Beijing is the capital of China, both in the modern era, and back through the Qing and Ming dynasties during the age of empires. This city has also been an important city before it was the centre of the Chinese nation/empire, stretching back many millennia to the origins of Chinese civilization; as such, it is rich in many historic sites, which will make many a culture vulture deliriously happy.
These sites were collected over several thousand years as different tribes, nations, and families fought over the rule of this city, and therefore the Chinese empire. As a result of this, Beijing has amassed many significant structures over the eons, which will keep many avid sightseers busy for weeks on end.
You’ll want to take your time in this place – Beijing is huge, both in population and geography. To make matters even more complicated, the incomprehensible economic growth that has occurred over the past 20+ years has jammed up roads considerably, making travel by cab a slow process at the best of times, and mass transit, while comprehensive in its scope, can get jam-packed at rush hour, and closes quite early by global standards (around 10:30pm).
You’re a traveler however – adjustability is the name of the game here, and those that do it effectively will find this rapidly growing centre of the Eastern World to be a deeply satisfying nexus of culture, making Beijing a worthy introduction to China.
First time visitors will want to run out and see two major attractions in Beijing and vicinity: the Forbidden City, and the section of the Great Wall of China closest to the city. For more information on these nationally important attractions, click on the link that refers to the place you want to see, as they are both covered in detail in the China country guide.
After you have finished tackling those two juggernauts, return your focus to the city, making your way down to the controversial but popular gathering place for local Beijingers, Tiananmen Square. Besides the sweeping public plaza that presents many people watching opportunities, there are many museums worth your time that line the sides of this square, such as the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. The Forbidden City is also located here, making it a great choice to do first, then to segue into the other attractions available in the Tiananmen Square area.
Getting outside the action-packed city centre, make your way over to the Temple of Heaven, a Chinese Heaven worship temple (a religious discipline in China that pre-dates Taoism) that is regarded as a Taoist religious site in the present day. Mostly constructed of marble, the complex consists of three buildings, one for praying for good harvests, another where prayers for good weather were offered up, and the last amplified the sound of the prayers so that they might be heard by the Gods in heaven. While all these architectural features are noteworthy enough their own, those wishing to witness a vital tradition in the lives of normal Beijingers should also come here, as many choose the area around this temple to conduct their daily tai chi movements.
Heading over to the northeast side of the city, those looking to explore the Buddhism’s most important temple in Beijing should seek out the Lama Temple, or Yonghe Temple. Decorated with a mix of Tibetan and Han Chinese influences, the temple originally served as the home of the crown prince in the 18th Century, which was then converted to a monastery for Tibetan monks after ascending to the throne himself. Saved from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution (which it was for all the wrong reasons … think destruction instead of creation) in 1981 by then Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, it remains blessedly intact for culture lovers to enjoy, as its statues of arhats (one who has attained nirvana) and the Buddha are truly divine discoveries.
Finally, round out your culture hunting itinerary with a visit to the Summer Palace. A masterful achievement of Chinese landscape design, the grounds of this palace are better known for its gardens, lakes, and pavilions than for the palace itself (which is impressive enough on its own). The beauty of the place is so ground-breaking that UNESCO placed it on its list of World Heritages Sites in 1998 on the basis of its breathtaking composition.
Having hosted the Olympics recently in 2008, Beijing has its share of legacy of athletics facilities. From an architectural standpoint though, none of them stand out quite as much as the National Stadium, or Bird’s Nest, as it’s more popularly known. Designed by a Swiss architectural firm to resemble … well … a bird’s nest, the design inspired much debate in the building community, split among those who loved or hated it. Either way, it’s an excellent photo opportunity, and a centre of many athletic events and pop concerts that are held in the city in the present day. Ask around when you arrive for details on coming events.
For those seeking out their first panda sighting in the country (in captivity albeit), the Beijing Zoo should be the place to visit for this purpose. Here, not only can you see China’s iconic animal, but see 450 species of land animals on grounds manicured to Chinese garden specifications. 500 marine species can also be found in its aquarium, including dolphins, sea lions, and penguins.
Finally, get a taste of the way Beijing used to be before modernizing forces utterly transformed the landscape by exploring Hutongs. Hutongs are tightly packed neighbourhoods linked by narrow alleys and streets. While they have been cleared at an alarming rate to make way for towers and highways in recent decades, there are still some left in the heart of Old Beijing, where one can still interact with locals that have inhabited these homes for generations.