15 Things to Know Before Traveling to Beijing

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Beijing is a city full of beauty, culture, history, and mystery. The city is home to the largest palace in the world Forbidden City.  Our first international trip with our son (4.5 months at the time) was to Beijing, and to say we were surprised would be an understatement. If you are planning a trip to Beijing and have no idea what to expect, here are 15 things to know before traveling to Beijing.

1. Do Not Drink the Water in China

The tap water in China is not drinkable. Bottled water can be purchased very cheaply everywhere. Check with your hotel to see if they offer free bottled water. We were able to get up to 4 3L bottles of water a day from our hotel.

2. Language barrier in Beijing – Download translator before arriving

When traveling to China be prepared for a language barrier if you do not speak Mandarin or Cantonese. It is not common for many people in China to speak English. Before arriving print the name of your accommodation in Chinese characters. This is usually available when you book your accommodation and receive your confirmation. Booking.com and Agoda provide confirmations in English and Mandarin for you to provide upon your arrival. Please keep in mind Beijing is a large city with millions of people and thousands of hotels, be patient.

3. Transportation around Beijing

Transportation in China can be challenging, due to the language barrier. The easiest option is if you are staying at a hotel, it is to ask the front desk to arrange transportation. This could save you a lot of time and aggravation, you want to enjoy your time in Beijing. When we asked for a car it seemed as though the price was a little higher than expected but only by a few dollars. I would rather get to the right place and pay a little more than to risk going to the wrong place to save a dollar or two.

If you are looking to be more independent there is Didi, which is the Chinese version of Uber and it is available in English. The app works similar to other ridesharing applications. If you can get it to work properly the price is reasonable and the cars are safe and clean. I had a hard time getting my card to connect to request a car, customer service wasn’t much help.

Another option is public transportation, but this can be a little overwhelming. There are millions of people in Beijing and public transportation can become crowded very quickly.  If you are traveling as a family, public transport is not the best due to the number of people. If you are traveling solo or with a friend the subway is a great way to explore. Just remember to give yourself plenty of time and to avoid rush hour 6 to 9 am and 5 to 7 pm.

4. Carry passport

I usually discourage people from carrying their passport due to the risk of losing it, but in Beijing passport checks are common. When visiting major tourist areas such as Tiananmen Square there are checkpoints that you to show proof of a valid Chinese visa. Your passport may also be required to purchase tickets for Lama Temple, Mao’s Tomb, and Forbidden City.

5. Photos and a lot of stares

China is a very homogenous country in that almost everyone is Chinese. A lot of tourists in Beijing are from the countryside, so they have not been exposed to other ethnicities. We could see people taking pictures of us as we walked down the street to the Forbidden City. There were many times where we were stopped and gestured to take a picture. It was a little weird at first but eventually, you get over it and just smile.

6. Air pollution in Beijing

Smog in China
Bruce Mars from Pexels

Air pollution is a concern when traveling not only in Beijing but in China as a whole. The country experienced rapid industrial growth resulting in many environmental implications. The smog was noticeable but not as bad as it was made to seem from articles we found on Google. You could see a layer of gray in the sky and feel a difference when breathing. In the event the air quality was above the acceptable range we purchased protective masks for ourselves and our little one. It was difficult to find a baby mask because the smaller masks are designed for kids 3 and older. It was no fun trying to get a 4-month-old to wear a breathing mask. If air pollution is particularly bad opt-out of outdoor activities and enjoy the indoor activities that Beijing has to offer.

7. Smoking in Beijing

It was shocking to me when we arrived in Beijing and there were a lot of people smoking. We noticed that a lot of young adults and older men smoking. Although there is no smoking inside buildings we did see a large number of people smoking as we explored the city. If you are sensitive to cigarette smoke please be cautious as it was everywhere.

8. Personal space

There are over 20 million people in Beijing not including the annual tourist. Personal space is a luxury that does not exist in China. Expect to be pushed, shoved, or have your foot stepped on while waiting in line or trying to get somewhere. Do not take it personally it is part of the Chinese culture.

9. Beijing Traffic

Beijing is a major city and like other cities such as Los Angeles, or New York there is rush hour traffic. Have patience because the roads in Beijing are hectic. A simple 30-minute trip can easily turn into over an hour and a half if there is an accident.

10. Tipping in Beijing

Do not tip in China. Tipping can be considered rude so when in doubt do not tip. A tip may be requested from your tour guide but unless it is specifically outlined you do not need to tip.

11. Google and Social Media

Have you ever heard of the Great Firewall of China? This is what is used to block major websites in the People's Republic of China. Popular websites and applications such as YouTube, Google Maps, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat are all blocked. However, there is a way around, using a virtual private network (VPN) will allow you to use all of your applications. There are many different available but we use NordVPN, which is very well known and affordable. Download your VPN of choice before arriving in China, it may not work if you try to download after you arrive.

12. Tourists attractions are affordable

Tourist attractions in Beijing are very affordable and worth it. I was able to walk on the Great Wall of China with my family for $42. This price included transportation to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall (an hour and a half away from Beijing). This is a once and a lifetime experience for less than $50, you cannot put a monetary value on something that special.

There are tours available by going to the tour offices outside on the east gate of Forbidden City. It is easier to use a tour company because you do not have to worry about transportation, tickets, and lunch. Please be forewarned you may be taken to the Chinese school of medicine or pearl factory, but there was no pressure to purchase. This is a way for the tour guides to make extra money, but can you blame them? They are trying to make a decent living like everyone else. I got an amazing 20-minute foot massage for 20RMB ($3) at the Chinese school of medicine.

13. Public Restrooms in Beijing

Be prepared to use a squat toilet as opposed to a western-style toilet. There are western toilets available in the major tourist area but may not be available everywhere. Do not forget to pack toilet paper because it is not readily available in public restrooms. What about hand sanitizer? Soap is not provided to wash your hands, so be prepared.

14. How safe is Beijing?

We felt very safe in Beijing as two women walking around with a baby. There are different law enforcement authorities in Beijing. The main law enforcement that you will encounter is the People's Armed Police (PAP), who wears green uniforms and guard party and state organizations and foreign embassies and consulates. They will be located at all of the major tourist areas, and you can often watch the changing of guards and marching outside of Forbidden City.

15. Chinese Food

The food in China is nothing like Chinese food in America. You will not find beef and broccoli, General Tso’s chicken, orange chicken, or shrimp fried rice. Chinese food in China seemed to be a lot healthier than what we eat in America. There was not much chicken or shrimp available. The main protein at the restaurants we dined at was pork, fish, and beef. You cannot leave Beijing without trying Peking Duck. If you are a vegetarian ask your hotel to write “only vegetables” on a card for you. There were smaller family restaurants that do not have menus in English so you may need to just point at pictures.

Bonus: Cash is King

Beijing is a city that runs on cash since foreigners cannot use Wechat. Take a credit card and debit card for an emergency but you will need cash. It is a good idea to set up a travel bank account that does reimburse ATM fees so you can withdraw money from an ATM when you arrive. We use Charles Schwab (Use this link to open an eligible account and receive $100), because of their great customer service, exchange rates, and no additional fees.

Have more tips for visiting Beijing? Feel free to add them in the comments below.

Pinterest Things to know before traveling to Beijing

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14 thoughts on “15 Things to Know Before Traveling to Beijing”

  1. In China nowadays people use WeChat to pay nearly everything. As I don’t have such payment, I had to carry cashes here and there. So yes, the cash is the King!

    1. Yeah we couldn’t connect our card to WeChat so we had to use cash. I wish we could have, it would have been so much easier.

  2. Yes, yes, and more yes! I lived in China for half a year and completely agree with all of your tips/hints. Cash really is king. Neither myself nor my travel mate used our cards. Completely agree about the food as well. Most people assume and are subsequently disappointed when they cannot find their “favorite Chinese dish” while dining out.

  3. This sounds exactly like India. There are exceptions like tips, freedom on social media. I would love to try the public transport just once. And see the Forbidden City. Good guide.

  4. This is very timely. It is going to be my first trip to Beijing and as you mentioned, I have no idea what to expect. Thank you for sharing these tips. Will keep this in mind especially about the water since I have a pretty sensitive stomach.

  5. Hats off to you for going on an international trip with such a small baby! Our first trip was when mine was 3 months old, but we just went to Brugge, that’s 1 hour away from Brussels, where we live.
    Its been more than a decade since I ventured to China! Language barrier is such a complicated thing. I did a solo trip and till I reached the airport back to return, I was feeling too jittery.
    Haha. I can understand your shock about personal space! Coming from India, I think that wasn’t an issue at all for me! Lolz.

  6. That’s a great list of tips while visiting Beijing. Translator is important. I am aware of the Great Firewall, but VPN is a great way to crack that wall. Tipping is a big no-no? I didn’t know that. It is sad to know about the smoking habit of people there.

  7. Thanks for your list of really helpful tips for visiting Beijing, one of the destinations on my wishlist. Particularly good to understand the transportation and of course, the tip about the protective masks against the pollution. Will also make sure to download an app to use a VPN ahead of time so we can still access email (for which we use gmail).

  8. These are some really invaluable tips and especially for those planning to visit China for the first time. We have not visited China but would love to get there, for its ancient heritage and culture. Your tips like the one about downloading VPN before entering China is really invaluable. Also the one about carrying cash

  9. I must agree I did find a lot of points quite surprising like people taking photos of you, no YouTube, Google Maps, Instagram, Facebook etc, and no toilet paper and no soap in public restrooms. Thanks for listing down these points. I’ll keep them in mind when I’ll visit the city. I would love to see the Forbidden City. Also, tasting the healthier version of Chinese food is something I would not want to miss.

  10. Thank you for these tips. I will travel to Beijing and stay for a few weeks in the next couple years (acupuncture school). The visa, pollution, and lack of personal space would put me off, too, but how bad will it be? I’ll just have a Plan B lines up (somewhere more rural if it exists) and go anyway.

    1. The visa process isn’t that bad we did it ourselves and it saved us a lot of money. If you don’t live within a few hours driving distance to apply I would recommend using a company. I didn’t have a problem with the personal space but we didn’t use much public transportation since we were traveling with a baby. The pollution is noticeable but wasn’t too bad when we were there. I’d get a mask just in case it gets bad get one N95 compliant. Beijing is a great place to visit. Hope you have fun

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