With a population just shy of 22 million (and fast rising), one can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the idea of navigating a city the size of Beijing.
There’s the sheer magnitude and chaos of it all, but the language barrier too can make it tricky for non-Chinese speakers in finding their way from A to B. But rest assured, not only is Beijing a safe city, it’s tourist-friendly too.
Here you’ll find plenty of English signage to go with a fast, cheap and efficient transport system that makes getting around a breeze. Read on for our best tips for finding your way around this behemoth of a city.
Make the most out of every adventure with help from our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Some of Beijing’s more central areas are made for walking and offer a priceless opportunity to engage in everyday local life © Getty Images / iStockphoto
Beijing is a vast, sprawling city, so it’s not somewhere you’d necessarily describe as imminently walkable. That said, some of the more central areas of Beijing are made for walking and offer a priceless opportunity to engage in everyday local life. Getting lost among the hutong’s labyrinth of alleyways is a quintessential Beijing experience, for example; for a deeper dive, sign up for a half-day walking tour with a reputable travel outfit such as Bespoke Travel Co.
Top Tip: Given Google Maps is blocked in China, Apple’s Maps is a more accessible and accurate option for navigating Beijing’s streets.
Beijing’s subway is the world’s second-largest, linking up with all of the city’s premier attractions and both of its airports © Shutterstock / testing
Whether speeding in from the airport or taking short jaunts across town, Beijing’s modern subway is both a fast and convenient means of getting about. Comprising 27 lines, it’s the world’s second-largest subway (behind Shanghai), and links up with all of Beijing’s premier attractions, as well as both of its airports. It’s user-friendly too, with all signage, ticket machines and announcements in English.
Fares range from ¥3 to ¥8, depending on distance, so it’s cheap as well. It’s the world’s busiest subway, so expect things to get crowded (especially during morning and evening peak-hour rush), and also bear in mind that traversing Beijing’s subway can involve a fair bit of walking – and even more so if you choose the wrong exit! Trains run approximately 5am to 11pm.
Top Tip: The subway website has a trip planner, and there are also several apps with a useful, interactive subway map.
A new wave of cyclists is hitting the streets in Beijing, thanks to the rise of bike-sharing schemes, surging petrol prices and subway shutdowns during Covid © Shutterstock / testing
With its expansive network of dedicated bike lanes and flat roads, Beijing is a great city to explore on two wheels. Its bike culture stems from decades gone by, when it was known as “the Bicycle Kingdom” – a time when cyclists took to the streets en masse in Mao suits rather than Lycra, just prior to cars and subway becoming the predominant modes of travel. Now we’re seeing a new wave of cyclists hit the streets, a trend brought on by the rise of bike-sharing schemes combined with surging petrol prices and subway shutdowns during Covid.
Dockless bike-share apps come and go, but current options include Didi Bike, Hellobike and Meituan. Expect to pay around ¥1.5 to ¥2 per 30 minutes. To hire one, you’ll need a smartphone with a local SIM to download the app (frustratingly often not in English) and to register using your passport, as well either WeChat or Alipay for payment – all tasks that are no mean feat for any short-term foreign visitor. If you have difficulties, staff at your hotel or hostel can assist, or help you find a bike elsewhere.
Top Tip: Be sure to check brakes, pedals and seats before choosing your bike, and always wear a helmet.
Taxi and rideshare
Those preferring the comfort and convenience of taxis or ride-share apps will be pleased to hear that it’s a pretty affordable option in Beijing. However, the drawbacks are that you’ll have to put up with Beijing’s notorious traffic, and good luck trying to find one if it’s raining!
Didi is the local version of Uber – slightly cheaper than taxis and very handy if you have a smartphone with data.
The fixed fare for taxis is ¥13 for the first 3km and ¥2.3 per kilometer after that; rates are slightly higher after 11pm. Be sure they use the meter, otherwise find another taxi. A taxi to the airport will cost ¥90 to ¥140 to the city center (40 minutes to one hour), and is about ¥200 to Daxing Airport for the one-hour ride.
Top Tip: For non-Chinese speakers, it’s best to bring the name and address of your destination in Chinese characters, and likewise your hotel’s business card to find your way home again.
Buses are a good option, both for those who like their experiences distinctly local and those who prefer to be able to actually see the city – unlike when traveling on the subway. It’s cheap (¥2; half price with travel card) and foreigner-friendly with English announcements and signs, but it’s a slower, more challenging option in working out where you’re going. Buses also run to both of Beijing’s airports.
Top Tip: Beijing’s sightseeing buses (1 and 2; colored brown) do clockwise circuits of the Forbidden City, looping south to Qiánmén via Tian’anmen Square and the Temple of Heaven (¥15 per ride, ¥10 with a travel card).
Car and motorcycle
International driving permits aren’t recognized in China, which pretty much rules out car rentals for most foreign tourists.
Top Tip: Hiring a car with driver or taxi for the day is about the same price as renting a car, and a good option for those wanting to do day trips to the Great Wall or elsewhere in Beijing.
Rickshaws are more touristy, but they’ll zip you around Houhai Lakes and the surrounding hutong © Shutterstock / Jeff T Thomas
Other means of getting around Beijing are more touristy, such as rickshaws that’ll zip you around Houhai Lakes and the surrounding hutong (one hour, per person ¥100), You’ll also find petrol- or battery-powered rickshaws that hang around major tourist sights and nightlife spots looking for fares, but they’re more expensive than taxis.
If you’re using public transport, Beijing’s travel card (deposit ¥20) is an essential purchase, available at any of the subway stations or larger bus stations. You can recharge them at most (but not all) subway stations and bus-station ticket kiosks.
Accessible transport in Beijing
Like everywhere in the world, things are always improving in Beijing for travelers with disabilities, but there’s still a long way to go. Though many sights have ramps and subways stations have level-access platforms and elevators or stair lifts inside – especially following both the 2008 and 2022 Paralympic Games – not all are fully accessible. An increasing number of Beijing city buses are wheelchair-accessible with a ramp provided at the rear door, but otherwise taxis will be your best way of getting around.
For free downloads, including a phrasebook and a general guide to online resources, visit Lonely Planet’s Accessible Travel portal.