Beijing’s Haidian district is huge; you’ll need a driver (or an Uber) to help ferry you from one place to another. From a fun family picnic at the Beijing Botanical Garden to a jaunt in the stone labyrinth at the Old Summer Palace, there’s plenty to satisfy both kids and adults in the western fringes of Beijing.
Go Cruising: Arrive in style at the Summer Palace via the Grand Canal. There are several points where you can catch the cruise—it starts at Tongzhou’s Grand Canal Park, but a gorgeous point to hop aboard is at the Black Bamboo Park near Xizhimen. Boats leave hourly, and take about 30 minutes to arrive at Kunming Lake. Alternatively, take a longer version with the China Culture Center (www.ccctravel.net) that starts from the Beijing Exhibition Center wharf.
Museum Tour: The area just outside Xizhimen Station has one of Beijing’s best-kept secrets—the Paleozoological Museum of China. Just west of the Beijing Planetarium (itself worth a short trip), this museum, with English-language displays, features a multi-story bone diorama of a stegosaurus getting crunched on by a raptor. Ice Age megafauna like mastodons and saber-toothed tigers occupy the top floors.
Garden State: The Beijing Botanical Garden is huge: Get lost in the rose garden or have a family picnic by one of the interior lakes. Buddhist temples abound, but many families simply camp out and play games on a suitably shady green patch (be sure to pack a lunch; there’s very little to eat around here). Of particular interest to kids is the bee museum, but adults may be interested in the weird herbs of the traditional Chinese medicine garden or the extremely rare example of a dawn redwood—thought to have become extinct over five million years ago.
Old Summer Palace: Yet another west-side garden, but we think the sight of ruined columns is breathtaking. The history of this place is sad (and practically invites Western expats to check their privilege), but the marble ruins and restored garden mazes will also delight younger children who are blissfully ignorant of history.
Stay: The Aman at the Summer Palace is a stunning example of Qing architecture that has grown out of a collection of waiting rooms for those seeking audience with the Dowager Empress Cixi. Because of those connections, the Aman has a secret door to the Summer Palace for guests to use within regular park hours. The rooms are decorated in a traditional style—but with all the mod-cons you expect in a luxury hotel. There are also cultural activities available for the kids that range from calligraphy lessons to kite-making sessions. Babysitting services available for RMB200/hour.
Don’t leave the glitz and glamour of Sanlitun to your teenagers; they are far too young (and far too poor) to truly enjoy themselves. Go for apéritifs at a trendy bar and then have a real conversation over dinner while the babysitter watches the kiddos. In the morning, family-friendly fun starts with trips to Fundazzle and the Blue Zoo (just be sure you are totally over that glass of wine from the night before).
Pre-game: Leave the kids with a hotel-approved babysitter while you get an expertly crafted cocktail at Infusion Room or Janes & Hooch in the Courtyard 4 complex.
Brunch Bunch: Consider a lazy Spanish-style Sunday brunch at Migas (kids under 10 are half price; kids under 4 eat free) with trolleys of meat and paella that come direct to your table. If you’d rather something quick and easy, the Sanlitun branch of Moka Bros now offers a kids menu that will fill the fam up fast without compromising nutrients.
Fundazzle: Bring your headache medicine—you’ll need it to survive the biggest ball pit in Beijing on Gongti Nan Lu. There are huge padded mazes and climbing areas; but your children will probably spend most of their time disappearing under the shining sea of plastic balls.
Blue Zoo Beijing: This huge aquarium at Gongti South Gate boasts an incredible underwater walkway with all sorts of colorful creatures drifting overhead. Kids (and, let’s be real, adults too) will love the shark tank—but the most bonkers attraction here is undoubtedly the mermaid show, which has divers dressed as mermaids performing aquatic tricks in the fish tanks.
Stay: You didn’t think The Opposite House was very kid-friendly, did you? Think again! From adorable kid-sized slippers to welcome packs filled with toys, this hotel is actually incredibly welcoming to the pint-sized set. Prepare swimsuits, as your little ones will love splashing around in the psychedelic basement pool. They also have babysitting services (RMB100/hour; minimum two hours) in case you want a stress-free romantic evening for two.
A daytime hike is spectacular enough, but there’s something very special about seeing the sun set over the Great Wall. Get out of the urban jungle and enjoy one of China’s most magnificent sights with a staycation at the Mutianyu section of the wall.
Sliders: Get the kids on a cable car and toboggan your way down for the full Mutianyu experience. Less crowded than the masses at Badaling, an early start to Mutianyu introduces you to the Great Wall in a relative state of seclusion. Having a room nearby ensures that you’ll also enjoy evening views as the afternoon crowds disperse.
Camp Out: Beyond the restored sections of the wall, there are plenty of hideaways waiting to be explored. Beijing Hikers (www.beijinghikers.com) arranges camping trips in some of these less-visited areas, which make for an amazing family experience. Picture falling asleep in your own tent on the more atmospheric sections of the wall—and waking up with the rising sun.
On Wheels: Mutianyu is more than the Great Wall—expect plenty of outdoorsy activities in the surrounding wilderness. The Brickyard can suggest 12 scenic routes to explore by bike with difficulty levels from easy to challenging. While adult bikes are available for rent, you’ll need to bring your kids’ wheels with you.
Side-le By: Do it the old-fashioned (and super cool) way with Beijing Sideways (www.beijingsideways.com), an expat-owned company that can arrange both city and Great Wall tours in motorcycle sidecars. A two-day tour of more remote sections of the wall includes a guesthouse stay and trips through the surrounding mountains.
Stay: Live alongside China’s most magnificent sights with The Brickyard (brickyardatmutianyu.com), which offers rooms as well as vacation homes. The Brickyard rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Great Wall, while the homes, best for multiple families, are architecturally amazing—think Frank Lloyd Wright meets the Chinese countryside. Summer staycation packages include a “Kids Stay Free” deal with a free rollaway bed. There is also a cozy game room inside a disused kiln in case rain puts a damper on your outdoor plans.
Close enough to the city center to be convenient—but far enough to feel like you’re taking a break from your bustling Beijing life—Lido is a great base to explore the creative arts and to let the wee ones scamper around in the plentiful green spaces scattered around the city.
Creative Space: Part of the 798 Art District’s charm is that it used to be an industrial zone filled with huge factories. Venture north past the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), heading to D-Park. Here you’ll find an old train parked on now-defunct tracks (great for family photo ops), adding to the old and industrial feel of the space. Check out the area past the 798 Photo Gallery for a glimpse at Mao-era slogans on original factory walls—a real treat for design lovers, architecture nerds and kids who love trains. Over the summer, a couple of family-friendly exhibitions to check out are Antony Gormley’s “Host” at GalleriaContinua, “All Means Are Sacred” at M Woods and “Rauschenberg in China” at UCCA.
Mall Rats: Let the kids run free at PP Kids Adventure Zone, located on the third floor of Indigo Mall, where you will find climbing webs, colorful slides and skating rinks. On sunny days, head outdoors to the park behind the mall, or treat the whole family to dessert at Awfully Chocolate. Don’t forget to buy a new outfit for the kids—Indigo has a huge collection of kids clothing stores. We personally adore jnby by JNBY for kid clothes that are anything but cookie cutter.
Park Life: Sunny days call for an active afternoon at Si’de Park. There are amusement rides, soccer pitches, exercise equipment and some solid walking trails to play the day away.
Stay: While we lust after the quirky art collection over at Yi House Hotel, the kids will probably be bored. Instead, book a staycation at EAST to bring the best of Lido into one place. Conveniently located next to Indigo Mall (and a short bike ride from 798), you’ll find great restaurants, slick design and a splendid swimming pool for night swims.
There’s much to love in the heart of the city. You’re surrounded by some of Beijing’s best sights and attractions—perhaps ones that you simply haven’t got around to see since you arrived.
Raise the Red Flag: Rise early enough for the flag-raising ceremony (around 4:45am); or if you have teens that refuse to get out of bed before noon, be sure to catch the flag lowering in the evening from roughly 7:40pm.
Vantage Point: There’s some grim history at Jingshan Park (the last Ming emperor hanged himself here), but the view from the top of this hill is probably the best in Beijing. On a clear day, you can see for miles—the Forbidden City unfurls at your feet; the Beihai dagoba looms in the distance. Like any other park in Beijing, expect locals dancing, gossiping and playing games in the flat areas near the entrance.
Wangfujing Night Market: If your kids get a kick out of seeing creepy crawlies (deep-fried on sticks), this is the place to be. Beyond the best-avoided delicacies, the excitement and energy of the night market is a treat for all visitors.
On Wheels: Qianmen Pedestrian Street may not have as many Beijing brands these days (blame the high rents), but you can still duck into the side streets for that chaotic Republican-era mercantile feel. After you do the obligatory ride on the Qianmen Streetcar, make your way to Dashilar Hutong (keep a watch out for a dotting of delightful Art Deco buildings) and grab dessert on the sunny rooftop of Spoonful of Sugar café.
Stay: A colonial landmark with almost 100 years of history, Raffles Hotel exudes old-world charm. Afternoon tea at Writers Bar serves as a special treat for the family (they will love the scones), and a splash in the pool cools down the summer heat. Be sure to ask for a room in the old wing if you’d like a room with a bit of history. Also consider The Emperor Beijing Qianmen if sipping cocktails on a rooftop pool deck is more your style.
By Lisa Gay and Loretta Marie Perrera
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