‘I’m planning my first trip to China, where should I go?’ is probably one of the most asked questions to come my way in recent months, and I always suggest adding Beijing into a first-time China traveller’s itinerary. The city is filled with history and culture, and a simple stroll through the hutongs or one of the many parks will give you an insight into traditions that are so deeply ingrained in this city and the people that reside there. It is a relatively easy city to navigate as far as China goes, and now that the 144-hour visa-free transit has been implemented in Beijing, it’s a great place to visit for a China first-timer.
When to go?
For photography purposes, I’d recommend visiting in either the Spring or Autumn as the colours of these two seasons are prevalent throughout Beijing and make for some breathtaking photos (think the Great Wall and vibrant autumn leaves- what more could you ask for?) Avoid any Chinese public holidays like the plague as prices skyrocket. Winter can also be a good time to visit as it is the least busy season tourist-wise and you may even be able to photography some snowy scenes, but don’t underestimate how cold it will be and wrap up!
I’d recommend staying in the Qianmen area of Beijing for easy access to most of the photography locations I am about to recommend, and many restaurants in this area also have English menus which will make your trip a lot easier, trust me! The metro in Beijing (and throughout China) is very easy to navigate, with English signs and announcements too. You can use public bus or taxi, but this will be a little more challenging if you don’t speak Mandarin. However, staff at hotels are usually more than happy to help you figure out transport. Speaking of hotels, bigger chain hotels and International Youth Hostels almost always have English speaking staff, so if you’re concerned about the language barrier, definitely book one of these options. You can always book private rooms at the International Youth Hostels if dorm rooms aren’t your thing. I’d also recommend downloading Pleco (an offline translator) in case you get stuck, and don’t forget to download a VPN before you go (Express VPN is my go-to, but Astrill is a newcomer that most of my expat friends use now).
Keen to find out more about my favourite country? Then look no further than my top Beijing photography spots!
TEMPLE OF HEAVEN
Early mornings in Beijing are going to be your best friend to avoid the need to use the clone-stamp tool afterwards, and the Temple of Heaven is no exception. The complex was built between 1406 and 1420, and was the most important of Beijing’s imperial temples. The most magnificent area to photograph is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
Getting there: The Temple of Heaven is within walking distance from the Qianmen area, and if the weather is favourable, it’s actually a pleasant walk.
Entrance fee: CNY 30-35 for a ticket to visit all areas of the Temple of Heaven.
Best time to go: You can enter the park from 6am, but the main attraction doesn’t open till 8am. I’d still recommend getting there early so that you can stroll the gardens beforehand and shoot the locals exercising and practicing their art as the sun comes up. Make sure you’re in the queue ready to buy tickets at 8am, and run. Head to the side of the Temple that has the least amount of people entering from, and you’ll have about ten minutes to get photos without people in them.
Photo tip: Go to the side of the Temple with the red gate, and shoot the Temple with the gate framing the shot. If you can bring someone along to model too, even better.
Before shooting the beautiful buildings in the Temple of Heaven complex, take a stroll through the surrounding parks. You’ll find that residents come down here in the early morning to get some exercise and practice their art. Keep an eye out for the elderly people practicing calligraphy on the paths with a bucket of water and a brush- it makes for some great photos.
Getting there: Same as above!
Entrance fee: CNY 10.
Best time to go: Get there between 6am and 7am so you have an hour or so to wander around before the gates to the temple complex open.
Photo tip: Bring a prime lens!
THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
A trip to China isn’t complete without visiting the Great Wall, and good news for you - there are plenty of places to see it only a few hours from Beijing. If you have the time, I’d suggest going to a section of the wall that isn’t frequented as much by tourists, such as Jinshanling. However, if you haven’t got the luxury of time on your side, Mutianyu is a great option.
Getting there: You can take public transport to Mutianyu, but would need to plan this out in advance as it requires a few changes. You can also opt for a tour, but this would have you arrive at the Great Wall at the busiest time of day. For Jinshanling, we always take a private taxi organised by Wild Great Wall Adventures (not sponsored, just really recommend them to book taxis to the Great Wall). The reason we take a private taxi is so that we can arrive at the Great Wall at the best time for photography, rather than going on a tour where you are going to be on the Great Wall from 11am-3pm.
Entrance fee: Mutianyu is CNY 40 for the entrance ticket and CNY 120 round trip for the cable car/toboggan. Jinshanling is CNY 65 for the entrance ticket and CNY 60 round trip for the cable car. Note if you're staying up there for sunset, you only need a one-way ticket for the cable car (CNY 40) as it closes before sunset.
Best time to go: Go a little later in the afternoon so you miss the rush of people and stay up on the wall for sunset. The cable car and/or the toboggan may be closed by then, but you can easily take the 15-minute walk down, followed by the minibus back to the car park.
Photo tip: Bring your drone!
Another early starter, Jingshan Park offers unparalleled views over the Forbidden City, and is a perfect place to watch the sunrise on a clear day. The park itself is beautiful, and a stroll through the gardens is one of the best ways to spend a morning in Beijing. If you are lucky, you’ll spot groups of local residents singing in choirs in some of the pavilions too.
Getting there: Take bus 5 or 58 and get off at either Xibanqiao or Jingshan Huojie Station. You can also take the subway Line 8 to Shichahai Station, take exit C and walk about 1km south.
Entrance fee: CNY 2.
Best time to go: Go for when the park opens (6.00-6.30 depending on the season) and watch the sunrise from the top of the hill overlooking the Forbidden City. It’s amazing - trust me.
Photo tip: A wide angle lens is a must for this spot, and use the haze to your advantage for a dreamy sunrise shot.
Of course a trip to Beijing isn’t complete without going to the Forbidden City, which is the world’s largest palace complex. It is truly fascinating to learn about the history of the country, but almost impossible to get a good photo inside as it is always (and rightly so) full of people. They actually limit the amount of tickets sold every day so get there early to ensure you get to go in. Once you have finished your visit, head outside and shoot the city walls with the moat at Shenwu Gate before taking the bus back to Qianmen for some lunch.
Getting there: You can only enter the Forbidden City at the Meridien Gate (Wumen) which is a short walk through Tiananmen Square. The closest subway station is Tiananmen Square Station (East or West) or Qianmen Station (Exit A). Afterwards, exit at the Shenwu Gate and get yourself to the other side of the moat for some great photography opportunities.
Entrance fee: CNY 40-60 depending on season.
Best time to go: Go in the morning or later on in the afternoon to avoid the harsh midday light. But, buy your ticket early. Also, it’s closed on Mondays!
Photo tip: This is a great spot to use the foliage of the trees to frame your photograph.
PAGE ONE BOOKSTORE
Whilst searching the streets high and low for our daily morning coffee, we stumbled upon this particularly aesthetically pleasing book shop, and decided to return later that day with our cameras. China has become a hotspot for beautiful libraries and bookstores, with this being one of my favourites!
Getting there: The bookshop is within walking district from Qianmen, next door to the Muji Hotel.
Entrance fee: None.
Best time to go: Go after dark so that there isn’t any light coming through the window.
Photo tip: Bring someone who will model in your photos and get them to wear a white outfit to contrast with the black and colourful books.
Tiananmen Square, one of the largest public squares in the world, has been plagued with a troubled history of protests and violence, but is now a popular tourist attraction in the capital. The square also contains the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China there in 1949. A walk through the Tiananmen is a great opportunity to witness the guards, tourists and locals celebrate the rise of the kingdom they care so deeply about.
Getting there: Tiananmen Square is a five-minute walk from the Qianmen area, and the closest subway stations are Tiananmen East or West, or Qianmen Station.
Entrance fee: None.
Best time to go: Any time is a good time for Tiananmen Square, as the area is busy all times of the day.
Photo tip: It’s best photographed with a zoom lens so that you can capture the layers and include the guards in your photos without having to go close to them.
The traditional narrow lanes in Beijing are known as Hutongs, and maintain the culture and history of an ever modernising city. The term hutong came about in the 13th century, and were a name for the simple courtyard based communal housing that was being built in the city at the time. Nowadays, many of the hutongs are home to quirky bars and small local restaurants, but remain a great place to get lost in.
Getting there: This depends on which hutong you want to go to of course. Nanluoguxiang, one of the most popular hutongs, is easily accessible by the Nanluoguxiang subway station. For something more off-the-beaten-track, wander from Qianmen Street to Dashila’r, Tan’er Hutong or Tiaozhou Hutong.
Entrance fee: None.
Best time to go: I’d always recommend going in the morning so you can watch the locals go about their daily routine and take some authentic photos of them doing so.
Photo tip: Ask before you take photos of locals, or take them and then show them the photos afterwards to check they’re okay with it. A simple ‘keyi ma?’ will do!
TIANJIN BINHAI LIBRARY
I am well aware that this library isn’t actually in Beijing, but in neighbouring Tianjin. However, with the development of the high-speed railway throughout China came a 30-minute transfer between Beijing and Tianjin, meaning the library is easily doable in a day trip. Fun fact: most of the “books” you see on display are actually painted onto the walls. However, the library hold over 1 million (real) books!
Getting there: Take a high-speed train from Beijing to Tianjin (30 minutes, CNY 55-75 one-way), followed by the metro to Citizen Plaza Station (Shi Ming Guang Chang), followed by a taxi to the Binhai Library.
Entrance fee: None.
Best time to go: As early as you can to avoid crowds. The library opens at 8am, apart from Monday when it opens at 2pm.
Photo tip: Cameras aren’t allowed inside the library, and so I would recommend leaving it at your hotel and just taking your phone. Practice your #iphoneonly beforehand.
There are, of course, so many other places to visit and photograph in Beijing. I just don’t have any recent photos of them! If you have more time, check out the Summer Palace, Olympic Park SOHO building and Fragrance Park (during the autumn). Enjoy!