Beijing, one of four historical capitals and the current one too, has a very different vibe compared to Shanghai or other Chinese cities. Your trip to mainland China wouldn’t be complete without visiting it: you can explore both the 8 centuries of Chinese empire, the communist present and a bit of a futuristic aspect too (unfortunately, I don’t cover them in full here)!
Here’s my guide to the most prominent historical landmarks and cultural experiences that would help you understand Beijing and Chinese culture in general. And only imagine: Beijing is a home to 7 World Heritage Sites!
Tiananmen Square is a must visit – for every tourist. It’s named after the imperial gate to the Forbidden City, one of the main symbols of Beijing, and has witnessed lots of important historical events that include the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and June Fourth Massacre in 1989.
Apart from being the main square of Beijing, it also hosts some important landmarks including the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (you can see his portrait on the Tiananmen gate too), the National Museum of China, the Railway Museum, the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the governmental Great Hall of the People. We visited Beijing during the Golden week so the square was packed but if you happen to go in low-season time, you can attend the flag-raising ceremony.
2. Forbidden City
Forbidden city was my landmark number 1 to see in Beijing: it’s a palace built in 1406–1420 during the rule of Ming dynasty as large as a city where the emperor lived with his family, concubines, eunuchs and other servants and where all the most important political events and ceremonies took place. The entrance to it used to be restricted, thus it’s called ‘Forbidden’.
I prepared a separate article dedicated solely to the Forbidden city because it’s really huge – however I must note that you still cannot enter it freely: our guide pre-booked our tickets on the official website of the palace, and our passports were checked to allow us the entrance.
Forbidden City is indeed an UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.
3. Jingshan park
Best stroll around central Beijing and best ‘drone’ view of Forbidden city? That’s an easy one: Jingshan park. Located just outside the Northern gate of the Palace, it’s a pleasant park with an artificial 46 metre high mountain. On the top of it All Time Spring, or Wanchun. Pavilion, which gives you the best panoramic view over the city.
It also is a nice place for a stroll on its own, make sure you don’t miss it.
4. Summer Palace
More Imperial Palaces? Yes, please. Summer Palace was an impressive residence of the Imperial Chinese elite. The most ancient constructions are lost: the huge fire event happened in 1860, and Summer Palace was completely rebuilt in 1888 just to be devastated again in 1900 by the Eight-Nations Alliance troops.
However, as a phoenix, the Summer Palace was rebuilt in 1902 and turned into a public park after the abdication of the last Chinese Emperor. Now it still is an astonishing landmark, with a huge Kunming lake, famous Marble boat, The Seventeen-Arch Bridge, Tower of Buddhist Incense (Foxiang Ge), Longevity Hill (Wanshou Shan) and “Long Corridor’ (which is actually pretty long stretching for 728 metres) built to allow the Imperial family members to walk along in any weather conditions.
Also Summer palace is associated with Empress Dowager Cixi, one of the most powerful and dangerous women of the last dynasty who was also a regent to the last emperor of China Puyi up to her death in 1908. You probably remember her from Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.
We ended our visit on Suzhou Street, a canal area that used to represent the idyllic life of peasants built to entertain the Imperial family.
Summer Palace occupies an enormous square space so plan to spend at least 3-4 hours there (I’d even say, spend a day there if you can).
Summer Palace is of course a World Heritage Site designated by UNESCO.
5. Temple of Heaven
If you have time to see only one historic cult building in Beijing, make sure it’s the Temple of Heaven! It’s a huge altar that served as a worship place for the god of Heaven and was the centrepiece for the ceremony that took place at a solstice and should bring a good harvest. The whole ritual that included following the road to the Temple of Heaven and culminating with animal sacrifice was sacred and performed by an emperor himself as he was seen as the son of heaven.
The monument was in use during the rule of the Ming and Qing dynasties for over 5 centuries. You might notice that some architectural elements are linked to special numbers (such as 9) carrying the symbolic meaning and others are round or square (they represent heaven or earth accordingly).
There are some other things to see around such as the Gate of Praying for the Good Harvests, the Hall of Praying for the good harvests, the Echo wall and the Long corridor.
6. Temple of Heaven Park
The park around the monument is an attraction itself: you can see many elders there training and performing tai-chi (as many older Chinese do – and I absolutely admire them for this) and the younger ones still trying to arrange ‘blind dates’ or even marriages bringing a short bio of their children written on a piece of paper for others to read right behind the Seven star Stones monument. Pine trees in the parks used to have sacred elements in them too.
7. Beijing Opera
Forget everything you know about the Western opera and attend the Beijing (or Peking) opera, a true cultural gem of the country! I fell in love with this very disting kind of musical performance when I saw it in London on tour.
Peking opera includes acrobatics, combat and dances, the plots are usually traditional: historical or folklore, and might involve gods and goddesses. The orchestra includes traditional Chinese percussion instruments and the unique singing style – this is not exactly what you would call an aria (characters can have a non-singing dialog or recitation too though). All the actors wear traditional bright make-up representing different role types.
We visited the performance of the Liyuan Theater located inside the hotel Quiamen Jianguo hotel: the visitors might choose the table with seats and tea as we did (and Beijing sweets with lots of chewy pieces are my favourite!). The lobby of the theatre had a small museum part with the short story of Beijing opera and explanation of some costumes.
8. Lama temple
The Lama Temple, or Yonghe Lamasery, is an impressive temple that belongs to the school of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s famous for housing the largest Buddha made out of a single piece of sandal wood standing 18 metres tall (it’s even enlisted in the Guinness Book of World Record!), the bronze Buddhas in three ages, and the five-hundred-Arhat-Hill.
Originally it was built in the late 17th century as a part of the palace where eunuchs lived and later – as princes’ residence, and in the 1740s was turned into a place of worship. It was closed after the cultural revolution but reopened.
The temple itself is a beautiful place: you can spend hours there taking notes of different architectural elements and small details.
9. Wudayoing hutong
Hutong is a must see when you’re in Beijing. It’s a narrow street lined up with one-storey stone houses called siheyuan which used to be very common around various cities of China, and up to today, you can explore the traditional way of living in such areas. There are a few locations with preserved hutongs you can visit in Beijing today, but we opted for Wudaoying hutong, 632 metres long and 6 metres wide.
During the Ming Dynasty rule, it belonged to Chingjilao part of the city and was named Wudewei – meaning ‘camp’ – after the military camps located here. Later, in the Qing dynasty, it was renamed as Wudaoying and belonged to Bordered Yellow banner. Finally, it was known as Wudaoying Hutong from the 1965 on. It’s very close to the Lama temple and now it’s a very cool area with shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes for both tourists and locals.
10. The Legend of Kung Fu Show
The Legend of Kung Fu Show in the Red theatre is another performance I strongly recommend you to visit. Combining acrobatics, visual special effects and music, it tells quite a non-complicated story of a boy who overcame all the obstacles and became a master of Kung Fu and to reach enlightenment.
And it’s performed by real Kung Fu practitioners! It’s suitable for tourists who speak English as the actors don’t speak at all.
If you have lots of free time, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Great Wall of China! I’ve written about our experience in a separate article Great Wall of China.
Where to stay in Beijing
We stayed at the Grand Hyatt Beijing on Wangfujing, a short walk from Tiananmen Square, and the most impressive thing about it was its pool area and 1,500 sqm Oasys pool with palms and small islands and its Yue Ting Restaurant Cantonese restaurant with delicious traditional dishes such as Peking duck (quite different from what you get in European cities), appetisers and jelly! The breakfasts at The Balcony were really nice but the room was pretty modest.
Read more about the mainland China:
I hope you enjoyed my blog!