Ask most seasoned travelers who have been through most of Asia and chances are, they'll tell you that China is an adventure worth experiencing. Whether it's visiting the Forbidden City or hiking along The Great Wall, it's an otherworldly endeavor you're not likely to forget anytime soon. Then there's the culture, the food, the customs, all of that is worth taking in, especially in the country's capital of Beijing.
And while diplomatic relations between China and North American countries like the U.S. and Canada have been sour of late, that animosity hasn't transitioned over to Chinese citizens. With the country benefiting from more than $5 trillion a year from tourism, it pays to refrain from being unfriendly to visiting outsiders.
Bear in mind, however, that while China has a perfect understanding of how capitalism works, it's still a communist country, meaning it has a very different perspective on human rights. It's worth remembering that the people of Beijing are particularly proud of their city and they don't take too kindly to remarks on its urban conditions.
Planning ahead to familiarize yourself with the cultures and nuances of Beijing will certainly help ensure your trip is a safe one, especially once you're better versed on what to avoid there.
Avoid major attractions on national holidays
Major monuments like The Forbidden City and Great Wall of China, which is about an hour's drive out of Beijing, are open to visitors year-round, but it's wise to consider a few annual dates when you should stay clear of those attractions.
It has nothing to do with any legalities, though. Simply put, those dates are when such attractions are jam-packed by the locals who put a high priority on their national festivities. Claustrophobic lineups, traffic jams, exorbitant hotel rates, and train pass sell-out are some of the unpleasantries that otherwise await you. If you're in Beijing during those periods, try to find other points of interest off those beaten paths.
Obviously, dates change slightly each year, but take into account staying away from major tourist draws around New Year's, Chinese New Year (January or February), Tomb-sweeping Day (early April), Labor Day (early May), Dragon Boat Festival (late June) and National Day (late September or early October).
Pass on the food at Wangfujing & drinks almost everywhere else
In terms of popularity, Wangfujing Snack Street ranks high as a must-see part of Beijing to nosh on Beijing's take on fast food. But according to most veteran travelers who've been there and done that, it's one of the worst parts of the city to sample the local cuisine.
You'll find no shortage of accounts from tourists eating meat off a stick without a hint of what animal that morsel came from. Speculation in this space refrains from sharing details. It's also a huckster's paradise of vending poor-quality food items, that could leave visitors prone to food poisoning. Safer and tastier eats, however, can be found away from this area, usually sold by Independent cart-pushing vendors near the city core.
Bars and restaurants in tourist trap areas like Sanlitun and Houhai are also not recommended due to the poor quality of the grossly overpriced drinks being served. Most of them tend to be heavily watered down or contain no alcohol at all. That said, the better nightlife venues are usually a few blocks off those heavy-traffic parts of town.
Stay away from places where interactions can get you into trouble
The easiest way to get into a tough situation is to let your tongue slip in public, especially among crowds in subways and on Tian'anmen Square, the site of a quashed mass protest in 1989. Say what you will about China's political system, but keep it to yourself. Security in most public areas is quite high and very little activity among those milling about escape their attention. Any unacceptable slurs could alert police within earshot or entice an overzealous local to get you arrested in order to score points with authorities.
Also, keep in mind that Beijing is also a hotbed for scam artists. Watch for unscrupulous vendors selling horrendous knock-offs of popular brands or other sleazy merchants passing around counterfeit Chinese bills. The most common one involves younger citizens who want to go for lunch with you to practice their English, but really want to get a free and expensive meal out of the encounter.
Don't even think about hitting the underground city of Dixia Cheng
While the Forbidden City welcomes visitors, there's one metropolitan community in Beijing that's absolutely off-limits. In fact, the Chinese government would be humiliated that visitors know about the existence of the place the locals call Dixia Cheng. Residential numbers aren't officially known, but some wags say up to a million people call the run-down space home, mostly because they can't afford the high rent in Beijing. Most access ways to the city are also secret with many of them disguised as storefronts.
A massive complex of tunnels and shelters taking up some 33 miles under the city, Dixia Cheng was originally built as a refuge in the 1970s when Cold War paranoia gripped the country. It was reserved for China's most important people, but since it was never used, the government simply left it alone to degrade over time. Tours allowed visitors to see only small parts of the complex until 2008 when it was permanently closed.