Between Singles’ Day shopping and the winter holiday, December is a good month to give your wallet a breather. Beijing is not a cheap city to live in. In fact, it was the seventh most expensive city for expats in the world according to a 2015 study by Mercer consultants.
But Beijing still offers plenty of opportunities for free or affordable activities and foods: most of them lie off the expat radar.
Quiet communities with parks and temples offer many authentic – and affordable – experiences.
The secret is to look around and copy what the locals are doing, whether that’s strolling alongside Houhai and munching on fried squid or having dinner at a local joint on the west side.
For college-town atmosphere and prices, go to the Wudaokou neighborhood in Haidian district. The area is close to major universities such as Tsinghua University, Peking University and Beihang University. It’s also an interesting transportation node, with heavy rail crossing under the subway station at an intersection that sees many pedestrians.
Its restaurants and bars offer good and cheap food, live music and games. A local favorite is Lush, which acts as a diner by day and bar by night. Hearty omelets stuffed with veggies and served with toast, along with free-refill coffee will cost no more than 50 yuan. Many restaurants have menus in Korean, a nod to the large Korean community that lives here.
If you live in the east or central part of town, you probably have few reasons to travel to the west side. But Beijing’s old military neighborhoods have a lot to offer. Take for example Military Museum, the only one of its kind in China. The museum was built in 1959 to celebrate People’s Republic of China’s 10th anniversary. Its exhibits range from representations of ancient battles using wax figurines to modern fighter jets. Admission is free if you present an ID or passport.
Discover some of the locals’ favorite restaurants. One nameless restaurant serves delicious food near the intersection of Beitaiping Road and Caishi South Road. Lamb with chives, beef with green peppers and fish cooked straight from the tank are served in a chill atmosphere, aided by bottles of Yanjing beer. The restaurant is run by a woman whom patrons respectfully call laoban, or boss lady.
Beijing’s most famous temples, such as Lama Temple and Confucius Temple, charge entry fees around 25 to 30 yuan. But visit one of the capital’s more discreet temples, and you’ll pay less and avoid the crowds.
The Daoist temple Dongyue Temple is located by the busy commercial area of Yabaolu. The quiet temple is one of the most fascinating in Beijing. It features 76 “departments” of the supernatural bureaucracy, which are populated by hundreds of plaster deities and creatures. For a 10 yuan entry fee, visitors can pray and offer incense to deities promising to accomplish a variety of actions, from bringing rain and enabling offspring to implementing “15 kinds of violent death.”
Beijingers love their parks, where they go for their evening fast walks, to practice tai chi or to take a boat out on the lake.
Some parks charge entry fees, but others are free. Tuanjiehu Park in Chaoyang district is part of the latter. The park has a lake with an island, as well as a man-made rock installation. During the day, mothers and grandmothers bring children for a stroll or a boat ride. At night, the alleys under the willow trees fill with locals walking fast in the same direction as part of their evening exercise.
After the walk, go to Yaojiayuan Road for a choice of local restaurants that serve delicious spicy noodles, beef noodles or dumplings.
A lounge bar on the 80th floor of the China World Trade Center doesn’t sound like a budget outing. But on a clear day, the restaurant offers sweeping views of the city. And for 65 yuan for a cocktail and 42 yuan for a glass of wine, it still is cheaper than a ticket to go on the observation deck on the CCTV Tower, which costs 70 yuan (no drinks included). Raising a glass near the clouds is a great way to celebrate your restraint and welcome the winter holidays.