Put on your walking shoes and enjoy this classical giant.
As the capital of China, there is a long list of must-see’s in Beijing. Narrowing it down to our typical Top 5 list is impossible, so we opted for Top 10. All of these are quintessential to your voyage in this fascinating city which showcases the longevity and complicated, yet imperial Chinese history. It’s highly recommended to stay at least 5 days in Beijing, since several sites takes up an entire day of visit. Put on your walking shoes and enjoy this classical giant.
Temple of Heaven 天壇
A religious site meant for praying ceremonies especially during times of harvest, Temple of Heaven is a Taoist temple used by emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties as a way to send and receive good fortunes from God. Constructed in 1406, the temple was commissioned by Yongle Emperor who also commissioned Forbidden City. Later under Jiajing Emperior, the temple was extended with Sun (East), Earth (North), and Moon (West) temples. During the 18th century, the famous Qianlong Emperor renovated the temple once more. During the 1900s, the temple was occupied by the Anglo-French Alliance in midst of the Second Opium War, and finally it became a public park in 1918.
As a masterpiece of architecture, you’ll notice several symbolisms: Earth is represented in square while Heaven is signified by circle and dark blue roof tiles. With plenty of squares and circles in design, the number 9 also represents the emperor, hence 9 plates and 18 plates…which you’ll see in the Circular Mound Altar. In the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, you’ll see 4 inner, 12 middle and 12 outer columns, which indicate: 4 seasons, 12 lunar months, and 12 traditional Chinese hours, combining 12 + 12 = traditional solar terms.
Forbidden City 紫禁城
4 Jingshan Front St, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China (map)
The name in Mandarin – 紫禁城 zijincheng – means Purple Forbidden City. Purple indicates the North Star, which refers to the Chinese astrology approach ziweixing (zi means purple). “Forbidden” represents the area cannot be trespassed without the emperor’s permission since it’s where he resides. Today, Forbidden City is also known as the Palace Museum, or gugong in Mandarin.
Also commissioned by Yongle Emperor in 1406, Forbidden City was constructed because he moved the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing. Home to 14 emperors in the Ming Dynasty and 10 from the Qing Dynasty, Forbidden City boasts numerous details that signify Chinese philosophical and religious meanings. In midst of political uproar, the new Republic of China government took over the royal grounds in 1912. The Palace Museum was established in 1925, but many collections were brought to Taiwan in 1948 by Chiang Kai Shek during Chinese Civil War since his Kuomingtan Party was losing.
Make you sure reserve at least 2-3 hours at Forbidden City. It’s tiring because there’s a lot of walking involved. It’s best to reserve one full day for Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, that should be enough.
Tiananmen Square 天安門廣場
Tiananmen Square (map)
Everyone can remember the tragedies that occurred in June 1989, when the Tiananmen Square Massacre of student-led pro-democracy movement was inked by the image of a man standing in front of a towering Chinese tank. Today, the square is a popular tourist site, quite difficult to sink in the international heartbreak of that anguished time.
Ironically, Tiananmen means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” It was built in 1415 during Ming Dynasty. In 1651, it was extended from a gate to a square, and during the 1950s, the space kept spanning. Today, it includes: Monument to the People’s Heroes, Great Hall of the People, National Museum of China, and Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, which takes us to…
Mausoleum of Mao Zedong 毛主席紀念堂
Tiananmen, Dongcheng, China (map)
Chairman Mao Zedong was the leader of the Communist Party of China from 1945 until 1976 when he passed away. Situated in the middle of Tiananmen Square, it takes over what used to be the Gate of China and the main gate of the Imperial City. Mao wanted to be cremated, but his body was embalmed and on display for public viewing. Rumor has it that it’s just a wax figure. You be the judge!
National Museum of China 中國國家博物館
If you want a comprehensive understanding of Chinese history in one spectrum, then check out National Museum of China which is located next to Tiananmen Square. It covers Chinese history from 1.7 million years ago of the Yuanmou Man era all the way to the end of Qing Dynasty (the last one) in early 1900’s. Don’t miss Shang Dynasty’s Simuding 司母戊鼎 (or Queen Mother Wu,) the heaviest ancient bronzeware in the world. Enjoy the galore of jades, ceramics, and porcelains!
Bell & Drum Towers 鼓樓 & 鐘樓
Dongcheng, China, 100009 (map)
Starting in Yuan Dynasty, bells and drums were used as official timekeeping in China, in addition to being the country’s main musical instruments. Both towers are located close to each other, and together they embed the beautiful skyline of Beijing. That is, if you can see it through the smog.
Lama Temple, or Yonghe Temple 雍和宫
12 Yonghegong St, Dongcheng Qu, China, 100007 (map)
This famous temple and monastery boasts the fusion of Chinese and Tibetan styles. One of the rare monuments to have survived Cultural Revolution, Yonghe Temple first began in 1694 during the Qing Dynasty when it was used as a residential area for eunuchs (castrated men who worked for women living in imperial residences). During the 1700’s, part of the building was transformed into a lamasery.
Changing the pace drastically from ancient to modern, welcome to the exciting artistic community of 798. As the host of Beijing Queer Film Festival in recent years, 798 Art Zone thrives in old military factory buildings which began in mid-90’s when many artists were looking for open and cheap spaces for artistic expression. Today, it’s one of the coolest spots to be in Beijing.
Summer Palace 頤和園
Dating back all the way to the 1100’s, Summer Palace is a giant area of lakes, gardens and palaces where emperors kept their horses, rode boats, celebrated birthdays, and more. The entire palace is centered around Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, which covers 3/4 of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll be visiting 6 different sections, so be sure to put on your walking shoes.
Plan an entire day at Summer Palace, because it’s massive. From Front Hill to Back Hill, East Dam to West Dam, the landmark is jam-packed with sites to see inside, so try not to fit anything else in your day.
The Great Wall 萬里長城
The Great Wall of China is last on this list not by importance (obviously!) but by distance. It is an hour car ride north of China, so plan a day trip. The series of stone, wood and brick fortifications crossing from east to west was meant to protect borders of China from invasions. Though construction began during 7th century BC, what you’ll see the most were built from the Ming Dynasty. The most famous part was build by the first emperor Qin Shi Huang, but not much of this section can be seen today.
The 13,171-mile long Great Wall served many purposes, including watch towers to signal smoke or fire, a transportation corridor, and immigration control. As the world’s largest military structure, the Great Wall crosses deserts, grasslands, and mountains. You’ll most likely reach Badaling first, and other more touristic parts include Mutianyu and Jinshanling. It’s highly recommended to go with a guided tour, or ask your hotel for a private car driver that will take you there for the day. Some may want to make a 2-day trip out of it, which can be done since there are plenty of hotels around the iconic landmark.