Beijing, the undulating metropolis located in remote northeastern China, would take many lifetimes to fully explore and understand. The city's history is epic, with human fossil records dating back more than 230,000 years and evidence of cities in the vicinity of modern-day Beijing as early as the first millennium B.C.
So to make it digestible, let's focus on the Beijing now -- the noisy, dense, beating heart center that has kept China dominating the headlines -- playing host to iconic revolution, the country's first-ever Olympic games and more delectable Peking ducks than you can shake a chopstick at.
Home to scores of monuments of great cultural or historic merit, including Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, Beijing is a must-visit city on any tour of China. (Plus, maybe you've heard of that big old wall they made a few millennia ago in an attempt to keep invading Mongols at bay -- Beijing is also the most convenient jumping-off point for tours to the famous Great Wall of China.)
For any first-time visitors to east Asia, China -- and Beijing in particular -- may come off as overcrowded and dirty, but visitors who can get past Beijing's no-apologies grittiness will find the city has much to offer. From the Old World hutongs (historic neighborhoods) that line the alleyways in a testament to what once was, to the innumerable eateries and great bargain shops and endless seas of people that define what is now, Beijing will surely keep you busy taking it all in.
While knowing Mandarin (or traveling with a fluent companion) will undoubtedly enhance your experience in Beijing, speaking only English need not preclude you from getting a healthy taste of the city. Any hotelier who makes business of Western travelers will have staff who speak decent English, and there are a great number of restaurants and bars that offer English or picture menus. With a kind smile and a pen in hand, don't be shy to ask hotel staff to write down the name and address of places you'd like to go on a card you can show a taxi driver.
Although these days all sorts of motorized craft rule the roads, flat-as-a-pancake Beijing was made for bicycling. If you can afford the time to hire a bike for at least a day, you'll be able to experience Beijing in a truly authentic way. For the rest of the time, there are plenty of taxis, subway cars and buses to make your way upon.
City buses are shockingly inexpensive, but to ride them successfully you will need to be at least adept in deciphering Chinese pictographs, as most buses do not offer English instruction. Using the subway is easier; ticket machines have an English menu option, the lines are numbered and color-coded, and the stops and transfer points are Romanized for non-Chinese readers. Taxis are an affordable option as well -- you can take a metered cab virtually anywhere in Beijing without spending more than you'd pay for a packet of cigarettes in New York City.
For Beijing's best weather, visit in September and October, when you'll encounter warm sunny days with clear skies and cool evenings. Springtime is also a great season to visit, unless you're super unlucky and get stuck in a sandstorm blowing down from the Gobi Desert in the north. Beijing is oppressively cold in winter and predictably hot in summer. Consider avoiding China's major extended public holidays (Chinese New Year in winter, National Day in October and Labor Day in May), as huge swaths of domestic travelers will be moving in all conceivable directions.
--written by James A. Foley