Beijing on a Budget

by Wit Morris

For anyone thinking of going to China, Beijing is a must. You get to experience one of China’s ancient citadels with a modern twist, and see magnificent architecture, including the Great Wall. This city represents history from the times of civilization’s beginnings to the present. You will be amazed by the good fortune of the Chinese as you wander the center of the known world. And I am going to share how you can do it all in one week for under $150. So, let's figure out where your money will be going and learn some cheap travel tips.

Things To Do:

The Forbidden City (The Imperial Palace) is the ideal place to start your exploration of the city by opening its mysterious face. With over 9,000 rooms and over 250 acres, this could take the majority of your day. Rule #1: wear comfortable shoes. You will be walking a lot. If you do get tired though, there are plenty of places to sit in the shade and relax without leaving. There are a lot of ways to spend more money than necessary (including a Starbucks and guided tours), but for the sake of our budget let's say we took a non-guided, non-caffeinated tour. That means you just spent $10 to see an incredible part of history!

Across the street from the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square. This is hands down one of the most iconic places in Beijing, and one of the largest city squares in the world.  It's best known for anti-communist protests of 1989. Today, they often hold parades, gatherings, and other events here throughout the year. Rule #2: do some research in advance. Plan on spending a good amount of time here and make sure to catch either the sunrise or sunset so you can watch the raising and lowering ceremony of the Chinese national flag. Most importantly, this activity is completely free!

Let's admit it, if you visit Beijing you have to see the Great Wall of China; its not really an option. There are 8 sections of the wall that cross the northern part of Beijing (Badaling, Juyongguan, Huanghuacheng, Jiankou, Mutianyu, Gubeikou, Jinshanling, and Simatai). So which one do you choose? I recommend Mutianyu. It is one of the closest sections to the city center and you have the option to ride a toboggan from the wall to the bottom of the mountain. Don’t forget to dress to suit the weather, wear strong shoes. You can easily book a tour with your hostel/hotel and it does not cost an arm and a leg. I paid $25 and it covered transportation, entrance fee, and lunch!

Next on our list are the Chinese Gardens. Go to the Summer Palace, the second largest Imperial Garden in China. It’s a park-style royal retreat that stretches over 10 square miles, with artistic architecture and masterful design highlighting the best of Chinese garden art. There is a reason the Summer Palace has earned a title of “Royal Garden Museum”. Find yourself some "zen", it's only $6 for the day.

So far you have experienced the history, the culture, and the beauty of Beijing. Now its time to look into the daily life and tradition found in the Hutong alleyways. These alleys display a unique village with a city vibe, and it is in these neighborhoods that the locals shift down a gear and find time to relax. Spend a day walking through the hutongs of Beijing and you will start to feel as though you have stepped back into old Beijing. It just so happens that this is another free activity to enjoy...

Now you have a few ideas about what to do and see while visiting Beijing. Obviously I have not covered every attraction but I feel as though I got the most for my money. So let's look at the damage so far:

  • Forbidden City: $10
  • Tiananmen Square: Free
  • Great Wall of China: $25
  • Summer Palace: $6
  • Hutong Alleyways: Free

Not too bad, only $41 has been spent. But where should you stay? Let me tell you about where I stayed: a hostel called the Sanlitun Youth Hostel. It is a clean and comfortable hostel, the staff are super friendly and very helpful, and it has an excellent community room and bar, perfect for a solo traveler. The hostel itself is 10 minutes walking distance to the metro, 5 minutes walk from the bars and clubs, and also located near a plethora of shops, restaurants, and markets. They offer dorm rooms as low as $6 night. Considering you’re in town for a week lets put aside $50 just to be safe.

  • Total is now $91.

What about food?

When it comes to food in China prepare your tastebuds for anything. With street vendors, food markets, restaurants, and cafes spread throughout the city, there are various choices to pick from and you would be surprised at how cheap even the finest meals can be.

The Donghuamen Night Market is a great place to eat if you want to treat yourself to various food snacks and samples. Whatever your heart desires you can find it here. The daytime version of this market can be found at Wangfujing Snack Street and prices at both markets range from less than $1-$2.50.

Rule #3: While in Beijing, you must eat peking duck. I recommend the Jingzun Peking Duck Restaurant where this dish only costs around $20 (compared to $35 at other places). This will feed 2 people so bring a friend and split the bill because you only have to pay $10 for a great meal and memory.

There are many other restaurants in the city and each offers different delicacies. Most meals in restaurants costs between $1-$5. So lets say you eat Peking Duck once…that puts you at $101 spent so far. On average you will only spend around $3-$7 daily for food; lets say you eat out for every meal and spend $40 all week. That leaves you almost $10 extra, and trust me when I say you can do a lot with $10.

  • Total is now $141

Wait, what about the nightlife?!

No worries, I have you covered. The two best areas to experience the atmosphere of Beijing nightlife are Nanluogu Xiang and Sanlitun.

If you’re looking for a laid-back place to have a few drinks and chat with others then Nanluogo Xiang is the place to go. It offers small bars and some of the coolest music venues in the city. While you’re walking through the hutongs during the day stop in a few and try and strike a few bargains with the owners. I made a deal with a few of the owners that if I brought a group of foreigners with me to their bars/venues then I would be allowed to drink for free while we were there. Do this at a number of places and you can create your own Chinese pub crawl and not have to pay a single penny! If you’re out and ready to dance then Sanlitun is your location. This area can be loud and somewhat overpriced, but if you’re out for excitement and the unexpected then I suspect you will fit right in.

Whew! I know, thats a lot of information to digest, but if you’re planning your trip to Beijing I’m sure it will be helpful. Before we part ways I want to share some quick tips with you.

Watch out for scammers:

As with any "tourist" destination, the locals may try and take advantage of you. Don’t buy tours from people on the streets or random vendors. They will seem like great deals but more likely they will end in tragedy. Watch out for the "tea scam", where locals invite you to “their favorite” tea house to chat…you’re going to end up paying a lot of money if you go with them.

Protect your belongings:

Don’t be dumb, pick pocketing is a problem in Beijing so keep your money in a safe place.

Almost everything can be bargained for:

Whether its food, souvenirs, tour prices, services, or even your daily needs, chances are you can get it for cheaper than what they initially ask for. Yes, most things you see are already very cheap but half the fun of buying something is the process of bargaining for it!

Well thats enough for now, hope you have a great time on your vacation. I know you’re going to have a blast, especially since you’re saving so much money! Have fun!

Wit Morris considers himself a travel addict, an adventure seeker, beach lover, beer drinker, and a lover of life and culture. Before he began his journey he worked as a bartender in the U.S. After quitting in August 2013 he left to spend a year in China as an English teacher.

You can read more about Wit's adventures at his website