A Weekend Walks Guide to Managing the Spring Tourist Crush

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A Weekend Walks Guide to Managing the Spring Tourist Crush

Beijing travel is back, and so are the crowds. Here are a few tips for those looking to take advantage of the great weather as the city prepares for the May Day holiday crush.

1. Expect lots of people and the occasional long line. Seriously. Tour guides report that many sites are straining to manage the surge in tourism. Three years of Zero Covid policy created a lot of pent-up demand for visiting Beijing, and the city’s top attractions have been packed this spring with tourists from all over China who are finally getting the chance to see the capital. If you’ve only been in Beijing since Covid, prepare for the full China experience. Forbidden City. Summer Palace. Prince Gong’s Mansion. Badaling. It’s a sea of matching hats and flag-toting tour guides. However, it's not all bad. Since foreigners are still a bit scarce, it’s a great way to make friends as the out-of-town visitors from China’s provinces fulfill their “Selfie with the Foreigner” check-in. (Yep. That's back, too.)

2. Consider skipping the Forbidden City. Tour guide WeChat groups are up in arms over scarce tickets and a wonky reservation system that books out minutes after tickets go on sale a week in advance. If you have plans to tour the palace, prepare to buy your tickets seven days out from your intended date of visit. Keep hitting refresh, and be ready for the system to crash a few times.

Pro Tip: Entering the Forbidden City as a foreign national requires showing your passport to the ticket checker and having them match it manually to their reservation system. They don’t usually check the names. Save time in the race to reserve and just put first names or nicknames, but remember to verify the passport number – one wrong digit in the ticket system can mean a huge hassle trying to convince the staff to honor the reservation.

3. Give thought to the less visited but equally fascinating neighbors of overcrowded attractions. Instead of the Forbidden City, try the Working People’s Cultural Palace (formerly the Imperial Ancestral Temple) just to the southeast of the Forbidden City: same great architecture, half the hassle, and about 20 percent of the crowds. When the Summer Palace is heaving, the sprawling grounds of the Old Summer Palace can be a welcome respite, even during the busiest periods. Yonghegong Lama Temple, in particular, has seen a surge in the number of visitors in 2023, but nearby the – admittedly less colorful – Confucian Temple remains a quiet place for contemplating China’s rich intellectual history.

4. Mask policy is still being enforced at many sites, albeit haphazardly, so bring a mask! If somebody asks you to put it on (usually when entering buildings or ticket gates), slap the mask on your face, head inside, and see what's up. In the past few weeks, very few tourists inside the Forbidden City, Prince Gong's Mansion, or Lama Temple were wearing masks, and at no time did we see staff insisting that people wear one. That said, it might happen. Rather than let it ruin a trip, just keep that extra mask in your backpack or pocket and have it handy.

5. Most sites offer online (or at least WeChat Official App) reservations, but that doesn’t mean you always need to book in advance. There are a few sites, like the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the National Museum, where online reservations in advance are the rule, but sometimes old school trumps technology. While Chinese nationals and those with second-generation official IDs can just swipe their cards to verify a reservation, the system for verifying passport-based reservations at many sites is less efficient than buying an old-fashioned paper ticket with cash. If you find yourself outside a place you want to visit and would rather not mess around with QR codes, passport numbers, and Chinese-language interfaces, look for an open ticket window. The staff might try and direct you to scan a QR code, but if you flash cash and ask to buy a paper ticket, the ticket counter can usually sort you out. Always have your passport or other ID ready because the staff is often required to record this info for each ticket sold. It also helps to speak Chinese or, better yet, have a local friend available who can act as a “ticket liaison/barbarian handler.” 

6. Important caveat to just rocking up and buying a same-day ticket with cash: Almost all sites have caps on daily visitors, although other than the Forbidden City, it is rare for any site to turn people away. But with crowds the way they have been and the May holiday coming up, it’s possible some sites may reach their daily limit. There’s also the chance that the ticket window staff at a particular site will not know how, are unsure if they can, or just won’t want to bypass the online system and sell you a same-day ticket. This is not an opportunity to stand up for “expat rights.” Do not threaten to call the police, lecture the staff about the evils of xenophobia, make an underpaid service worker the unwilling star of an online video, or otherwise poison the well for the next foreign face who shows up at the window. Even if you win, we all lose. Just grit your teeth, swallow your pride, and find another site to spend the afternoon.

The weather is beautiful this time of year, and it’s the perfect season for exploring. With a little advanced planning, some flexibility, a decent sense of humor, and a lot of patience, you can navigate Beijing’s tourist attractions. Just smile, make friends with your selfie-taker, and enjoy the return to relative "normalcy" here in China’s capital.


About the Author: Jeremiah Jenne is a 20-year resident of Beijing and has a Ph.D. in Late Imperial Chinese History. He leads history and cultural workshops, walks, and extended travel journeys for Beijing by Foot.

READ: Get Your Comedy Fix Over the May Holiday With Daily Shows

Images: Jeremiah Jenne


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