Despite being home to more than 20 million people, Beijing has a way of easing guests into the trip. Visitors are more often surprised and captivated by their experience of Beijing, having braced themselves against the prospect of a polluted, crowded mega-city.
Beijing (北京 Běijīng) is the capital of the most populous country in the world, the People’s Republic of China. With a population of 21.5 million people, it is the nation’s second-largest city after Shanghai. It was also the seat of the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors until the formation of a republic in 1911. Beijing is the political, educational and cultural center of the country and as such it is rich in historical sites and important government and cultural institutions.
The city is marked by its flatness and arid climate. There are only three hills to be found in the city limits (in Jingshan Park to the north of Forbidden City) and mountains surround the capital on three sides. Like the configuration of the Forbidden City, Beijing has concentric “ring roads”, which are actually rectangular, that go around the metropolis and serve as good reference points as one attempts to move about the city. Beyond the ring roads are the most-visited portions of the Great Wall of China, which witnesses visitors the world over and Beijing serves as a good headquarters for those who wish to gaze upon one of mankind’s more memorable and lasting structures.
Ringed by 3.5km of scarlet citadel walls at the very heart of Beijing, the Unesco-listed Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings, and the largest palace complex in the world. Steeped in stultifying ritual and Byzantine regal protocol, this other-worldly palace was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule, sharing 900-plus buildings with a retinue of eunuchs, servants and concubines, until the Republic overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911.
Temple of Heaven Park
A tranquil oasis of peace and methodical Confucian design in one of China’s busiest urban landscapes, the 267-hectare Temple of Heaven Park is absolutely unique. It originally served as a vast stage for solemn rites performed by the emperor of the time (known as the Son of Heaven), who prayed here for good harvests and sought divine clearance and atonement. Strictly speaking, it’s an altar rather than a temple – so don’t expect burning incense or worshippers.
As mandatory a Beijing sight as the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace was the playground for emperors fleeing the suffocating summer torpor of the old imperial city. A marvel of design, the palace – with its huge lake and hilltop views – offers a pastoral escape into the landscapes of traditional Chinese painting. It merits an entire day’s exploration, although a (high-paced) morning or afternoon exploring the temples, gardens, pavilions, bridges and corridors may suffice.
798 Art District
A formidable area of disused, Mao-era factories built with East German expertise, 798 Art District, also known as Dashanzi (大山子), is Beijing’s main concentration of contemporary art galleries, art bookshops and cafes. The site first rose to prominence in the late 1990s, its Bauhaus-style former factory workshops ideally suited to ambitious art installations. The industrial complex celebrates its proletarian roots in the Communist heyday of the 1950s via the retouched red Maoist slogans decorating gallery walls and statues of burly, lantern-jawed workers dotting the lanes.
Flanked by triumphalist 1950s Soviet-style buildings and ringed by low-rise perimeter fences, the world’s largest public square (440,000 sq meters) is an immense flatland of paved stone at the heart of Beijing. Early risers can watch the daily flag-raising ceremony at sunrise, performed by a troop of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers marching at precisely 108 paces per minute, 75cm per pace. The soldiers emerge through the Gate of Heavenly Peace to goose-step impeccably across Dongchang’an Jie (the reverse ceremony is performed at sunset).
This exceptional temple is a glittering attraction in Beijing’s Buddhist firmament. If you only have time for one temple (the Temple of Heaven isn’t really a temple) make it this one, where riveting roofs, fabulous frescoes, magnificent decorative arches, tapestries, eye-popping carpentry, Tibetan prayer wheels, tantric statues and a superb pair of Chinese lions mingle with dense clouds of incense. The most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet, the Lama Temple was converted to a lamasery in 1744 after serving as the former residence of Emperor Yong Zheng. While the temple is an active place of worship, and you may occasionally see pilgrims prostrating themselves in submission at full length within its halls, the temple is mostly visited by tourists these days.
The restrained, grey-stone edifice of the Bell Tower is arguably even more charming than its resplendent other half, the Drum Tower, after which this area of Beijing is named. It also has the added advantage of being able to view its sister tower from a balcony.
Along with the drums in the Drum Tower, the bells in the Bell Tower were used as Beijing’s official timekeepers throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, and on until 1924. The Bell Tower looks the older of the two; in fact both are of similar vintage. First built during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in 1272, the Bell Tower was rebuilt in the 1440s after being destroyed in a fire. This current structure was built in 1745.
Chairman Mao Memorial Hall
No doubt one of Beijing’s more surreal spectacles is the sight of Mao Zedong’s embalmed corpse on public display within his mausoleum. The Soviet-inspired memorial hall was constructed soon after Mao died in September 1976, and is a prominent landmark in the middle of Tiananmen Sq. He is still revered across much of China, as evidenced by the perpetual snaking queues of locals here; a few are visibly moved but most are in high spirits, treating it like any other stop along their Beijing tour.
Along with the more austere Bell Tower, which stands behind it, the magnificent red-painted Drum Tower used to be the city’s official timekeeper, with drums and bells beaten and rung to mark the times of the day. Originally built in 1272, the Drum Tower was once the heart of the Mongol capital of Dadu, as Beijing was then known. It was destroyed in a fire before a replacement was built, slightly to the east of the original location, in 1420. The current structure is an 18th-century Qing-dynasty version of that 1420 tower.
National Museum of China
Beijing’s premier museum is housed in an immense 1950s Soviet-style building on the eastern side of Tiananmen Sq, and claims to be the largest in the world by display space. You could easily spend a couple of hours in the outstanding Ancient China exhibition alone, with priceless artefacts displayed in modern, low-lit exhibition halls, including ceramics, calligraphy, jade and bronze pieces dating from prehistoric China through to the late Qing dynasty. You’ll need your passport to gain entry.
Workers Cultural Palace
Despite the prosaic name and its location at the very heart of town, this reclusive park, between Tiananmen Sq and the Forbidden City, is one of Beijing’s best-kept secrets. Few visitors divert here from their course towards the main gate of the Forbidden City, but this was the emperor’s premier place of worship and contains the Sacrificial Hall, as exquisite as any temple you’ll find in Beijing.
Behind the riveting good looks of the sleek Capital Museum are some first-rate galleries, including a mesmerising collection of ancient Buddhist statues and a lavish exhibition of Chinese porcelain. There is also an interesting chronological history of Beijing, an exhibition that is dedicated to cultural relics of Peking opera, a fascinating Beijing Folk Customs exhibition, and displays of ancient bronzes, jade, calligraphy and paintings. Bring your passport or photo ID for free entry and audio guide.
Beihai Park, northwest of the Forbidden City, is largely occupied by the North Sea (Beihai), a lake fringed by willows that freezes in winter and blooms with lotuses in summer. Old folk dance together outside temple halls and come twilight, young couples cuddle on benches. It’s a restful place to stroll around (come after 5pm in summer to beat the crowds), rent a rowing boat or watch calligraphers performing dìshu (地書), inscribing characters on the ground with brushes and water.
Also known as Shichahai (什刹海) but mostly just referred to collectively as Houhai, the Houhai Lakes are comprised of three lakes: Qianhai (Front Lake), Houhai (Back Lake) and Xīhai (West Lake). Together they are one of the capital’s favourite outdoor spots, heaving with locals and out-of-towners in the summer especially, and providing great people-spotting action.
The dominating feature of Jingshan – one of the city’s finest parks – is one of central Beijing’s few hills; a mound that was created from the loess excavated to make the Forbidden City moat. Called Coal Hill by Westerners during Legation days, Jingshan also serves as a feng shui shield, protecting the palace from evil spirits – or dust storms – from the north. Clamber to the top for a magnificent panorama of the capital and princely views over the russet roofing of the Forbidden City.
Gate of Heavenly Peace
Characterised by a giant framed portrait of Mao Zedong, and guarded by two pairs of Ming stone lions, the double-eaved Gate of Heavenly Peace, north of Tiananmen Square, is a potent national symbol. Built in the 15th century and restored in the 17th century, the gate was formerly the largest of the four gates of the Imperial City Wall, and it was from here that Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. Today’s political coterie watches mass troop parades from here.
Perhaps the premier sight of the Summer Palace, this wooden covered corridor stretches for almost half a mile and is emblazoned with an astonishing 14,000 intricate paintings depicting scenes from Chinese history and myths.
Beijing City Tour
6 to 7 hours – Available all year round
Guided city walking tour to: Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and Houhai Hutong by rickshaw.
Includes: public transfers (bus, metro, taxi), English speaking guide, entrance fees, lunch in local home.
Summer Palace and Lama Temple Tour
6 to 7 hours – Available all year round
Guided tour to: Summer Palace, Olympic area, and Lama Temple.
Includes: public transfers (bus, metro, taxi), English speaking guide, entrance fees, lunch.
Beijing City Tour
6 to 7 hours – Available all year round
Guided city walking tour to: Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, Jingshan Park, Houhai Hutong, lakes and Bell & Drum Towers (no entrance).
Includes: public transfers (bus, metro, taxi), English speaking guide, entrance fees, lunch in local restaurant.
Great Wall Tour
12 hours – Available all year round
Your driver and English speaking guide will meet you at your hotel at 8am, for transfer by private car/minibus to the Great Wall at the place of your choice. Various places can be visited:
-Badaling, where the wall is partly in ruins, about 1,5 to 2 hours one way;
–Simatai, about 2,5 hours one way;
–Mutianyu, about 2 hours one way;
–Jingshanling, about 3 hours one way;
–Jiankou, about 3 hours one way;
–Huang Hua Cheng, about 2 hours one way.
Your guide will show you the best parts of the wall and give an insight into the history and myths that make the Wall so special. After around 4 hours on the wall (depending on your fitness) you will descend (walk, cable car or toboggan sled) and you will have time to stop for lunch (not included) before returning to the city. If there is time you may be able to stop briefly at the Olympic venue or the Ming Tombs. Return to the city around 5pm.
Includes: transport by car/minibus, English Speaking guide, and entrance fee.