 could probably eat extremely well for about 100 – 200 RMB so a total cost of about £22
6: Summer Palace 頤和園
Every Chinese person we spoke to in Beijing insisted that we must go to The Summer Palace, and when we did we were not disappointed. Situated on the beautiful Kunming Lake with stunning walks, different boat rides, gorgeous gardens and a fabulous bridge from which you can fly kites it really is a must see destination in Beijing. It’s easy walking with pathways suitable for prams and inexpensive to enter. The boats cost extra but not a huge amount and you can take a picnic or buy food inside. there were tourist traps such as jewellery shops selling what appeared to be jade however it was mostly definitely fake so don’t be fooled by this and instead make sure you go to reputable seller if you want to purchase some. If you can pick a blue sky day The Summer palace really is sunning but I suspect Autumn, Spring and Winter are equally beautiful times of the year to visit.
There were arduous walks available to do to get up to see the palace close up but it was definitely possible to enjoy the scenery without too much exertion and not feel like you were missing out. we walked up to the bridge that crossed over the lake, watched people flying all manner of kites and then took the boat to the other side.
How to get there: You can visit The Summer Palace easily by taking the subway line 4 to Beigongmen and exit from D before walking west for 3 minutes to the North Palace gate. There are other routes and many buses to take but this is one of the most straight forward ways to get there.
Cost: Between 20/30 RMB (£2/3) just to enter and there are other things to pay for separately such as the Tower of Buddhist Incense and the dancing hall or you can buy a combo ticket for 50/60 RMB (£5-6) depending on the season you visit. We just bought the single entrance ticket and didn’t see the other things and paid extra for the boat ride so it is possible to visit and have a great day on a very strict budget.
Address: 19 Xinjiangongmen Rd, Haidian Qu, China, 100000
Phone: +86 10 6288 1144
7: Nanluoguxiang Hutong Rickshaw Tour 南锣鼓巷
Beijing is famous for its winding backstreets otherwise known as hutongs. And probably one of the most famous hutong areas to visit is the Nanluoguxiang Hutong, this shopping street is surrounded by mainly residential outings and dates back to the 18th Century with certain streets such as the Yandai Byway dating back 800 years. The surrounding buildings also typify the ancient architecture of the Yuan Dynasty filled with secretive corners and beautiful courtyards making this a must see destination. Apparently the area will controversially come under construction and renovation over the next few years so best to visit whilst you can. If you take the walk we did then it will start at the beginning of the main shopping street, winding through the residential hutongs and you will eventually end up at the famous drum and bell towers which are impressive to view from the outside given their 67 meter height, if not a bit expensive to enter. I believe the charge was over 100RMB per person which is very expensive compared to most other things to do in Beijing.
The area comprises of one large street straight off the subway exit which is filled with shops selling things that are a tiny bit pricey but actually interesting and more original than they usual trinkets available. For example we found a gorgeous jewellery shop selling items made using broken pieces of Ming Dynasty ceramics. There are silk scarves, fashionable clothes, bag shops, Shanghai cosmetics made by a company dating back over 100 years and food places. I also had a tattoo done by a well known artist in the area whose work is of exceptional quality. With its cool bars, interesting hostels and secret hidden gems Nanluoguxiang Hutong is probably the closest thing Beijing has to a hipster area!
When we visited we decided to walk the whole tour instead of taking a rickshaw; however if you have small children there are many rickshaws waiting to take you on this historic tour. My only advice if you take a rickshaw is that you absolutely confirm the price with them and double check what they mean by writing it down and showing it to them. There are many rickshaw scams being run in Beijing, one of which is them telling you the price is ‘3’ which you may take to mean 3RMB, only to have them insist they meant 300RMB when you finish. Keep this in mind and agree a price before you leave.
We followed the Lonely Planet Guide self guided tour which is actually mapped out for you in the ‘China’ guide book. This was well worth it and the second we left the main shopping street we were in really pretty secluded alleys with almost nobody in sight. We followed winding alleys, down backstreets and discovered all manner of what felt like secret hideaways. I would recommend buying the lonely planet dude away if you visit China, its a large book and heavy to carry but in my opinion worth it.
When we left Nanluoguxiang subway stop on line 6, Exit E you will come out pretty much at the top of the main shopping street. We walked down the street but exited right down a residential hutong before we really hit the main drag. The self-guided tour took us down all the back streets, crossed back over the main shopping street and eventually ended up at the Bell & Drum Towers. One place to definitely head for is the Penghao Theatre, part of the Theatre Without Borders network. You can find this at 35 E Mianhua Hutong, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100007. There were inexpensive performances, Italian food and the only place we had seen french fries up to that point, a gorgeous roof top garden and an interesting library. Various arthouse performances and international contemporary theatre is shown here and tickets were not expensive. There is also Coffee Fix, 20 Banchang Hutong, Dongcheng run by a Chinese psychologist who now lives in Melbourne, they serve great coffee and I happened to meet the owner who gave me a lot of information on the area and also the government plans for the controversial renovations.
If you follow the walk further and cross back of Nanluoguxiang Hutong you will eventually find the Cats & Coffee Cafe on Mao’er Hutong before you reach Yu River. There’s tasty, although very expensive cakes (50 RMB a slice), cats and it’s a nice place to sit down at this point. Also down this same hutong you will find the world famous paper cutting artist Zhang Yonghong selling intricate pieces of folk art for extremely reasonable price given the level of artistry going into each piece. Zhang funds his daughters medical treatments with his art and is well worth a visit. You can find him by visiting 3 Qiangulouyuan, an alley off of Nanluoguxiang. If you struggle I found people in shops were really helpful and I suspect most people know where he is. His mobile number is +86 13683666793
Keep walking to the end of this street and you will soon find the Yu River, carry on further to the right and you will be taken back around up winding passes, past little shops and cafes until you reach the famous Drum and Bell Towers. These were very controversially ‘restored’ which often means knocked down and built again in China Ive been told. They were a bit expensive to enter (about £10-15 per person) so we just viewed from the outside before heading back to our hostel.
How to get there: Nanluoguxiang subway stop on line 6, Exit E
Cost: Free apart from the Drum and Bell Tower which cost between £10-15 per person to enter
8: Lao She Teahouse Folk Art Show 老舍茶馆
The Laoshe Tea House is a famous venue in Beijing with all manner of shows on every day and evening. If you want to watch a show in a stunning traditional tea house venue then this venue is a must see activity. We went to see the Folk Art show which showcases lots of different aspects of Chinese culture and arts. You’ll see a bit of everything with Peking Opera sketches, changing faces shows, diablo throwing and much more. This will keep your little ones entertained and give them a bite size piece of each hing Chinese arts culture has to offer. You’ll receive snacks and China tea as refreshment and the show lasted about 90 minutes. The teahouse itself is stunning and one of the most beautiful venues I’ve visited. We booked our tickets through Theatre Beijing again, someone met us at the theatre, gave us all the directions via text and we erected tickets at a slight discount. But they’re not expensive to buy direct from the venue either, if you buy from the teahouse maybe visit the day before you wish to go and reserve tickets then. You can also view all the other shows this way and see if there’s something else you want to see. One thing to know in advance is that they do pack the tables in to maximise profit with about 9 people all seated around a square table. We still enjoyed the show and it was very child friendly but if you can afford it, it might be worth getting a table further forward and having it to yourself. Once you have watched this show you could decide whether to go and see the Peking Opera separately. We did do this and my 4 year old loved it, she was transfixed by the different style of singing, the comedy and the drama that features in every show. It was easy to follow despite the language difference; however, it might not be for everyone and some children may be less engaged with something that’s so different from anything else they have seen. The beauty of the Folk Art show is that you’ll be able to at least introduce them to this cultural staple of China and it’s just a small part of a much bigger production.
How to get there: Located on the south west of Tiananmen Square, it’s inexpensive in a taxi especially if you use the DiDi (Uber) app (my first recommendation for getting a taxi anywhere in China). Or you can take Line 2 on the subway system, alighting at Quinmen and take exit C then walk West about 50 metres. The teahouse is easily spotted from outside and is a well known venue in Beijing.
Address: 3 Quianmen West Street, Xuanwu District, Beijing
In Chinese: 正阳市场3号楼 邮政编码
Cost: 180 RMB – 680 RMB per person (£20 – £76)
9: Happy Valley Theme Park 北京欢乐谷
We did not manage to visit Happy Valley unfortunately; however, if your children need a break from the cultural, historical days out then this will definitely keep them happy. For 260 RMB each you will have access to all the rides and a stage show called the Golden Mask Dynasty show that comes highly recommended on Trip Advisor. When we return to Beijing we will absolutely put this theme part to the top of our to do list.
How to get there: Take subway line 7 and alight at Happy Valley scenic area, leave through exits B or C and walk to the park in minutes.
Address: Xiaowujibei Road, Dongsihuan, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100023
Phone: +86 10 6738 3333
Cost: 260 RMB per person (£30)
10: Beijing Zoo 北京动物园
If you and your children are a fan of zoos then Beijing Zoo is a must see. It’s a large area and extremely good value to visit. I think it cost about 20 RMB entrance for an adult including a ticket to the panda house and as with anything in China children under 1.2m were free. So it cost approximately £2 for us both to enter. They have pandas, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, orang-utans and a large sea life centre to name just a few. Theres a boat trip to get around the complex, plenty of food options and an opportunity to buy souvenirs. The zoo is open from 7.30am – 6pm and the aquarium is open 9am to 5.30pm in peak season (Apr-Oct) and 7.30am to 5pm and 10am to 4.30pm the rest of the year.
How to get there: The zoo is easily accessible by taking line 4 on the subway and alighting at the specified Beijing Zoo stop and using exit B.
Address: 137 Xizhimen Outer St, DongWuYuan, Xicheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100037
Phone: +86 10 6839 0274
Cost: 15 RMB without panda house, 20 RMB with or 40 RMB including the boat trip. Children under 1.2 metres are free. (£1.70 – £4.50).
An extra tip:
One thing you must do is let your children sample the many unusual and unique cakes and pastries of Beijing. There are many sweets, cakes and pastries you simply won’t ever find anywhere else. I particularly loved a sweet custard cake wrapped in a savoury floss called meat floss. It sounds awful but I couldn’t get enough of them! There are cake shops on many sweets, these have an open front but no actual shop to enter. you’ll spot them at some point around beijing, definitely buy some products. The pastry shops are even more common, these you can enter and choose sweet red bean paste filled pastries and all kinds of others. My daughter’s favourite was one shaped like a pigs head filled with red bean paste.
DiDi app (english language version): The only way to get around Beijing/China in taxis, don’t get ripped off, don’t worry about language problems just input where you are and where you want to go in English. Worth its weight in gold for getting about.