Eclipsed by Shanghai in terms of size, Beijing is not only the political center of China – a position occupied for more than 800 years – it also plays an important role in the nation’s cultural, economic, scientific and academic life . In the northwest of the North China Plain, not far from the western slopes of the Yanshan Mountains, Beijing – still often called Beijing – is a great place to explore this dynamic country because of its dense network of road, rail, and aviation connections to other major cities.
Beijing has no shortage of beautiful sights and is home to some of the country’s best-known tourist attractions, including part of the famous Great Wall of China. Among the city’s many historical and cultural monuments are the Imperial Palace, Beihai Park, Coal Hill Park and the Heavenly Temple, most of them in the well-preserved historic city center. Other highlights include the gigantic Tiananmen Square, numerous important temples and new construction that came about due to the city’s increased prosperity and major events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
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1 Editor’s Pick The Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City
The Imperial Palace, also known as the Forbidden City, is the most important building in China and can trace its origins back to the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th century. Its immense size is the result of expansions 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 it the nickname of the Forbidden City due to the fact that ordinary citizens were not allowed entry.
The complex covers 720,000 square meters, all surrounded by a 10-meter-high wall with towers in the four corners and a 50-meter-wide moat, and is divided into an area used for ceremonial and administrative purposes, as well as the private quarters used by the emperor and his concubines. Highlights include the Meridian Gate, built in 1420; the Golden River Bridges, five richly decorated white marble bridges; the 35-meter-high Hall of the Supreme Harmony with the beautifully decorated, gilded Imperial Throne; the Hall of Preserving Harmony, which functioned as the emperor’s banquet hall; and the Hall of Military Courage, a permanent residence and private audience hall for the emperors. Also of interest is the nearbyImperial College , founded in 1287 by Kublai Khan and closed only in 1900.
Official site: www.dpm.org.cn/index1280800.html
Tian’anmen Square (Tiananmen Square) is the world’s largest downtown square, designed to accommodate a million people and 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 4, 1919, when students demonstrated against the Chinese provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Highlights include the Monument to the Heroes of the People (Rénmín Yīngxióng Jìniànbēi), a 38-meter-long obelisk composed of 17,000 pieces of granite and marble, and the beautiful Tian’anmen Gate – the Gate of Heavenly Peace – completed in 1417 and once the main entrance to the imperial city. Other characteristics of nut are theMuseum of the Chinese Revolution with its exhibits illustrating the different stages of the Chinese Revolution from 1919 and the development of the Communist Party, and the Chairman Mao Mausoleum where Mao’s body rests in a crystal sarcophagus.
Adres: Dongcheng, Beijing
3 Beihai Park
A short distance from the Imperial Palace , Beihai Park is one of the oldest surviving imperial gardens in Beijing. Set in the early 10th century, this beautiful open space takes its name from the nearby Lake Beihai (North Lake) and offers many good reasons to visit. Among the most important structures are the Round Fort dating from the Yuan period of 1271-1368; the spectacular Hall of Enlightenment, built in 1690 and home to a five-foot Buddha carved from a single block of white jade; and a large black jade vase from the early 12th century.
Other notable features include Song Qingling’s opulent residence in which the widow of the Republic’s founder, Sun Yat-sen, lived for 18 years until her death (it is now a museum); the Living Quarters of Mei Lanfang (Mei Lanfang Guju), a famous male star of the Beijing Opera who specialized in playing the role of a woman; the Guo Moruo Residence, where the famous writer and historian lived from 1963 until his death in 1978, built in the traditional Chinese courtyard style; and the beautiful 17th-century White Pagoda on Exquisite Jade Island .
Adres: 1 Wenjin St, Xicheng, Beijing
4 The Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven (Tiāntán) dates back to 1420 and contains some of Beijing’s most sacred buildings. Surrounded by lush vegetation, these beautiful ancient temples and shrines are set out in two sections – one rectangular, the other semicircular – 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 good harvests and make offerings in the cheerfully decorated Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (Qinian Dian).
Built in 1420 in the usual Chinese fashion of wood and completely without nails, the hall is on a three-tiered marble terrace with balustrades and a roof covered with 50,000 blue glazed tiles (a marble slab on the floor represents the dragon and the phoenix stone, symbols of the emperor). Another highlight is the Hall of the Vault of Heaven (Huangqiong Yu), built in 1530 and featuring a blue-tiled conical roof (it was used to store the ceremonial slabs of Heaven and the Officials). Make sure you also visit the templeEcho Wall , which echoes even the softest voices, an effect exaggerated by three unusual, echo-like stones.
Adres: Dongcheng, Beijing
5 Beijing National Stadium
Recognized around the world for its role in the spectacular Summer Olympics that took place in Beijing in 2008, the National Stadium (Guójiā tǐyùchǎng) – also affectionately called the Bird’s Nest – is well worth a visit. Built at great cost, this remarkable structure owes its unique design to the influences of traditional Chinese ceramics and has been used for major cultural events and performances since the Olympic Games, including opera, pop concerts and football matches. In winter it becomes the world’s largest man-made indoor ski slope.
(English language and self-guided tours are available.) Another nearby attraction is the National Aquatics Center, also known as the Water Cube because of the attractive nighttime display it illuminates and looks like a giant ice cube. In addition to being a venue for Olympic swimming events, part of the building has been turned into the fun Watercube Waterpark.
6 The Lama Temple
Also known as the Yonghe Temple, the Lama Temple is one of the most attractive and well-preserved temples in Beijing. Completed in 1745, the building served a political purpose by giving Lamaism, the religion of then newly annexed Tibet, an official seat in the capital. Built on generous proportions and equipped with many valuable works of art, its main 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, a sword , a snake and a shield).
Also notable is the statue of Weituo, the protector of Buddhism, holding an iron staff. Other important buildings include the Pavilion of the Four-tongued Stele(Yubi Ting), which houses a stele dating from 1792 and containing the history of the Lama religion written in Chinese, Manchurian, Tibetan and Mongolian; the Hall of the Buddhist Wheel (Falun Dian), the monastery’s teaching and gathering hall, its interior dominated by a six-meter-high statue, two thrones and numerous sacred manuscripts; and the largest building at the Lama Temple, the Pavilion of Four Thousand Fortunes (Wangfu Ge) with its enormous 18-meter-high sandalwood statue.
Adres: 12 Yonghegong Street, Dongcheng, Beijing
7 Beijing Capital Museum
Art and culture fanatics are particularly well served in Beijing. Of particular interest is the excellent Beijing Capital Museum, one of the country’s leading art museums. Opened in 1981, the museum has a vast collection of artifacts, including ancient porcelain and bronze objects, traditional calligraphy and works of art, and many beautiful statues from Chinese and other Asian cultures.
Other highlights from the collection of more than 200,000 important cultural artefacts – many of which come from and around Beijing – include the enormous stele of Emperor Qian Long, weighing more than 40 tonnes, standing almost seven meters high and containing ancient scripts and writings. Another modern landmark of Beijing that is worth a visit is theNational Center for the Performing Arts (Guójiā dà jùyuàn), also called 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 opera performances (it’s especially worth visiting if you’re able to catch a performance).
Adres: 16 Fuxingmen Outer St, Xicheng, Beijing
8 Beijing Ancient Observatory
Completed in 1442, the fortress-like Beijing Ancient Observatory (Běijīng Gǔ Guānxiàngtái) is located in the east of the city near the station district and was in continuous use until 1929. It is widely considered to be one of the oldest such observatories in the world. Among the 10,000-square-foot 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 known at the time), along with several large bronze instruments designed by the Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest. Once part of the ancient city walls, this tall brick tower serves as a museum that offers a glimpse into the surprising amount of knowledge of the stars and planets that existed at the time.
Adres: 2 Dongbiaobei Hutong, Dongcheng, Beijing
9 De Fayuan-tempel
The Fayuan Temple (Fǎyuán Sì) – also known as the Temple of the Well of Law –
dates back to the year 645 AD 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 historical events, including serving as a prison for Emperor Huizong in the 12th century, a place of investigation for the state’s highest offices, as well as botanical gardens. Today the temple is a place of worship and the seat of the Buddhist Academy , the premier educational institution in China. Other highlights include the clock and drum towers in the first courtyard; the Hall of the Kings of Heaven with its beautiful statues; the Mahavira HallHouse Buddhas of the present, past and future in 18 Luohan figures; and, one of the temple’s most valuable artifacts, a ceramic statue from the Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) in the Dabianjue Tang Hall.
Another Buddhist site worth visiting is Zhihua Temple , dating from 1444 and one of the most important original Ming period complexes in Beijing’s old town. Of particular interest is the two-storey Tathagata Hall (Rulai Dian), named after the statue of the transcendental Buddha (it is also known as 10,000 Buddha Hall for the many small Buddha figures that adorn its walls).
Adres: 7 Fayuansi Front St, Xicheng, Beijing
10 Coal Hill Park
Coal Hill Park (Jingshan), right across from the north gate of the Imperial Palace, offers some of the best views in Beijing, especially over Beihai Park Lake and the Forbidden Palace . Taking its name from the coal once stored here for the Ming emperors, this largely man-made mound – one of only a handful in Beijing – began around 1416 during the construction of the Imperial Palace when the dumping of rubble from the old city wall and large amounts of soil from the excavation of the moat surrounding the palace resulted in the once low natural hill rising in height. A highlight of a visit, in addition to the many beautiful gardens and walkways, is an ancient acacia tree from which the last Ming emperor was supposed to hang himself in 1644.
11 The Beijing Temple of Confucius
A short walk from the Lama Templedown a pleasant side street spanned by ornamental archways is the Beijing Temple of Confucius, built in 1302 and dedicated to the great philosopher and teacher Confucius, whose teachings dominated public and private life for centuries. One of China’s best-known temples of Confucius, the Beijing Temple was once host to many elaborate ceremonies in honor of its namesake presided over by the emperor. The forecourt houses 198 stelae with inscriptions naming all 51,624 Confucian scholars who successfully passed the state’s highest examinations after 1416 until their abolition in 1904. A highlight is the Hall of Great Achievements (Dacheng Dian), home to numerous shrines dedicated to Confucius, his students, and other Confucian philosophers, as well as many ancient musical instruments and other ritual objects used in the celebrations, which take place on the large terrace in front of the hall. Another religious site worth visiting for its beautiful exterior (non-Muslims are not allowed to enter)Niu Jie Qingzhen Si Mosque , built in 995 AD. Beijing’s oldest and largest mosque, it is in the Islamic Quarter and includes a minaret, a hexagonal moon watchtower and two pavilions with numerous scaffolds with Chinese and Arabic inscriptions.
12 Beijing Zoo
In the northwest of the city, the Beijing Zoo (Běi jīng dòng wù yuán) covers an area of more than 220 hectares and was founded in 1906, making it one of the oldest zoos in China. With an impressive collection of nearly 15,000 animals from 1,000 species – the largest in the country – the zoo contains many rare endemic species such as South China tigers, snow leopards, golden sniffed monkeys and pandas, along with some not so rare ones such as the red-crowned crane and Pere David’s deer. Species from around the world are also well represented and include elephants, lions and jaguars, all spread across grounds that closely resemble classical Chinese gardens, complete with dense woodlands, meadows, rivers, streams and ponds, along with a number of pleasant gazebos and terraces .
Adres: 137 Xizhimen Outer St, Xicheng, Beijing
Where to Stay in Beijing for Sightseeing
We recommend these centrally located hotels in Beijing with easy access to some of the city’s top attractions:
- Four Seasons Hotel Beijing: 5-star luxury, stylish decor, multiple restaurants, luxury spa.
- Renaissance Beijing Capital Hotel: mid-rise, modern design, floor-to-ceiling windows, multiple restaurants, indoor pool and sauna.
- Double Happiness Beijing Courtyard Hotel: 3-star hotel, excellent staff, authentic Chinese feel, traditional furniture, green courtyard.
- Nostalgia Hotel Beijing Xidan: budget hotel, short walk to metro, nostalgic feel, vintage decor, clean rooms.