Part of the reason that my mom is now telling everyone how much I love museums is that I did get to visit 2 great museums while I was in Beijing: The National Museum of China and the Capital Museum. While the National Museum is dedicated to the entire history of China and its people, the Capital Museum focuses on Beijing, the capital city, and art.
And as I mentioned before, this is another free museum, so bring your passport and take advantage of the immense amount of art and culture that is available if you have a few hours.
Capital Museum (首都博物馆)
Again, I didn’t take many photos and had a limited amount of time in this museum, but I really enjoyed learning about specific cultural aspects of Beijing and, in turn, China while exploring the Capital Museum.
There was an exhibit on Peking opera that I found really fascinating, a super cool exhibit about Old Beijing and the hutong life that used to thrive in the capital, an exhibit on imperial culture from China’s seat of power, and so many galleries of sculpture, calligraphy, painting, jade, porcelain. Did you know that the Chinese had a system of producing furniture so as to not use a single nail to keep the pieces together?
There was also a temporary exhibit I saw about Tibetan yaks and how important they were to the people of Tibet. My aunts were really excited to see this, as I think the exhibit left shortly after I did, and it’s not something that many people are able to see up close but folks know a bit about it. The size of the skulls and horns that were on display were unreal when you thought about just the sheer size of these beasts and how much a people’s livelihood depended on them.
This museum had fewer English placards than the other one, and fewer Chinese ones than I would have expected, but there was a lot of history and art and culture jam-packed into the Capital Museum, and I do recommend a visit if you’d like to learn a bit more about the history and culture and art of Beijing when you visit!
Admission: FREE – citizens need their ID and non-nationals need to bring a passport
What are some aspects of Beijing-specific culture that you’re familiar with? I know a little bit about Peking opera and visited a hutong the last time I was in Beijing but it was cool to learn just a little bit more! I was on the lookout for a big food exhibit but alas, no such luck during my visit!
What other museums in Beijing do you think are worth visiting?
Somehow, my mom started telling folks in China that I came to Beijing wanting to just seem the museums!!! Even though I didn’t know about any museums that weren’t the Forbidden City, really. However, as a person who reads every word on every placard in any museum, gallery, aquarium, zoo, what have you, I did really enjoy visiting 2 amazing and free (!!!) museums in Beijing with my aunts. Because I was maybe the only person interested in the exhibits, we didn’t spend an awful lot of time in either museum, so I’ll have to go back someday soon and see the rest! The first one I want to talk about is:
National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆)
The National Museum (国家博物馆) is an easy stop if you will be visiting Tiananmen Square, as it’s directly across the street, and is a great stop to get an expansive look at China’s history.
You can start with prehistoric times by looking at the oldest human fossils found in China and go all the way through to the Qing dynasty, the last dynasty before the Communist Revolution.
While I was able to visit the Forbidden City and its accompanying museum, many imperial artifacts are actually kept here in the National Museum, such as the furniture and accoutrements of the various rooms that would otherwise be left exposed to tourists and the elements.
The museum is huge. We only had a few hours and did not get to see all the exhibits, including a waxwork exhibit of key figures in Chinese history. I’m glad we were able to stop by a section that was devoted to statues of important historical people. If you don’t know any important people from China’s history, go up to the top floor of the National Museum and learn about the people who are depicted in statue up there.
During my visit, there was a collaboration exhibit with the museum and Qatar museums on pearls. They had a lot of stunning pearl work, from intricate pearl beading found in imperial costumes to items from Elizabeth Taylor’s personal collection. They also had really cool items like an oyster shell that trapped a fish beneath layers of mother-of-pearl.
I didn’t take many photos, contrary to how many you see here, because I was furiously reading signs and trying to take in as much information as I could. To think that there were entire wings of the museum that I didn’t get to see, while I was speedwalking through the ones I did get to browse, blows my mind.
I can’t wait to come back and explore the rest of the museum and their new exhibits!
Admission: FREE – citizens need their ID and non-nationals need to bring a passport Security: Do not bring large bags, as they will not be permitted. A thorough security check is required before entering the museum, so be prepared to have your bag scanned and to be patted down. Lighters are prohibited, as evidenced by the giant basket of ’em at the security checkpoint. Photos are permitted, as you can see, but not in all exhibits.
What is your favorite history museum? I don’t think I can choose a favorite history museum, since those are my favorites. And really, aren’t all museums history museums? I definitely love when they are free, though! Free access to history is something I really take for granted, as someone who is a hop, skip, and jump away from so many Smithsonian institutions.
How much would you say you know about Chinese history? I know… some. My dad bought me a documentary set that covered literally every era of Chinese history, from prehistoric times through all the dynasties and wars through to the Communist Revolution. A lot of information has since leaked out of my brain, but I try to refresh bits and pieces of it every now and then and this museum visit helped a lot!
After seeing my family (almost all of whom live in China save one branch of our family tree), the best thing about visiting China is the food.
The food game in China is next level. It’s not just about the quality and authenticity, but there are ingredients and entire cuisines that you can’t find in the US. Good luck trying to have homemade frogs legs and haw juice over here.
In Beijing, I had 3 must-eat foods that I didn’t want to leave without:
KFC’s 老北京鸡卷 (or “Dragon Twister”, apparently)
1. Peking duck
Peking duck is a meal I can’t avoid when in Beijing, aka Peking, and I wouldn’t dream of it anyway. I used to be obsessed with Peking duck, to the point where I ate too much too fast in one evening and stopped eating it for a long time. The crispy duck skin, the succulent meat, the sweet bean or hoisin sauce, the fresh cucumber and scallion, all wrapped up in a thin little pancake. It’s one of my favorite meals back home, and there are a lot of restaurants that do it well here in the US. (In fact, I had Peking duck for my 24th birthday dinner.)
But Beijing takes it to that next level, because it is the birthplace of this famous dish. First of all, the history of the dish in this city is extensive. There are several restaurants that have been around for hundreds of years and are household names for Peking duck. Second of all, Beijing hasn’t let tradition keep them from mixing things up, and during my 2014 visit to China, I learned that the toppings game for Peking duck has been elevated. In addition to scallions (mandatory) and cucumber slivers (optional but so common that they’re mandatory for me personally), you can expect to find additional toppings like cantalope melon, rhubarb, mango, and pop rocks.
Pop rocks! This was a thing I discovered a few years ago but the novelty hasn’t worn off for me just yet. The crispy duck skin is served separately from the meat, and you have the option of dipping the skin into pop rocks for a really fun textural party in your mouth. Some of the more traditional restaurants won’t have pop rocks but will have sugar for you to dip the duck skin. Some places have both, like above. (The green thing next to the cucumber is green pop rocks. Pop rocks!!)
Also, Beijing knows that if you have Peking duck, duck-shaped dinnerware makes 100% sense. I don’t know why US restaurants don’t really serve duck on little duck-shaped platters but it’s super logical and I am a little put out that I can’t have duck on a duck-shaped plate in America.
2. Hot pot
Hot pot is one of my all-time favorite meals anywhere. I love doing hot pot at home, because it’s so warming, you control how your food is cooked because you cook it yourself, you control the flavors with your dipping sauce, it’s a communal experience with everyone around a table. I always eat it the northern/Beijing way, and of course, Beijing is the perfect place to return for that.
I’ve been meaning to write up a post about how I like to do hot pot, but Beijing has a ton of hot pot restaurants in many different styles. Above is lunch, less than 24 hours after I landed, and they had all of my favorite condiments for making my dipping sauce, these intestine skewers, and prawn chips which I think are brilliant and will try to include in my home meals from now on! (That crunch!) Hot pot warms you from the inside out, especially if you eat mutton, which is considered to be a “heating” food according to Chinese medicine. Make sure to order a LOT of veggies!
Hot pot is one of those meals with a fairly famous story behind it. Kublai Khan was preparing for battle and, in his hunger, demanded meat, but the hunters were unable to find anything besides a herd of sheep. They brought back lambs and the chef started preparing when Kublai Khan stormed into the kitchen and demanded to know why he was still not eating. He saw that the meat was already sliced and threw it into boiling water, cooking the super-thin slices almost instantly. The meat was served to him with just a little bit of seasoning, he went on to win his battle, and he requested that his chefs prepare lamb for him this way in the future. Above, you can see the traditional way to do hot pot in a traditional steamboat, which isn’t my favorite because the thin slices of meat occasionally stick to the metal in the middle.
3. KFC (… in China)
KFC may be cause for a few raised eyebrows, so let me explain. A few years ago, my cousin took me to a KFC and ordered me the 老北京鸡卷 (laobeijing jijuan, or Old Beijing chicken wrap) and I absolutely loved it. It is Peking duck – pancake, sauce, scallions – but instead of roast duck you have fried chicken. I was eagerly looking forward to eating it during my last trip to China, and was told I’d get to have it.
But I didn’t. And that disappointment had been sitting in the pit of my stomach for over 2 years. I knew that when I finally got to eat it, it wouldn’t be as good as the hype that was building but I couldn’t help it. Fried chicken AND Peking duck?
I told my family during our first Peking duck meal that I wanted to get my KFC this time and I was gonna do it, dangnabit! And get it I did, thanks for my wonderful aunts who were all too happy to oblige my weird American-ness.
We went to the first KFC that was opened in China, which was in fact the first Western fast food restaurant to open in China. To be honest, I don’t eat KFC in America, but I love KFC in China. I love that they were the first ones there, I love how they’ve adapted the menu to cater to local tastes with dishes like the Dragon Twister (I honestly had no idea it was supposedly called that). Once my dad came back with breakfast a few years back and said he got it from KFC. I thought that was excessive and weird and opened my eyes to see traditional Chinese breakfast foods that I know and love!
Why does the Colonel look kinda Chinese here…
And I finally got my chicken wrap. And yes, it wasn’t that mind-blowing, partly because it seemed to have been sitting for a little bit and wasn’t very fresh. But I still think it’s a beautiful thing, to take all the fun of Peking duck and then throw fried chicken in there.
I ate so much good food in Beijing, and had a lot of great dining experiences. But when I was in the air, I wanted to make sure I ate these 3 things before I flew back home.
I’m very grateful to my family for making this happen for me, and for spoiling me silly by feeding me so much wonderful, delicious food.
What are some of your can’t-leave-without-eating-this foods and meals?
Do you have any for China? Previously, I had 拔丝地瓜 (basidigua, yams covered in caramel that pulls away from the plate when you try to eat it) on my must-eat list but I think it’s getting too messy for me to enjoy as much as I did when I was a lot younger. However, I still have yet to see anywhere in America offer it on their menu, while it’s still hugely popular in China and I did get to eat it when I went back this time!