Massive crowds are one of the main reasons people choose not to come to Beijing. If only they could discover the secrets of the off-season they would flock to this enchanting city.
International visitors have an advantage over locals when it comes to traveling in China. Most Chinese people can only get away during the busy holiday seasons. As a result everybody is craming into the trains and converging on tourist destinations at the same time.
Three major holidays must be avoided to beat the crowds. First, and the longest, is Spring Festival, also known as Chinese New Year. Being a lunar holiday, the exact dates are different every year, but if you avoid travel from mid-January to mid-February, you'll miss the crowds. The other two holidays fall on the first week of May and the first week of October. Summer break can also draw some crowds, but most people prefer to avoid Beijing's July and August heat. The best time to enjoy Beijing is any time that other people are not here to enjoy it.
If you don't mind wearing arctic attire, the best time for avoiding crowds at most outside venues is the dead of winter. The pictures below, taken in mid-December, on the Great Wall and inside the Imperial Palace depict an off-season tourists rarely experience, totally crowd-free.
It was a frigid windy Wednesday morning with I drove my American Uncle out to Badaling for his first Great Wall climb. The whole parking lot had less than ten cars. I parked only a few meters from the ticket booth. We walked about twenty seconds to board a cable car without waiting in line –a rare site for Beijing.
Nor were there lines at the Imperial Palace ticket counter. Sure, we were shivering. But it sure beats wasting half a day waiting in line and being crushed by throngs of tourists.
Some winter fun venues still attract crowds in frosty weather, but even there the masses usually don't come out until weekends and holidays. Houhai Lake, for example, is a great place for kids and adults both to enjoy skating and ice sledding. If it's a work day–guaranteed, no crowds. And you only have to walk a few steps to warm up in Starbucks.
Off-season day at Snow World
Beijing's ski resorts are packed to the peak on weekends and holidays. But, on weekdays the open white slopes are virtually empty.
Avoiding "crowds" of cars on Beijing's streets may be impossible, but as long as you don't travel during rush hour, especially Friday afternoon, and stay off Second Ring Road altogether, you'll miss the worst of it. For the historical sites in the center of the city you can always take a subway. Or, sit in the back of a taxi with your favorite book and let the driver worry about traffic. Me? If I'm not late for an appointment, slow traffic doesn't bother me. Subway, bus and taxi time is a great chance to catch up on texting friends and brushing up on my limited Mandarin.
Other popular Beijing destinations, such as Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, etc, are also void of crowds during the off-season. Summer will bring a few more people, but generally if you avoid summer, weekends and holidays you won't encounter swarms of tourists.
If you are among the many working people who are only free during Chinese New Year there's a kind of off-season right in the middle of the holiday. You can enjoy strolling through university campuses. They're practically deserted during holidays. Although many businesses are closed, the ones that remain open have few customers if you can wait till after the actual New Years Day.
If you prefer a trip outside Beijing, a carefully planned holiday train ride can be a breeze. From the time schools begin letting students out for the long holiday, till the day before Chinese New Year's day, it's virtually impossible to buy a ticket, and train cars are jam packed with standing room only. But, from late night the eve of Chinese New Year, through the following week, traveling is easy. During those days, the masses of Chinese people are at home with their families. One New Year's eve, I enjoyed fireworks displays looking out through a train window. The whole train had only a few passengers. That's a sight rarely seen in China!
So, you ask me which Beijing destinations are my favorites. I will answer without hesitation, "Any place is a great place if it's the off-season!"