- Sitting on the City Walls Couryyard House: a small hotel / hostel (has both dorms and double rooms with private bathroom) in a very nice renovated old hutong. Convenient for visiting the Forbidden City and the rest of the center. Very kind and helpful staff (they are also able to organize the trip to the wall, etc.).
- Peking Youth Hostel: A very nice hostel right on Nan Luo Gu Xiang. It has a cafe / restaurant and a terrace overlooking the movement of the street. Very western and inexpensive, but super comfortable and beautiful. You are in the best area if you also want some evening movement. PS you will find other hostels of the same chain in other areas of the city.
In Xian I had found an offer on Agoda in a nice western hotel. Unfortunately I have no hostels to suggest (in general, sleeping here is much cheaper than sleeping in Beijing!).
- Lost Heaven: Sichuan cuisine restaurant, spicy and fragrant. Great nice restaurant right next to Tiananmen square. Book!
- Dali Courtyard: a very nice restaurant in a very romantic courtyard of an old hutong near Nan Luo Gu Xiang. The menu is fixed (in the sense that the chef decides), and the cuisine is that of southwestern China.
- Din Thai Fung: personally I am able to walk miles and miles to eat ravioli in this Taiwanese chain. Here you will find the best ravioli in the world !! This chain can be found in several cities in Asia now (and also in the world ... it has opened in LA and other cities) and often their restaurants are located in shopping malls (so you will struggle to find them if you search for Street). The one in Beijing where I go is located inside the luxury shopping center Shin Kong Place (above the Dawanglu subway station). Order the classic pork ravioli !!
In general, you can find lots of good and nice restaurants around Nan Luo Gu Xiang and around Quianhai lake (also nice for a walk in the evening).
In Xian, you should go for a stroll in the Muslim quarter. It is full of food stalls and small restaurants.
What is most striking when you go to China is the immensity of everything, everything is huge and always full of people, and this feeling is amplified to the maximum when you arrive in Beijing.
I will never forget my first time in Tiananmen Square: it took me over half an hour to cross it! I could hardly see the end of the square. Here you have to be ready to walk like a Sherpa. There is an excellent and easy to use metro, but the distances are still great and you have to walk. Forget about taking a taxi! Unless booked by the hotel, you will never be able to block one on the street; and even if you succeed, he will make you get off as soon as you show him where you have to go (even if they wrote it to you with the ideograms)… mysteries of faith.
That said, Beijing needs at least 4 days to visit the most important places (considering a day trip to the Chinese wall), but you will have a thousand things to see even if you stay there for 2 weeks!
- Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City: the most iconic places in Beijing, you can't miss them! Tiananmen Square is truly a parade ground, which is only striking in size. It is full of police and it is hard to get through. In the center of the square, the queue of people will point you to Mao's Mausoleum, where you can see the embalmed body of Mao. The most significant part of the square is the one facing the great gates of access to the Forbidden City. Forget the silence and loneliness you saw in the movie "The Last Emperor"! Entering the Forbidden City you will find yourself having to fight with millions of Chinese who bump into you to take selfies and take pictures with you, a delusional experience! Obviously it must be seen, it is monumental and beautiful, but sharing the visit with so many people means that you will only want to reach the end of the path. Also in the area, do not miss the quieter and more modern building of the NCPA (National Center for Performing Arts); the old Dashilar district with its alleys has instead become quite fake and super touristy, I do not recommend it.
- Park of the Temple of Heaven: this is definitely one of the places I liked the most. It is a complex of temples within a park. Of all, the Temple of Prayer is the most striking, it is truly beautiful! The temples are all different, each one of a kind: UNMISSABLE
- Zona degi hutong di Nan Luo Gu Xiang: to the north of the Forbidden City there is a whole area made up of alleys and ancient houses (the hutongs) more or less renovated, very beautiful and authentic. Above all, the pedestrian street of Nan Luo Gu Xiang is very lively, full of young people, restaurants, shops… in short, a nice mood. This area is very nice both during the day and in the evening, and it is also the area where I recommend you sleep.
- Summer Palace: Quite outside the city center, the summer palace of the emperors is definitely worth a visit. Here you will find very beautiful temples, pavilions and gardens (always invaded by millions of Chinese alas ..); from the hill of longevity you can enjoy a magnificent view of the park and the city.
- 798 Art District: a huge former electronics factory has become the hub of Chinese contemporary art. An incredible place (the Beijing radical let's say)! Dozens of galleries in a kind of citadel of art. It is very nice to get lost in here. Above all, do not miss to visit the UCCA (Ullens Cennter for Contemporary Arts): here you will certainly find several exhibitions of the highest level.
The wall extends for more than 8000 km, and a part of it can be reached from Beijing within a day. There are several points that you can get to (it is not practicable everywhere), and for sure you should avoid Badaling, the closest point to Beijing and also the most touristic. I have been to Mutianyu (95 km from Beijing, all the hostels / hotels organize the trip there) and I recommend it. There are obviously tourists, but there is room for everyone and the view is really beautiful! Once there you go up to the top with a cable car and, once up, you walk along the wall in both directions. It is a considerable walk, the wall is very steep in some places, but it is absolutely worth it! It is no coincidence that it is considered one of the 7 wonders of the world.
On the surface it looks like the classic Chinese city, modern, huge and anonymous. Then we enter the center and discover a hidden Xian, where we can recognize the ancient city of arrival and departure of the Silk Road, with a large Muslim quarter.
It has intact walls (which can hardly be recognized among the skyscrapers), a large mosque that is absolutely worth visiting and the Great Goose Pagoda.
Be sure to take a stroll through the alleys of the Muslim quarter in the evening: it feels like being in an Arab souk! You eat very well and you breathe a completely different air than in "classic" China.
But the highlight of Xian is certainly the well-known Terracotta Army, which is located several kilometers outside the city (you can get there by bus or taxi, agreeing to have you come to pick you up at a certain time).
It was probably the archaeological discovery of the century and is worth a full day visit. As much as I had imagined it many times, entering the largest room was an incredible experience. The sheds are different, huge, with hundreds of life-size warriors, which is incredible! Among other things, digging continues and it is rumored that many others will still be found. The museum is also very nice, there are some amazing pieces. It is something that really takes your breath away!
Xian is worth the visit just to see the army of course. Instead, avoid going to the tomb (so praised by the Lonely Planet!) Of Emperor Jindi: you have to pay a high price for a taxi to get there and it is absolutely not worth it. I fell into the trap, but save yourselves at least!
The Kitchen: in my humble opinion, Chinese cuisine is the only one that can beat Italian cuisine in terms of variety and goodness of the dishes. There are 7 great regional cuisines, very different from each other, but all very good. Get ready to get fat!
Among the specialties of Beijing you must absolutely try the famous Peking duck and the hot pot, a kind of fondue where boiling oil is replaced by broth.