Beijing, or Peking, is the capital of the People’s Republic of China. The vast, sprawling city of more than 21 million inhabitants, is a city that combines ancient history with super modern life. Seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites nestle in and around the city, while state-of-the-art skyscrapers reach dizzy heights in the Central Business District. The city that has accommodated leaders of a world power today, as well as hundreds of years back, is a constantly growing metropolis.
Yet, step out from the modern metro or turn an unexpected corner, and you see sights that have not changed for centuries, or even millennia, with traditional ways of life going hand in hand with modern stresses.
There is much to see and explore, but Beijing is also surprisingly manageable, whether you go on an organized tour with a guide, or take your chances in the metro by yourself, which is not as scary as it might sound. Either way, prepare for your mind to be blown by amazing wonders, historic facts, and sights not to be seen anywhere else.
While this list does not mention all the sights, these are my personal favorites in and around Beijing and come highly recommended.
1. The Forbidden City
Forbidden City has housed 24 emperors over the years, starting back in the early 1400s, when it became the residence of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty and his family. The vast complex covers 7.75 million square feet, making it not only the largest imperial palace in the world, but with its 980 buildings and more than 8,500 rooms, also a formidable challenge to visitors trying to see even a fraction of it. Especially as some 40 percent of it is still out of bounds to them. Even if you were to move right in, you’d probably miss some hidden corners. I spent a few hours there, but eventually admitted defeat, with my head swimming from seeing too many dragons, turtles, and rich architectural details. What life must have been like in those days. Amazing.
2. Tiananmen Square
You literally can’t miss Tiananmen Square as it lies by the entrance to the Forbidden City. Back in the 1600s, there stood the Great Ming Gate on this vast square, which today is hemmed by the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, and said entrance to the Forbidden City. It leaves a bad aftertaste because of the political tragedy that took place here in 1989, but it is the place where visitors are likely to meet up with their tour guides, and its sheer size is worth a look.
3. The Great Wall
Strictly speaking not in Beijing, but an easy drive outside the city limits, the Great Wall of China is nevertheless considered a sight under Beijing’s umbrella. Some of the closest sections of the wall are a mere 45 miles from Beijing, so easily doable within half of a day. I had opted to visit the Mutianyu section for three reasons: It is one of the closest sections to Beijing, and I was under time restraints; it is one of the lesser visited, so fewer tourists; and also, it is one of the gentler sections, easier on the knees. Some sections, including the most popular section called Badaling, are practically vertical and, while interesting, I did not want to go mountain climbing, and rather preferred to walk comfortably as far as I could. Covering several lookout posts and fortified sections, this part meanders along the ridge of a mountain, with either ends stretching into the distance and beyond. I believe my mouth hung open throughout the visit, my mind blown by the incredible sight.
4. The Summer Palace
I do believe the locals refer to the Summer Palace also as the Winter Palace, which confuses things a little, but despite traveling there in winter, I officially went to see the Summer Palace. Whatever the name, it is a stunning palace and imperial garden of the Qing Dynasty, which preceded the Ming Dynasty of Forbidden City fame. My favorite part was the 2,360-foot-long canopied and ornately decorated Long Corridor walkway, which allowed the richly dressed members of the imperial court to stroll along regardless of the weather, looking out across the large lake that was excavated to add to the scenic setting. The dug-up soil of the lake formed Longevity Hill next to the path.
5. The Temple Of Heaven
An architectural feat, laid out according to a precise method, and depicting the belief that Heaven was round while the Earth was square, this vast temple complex is not only a place of worship but also a site of statesmanship. The emperor visited twice a year, seated on a 40-foot-long sedan chair carried by 10 men, accompanied by horse chariots and elephants to pray for things like good harvests for his people. For those who understand architecture, this is a sight to be seen, as many of its constructions were ahead of their time, when it was constructed in the 1400s.
6. Jingshan Park
Jingshan Park might be one of the “lesser” parks in Beijing, but a little gem. On the opposite side of the Forbidden City, from Tiananmen Square, the hill in the middle of the park is the result of the excavations of the Forbidden City moat. As such, the park is a perfect place to climb after seeing the former Imperial Palace, for an overall grand view of the vast site. It is also a great place to watch Beijing life as it happens: The park is filled with families taking their kids there for a little bit of history, a walk in the green surroundings, and a few candies and balloons. The little temple at the top is lovely, and overall, it is a more manageable park than some, and the one with the best views.
7. The Hutongs
Built during the Yuan Dynasty in the late 1200s–early 1300s, the Hutongs are narrow lanes with single-story residences, in a square street layout, and all with hidden courtyards behind them. A time-wrap worthy neighborhood that is still viable in the middle of Beijing, the Hutongs allow a great insight into what life was like for those not residing in vast Imperial complexes. You can take a rickshaw through the tiny lanes and stop at the many small art galleries in some of the buildings.
8. Lama Temple
The colorful Lama Temple, also known as Yonghe Temple, is a baby when it comes to historic sights in Beijing, dating to as recent as 1745. Still, it is a beautiful temple complex, the most sacred Tibetan temple outside of Tibet, and a working monastery. There are several halls to see, with the fifth one housing an enormous 60-foot-tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha, dressed in imperial yellow satin, and reportedly carved from one solid piece of Tibetan sandalwood.
9. Wangfujing Food Market
This nighttime market with food stalls all along Donghuamen Street, within easy walking distance of the Forbidden City, is an assault on the senses. As you approach, it starts with sweet treats and candy floss, and then the savory stalls with live cooking take over. Anything from fat grubs, scorpions, lizards, insects, and even seahorses are being roasted on sticks and sold. Not for the faint-hearted, there are crowds of locals enjoying a snack as well as tourists daring each other on. Me? I chickened out, literally. The Satay chicken skewers are very nice. Just along from the market, you have the neon-lit, glittering, and loud shopping area of Dongdansan; a few hundred yards, yet a million miles away from the ancient Forbidden City. This is modern Beijing, and it is worth seeing as well.
10. Beijing National Stadium
The Beijing National Stadium was built for the 2008 Summer Olympics by architects Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Li Xinggang, and contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, which might explain its hyper modern take on an old Chinese favorite: the bird’s nest. It is a spectacular construction, and beautifully lit up at night, all set in the Olympic Park which can be explored via a self-guided walking tour. The stadium is set to also host the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
11. 798 Art Zone
This is an entire quarter of the city given over to art. A former industrial space covering more than 5 million square feet of a former military factory complex is crammed full with galleries, art studios, shops, ateliers, cafes and restaurants. It’s dotted with sculptures on every corner — all set among large former warehouses and industrial spaces linked by tiny alleys and amazing reinvented spaces. If this was in London, it would not look out of place at all, and it rounds up the contrast between ancient and historic Beijing, and young and innovative Beijing, very well.
Pro Tip: While I am a fan of “going it alone” when traveling, in China, I hired a local guide to show me around — the same woman for several sights and outings. Not only do you learn more about the history of the sights, but also about the lives of the local people, many of whom do not speak English and thus have limited contact.
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