Beijing is a rapidly Westernizing city that still retains remnants of its glorious historic past, from the beautiful Summer Palace to the iconic Temple of Heaven The Chinese capital is filled with museums that specialize in everything from coins to watermelons, as well as the Great Wall Museum at Badaling.
The picturesque one-story concrete block homes, known as hutongs, are being replaced by shopping malls and high-rise apartments. It is still possible to find these older-style homes around the Drum Tower and between the Andingmen and GuLou subway stations on Second Ring Road. As they’re fast disappearing from the Beijing landscape, travelers may want to seek them out for a relaxing walk through them.
Beijing is a good place to shop. Colorful open-air markets where the Chinese purchased produce and necessities of daily life are disappearing; it’s not as easy anymore to find athletic shoes with one labeled Nike and the other, Reebok. Travelers who want to buy souvenirs should head to the Panjiayuan flea and antique market. While the antique dealers are open seven days a week, the majority of souvenir-selling vendors only show up on weekends. Haggling over the price is expected. Travelers who prefer more upscale shopping will find it at a mall filled with boutiques selling goods by international high fashion designers. Wherever a traveler shops, good buys are silk scarves and fabrics, and cloisonné jewelry and vases.
In this article we list the 4 most famous sights in Beijing. After seeing these major attractions, it’s time to wander off the beaten tourist path to see smaller sites that are just as interesting. This includes Yonghegong Lama Temple, the Bell and Drum Towers, the Big Bell Temple and the Soong Ching Ling House that is reached via a pleasant stroll alongside Houhai Lake.
The Summer Palace is the most beautiful garden in Beijing, perhaps in all of China. Located in northwest Beijing, it was once a playground for China’s imperial families who wanted to escape Beijing’s summer heat.
Construction on Yihe Yuan, as it is known in Chinese, began in 1750, but was destroyed a hundred years later when the French and British invaded Peking, as Beijing was known then. Its restoration was not without controversy as the Dowager Empress Cixi embezzled funds from the Chinese Navy to build the Marble Boat, which really isn’t marble but wood painted to look like marble. Foreign armies destroyed the Summer Palace again in 1900, and it was rebuilt once again.
Longevity Hill is marked by a series of buildings situated in a row going up the hill. The halls start out opulent at the bottom and end with gardens at the top. Visitors who don’t mind walking up lots of stairs will be rewarded with great views of Kunming Lake and beyond on a clear day.
Kunming Lake punctuates the Summer Palace. It is entirely man-made, with the excavated dirt used to build Longevity Hill. Travelers with time may enjoy a walk around the lake, viewing various statues such as the Sacred Ox.
Also not to be missed are the Long Corridor, a covered walkway that contains more than 14,000 paintings on beams across the top and sides, and Suzhou Street, a serene streamside shopping area one emperor built for his concubine because she missed her hometown of Suzhou.
Badaling is the easiest site to access the Great Wall from Beijing, making it the most popular part, and also the most crowded. Reachable by public bus from Deshengmen on Beijing’s Second Ring Road, Badaling is the place where the Chinese government takes its official visitors. The views of the Great Wall through the mountains are awesome. Badaling also is home to the fabulous Great Wall Museum, with its dioramas of building and defending the wall.
Temple of Heaven
Nothing is more symbolic of Beijing than the iconic blue dome of the Temple of Heaven. Located in south Beijing, the Temple of Heaven was built by the Ming emperor Yongle in 1420. Emperors from then on would come here to pray and make sacrifices to the god of heaven for good harvests. It is the world’s largest complex for making sacrifices, with 92 buildings set in a pine forest. Chinese like to come here to fly kites today because of the large open areas.
The domed temple is the most famous of the buildings at the complex. Officially, it is called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. No nails were used in the construction of this wooden building. The original building was destroyed by lightning in 1889.
Other key buildings at the complex include the Imperial Vault of Heaven, also built in a circle surrounded by a wall known as Echo Wall that transmits sounds over long distances. The Circular Mound Altar is built on three levels and decorated with ornate dragons. The Heart of Heaven is in the center and is where the emperor prayed for good weather.
The Temple of Heaven, known as Tiantan, is one of four aligned temples in Beijing. Divan Park is home of the north temple, known as the Temple of Earth; Rita Park, to the east, hosts the Temple of the Sun, while Yutan Park, to the west, is home to the Temple of the Moon. The Temple of Heaven is the largest of the four.
No visit to Beijing is complete without a visit to the Palace Museum (Gu Gong in Chinese), or the Forbidden City as it is more popularly known by because at one time the complex was off-limits to ordinary Chinese.
Built in the early 15th century, the Forbidden City served as home for emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties until Puyi, the toddler emperor abdicated in 1912. It is a walled complex, surrounded by a moat, that is the world’s largest palatial complex. Legend has it that its 980 buildings contain 9,999 rooms, though the actual number is about a thousand lower.
Visitors enter the Forbidden City from the south or Meridian Gate, which is across Chang’an Avenue from Tiananmen Square. By the way, it’s considered good luck for visitors passing through the heavy doors to rub one of the gold knobs.
Once inside, most visitors go straight up the center because that’s where the key buildings are. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest and most important hall; it was used for ceremonial occasions.
The smaller Hall of Middle Harmony served as the emperor’s office where he would rehearse speeches and receive ministers. The third hall, the Hall of Preserving Harmony, was used for banquets.
Lesser halls are behind these, including the Palace of Heavenly Purity, where the emperors lived; the Hall of Union, which contains a water clock, and the Hall of Earthly Tranquility, which held the bridal chamber and the palace concubines. Less crowded than these halls are the galleries on each side of the Forbidden City. These contain exhibits such as ceramics, calligraphy, paintings and coins.
The tranquil Imperial Garden is located near the rear, featuring landscaping consisting of rockeries, walkways and old cypress trees. The Gate of Divine Prowess is the north exit. Visitors who have the time my want to cross the street to Jingshan Park, where they can climb to the top of Coal Hill for stunning views of the Forbidden City.