Taking a tour will make it easier to sightsee without the hassle. However, if you're adventurous, you can easily explore the city on your own, even if you don't speak Chinese. You can't rely on taxi drivers to know the English names of the major tourist sites, but armed with the names in Chinese in this guide, you should have few or no problems getting around. If you do opt for an organized tour, keep in mind that a little research pays off. Dragon Bus and Panda Tours offer sightseeing for the masses at numerous offices around the city, but the tour operators here provide a more enjoyable Beijing experience.
China Culture Center. With a reputation for well-informed English-speaking guides, CCC is popular with both visitors and expats looking for more than just the standard tour highlights. Liangma Antique Market, 27 Liangmaqiao Lu, 4th Floor, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 100125. 010/6432–9341; 010/6432–1041 weekends. www.chinaculturecenter.org.
China International Travel Service. CITS is China's official travel agency, dating to 1954. In Beijing the company offers everything from customized tours to group tours and business trips. 28 Jianguomenwai Dajie, across from the Friendship Store, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 100022. 010/6522–2991. www.cits.net.
WildChina. This foreign-managed travel company is probably the best in China. WildChina has excellent guides who know the city well and who don't waste your time taking you to souvenir shops. The company offers a three-day tour of Beijing that includes major historic sites, a hike on a wild part of the Great Wall, a visit to the hutongs, and an introduction to the cuisines of the capital city. It's pricey but worth it. Room 803, Oriental Place, 9 East Dongfang Lu, North Dongsanhuan Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 100027. 010/6465–6602. www.wildchina.com.
Many of Beijing's pleasures are best sampled off the subway and out of taxis. In other words, pedal! Rent bikes (available at many hotels and near some subway exits) and take an impromptu sightseeing tour. Beijing is flat, and there are bike lanes on most main roads. Pedaling among the city's cyclists isn't as challenging as it looks: copy the locals—keep it slow and ring your bell often. And, of course, be very careful. Punctured tire? Not to worry: curbside repairmen line most streets. Remember to park your bike (and lock it to something stationary, as bike theft is common) only in designated areas. There are designated bike-parking lots throughout the city with attendants charging a nominal fee, usually about 3 mao.
CycleChina. If a guided three-hour afternoon bicycle tour of a hutong, or a trip through Beijing sitting in a motorbike sidecar sounds like fun, call CycleChina. They also offer a variety of hiking options and bike tours of the Great Wall. 12 Jingshan East Street, Across from the east gate of Jingshan Park, Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100009. 010/6402–5653 or 139/1188–6524. cyclechina.com.
Bicycle Kingdom. Offering bicycle rentals and suggested itineraries covering some of Beijing's lesser known historical sites, Kingdom is a great resource. A variety of bikes are available for rent here from Y100 for the first day and Y50 for each additional day (or Y300 per week). Helmets are available for Y20 per day or Y100 a week. 34 Dong Huangchenggen Nanjie, Wangfujing, Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100006. 133/8140–0738 (English); 010/6526–5857. www.bicyclekingdom.com.
The subway in Beijing is faster and cheaper than a taxi, and the city plans to expand the system by 2015. Although Beijing's subway system has been expanded to eight lines, most first-time visitors to Beijing stick to the original two lines, which provide access to the most popular areas of the capital, and the airport extension. Line 1 runs east and west along Chang'an Jie past the China World Trade Center, Jianguomen (one of the embassy districts), the Wangfujing shopping area, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, Xidan (another major shopping location), and the Military Museum before heading out to the far western suburbs. Line 2 (the loop line) runs along a sort of circular route around the center of the city shadowing the Second Ring Road. Important destinations include the Drum and Bell towers, Lama Temple, Dongzhimen (with a connection to the airport express), Dongsishitiao (near Sanlitun and the Worker's Stadium), Beijing Train Station, and Qianmen (Front Gate) south of Tiananmen Square. Free transfers between Line 1 and 2 can be made at either Fuxingmen or Jianguomen stations. Need a visual? Flip to the inside back cover of this book for a helpful subway map.
If both you and your final destination are near the Second Ring Road or on Chang'an Jie, the best way to get there is probably by subway. It stops just about every half mile, and you'll easily spot the entrances (with blue subway logos) dotting the streets. Each stop is announced in both English and Chinese, and there are clearly marked signs in English or pinyin at each station. Transferring between lines is easy and free, with the standard Y2 ticket including travel between any two destinations. When planning a trip on Line 13, make sure you are transferring from the correct station. If your destination is on the west side of the line, leave from Xizhimen; if it's on the east side of the line, leave from Dongzhimen.
Subway tickets can be purchased from electronic kiosks and ticket windows in every station. Start off by finding the button that says "English," insert your money, and press another button to print. Single-ride tickets cost Y2, and unless you want a pocketful of coins you'll need to pay with exact change; the machines don't accept Y1 bills, only Y1 coins. It's also possible to buy a stored value subway card with a Y20 deposit and a purchase of Y10-Y100.
In the middle of each subway platform, you'll find a map of the Beijing subway system along with a local map showing the position of exits. Subway cars also have a simplified diagram of the line you're riding above the doors.
Trains can be very crowded, especially during rush hour, and it's not uncommon for people to push onto the train before exiting passengers can get off. Prepare to get off by making your way to the door before you arrive at your station. Be especially wary of pickpockets.
Unfortunately, the subway system is not convenient for disabled people. In some stations there are no escalators, and sometimes the only entrance or exit is via steep steps.
Pedicabs (basically large tricycles with room for passengers behind a pedaling driver) were once the vehicles of choice for Beijingers laden with a week's worth of groceries or tourists eager for a street's-eye city tour. Today many residents are wealthy enough to bundle their purchases into taxis or their own cars, and the tourist trade has moved on to the tight schedules of air-conditioned buses. But pedicabs have made a big comeback in Beijing in recent years and can now be hired near major tourist sites. A ride through the hutongs near Houhai is the most popular pedicab journey. Be absolutely sure to negotiate the fare in advance, clarifying which currency will be used (yuan or dollars), whether the fare is considered a one-way or round-trip (some drivers will demand payment for a round-trip whether or not you use the pedicab for the return journey), and whether it is for one person or two. Beginning in 2008, government-approved pedicab tours were supposed to be fixed at Y35 per hour, though the actual price is often higher. Feel free to tip your driver for good service on longer tours. Independent pedicabs for hutong tours can be found in the small plaza between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower.
Beijing Hikers. This outfitter offers guided group and private hiking trips aimed at expat hikers and tourists. The trips are rated from 1 to 5 in terms of difficulty and they take you into the hills around Beijing. You might visit a rural village, historic temple, or the Great Wall. Group tours depart from the Starbucks in the Lido Hotel and start at Y300 per person. Reserve in advance using the online booking form. Galaxy Building, 10 Jiuxianqiao Zhong Lu, Building A, 4F 4012, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 100015. 010/6432–2786 or. www.beijinghikers.com.