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Capital of one of the world's most dynamic countries, Beijing reflects the changes that China is currently undergoing. In a city where the past is being swept away, to make way for the future, development is taking place at a staggering pace. However beside the modern skyscrapers you can still find the hutongs, remnants of a by-gone era, which give a glimpse into how Beijing's citizens used to live. Most famously Beijing offers visitors access to some of China's most amazing landmarks: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven all reside within the old city walls and just outside the city's perimeter lies the enormous Great Wall, one of the wonders of the world and an enduring reminder of the power of China's imperial era. An absolute must for any first time visitor to China.
Beijing has much to offer as a short break destination in its own right and we have outlined a number of the sightseeing options below.
10 things to do in Beijing
- Walk the Great Wall
- Visit the Forbidden City
- Take a bicycle and tour the hutongs
- Feast on Peking duck
- Have a night at the Beijing Opera
- Go shopping on Wangfujing
- Wander through Beihai Park
- Stroll in the Summer Palace’s gardens
- Watch the flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square
- Learn a few words of Mandarin
Sightseeing in more detail
The Great Wall
More than 2,000 years old and stretching for approximately 4,500 miles, the Great Wall was first built to protect an ancient Chinese empire from marauding tribes and these days stands as a testament to Chinese power and ingenuity.
Facing the entrance to the Forbidden City lies the enormous Tiananmen Square which is home to Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and is the largest public square in the world. The sheer scale of it and the governmental buildings that surround it make the square a wonderful place to have a stroll and watch the world go by.
The Forbidden City, standing in the middle of bustling Beijing, is the best-kept and largest imperial dwelling in China and was completed in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty. The emperors of two dynasties, the Ming and the Qing, lived here with their families and hundreds of court ladies and palace eunuchs until the last Emperor was finally expelled by Republican troops. A must see!
The Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven is a masterpiece of Ming Dynasty design and has had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries. Set in a 267 hectare park its overall layout represents the relationship between heaven and earth and also the special role played by the emperors within that relationship.
The Star Observatory
This famous observatory is home to some fantastic astronomical instruments such as a magnificent bronze celestial globe, a sextant, a sun-dial and quadrants which were all made in 1674 by order of the Emperor Kang Xi.
First constructed around 700 years ago, the Hutongs were built to the east and the west of Forbidden City to accommodate high-ranking officials and relatives of the emperors. Later, more were added to the north and south for merchants and the less wealthy and consequently these were of a lower, less ornate standard. Although many have had to make way for the developer, thankfully many still remain and provide a glimpse into Beijing folk life and culture.
The Niujie mosque, the largest among Beijing's 68 mosques was built by an Arab scholar in 996 and was formally named Niujie mosque in 1474. The mosque, combining Chinese and Arab architecture, was refurbished and enlarged under the Mongol dynasties.
Big Bell Temple
The temple was built in 1733 and received its present name in 1743 when an enormous bronze bell, the largest in China, was brought here (on ice sleds). This Big Bell is thought to have been cast in 1420 when Yongle, builder of the Forbidden City, was emperor. Weighing in at 46 tons and standing 23 feet high, it is displayed in its own tower in a rear courtyard.
Containing the city's largest lake and a landmark white pagoda, this is the capital's oldest Imperial garden, with an 800-year history. It is a wonderful place to stroll especially since it is within walking distance of the Forbidden City.
White Cloud Temple
Beijing's leading Taoist temple, and arguably the most fascinating temple complex in the capital, is a highly active place of worship among the locals. The air is thick with the scent of incense as the crowds mingle and pray to the deities. Festivals are a great time to visit and occur here on the first and fifteenth day of every lunar month.
Prince Gong's Mansion
Prince Gong's estate is Beijing's best-preserved example of how the upper class lived during the Qing Dynasty. It consists of 31 pavilions, 9 courtyards, several arched bridges, large ponds (with islands and swans), an immense rock garden built in the classical style and even its own private pagoda for gazing at the moon!
Zhenjue Temple (Five-Pagoda Temple)
A striking and unusual temple, the Five-Pagoda Temple is located in the grounds of Zhenjue Temple. The Five-Pagoda tower at the centre consists of a square hall whose walls are engraved with the niches of 1,000 Buddhas and topped by 5 magnificent pagodas (each about 25 ft. high and built in 1473) that are more Indian than Chinese in style.
The Summer Palace is an excellent place to cool off during Beijing's hot Summer months. The Palace began to assume its present shape, inspired by Taoist legends, in the late 18th century during the reign of Emperor Qianlong who used an army of 100,000 labourers to enlarge and deepen the lake. Unfortunately, much of the palace complex was burned to the ground in 1900 by Anglo-French forces reacting to the Boxer Rebellion, but since then most of the buildings have been completely restored.
Old Summer Palace
Destroyed by an Anglo-French invasion force during the 1860 Opium War, the ruins of Old Summer Palace hint at the one time spectacular palace complex which was originally planned in the 12th century and added to during Emperor Qianlong's reign in the late 18th century.
Yonghe Lamasery is a Tibetan Buddhist temple in the heart of Beijing that was first built in 1694 as the residence of Prince Yong of the Qing dynasty. The temple assumed an important role after the 1792 uprisings in Tibet, when Emperor Qianlong dictated that a gold vase be kept at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and Yonghe temple in Beijing to determine the true reincarnations of the Dalai Lama and the Mongolian Grand Living Buddha, respectively.
The Ming Tombs are located 31 miles northwest of Beijing and of the 16 emperors who ruled China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), 13 are buried in elaborate complexes in the valley of the Ming Tombs. Only a few tombs are open to the public, the most impressive of which belongs to Emperor Yongle who oversaw the construction of the Forbidden City.
Eastern Qing Tombs
Situated 78 miles northeast of Beijing, the eastern tombs of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) far surpass in splendor and majesty their more famous predecessors, the Ming Tombs, but they are seldom visited, owing to their distance from Beijing which is often a 4 hour drive. Worth a visit if you have time.