For centuries, Beijing has been the centre of one of the most mysterious cultures in human history. Whether it’s past Imperial emperors ruling land-conquering dynasties or today’s modern metropolis, the city has always represented the power and cultural influence of one of the biggest superpowers in the world.
With such a vast complex history, Beijing is a city like no other. Amongst the imperial relics are plenty of examples of the city’s ever-growing modernization, topping the list of must-see international cities. As such there are plenty of things for the curious traveller to explore! So in that case, here are the top 20 highlights in Beijing.
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1. The Forbidden City
For over 500 years, the nation of China was ruled from one of the most mysterious and awe-inspiring fortresses the world has ever seen. It was a place where no outsider could ever enter and thus was appropriately named the Forbidden City. In total, 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties once ruled from these walls, the common people are finally free to explore the monstrous palace complex.
As well as being the best-preserved imperial palace in China, the Forbidden City is also the largest palace complex in the world. Following the removal of China’s last emperor, the 72-hectare large palace turned into a public museum in 1925 and has become one of the most visited attractions in the world.
Not only is the UNESCO World Heritage site an immense architectural masterpiece, but also a treasury housing a unique collection of 1.8 million art pieces such as ancient paintings, imperial artefacts and ancient texts. These relics are divided between the different halves of the palace; the Inner and Outer Courts. The latter was used to handle state affairs whilst the former functioned as the living quarters of the emperor.
2. The Great Wall (Badaling)
If you think of China, you think of the Great Wall! There’s no image more iconic than those of the wall snaking its way across monstrous mountain ranges. You’re able to visit the wall at many different points, some of which are still within the municipality of Beijing.
Due to its restoration, and its proximity to Beijing’s centre, Badaling has become the most visited point of the wall. Its close proximity and the extraordinary views of the perfectly reconstructed wall make it the perfect spot for a day trip! Though that does mean that this section of the wall can get pretty crowded!
Don’t let the crowds put you off! As soon as you follow the wall in either direction, you’ll soon lose the crowds and enjoy your own private experience. If you’re not the hiking type, then not to worry, you could always take the cable car! And for a unique way down the wall, why not take a rollercoaster?
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Located right at the centre of Beijing is yet another iconic image recognised throughout the world, Tiananmen Square! The largest of its kind in the world, it dwarfs the likes of Moscow’s Red Square or Times Square in New York!
Placed directly in front of the Forbidden City, it acted as an entranceway to the palace and a place for the common people to gather to find out who would become the new emperor. The square is also surrounded on all sides by other fascinating landmarks such as the National Museum of China, the Great Hall of the People, Zhengyangmen Gate and the Monument to the People’s Heroes right in the centre.
Every morning, eager crowds gather at the end of the square to watch the daily flag-raising ceremony. Possibly the most significant landmark of all, particularly for locals, is the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao Zedong. Inside the hall lays the body of the national hero in a crystal coffin surrounded by fresh bouquets of flowers.
4. The Summer Palace
If you thought that the Forbidden City was the only palace in Beijing, you’d be mistaken! At the North-Western edge of the city, you’ll find the enormous grounds of what many believe to be the most picturesque of highlights Beijing has to offer, the Summer Palace.
The palace is the largest and the best-preserved imperial garden in the world. The gardens have had great influences on Chinese horticulture and landscapes, which has earned the palace the reputation of being ‘The Museum of Royal Gardens‘.
Within the enormous grounds are over 3,000 man-made ancient structures, including pavilions, towers and bridges. Easily the most impressive and spectacular of them all is the Tower of Buddhist Incense. The immaculately designed pagoda taken straight out of Bruce Lee’s Game of Death dominates the view across the entire palace.
The other big highlight is of course Kunming Lake itself which also has plenty of treats scattered around the shoreline. One of the most striking has to be the Seventeen Arch Bridge that leads across to the islet of South Lake Island. If walking doesn’t take your fancy, then you could always take a dragon boat across the lake!
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Considered the holiest of all Beijing’s temples, the Temple of Heaven functioned as the royal altar where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties held the Heaven Worship Ceremony. As yet another of the iconic highlights in Beijing, the temple was opened to the public to showcase its ancient philosophy, history and religious significance.
Not only is it a masterpiece of architectural design, but the parks surrounding the temple are also a popular spot amongst locals! Groups of the older generation regularity gather to practise tai chi, play chess and even dance!
6. The Ming Tombs
Yet another one of the iconic highlights in Beijing are the Ming Tombs, where the 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty were laid to rest. The UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site is by far the best-preserved mausoleum and you won’t find a bigger collection of emperors anywhere else!
Located 30 miles northwest of Beijing’s centre at the foot of Tianshou Mountain, each mausoleum is spread up to 5 miles apart in its own independent unit. Each site has been carefully designed to reflect the philosophy of ‘the unity of heaven and humanity‘ by paying attention to the area’s harmony with nature.
Though there are a total of 13 mausoleums in the area, at present, only 3 are open to the public; Changling Tomb, Dingling Tomb and Zhaoling Tomb. Visitors can also walk down the Sacred Way, which was used as the ceremonial entrance to the cemetery complex.
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Though Beijing has plenty of other temples to choose from, few are more significant and as awe-inspiring as this one! Located at the northeast corner of Beijing, Yonghegong Lama Temple is considered the largest and best-preserved lamasery, or Tibetan Buddhist monastery, in present-day China.
To this day, the temple still functions as a monastery with monks (or lamas) sauntering amongst the many halls. Moreover, one of these halls is home to a world record, an 18m tall white sandalwood figure of the Maitreya Buddha, the biggest of its kind.
When entering the temple complex, visitors will come upon a screen wall and three Paifangs (gateways) which leads to the Zhaotaimen (Gate of Peace Declaration). Of the three large archways, the central one was exclusively for emperors.
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As the name suggests, the Old Summer Palace was the original place to be! Once the play area and political hub for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty, it was then sadly destroyed by French and English troops in 1860. Due to most of the structures being made of wood, all that remained were the European-style stone structures.
The grounds of the temple are actually bigger than the Forbidden City! As a result, its technically the biggest museum in the world with its various classic architectural styles and precious historic relics.
The long-cobbled street leading south from Tiananmen Square once served as the southern gate of the capital during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The extended avenue in centuries past was solely used for carrying the emperor’s imperial carriages towards the Temple of Heaven for ceremonies or weddings. With such a rich history of over 600 years, Qianmen became known as the Gate of the Nation.
These days the streets are lined on all sides with high-end stores and restaurants serving all manner of authentic cuisine. The back alleys are also filled with stores selling authentic items and various markets offering all kinds of souvenirs, with some unique inclusions like fighting crickets!
10. The Silk Market
Once an outdoor market famous for the sale of one luxurious material, today the Silk Market has grown into a modern-day shopping mall with over 1,000 retailers selling everything under the sun. The market has been a symbol of Beijing for centuries, and has even attracted some famous names, such as former president George Bush Senior!
As the name suggests, the market’s feature item is silk and items crafted out of it. However, the market also has a plethora of other merchandise from tea, porcelain, and jade, to more present-day products such as tech items and clothing.
Be aware that most of the brands are cheap copies, and don’t be afraid to haggle! It’s normal in Chinese markets, so you can always aim to cut the price by 10% to 30%.
11. Wangfujing Snack Street (The Bug Market)
Though Wangfujing Street is an up-and-coming shopping district in central Beijing, known for its high-end stores and shopping malls, it’s not the districts biggest attraction. One of the biggest highlights in Beijing is hidden down a nearby alley, away from the squeamish eyes of the public.
Wangfujing Night Market, more commonly known as the Bug Market, has been a staple of many travel documentaries and online vlogs for decades. The street has become notorious as a place to buy some exotic critters to snack on. Everything from scorpions and lizards to spiders, seahorses and snakes are available for your eating pleasure.
Admittedly, the entire street is a tourist trap in every sense of the word! Chinese people don’t eat any of this either, they’re just as amazed as we are! Even so, it’s still definitely worth a look!
12. The Olympic Park
In 2008, Beijing played host to the Summer Olympics, and as such, needed the proper venues for the event! The result was the Olympic Green Village, an area with 10 different purpose-built venues to host events such as track and field, weight lifting and swimming. Some venues will even be used for the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics!
Within the village, two landmarks stand out above all the rest. The Beijing National Stadium, more appropriately named the Bird’s Nest, is by far one of the biggest highlights. Another favourite is the outer surface of the Water Cube which was designed to imitate the way soap bubbles come together.
After the Olympics ended, the state of the art facilities opened for public use and as the prime location for international sporting events! If you visit at night, you’ll see each structure illuminated in different neon colours.
13. Visit the Hutongs
Many people are surprised at how modern and futuristic present-day Beijing really is! Most want a more authentic old-timey experience. Luckily there’s still one place that gives a wonderful glimpse into traditional Beijing life and culture.
Hutongs are the name given to mazes of narrow alleyways or small street between rows of single-storey Siheyuan (courtyards). In centuries past thousands of hutongs surrounded and expanded outwards from the Forbidden City. Both aristocrats and commoners would live in these neighbourhoods, though the latter were much simpler and less grandiose! By 1949 there were over 3,250 Hutongs in the city!
Sadly, times are changing. Most hutongs have been demolished to make way for new developments, such as the Olympic Village. The government is also very keen to modernise and tries to rid the city of its peasant slums at any given opportunity. As a result, no more than 1,000 remains, with the majority of them turned into tourist attractions.
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There are many hundreds of hutongs to choose from. Though you should definitely take the time to visit an authentic old fashioned hutong, some of the touristy ones are also worth a visit. None more so than Nanluoguxian, a hutong that highlights the most complete lane of traditional courtyard dwellings in Beijing.
The 800-year-old hutong has been the home of many royal families and officials due to its close proximity to the Forbidden City. Today the historic central street is a place of cultural innovation with its combination of the old and new of both China and the West.
The central street has all manner of different architectural styles as well as being famous for its speciality stores. Many come for the creative culture whilst most stay for the snacks and distinctive bars.
China’s Imperial rulers were all about luxury. So much so that that they built an entire man-made lake of Houhai just for their own pleasure! Literally translating as “Back Sea”, the picturesque artificial lake these days has been given back to the common people and has since developed into a prosperous commercial area.
In ancient times the shoreline of the lake was lined with wine shops, workshops, and opera stages, where today they’ve been replaced with bars, teahouses and restaurants. The lake is a popular spot to ride boats during the summer months and ice skate during the winter months.
16. Watch Beijing Opera
For many, one of the city’s biggest highlights is watching the awe-inspiring Beijing Opera, the pinnacle of Chinese culture. The unique combination of magnificent costumes, facial makeup, unique vocals and literary stories make for some incredible performances.
The most iconic aspect of the opera is the unique facial masks decorated with various colours to symbolise different characteristics. For example, the red face symbolizes loyalty while white faces denote treachery and paranoia.
17. Beihai Park
Not only were Beijing’s Imperial rulers a fan of palaces, but they loved their gardens too! Beihai Park is one of the oldest imperial gardens in the city and has been a venue for royal banquets for centuries. For almost a thousand years, the park has been a fantastic representation of art and culture.
Undoubtedly the park’s most notorious landmark is the White Dagoba, which sits on top of a hill on the Jade Flowery Islet. The Tibetan dagoba symbolizes the Buddhist doctrine shrines on the earth. Of the many parks in Beijing, this is amongst the best highlights!
19. Party at Sanlitun
Let’s get one thing straight, the Chinese love to party, and they party hard! There’s no better place to do that in Beijing than in Sanlitun! It is the place to be for foreigners and young locals to come for a good time! The streets are lined with countless clubs, bars. It said that nearly 60% of Beijing’s bars are congregated in the area! Oh and if you’re a foreigner, you get to drink in clubs for free! How about that?!
18. Jingshan Park
Though it’s one of the lesser-known highlights of Beijing, it’s still one of the best. Directly behind the Forbidden city stands the 5 peaks of Jingshan park, which were man-made from the mounds of dirt removed during the process of building the moat which surrounds the palace!
The peaks offer a fantastic panoramic view of the city, and an even better view of the Forbidden City from above, a site not available anywhere else. The park also marks the official centre of Beijing, which is represented by a marker set before the Wanchun Pavilion.
20. 798 Art District
One of the more unique highlights in Beijing, the 798 Art district was established in the 1950s and named after the factory that used to stand here. Each year, more and more artists and designers move into the area and bring with them unique art exhibitions and creative workshops.
At present, there are more than 100 cultural institutions within the district. They include the likes of publishing houses, clothes design companies, music and movie producing companies and artist studios.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.