A kite merchant on Tiananmen Square.
A kite merchant on Tiananmen Square. Corno van den Berg

This city has a long history, but many people know very little about it. Before the first emperor Qin Shi Huang united China in 221 BC, Beijing was the capital of the kingdom of Yan. At the time the city was not called Beijing, but it was known as Jicheng or Yanjing. Part of the Old City Wall dates back to this time, but otherwise there are few remnants.

According to urban and rural planners, Beijing is an excellent example of Chinese urban development. This extraordinary construction can be traced back to the time right before the dynasties, also known as the Warring States Period (476 – 221 BC). After Qin Shi Huang had proclaimed himself emperor in 221, this method of construction became the standard.

A child playing with flags in Beijing
A child playing with flags. Dominic Lüdin

The city is notably rectangular in shape and is surrounded by a straight wall. The palace and the government buildings are in the centre. The location is also well chosen. The city is open to the east and to the south. The mountains to the north protect the city, and water can be found at the front side. So according to the rules of Feng Shui, Beijing is a safe place to live.

Nowadays, Beijing is the imperial capitol, taking over from Xi’an, which had that role for centuries, during the Qin dynasty. Most monuments in the city are from the last two dynasties: Ming and Qing, just like the world-famous Forbidden City in the centre.

The Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City. Corno van den Berg

This forbidden city, which in fact used to be a palace, was Beijing’s best-guarded secret for many years. Not until the last emperor (Puyi) was dethroned in 1911, did it become accessible for everyone. Up to that time nobody was allowed into the Forbidden City, except for staff at the emperor’s court. The latter were not allowed to speak about it to anyone.

The wealth of the palace only became apparent after its doors were opened, and it is enormous: the yellow roofs, the abundance of gold, vermillion (red-orange) walls make it a real sight to behold, and the story behind it enhances its grandeur. Each building is richly decorated. There are golden bridges, countless sculptured dragons and glazed tiles with of scenes of day-to-day life.

The city was home to the entire royal household, including thousands of concubines (or mistresses) and eunuchs (castrated men who had to serve the women). The area surrounding the palace was called the Imperial City, and nobody was allowed to enter except for staff. Many local craftsmen worked here, making all sorts of quality products for the court. In the meantime, the majority of this area  has disappeared.

Although a visit to the Forbidden City is on top of the list of most tourists, Beijing has so much more to offer. It is an ideal city to explore on your own accord, and you will notice that present and past are constantly intertwined. You will be surprised at the wealth from the past.

Attractions:

Forbidden city
The central part of the Forbidden City takes up 750 by 960 metres of Beijing. The main complex comprises of three palaces, most of which were built in the 18th century. This is where the emperor ruled his country from. The largest and most open part was meant for state business, the northern part, with its many alleyways and smaller chambers, was for private use. Everybody had to follow strict rules, including the empress, and was restricted to certain parts of the city.

Tiananmen Square (Gate of Heavenly Peace)

A guard at Tiananmen Square.
A guard at Tiananmen Square. Corno van den Berg

Tiananmen Square is 880 metre long and 500 metre wide. It’s right in the middle of the city and is the seventh largest square in the world. In the middle of the square is the is Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. The layout of the square has varied over the passing years, though its use has changed little. The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen’s Gate Tower) is one of the few original parts of the square. The brick base of this gate rests on a foundation of sparkling white marble. This square became infamous for a pro-democracy protest against the communist party in 1989. This protest, which lasted for longer than a month, came to a bloody end when it was violently shut down using tanks. It’s part of Beijing’s past, where past and present meet on many a street corner, and sometimes even collides. These days the square is most used for the flying of kites, a symbol of peace.

Temple of the Earth
The Temple of Earth was built in 1530 was built by emperor Jia Jing during the Ming dynasty. It was restored during the Qing dynasty, but it’s a lot less extravagant than the Temple of Heaven. This temple takes up around 42,7 hectares and has a remarkable history. Yongle, the third Ming emperor, had the Temple of Heaven and Earth built in 1420 in the south of Beijing. As was the tradition, he brought offerings here to heaven (in winter) and to earth (in summer). But Emperor Jiajing had a different view on things and changed this temple to be the Temple of Heaven, and had another temple built in the north of the city in 1530, the Temple of the Earth, with a special altar,Fangzetan – the Altar of the Earth. After this, all Ming and Qing emperors used these temples for their offering to the gods of heaven and earth.

It’s also worth visiting the summer palace, Yiheyuan, beautifully situated in a neatly laid-out classical Chinese garden in the north-west of the city. Its buildings are ornately decorated, with lots of marble, most of which date back to the start of the last century, though this site was already in use during the 12th century.

Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven at the end of the day.
The Temple of Heaven at the end of the day. Corno van den Berg

The four most important temples of Beijing are located around the Forbidden City in the four directions of the compass: the Temple of Sun in the east, the Temple of the moon in the west, the Temple of Earth in the north and the Temple of Heaven in the south. The Temple of Heaven is often considered the most beautiful temple in china. The impressive building dates back to 1420, and served as a holy place for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The temple wasn’t part of the city at first, but the city walls were moved further out during the Qing dynasty.

Temple of the Sun
This is another one of the four great temples of Beijing, and was built in 1530, and as the name suggests it was designated to make offers to the Sun God. It was first used by the emperors of the Ming dynasty, and later by those of the Qing dynasty. This temple is in the Ritan Park, with large gardens and a small lake. As in all the temples, the most important place is the altar, which is surrounded by a large wall. The Temple of the Sun is located in the east of Beijing.

Temple of the Moon

The Temple of the Moon is surrounded by greenery in Yuetan Park.
The Temple of the Moon is surrounded by greenery in Yuetan Park. Ulrichsson

The Temple of the Moon is the fourth great temple of Beijing. This one also dates back to 1530 and was built so the emperors could make offerings to the God of the Moon. These days the temple is part of Yuetan Park. Large parts of the park were restored over the years 2004 to 2007, and was reopened in 2007. This temple is located to the west of Beijing.

Shichahai (Lake of the ten Temples)

Shichahai is a historic and picturesque area in the north of Beijing with three lakes. It’s famous because the Mansion princes and their officials built many temples here. These days its known for its vibrant night life, as it has many bars and restaurants. Remarkable is that this area didn’t really become popular until the SARS virus broke out. Many residents of Beijing were convinced that spending a lot of time outdoors would protect them from contracting it, so they would spend their evening here, in the outdoors. Now that the virus is long gone, the area is still full of life. The most popular areas are Lotus Lane and around the Yinding bridge.

Old city wall
The old city wall is not a very well-known attraction in Beijing. This wall is also often confused with the Great Wall of China, which is located to the north of the city. This city wall was built between 1370 and 1419 to protect the city from attacks, and it’s 23.5 kilometres long. The city grew out of its walls in 1553, so the wall had to be adjusted, so it would also protect the Temple of Heaven. Archaeologists say that is was twenty metres wide at the base and twelve metres wide at the top, and around fifty metres high in most places. It stood for about 530 years until the ring road around the city was laid, which brought an end to most of the wall. But you can still spot restored watch towers that belong to the wall around the city. The only part of the wall that is still standing to this day is in the south-east of the city, near the station. It has been restored in recent decades, and there are plans to restore more of it, bringing back some of its old glory.

Jingshan Park
Jingshan Park is an artificial hill near the Forbidden City, with an interesting background. It was created in the 15th century, using the soil that was excavated when Ming-Emperor Yongle had canals dug around the Forbidden City. Strictly following the rules of Feng Shui, the soil was deposited just so, to make sure the Forbidden City was protected from bad influences from the north. For a long time the hill was part of the imperial garden, but in 1928 it was opened to the public. These days it’s a popular location to get a good view of the Forbidden City, and the rest of Beijing if the weather is clear enough. This is also the place where the Chongzhen emperor took his own life in 1644.

The Bell Tower (Zhonglou)
This bell tower, together with the Drum Tower, was built in 1272 for time-keeping as well as musical reasons, during the reign of General Kublai Khan. It’s in the north of the city and was once the most northern point of the city. They were rebuilt around 1420 in the dynasty of the emperor Yongle, but the wooden drum tower was destroyed by fire in 1747. That’s when the current towers were built, the Bell Tower is now a stone 33-metre high structure, and its location is slightly more to the east than its predecessor. The bell would ring every morning at 7 am to announce the start of a new day. As the city grew, so did the bell tower, which is still evident today.

The Drum tower (Gulou)

A drummer in the Drum Tower of Beijing.
A drummer performs his craft in the Drum Tower. Curt Smith

The Drum Tower was also used to make music and for time-keeping in the olden days, for example to announce the closing of the city gates for the night. At 7 pm there were thirteen strokes on twenty-four huge drums, after which the gates to the city were closed. After that they would beat the drums every two hours. Of all the original drums only one remains and is on display. There are 25 replica drums now in use, and still beaten in ancient tradition. The tower is around 46 metres high and has steep stairs. The Drum Tower and the Bell Tower are right near each other.

Summer Palace

Extreme decadence: the Marble Boat at the Summer Palace.
Extreme decadence: the Marble Boat at the Summer Palace. Noel Hidalgo

The Summer Palace in the north-west of Beijing is almost a city in itself, a huge leisure resort for the emperors. It has many pavillions and a lake. But there are also several curiosities, such as a large marble ‘boat’ (it’s a building, not an actual boat) on the edge of Kunming Lake. It’s also known as the ‘Boat of Purity and Ease’, a very poetic name, like many of the sites at the Summer Palace. There are also the ‘Hall of Dispelling Clouds’, and the ‘Garden of Harmonious Pleasures’, to name but a few. The original palace in the Longevity Hills was built in the 12th century, but many of its current structures are only around 100 years old. The palace grounds are so large, that you almost need your own tour guide to learn about it all.

Beihai Park and White Pagoda

The crisp lines of the landscaping at Beihai Park.
The crisp lines of the landscaping at Beihai Park. Pierrick Blons

Beihai Park is famous for its White Pagoda, a remarkable temble built in 1278. It’s a design of a Nepalese architect whose name has been lost during the passing of time. There are several imperial gardens, once layed out for the Qing dynasty. It’s to the north-west of the Forbidden City, and once played an important role. It was the centre of the Mongol city of Dadu, founded in 1267 by Kublai Khan. Dadu was also a forbidden city once upon a time, but eventually developed into the capital of the state. The only remains of this city is the jade water basin at the entry of the park, the rest has disappeared.

Lama Temple (Yonghe Temple)
The Lama Temple is remarkable because it’s a Tibetian buddhist temple in a very prominent place in Beijing, which is interesting considering the contention around Tibet. But the government is intent of building peace, including here in Beijing. The Lama Temple was built in 1694 as part of the city wall. The emperor Kangxi lived here before he was crowned in 1722. According to Chinese tradition the fact that he lived here would signify it as a temple after. These days, it’s one of the most important temples outside of Tibet.

Temple of Confucius
Confucius is a famous ancient Chinese philosopher, he was born in Qufu in the year 551 BC, long before the Chinese empire was formed. His theories were based on personal and governmental morality, correct social relationships, justice, order and sincerity. They are considered to be fundamental to the beliefs and traditions of current Chinese culture. The Temple of Confucius is part of the Capital Museum, and is the largest Confucius Temple outside of the one in Qufu where he was born. There are 198 stone tablets here with 51.624 names of scholars from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties who graduated following his teachings.

Capital Museum
The Capital Museum was renovated and re-opened its doors in 2008, it has a huge collection about ancient Beijing. There are more than 5.000 artefacts on display, especially those from China’s distant past and several dynasties that ruled from this city. You can also see a traditinal hutong here, an example of the famous characteristic little laneways of Beijing. The museum is in the west of the city, near Chang’an Avenue. The old museum was inside the Temple of Confucius.

Must-do! tips:

Discover the secrets of the Forbidden City
It is not very difficult to imagine how the emperors of this ‘city within a city’ used to rule the land. But all the stories behind it are very interesting. There were strict rules that applied here and a special role for concubines and eunuchs. You will need a guide to be able to grasp it all. You can arrange one in advance (preferred), but also find one at the entrances.

Taste the real ‘Peking Duck’
This dish is famous around the world. ‘Peking Duck’ is not a simple dish, its preparation has many stages and it comes in different varieties. What is remarkable is that the air is pumped between the skin and the meat, followed by hot water. Then a thin layer of malt is applied to the skin, after which the whole thing is roasted.

Most of the time, a special oven is heated with wood from fruit trees. The duck will often be served with spring onion, small pancakes, cucumber and brown bean sauce. Beijing has many special ‘duck restaurants’ (named ‘Quanjude’) where you can have a taste of this dish. Do keep in mind that, just as with the French dish Foie Gras, the animals are fattened up in a way that is not exactly animal friendly.

Explore the old Hutongs

Explore the old Hutongs.
Explore the old Hutongs. Corno van den Berg

Hutongs are old, narrow streets with homes and shops. Only a small part of the older Beijing quarters can still be seen. Many of the little streets have been replaced by wide avenues with flats. In the remaining hutongs you can still go for a stroll and perhaps visit a local family for a cup of tea and a nice conversation. If you want to explore an area by yourself, you can rent out a cycle rickshaw or you can walk.

Attention: some areas have become pure tourist attractions, so ask a local tour operator for neighbourhoods that are less commercial. It’s also easy to take a bike, hotels will often have them for rent, but sometimes it is even cheaper to buy one!

Listen to your echo at the Temple of Heaven 
This may sound strange, but a whispered word becomes clearly audible at the echo wall (or whispering wall) in the Temple of Heaven. The acoustics work extremely well here. Especially near the stones of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. In one spot, a single handclap will resonate only once, but one step further you may hear it twice or even three times.

If you say something in the middle of the Imperial Altar, your words will resonate louder. Sometimes it’s hard to capture the effects because of the noisy tourists. It is best to go early in the morning, when many Chinese do their morning exercises or Tai Chi in the surrounding park.

Visit the old observatory
China has been a forerunner in the field of astrology for centuries. Gu Guan Xiang Tai is one of the oldest observatories in the world and it is located in the middle of the city.

It was built in 1442 during the Ming dynasty for the purpose of astrological predictions. It elaborated on earlier knowledge of the stars and planets. This is where Chinese calendars were developed and if you pay close attention, you will find out how the contemporary Chinese calendar has come about.

Fly a kite on Tiananmen Square 
For many decades, flying kites on Tiananmen Square has been a beloved pastime for the locals. Many stalls here sell kites in all shapes, including animals and characters from the Beijing opera. It is especially popular among children, but it also signifies a kind of symbolism. Particularly so, when you realise that this square is the venue of protests against the Communist Party.

Go shopping the Chinese way 
Beijing is a good place to go shopping for jewellery and delicately treated gemstones like jade. However, it is also fit for many other handmade items, like typical Chinese paintings in a crystal ball. You can learn all about ancient calligraphy and obviously purchase the artworks. You can go out by yourself, but you can also go with a private guide.

Get acquainted with Peking Opera 
Chinese opera and western opera aren’t very similar. Most Western ears have to get used to this age-old art form. The Peking Opera is one of the hundreds of forms of opera, and is considered to be the most refined of them all. Everything here revolves around the symbolism, the roles are distributed based on age and personality. For example, only a handsome man (with striking eyes), boasting an excellent physique, will be able to land a leading role. The music is performed on stringed instruments, rattles of bamboo, drums and the characteristic gong.

Look for traces of Kublai Khan

The white Pagoda on Qionghua island in Beihai Park
The white Pagoda on Qionghua island in Beihai Park. Björn Hartig

The Beihai Park in Beijing is known for its classical gardens, once planted for the Qing dynasty. However, the park has a much richer past. This was once Dadu, the center of the Mongolian Empire. It was founded by general Kublai Khan (who later became emperor), grandson to Ghenghis Khan, who made the Mongolian Empire great.

Dadu, or Beihai Park, lies in what is Beijing today, to the north-west of the Forbidden City. Dadu in itself was once a Forbidden City, but eventually it grew to become the capital of the empire. If you wander around here on a beautiful day, look for the water basin made out of jade at the main entrance of this magnificent park. It is the only remnant of times long gone.

Look for the old city wall
This was once considered the most beautiful wall in the world. I am not referring to the Great Wall of China here, but the old city wall of Beijing. The clever construction of tamped dirt and grey bricks measured 3 to 4 meters in height and had a length of over 40 kilometers. Over 16 gates have been excavated, but the majority were lost. You can only find some remains in the old shopping district of Quianmen. This district is located south of Tiananmen Square. Ask around, it’s worth it.

Browse a flea market
Beijing has several flea markets, of which the most famous one is Panjiayuan, Open only on weekends. It is located in the south-east of the city near the third ringway. Another one is the Hongqiao market, open daily and located near the eastern entrance to the Temple of Heaven.
More information: www.tour-beijing.com/blog/beijing-travel/top-10-beijing-markets

Learn all about the Underground City
When you visit the ‘Underground City’ (also referred to as Dixia Cheng), you will get a good idea of what the Cold War must have been like. This system of tunnels and chambers was constructed at the end of the 1960s, for fear of an attack from the Soviet Union. According to the stories, hundreds of thousands of people worked on this.

It is an entire underground city, with a hospital, kitchens and many places to sleep. The entrances to the system of tunnels are very interesting, some of which are underneath thick sliding floors in busy shops. The Underground City lies east of the Qianmen Gate in the city center. It is currently closed for renovation, but the local people can tell you all about it.

More information: www.china.org.cn/english/travel/125961.htm

Best time:

  • Spring: The sand from the Gobi Desert regularly blows northwards into the city. It can be a real nuisance. On the other hand, the more popular sites will be a lot less busy.
  • Summer: July and August can be very warm and muggy here, which is not ideal for a visit.
  • Autumn: October and November are considered to be the best time for a visit to Beijing.
  • Winter: It may be cold and there may be snow, but the sun will also shine regularly.

The Chinese themselves have holidays from 1 to 7 May and also from 1 to 7 October. This is when the major attractions are very crowded.

Be aware!

Just like in other major cities, there is a lot of interest for the most popular attractions on weekends and during the high season. The Forbidden City will draw up to 100,000 visitors per day sometimes!

One thing about the Chinese, they are used to spitting everywhere they walk, in public, out on the street. You just have to get used to it. Recently there have been many initiatives to ban this old tradition, for instance through information campaigns.

How do I get here?

You can fly directly to Beijing from many cities across the globe.