Free (or Almost Free) Things to Do in Beijing
Although Beijing isn't as inexpensive as it once was, it's still a fabulous bargain compared to travel in Europe, North America, and more developed Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea. While expats have complained more and more of rising prices in the post-Olympics era, visitors from Western countries are often overwhelmed by a feeling that life in the city is practically free. Bottled water, snacks, subway and bus rides, or some steamed dumplings from a street stall, will all cost well under the equivalent of 50 cents. Average-length cab rides, a dish at a decent restaurant, or museum admission tickets will set you back only two or three dollars. And the capital is filled with acceptable hotels for about 50 bucks per night. Little is free in Beijing, but there's also very little to make much of a dent in your wallet.
The modern art scene in China has exploded onto the world stage over the past decade. Beijing's 798 Art District, located northeast of the city center along the road to the airport, is the country's artistic nucleus. The complex was built under East German supervision in the 1950s to house sprawling electronics factories, but artists took over after state subsidies dried up in the late 1990s. The district is now home to at least 100 top-notch galleries, and almost all of them are free.
Beijing's urban sprawl is interrupted by a number of lovely parks designed in traditional Chinese style. Of particular historical significance are the four parks built around altars used for imperial sacrifice: the Altar of the Sun (Ritan), Altar of Heaven (Tiantan), Altar of the Earth (Ditan), and Altar of the Moon (Yuetan).
If you happen to be in Beijing for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), you literally won't be able to avoid the party atmosphere that overtakes the city. You may have seen a display of fireworks before, but have you ever been inside a fireworks show? It's a good idea to bring earplugs, as the explosions go on at all hours for days on end.
Don't be afraid to hop on one of Beijing's municipal buses and see where it takes you! Just remember the number of the line you took so you can get back to where you started—and grab a business card from your hotel just in case you get lost and need to flag down a taxi. Here's a hint: bus lines with only one or two digits stay more or less within the city center, so you won't have to worry about ending up in a farming village near Hebei.
Bus 4: Runs east–west along Chang'an Jie, the city's main horizontal axis. Stops include the Military Museum, Xidan, Tiananmen Square, Wangfujing, and Jianguomen. Bus 5: Starts near the Di'anmen intersection south of the Drum and Bell towers and runs past Beihai Park and Tiananmen Square toward Qianmen (Front Gate). Bus 44: This loop line more or less follows the same route as Line 2 on the subway—a chance to travel along the path where the ancient city walls once stood, and you can get off at the same place you got on.
The city's most famous museums aren't exactly charging an arm and a leg for admission, and some ask only for donations or charge less than Y10.