Beijing, only eclipsed by Shanghai in terms of size, is not only the political center of China – a position it has held for more than 800 years – it also plays an important role in the nation’s cultural, economic, scientific, and academic life. Located in the northwest of the North China Plain, not far from the western slopes of the Yanshan mountains, Beijing – still sometimes referred to as Peking – is a great place from which to explore this dynamic country due to its dense network of road, rail, and airline connections with other major cities.
Beijing itself has no shortage of unique sightseeing opportunities . It is home to some of the country’s best-known tourist attractions, including a section of the famous Great Wall of China at Badaling Pass. Among the city’s many historical and cultural points of interest are the Imperial Palace, Beihai Park, Coal Hill Park, and the Heavenly Temple, most of them within the well-preserved historic city center.
The Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City
The Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City, is China’s most significant attraction and can trace its origins back to the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th century. Its immense size is the result of enlargements made during the Ming Dynasty between 1406 and 1420, after the capital was transferred here from Nanking.
All told, this beautiful palace has been home to 24 Ming and Qing Emperors, earning its nickname of the Forbidden City due to the fact ordinary citizens weren’t allowed access. The complex covers 720,000 square meters, all of it surrounded by a 10-meter-high wall with towers in the four corners and a 50-meter-wide moat. It’s divided into an area used for ceremonial and administrative purposes, as well as the private quarters once used by the Emperor and his concubines.
Highlights include the Meridian Gate, built in 1420; the Golden River Bridges, a network of five richly decorated white marble bridges; and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which functioned as the Emperor’s banquet hall.
The Great Wall of China
Beijing is only an hour away from what is undoubtedly one of the country’s most famous historic structures: the Great Wall of China. Here at Badaling Pass, the first part of the Wall to be opened to tourists in the 1950s, you can enjoy a walk along an impressive section of the Great Wall dating from the 16th century and standing up to eight meters high.
Along the way, you’ll be able to enjoy numerous towers and parapets offering superb views over the surrounding dramatic scenery. While a hilly walk, you can in fact take a pleasant cable-car ride up to the wall.
This much-visited section of the Great Wall can get busy, so if possible try to plan your trip for an early arrival. Better still, consider signing up for a tour. The Great Wall of China at Badaling and Ming Tombs Day Tour offers great insight into the history and is an extremely easy way to visit this site.
Another popular spot to experience the Great Wall is Mutianyu, parts of which date back to the 6th century. Rebuilt and expanded over the centuries, it is becoming increasingly popular for its magnificent views, which are particularly beautiful during spring and autumn.
Tiananmen Square (the Square of Heavenly Peace) is the world’s largest inner-city square. Designed to hold a million people, it was built to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Chinese Republic in 1958. Considered the center of communist China, the square’s symbolic importance dates back to May 4th, 1919, when students demonstrated against the Chinese provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.
Highlights of a visit include the Monument to the People’s Heroes (Rénmín Yingxióng Jìniànbei), a 38-meter tall obelisk consisting of 17,000 pieces of granite and marble, and the splendid Tiananmen Gate, known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It was completed in 1417 and was once the main entrance to the Imperial City.
Another important gateway is Zhengyangmen, or Qianmen, the southernmost gate into Tiananmen Square. Tracing its roots back to the early 15th century and restored in the early 1900s, this imposing structure is considered one of the most important landmarks in the city.
Other features of note are the Museum of the Chinese Revolution with its exhibits illustrating the various stages of the Chinese revolution from 1919 and the development of the Communist Party, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, where the body of Mao rests in a crystal sarcophagus.
Just a short distance from the Imperial Palace, Beihai Park is one of the oldest surviving imperial gardens in Beijing. Laid out at the beginning of the 10th century, this beautiful open space takes its name from nearby Lake Beihai (North Lake) and offers many good reasons to visit.
Among the park’s most important structures are the Round Fort, dating from the Yuan period of 1271-1368, and the spectacular Hall of Enlightenment. Built in 1690, the hall is home to a one-and-a-half-meter-tall Buddha carved from a single block of white jade, and a large black jade vase from the early 12th century.
Another notable feature is the opulent residence of Song Qingling in which the widow of the founder of the Republic, Sun Yat-sen, lived for 18 years until her death (it’s now a museum). You’ll also want to see the Living Quarters of Mei Lanfang (Mei Lanfang Guju), a famous male star of the Peking Opera who specialized in playing the role of a woman.
The Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven (Tiantán) dates back to 1420 and incorporates a group of some of Beijing’s most sacred buildings. Surrounded by lush vegetation, these lovely old temples and shrines are set out in two sections – one rectangular; the other semi-circular – which together symbolize Heaven and Earth.
It was here that, on the day of the winter solstice, the Emperor would ascend the Heavenly Altar in solemn ceremony to pray for a good harvest and offer sacrifices in the brightly decorated Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (Qinian Dian). Built in 1420, in customary Chinese fashion of wood and entirely without nails, the hall sits on a three-tier marble terrace with balustrades and a roof covered with 50,000 blue glazed tiles (a marble plaque on the floor represents the dragon and the phoenix stone, symbols of the emperor).
The Summer Palace
Located an easy 30-minute journey by car, bus, or taxi from the center of Beijing, the city’s Summer Palace (Yíhé Yuán) is a must-visit. Dating back to the 12th century and more than 700 acres in size, it’s a picture-perfect setting, which certainly befits its royal status, boasting a large 700-year-old man-made lake and beautiful gardens.
Often included on organized tours, top things to see here are the western-styled “Marble Ship” (Shifang), the Hall of Well-being and Longevity (Renshou Dian) with its elaborate throne, and the beautiful courtyard adjoining the Hall of Happiness and Longevity (Leshou Tang Hall). You’ll also want to see the impressive 19th-century Great Theatre, where you can catch performances of traditional Chinese plays and music.
Beijing National Stadium
Recognized the world over for its role in the spectacular Summer Olympics held in Beijing in 2008, the National Stadium (Guójia tiyùchang) – also affectionately nicknamed the Bird’s Nest – is well worth a visit.
Built with a hefty price tag, this remarkable structure owes its unique design to the influences of traditional Chinese ceramics and has, since the Olympics, been used to host large cultural events and performances including opera, pop concerts, and football matches. In winter, it’s turned into the world’s largest manmade indoor ski slope. (English language and self-guided tours are available.)
The Lama Temple
Also known as the Yonghe Temple, the Lama Temple is one of Beijing’s most attractive and best-preserved temples. Completed in 1745, the building served a political purpose by giving Lamaism, the religion of the then just annexed Tibet, an official seat in the capital. It was built to generous proportions and equipped with many valuable works of art.
Its most important feature is the Hall of the Kings of Heaven (Tian Wang Dian) with its statue of Buddha surrounded by the four kings who are provided with symbolic objects (a toad, sword, snake, and shield). Also noteworthy is the statue of Weituo, the protector of Buddhism, holding an iron staff.
Beijing Capital Museum
Arts and culture buffs are extremely well catered to in Beijing. Of particular interest is the excellent Beijing Capital Museum, one of the country’s leading art museums. Opened in 1981, the museum boasts a vast collection of artifacts, including ancient items of porcelain and bronze, traditional calligraphy and artwork, along with many fine statues from Chinese and other Asian cultures.
Other highlights of its collection of more than 200,000 important cultural artifacts – many originating from in and around Beijing – include the huge stele of Emperor Qian Long, weighing more than 40 tons, standing nearly seven meters in height, and containing ancient scripts and writings.
Another modern Beijing landmark worth visiting is the National Centre for the Performing Arts (Guójia dà jùyuàn), also nicknamed the Giant Egg. Considered one of the best opera houses in Asia, the building opened in 2001 and has since hosted many of the world’s leading operatic performers (it’s particularly worth visiting if you’re able to take in a performance).
Beijing Ancient Observatory
Completed in 1442, the fortress-like Beijing Ancient Observatory (Beijing Gu Guanxiàngtái) lies in the east of the city near the station quarter and was continuously in use right up until 1929. It is widely considered one of the oldest such observatories in the world.
Among the 10,000-square-meter facility’s many fascinating old pre-telescopic instruments are a celestial globe dating from 1673 and an 18th-century armillary globe depicting the planets (at least those that were known at the time), along with a number of large bronze instruments designed by the Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest. Once part of the old city walls, this tall brick tower serves as a museum offering a glimpse into the surprising amount of knowledge of the stars and planets that existed at the time.
The Fayuan Temple
Fayuan Temple (Fayuán Sì) – also known as the Source of Law Temple – dates back to the year AD 645 and consists of several halls where many ancient stone inscriptions are kept, the oldest dating from the 7th century. The temple has witnessed many of Beijing’s most important historic events, including serving as a prison for Emperor Huizong in the 12th century, a place of examination for the highest offices of state, as well as a botanical gardens.
Today, the temple is a place of worship and the seat of the Buddhist Academy, the most important educational establishment in China. Other highlights include the bell and drum towers in the first courtyard; the Hall of the Kings of Heaven with its fine statues; the Mahavira Hall housing Buddhas of the present, past, and future represented in 18 Luohan figures; and, one of the temple’s most precious objects, a Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) ceramic statue in the Dabianjue Tang Hall.
Coal Hill Park (Jingshan)
Located directly opposite the North Gate of the Imperial Palace, Coal Hill Park (Jingshan) offers some of the best views in Beijing, particularly over Beihai Park Lake and the Forbidden Palace. Taking its name from the coal that was once stored here for the Ming Emperors, this largely man-made hill – one of just a handful in Beijing – was started around 1416 during the construction of the Imperial Palace.
After years of receiving rubble from the old city wall and large quantities of soil from excavation of the moat surrounding the palace, the once-low natural mound soared to its current height. A highlight of a visit, in addition to the many splendid gardens and walkways, is an old acacia tree from which the last Ming emperor was supposed to have hung himself in 1644.