This article might be a little biased, as I am a winter person. I love snow and ice, and much prefer it to hot summer days when you cannot take enough clothes off and are constantly overheating. Give me a warm jacket and a sprinkling of snow, and I am happy. I also love to travel in winter because more often than not, there are fewer crowds, and you get to see sights without hundreds of other people milling about.
Loving Beijing in winter might well have to do with my first visit occurring during that time and the first impression the city made on me was a favorable one, with frozen lakes and that sprinkling of snow which makes everything look so much cleaner and prettier. The winter months are supposed to be the ones to avoid in Beijing because of the smog, but when I went, the skies were blue, the air fresh, and smog levels at an all-time low. Lucky, I know, but it added to the superb first impression.
Maybe I can convince you that Beijing is a great place to visit in winter, too. Here are my top reasons for recommending it:
1. The Great Wall Gets A Sprinkling Of Snow
As first impressions go, seeing the Great Wall stretch into the distance, along the uppermost ridge of snow-sprinkled mountains, at incredible angles, getting smaller and smaller toward the horizon, this is one that I will never forget. A wall itself is an incredible feat of engineering and workmanship, but seeing it all not solidly covered in snow, but with details highlighted by a dustling of snow, is simply magical. It made the walking a tiny bit more treacherous, I admit, but as long as you wear ankle-high shoes with a good profile, as you should anyway on the Great Wall — because this is not straightforward walking in any weather — you will be just fine.
Pro Tip: As soon as you walk a few 100 yards, you’ll want to keep going along the wall, I bet you. Maybe not the entire 13,000-odd miles it stretches, but some. If you are a serious hiker, you can join treks along the wall, organized by the Great Wall Adventure Club, ranging from 1 day to several days long.
2. Walk For Hours
I like exploring places on foot, rather than hopping into taxis or metros. When you are walking, you notice the small things, the kids playing in a side street, the little café on the corner, or an interesting doorway that might need further investigation. But in summer, Beijing can get very hot, up to around 88 degrees Fahrenheit. And, as with all huge cities, that can be stifling and make sightseeing and walking around mightily uncomfortable. Whereas in winter, you can wrap up warm, and put comfortable shoes on, rather than sandals that might look cute but are not ideal for walking. Yes, in the early morning when I got up at 6 a.m. to head to the Great Wall, it was 14 degree Fahrenheit, and absolutely freezing. But in the daytime, temperatures rarely go below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, which, when wearing the right clothes, is perfect for clambering along the Great Wall without breaking a sweat.
Pro Tip: To give some structure to your walks within this huge city, why not download some self-guided itineraries, taking you sightseeing in various neighborhoods of the city?
3. Wonders At The Summer Palace
At the Summer Palace, appropriately also sometimes called the Winter Palace by the locals, the beautiful man-made Kunming Lake is frozen in winter and looks stunning. The amazing royal boat made entirely from marble being stuck in the ice is just wonderful. But there is another wonder to behold: A few days on either side of the winter solstice, the beautiful 17-hole bridge is lit up at sunset. Not only does the bridge glow in the sunlight, but the setting sun shines through all 17 holes, showing off the ancient knowledge of astronomy and architecture at its best. It results in the 17 arches glowing red and looking stunning.
Pro Tip: For an extra special treat, why not stay in the Summer Palace? Inside the grounds lies the luxurious Aman Summer Palace Hotel and you will be sleeping in guest rooms that have welcomed the emperor’s guests some hundreds of years ago; slightly updated, but very much in keeping with the palace’s history.
4. The Frozen Moat Of The Forbidden City
I know, one frozen bit of water looks pretty much the same as the next, but the frozen moat around the Forbidden City utterly enchanted me. This is not a simple moat, like the ones you find in fortified castles in Europe, but quite wide, and it makes the beautiful ancient Imperial City look even more special. Sometimes, it is not frozen solid, but has chunks of ice floating on it, often with a duck perching on it for good measure and an even better photo op.
Pro Tip: Interested in what life must have been like in an important family’s court? Read The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, five volumes, by Cao Xueqin, written around 1760. At times, it is a bit hard going with all the names of the people involved, but it offers an incredible insight into life in the times of Imperial China.
5. Enjoy The Local Food
There is nothing quite like comfort food when it comes to beating chilly temperatures outside. Beijing is famous for its mutton hot pot, which is said to date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). This is not simply a stew, but more like a fondue, where you place your thin slices of mutton into a boiling hot soup to cook and then enjoy the warm dish. Personally, I find the xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings, perfect for winter. These little dumplings are filled with tender meat, and, more importantly, a hot broth. Not easy to eat, but so warming and gorgeous, that it is worthwhile persisting.
Pro Tip: These broth dumplings are fiendishly difficult to make, but you can start off by learning some more basic dumpling skills with a cooking class.
6. See The Ice Lanterns
Part of Beijing, if some 50 miles outside the inner city, Longqing Gorge is the site for an ice sculpture competition held every winter, with amazing displays. From twinkle lights hung from trees and cliffs, to 300 groups of lanterns, and hundreds of ice carving sculptures, this is quite the sight. This year, 2022, the exhibition will be themed around the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Pro Tip: Rather than taking the local train, you can opt for a tour that also includes a warming hot pot dinner when you get there.
7. Go Skiing Or Ice Skating
And while we are on the Winter Olympics, I bet you didn’t know that Beijing has several world class ski resorts; I sure didn’t. So, once you are sick of sightseeing and too much history, you can enjoy numerous winter sports right on the outskirts of Beijing. From skiing to snowboarding, and all sorts of snowy fun in between, the Chinese, fired on by the Winter Olympics, have taken to winter sports like ducks to oyster sauce.
Closer to the city, Beijing is dotted with frozen over lakes, and people are welcome to go ice skating on them, with skate rentals available as well. Be it Houhai Lake, Shichahai, or indeed the lovely Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace with its spectacular backdrop, all are open to ice skaters for a bit of exercise and excitement.
Pro Tip: Want to see a Beijing ski resort up close and have a go? There are packages that pick you up in Beijing, take you to the Great Wall along the way, and after a night’s stay and some hours’ worth of skiing, it will drop you back off in Beijing.
8. Warm Up To Art Inside
Fed up with being cold? And maybe want something a little more contemporary after all this ancient history? Beijing has so many museums which are worth seeing, but they often tend to get passed by in favor of the ancient historic sites. Winter is a great time to explore some modern art within the warmth. Some superb museums to visit are the Center for Contemporary Art or the National Art Museum of China, soon to be replaced by the new Jean Nouvel-designed site in the Olympic Park, which will give the 100,000+ strong Chinese collection as well as the collection of foreign artists in a larger space, featuring Picasso and Dali. There is also the Three Shadows Photography Art Center designed by contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, who also worked on the Beijing Bird’s Nest Stadium in the Olympic Park.
Pro Tip: In fact, there is so much art and architecture in and around Beijing, that you can join an entire day-long tour through Beijing, stopping at all the most important sites, but hopping from warm car into warm museum. Perfect for a winter’s day.
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