Beijing, the Capital of the People's Republic of China, is a city that has seen the rise and fall of many imperial dynasties and has now transformed into a vital, fashionable and vibrant city.
The Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008 were perhaps the city's "Coming-Out Party" when many people around the world took the first look at this nation which had been closed to outsiders for such a long time. It's been quite a ride since then as the city keeps barrelling ahead towards a high-tech modernistic future while still entrenched in its historic past and traditional customs.
Beijing is home to many of China's most famous historical sights including renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. But there's also the food, the markets and a thriving art scene to be explored! Here are Beijing's top 10 places to visit! Don't feel you have to see them all in one trip! Leave something for the next one! You will want to come back... again and again...
1. The Forbidden City
Off limits for 500 years, the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing was finally opened to the masses in 1949. This is a huge complex and China's most spectacular architectural structure. It is in fact the largest palace complex in the world. It was home to 24 emperors in two dynasties, the Ming and the Qing, it is China's imperial palace and also known as the Palace Museum as it contains many of the surviving imperial relics and artworks.
Get ready to do some walking as you traverse the many halls, temples and lookout towers... catch your breath at the courtyards and terraces... everything intricately decorated from the balustrades to the roofs... and full of history, folklore and legends... you could spend hours wandering through...
Up and About the Forbidden City: Exit through the North Gate and walk accross to Jingshan Park or Coal Hill and climb to the top for some amazing views of the city and the myriad of roofs of the Forbidden City just at your feet.
With Kids?: Getting bored with so many temples and halls?
- Have them take pictures of all the different animals they can find, whoever finds the most wins! Mythical animals also count, look up on the roofs as well.
- Keep the visit short and head over to nearby Beihai Park, rent a boat and paddle in the lake for a half hour or so. Here you can unwind, it really is a beautiful park.
- Or exit through the South Gate and walk to Tiananmen Square where the kids can fly kites.
More tips for visiting the Forbidden City: During peak times it gets crowded, before Covid-19, it capped the number of daily visitors allowed to 80,000 daily. Right now due to the Coronavirus precautions capacity has been reduced to 12,000 people per day.
2. The Great Wall
One of the 7 Wonders of the World, China's Great Wall is the longest man-made structure ever constructed. It snakes through 4,000 miles across the mountains of northern China and was built more than 2,000 years ago to guard from the enemy tribes from the north, the Huns.
Visiting the Great Wall is in every China traveler's list, can anyone climb the wall? Yes, everybody can do this, there are many different sections of the wall open to visitors and there is one likely to fit your needs and preferences. Some are fully restored, some are easier to climb, some offer cable cars to get to the top and some are in a more rustic condition offering a more "authentic" experience and a more challenging hike.
The most popular sites closer to Beijing have excellent facilities and have been fully restored. No problems with handrails or loose stones, a few have cable cars that drop you right at the wall.
With Kids?: The Mutianyu Great Wall was our kids favorite section. After your climb you can take a toboggan to get down the wall! This is a great family-friendly option overall, there are chairlifts and cable cars that make it easy for grandma and grandpa and it is not as crowded, specially in the afternoon.
Most Popular Great Wall Excursions
3. The Temple Of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven in Beijing is one of the largest park complexes in the city. It was completed during the Ming Dynasty and is where the Emperor would come and pray for a good harvest and worship the heavens.
As far as "religious temples" go, this is the largest complex in China, but it has more of a local hangout feel to it rather than a place of worship. Locals love to come here and practice their Tai Chi moves, you see old folks dancing and on weekends it is more of a family park than a "temple" per se.
This is a rather large complex with many temples, courtyards, altars and terraces. The main temple pictured here is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest with its intricate work and stunning architecture. Blue is the color of Heaven. Red is an Imperial color. This temple is 38 meters high and the wooden pillars support the ceiling without nails or cement. Truly amazing.
The Emperor would visit this temple three times every year:
- on the first month of the lunar year to pray for the beginning of a good harvest season
- during the summer solstice to pray to the gods for rain
- during the winter solstice to thank them for a good harvest
With Kids?: There are many open areas throughout the entire Temple of Heaven complex where the kids can run around and fly their kites, a popular spot is by the white circular terraces.
4. Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square is the world's largest square. This is one of Beijing's landmarks in the heart of the city and the site of parades and celebrations. It is also associated with the student protests of 1989. Tiananmen Square has a vital place in Chinese history, this is where Mao proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. His huge portrait at the Tian'anmen Gate still remains.
The square is huge, the Tian'anmen Gate with the portrait of Mao is at the core, with the Forbidden City on the other side of the Gate.
Flanking the square are many government and official buildings, and you will see a large security guard presence. As you face the Gate, the Great Hall of the People is on the left, which is the equivalent of the Chinese "Capitol" or "Parliament", and the National Museum of China on the right.
In the middle of the square you see two main structures, one is the Mao Mauseleum, and the ten-story obelisk is the Monument to the People's Heroes, dedicated to all the martyrs of the revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.
With Kids?: This is also a great place for the kids to fly kites. Stay to the side of the Square to catch the wind. If you stand in the middle, there isn't enough wind to get the kites up because of the surrounding buildings.
5. The Beijing Hutongs
The Beijing Hutongs are the old traditional alleys and thousands of lanes weaving in between the courtyard homes surrounding the Forbidden City where most Beijing residents used to live.
Although many still remain, the old Hutongs are sadly being replaced by high-rise buldings to give way to the modernization of Beijing.
A trip through the Hutongs will give you a glimpse of Chinese traditional life. We saw groups of elderly people playing Mahjong, some were practicing their early morning exercises. There were colorful markets and small stalls selling the local foods. Kids playing on the streets, and everybody going on their daily routines.
Don't miss the Drum Tower nearby. It's an imposing structure and quite colorful, hard to miss.
Up and About the Hutongs:
With Kids?: The rickshaw ride was a winner. Also the Drum ceremony at the Drum Tower, if you time it right, it takes place every hour on the half hour.
6. The Beijing Zoo
The Beijing Zoo is certainly worth a visit, if nothing else to see the adorable Giant Pandas.
Giant Pandas are unique to China. If you won't be going to Chengdu or any of the other Wildlife Preserves in the country, take some time and stop at the Beijing Zoo to take a look at these beautiful creatures.
Although Giant pandas are no longer considered endangered, they are still vulnerable. Pandas were once found all across the southern part of China. However, overpopulation and rapid urbanization have left few forests for them to live. In addition, poachers used to hunt them for their furs.
A visit to the Beijing Zoo can be done in half a day and easily combined with a visit to the Olympic Village.
7. The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace is located in the outskirts of the city and was the Emperor's summer retreat. It is a vast complex and imperial garden encompassing lakes, pavillions, temples, corridors and bridges.
The most striking area and main Palace structures sit atop Longevity Hill overlooking Kunming Lake. As you walk up the hilltop you pass intricate decorated halls and corridors, stunning rock gardens, pavillions and towers...
With Kids?: Take the Dragon Boat across Kunming Lake to bring you to the Summer Palace main structures. Boats depart from the Bronze Ox, fun for the kids and the ride gives you beautiful glimpses of the Seventeen Arch Bridge, the longest of some 30 bridges in the Palace and a magnificent view of the entire imperial garden complex atop the hill as you approach. The Dragon Boat brings you to the west end of the Long Corridor, a great spot to start exploring.
8. The Olympic Village and the Bird's Nest
The Beijing Olympic Village was home of the 2008 Summer Olympics Games AND the 2022 Winter Games, making Beijing the first city to host both Summer and Winter Olympic games. It is located in Chaoyang District, and consists of over 30 venues which hosted events, with the Bird's Nest and the Water/Ice Cube being two of the most memorable and the latest addition for the Winter Olympics, the Ice Ribbon Stadium, the three most prominent and striking venues. There is also a Convention Center and many other fields for the different disciplines that took place like hockey, tennis, figure skating, etc. and the Olympic Village that hosted the athletes.
National Stadium or the Bird's Nest as it is known, was the centerpiece of the events and home of both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at both events, with capacity for 91,000 visitors.
The Water Cube is Beijing's National Aquatics Center, is mostly remembered for... Michael Phelps... 8 Gold Medals... that butterfly kick! The Water Cube was built for the swimming and diving competitions where 25 world records were broken in the Summer Olympics. It was rebranded into the Ice Cube for the winter games and refitted to host the curling competitions. The venue is now used for swimming as well as figure skating competitions.
The Ice Ribbon, also known as the National Speed Skating Oval, was the only new addition to the Olympic Village for the Winter games and is the largest speed skating venue in Asia. After the games, it will serve as a public skating venue and for ice hockey clubs.
9. The Lama Temple
Beijing's Lama Temple or Yonghe Temple (Harmony and Peace Temple) is the largest and most opulent of Tibetan Buddhist temples outside of Tibet.
It is richly preserved and lavishly decorated, consisting of three gateways and five main halls or palaces, many courtyards and pavillions, a Drum Tower, a Bell Tower and thousands of Buddha statues and other deities, tantric figures, Chinese guard lions, incense urns...
The temple wasn't always a religious site, it was built initially to be the home of a prince, Prince Yinzhen who lived there from 1694 until he ascended to the Emperor's throne in 1722. Yinzhen's son converted it into a monastery after his father's death.
This is an active temple, you will see plenty of worshippers who come to pay their respects and is particularly busy during major holidays like Chinese New Year.
10. 798 Art Zone
This area was originally a military factory built by the East Germans that came in desrepair once government support dwindled after the reforms of the 1980's. Its transition into a thriving arts mecca started by accident when the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) first came looking for storage space and settled in the area.
Little by little the large indoor cathedral-like spaces with plenty of natural light began attracting artists who set up workshops, galleries and studios building momentum and fast becoming a center of creativity, a hub for galleries, a cultural center... it has now transformed into the city's premier contemporary art district.
One of the highlights is Art Factory 798, the hangar-like structure with original machinery pieces intermingled with rotating art by Chinese and international artists.
Beyond the galleries and exhibitions, there is plenty of outdoor spaces, courtyards scattered with sculptures, street art and graffiti, a thriving cafe and restaurant scene, designer shopping... and if you hit it just right, perhaps an art festival, fashion show, or other enjoyable cultural event.
Avoid visiting on Mondays when most of the galleries are closed.
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