It is often the first point of entry for millions of visitors to China each year. It is a massive, modern metropolis that doesn’t hide it’s ancient roots. There are so many things to see and do here, but here are a few highlights.
1. The Temple of Heaven
If you’ve only just arrived in China and you are still wrestling with jet lag, a morning walk at the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding park area will set you right. If you arrive in the morning, you will be able to see locals enjoying their daily tai chi and martial arts practice in the park just outside the complex. Some of them dance with fans or wave ribbons to music for exercise, others guide thin-bladed swords through the air in slow motion, demonstrating balance and grace. On occasion, musicians and singers line the walkway leading to the entrance gate, delighting visitors with their classical music & singing. The Temple complex itself is awe-inspiring, with the triple-gabled Temple of Good Harvest being the hallmark of this 600 year old site. Learn more about the history and significance of the Temple of Heaven here.
2. Beijing Opera
Peking Opera or Beijing Opera is a traditional form of Chinese theatre, combining music, dancing, singing, and acrobatics. It involves the use of symbolism, mime, elaborate costumes, makeup, headdresses, and even martial arts combat, but little in the way of sets or stage decor. The unique sounds and instruments used to create myths, legends, and stories involved in this classical art form are strikingly different to the European style of opera that you may be more familiar with. There are still a few opera houses and theatres in Beijing where you can see traditionally staged Beijing Opera, and often the experience will include tea and snacks before the show.
3. The Forbidden City
Any trip to Beijing would be incomplete without a visit to The Forbidden City, a truly massive and spectacular piece of Chinese history. The Forbidden City complex is comprised of almost a thousand buildings that served as the palaces and playgrounds of the imperial rulers for around 600 years, as well as a large court of staff, guards, politicians, and workers. It was the heart of the political and ceremonial world of the Ming and Qing dynasties and housed 24 emperors, ending it’s position as the throne of China in 1912 when the last emperor, Puyi, finally abdicated.
The history and symbolism of this truly magnificent site is rich and detailed, and you should dedicate a full day to exploring it’s grounds – maybe even invest in a guide or an audio tour if you want to really dig in.
4. The Great Wall
The Great Wall of China remains now in several dozen sections and pieces, scattered across it’s once vast expanse through the capital territory. It was built, or rather the many sections were connected by the first emperor of China, in 220 BCE to not only help advance the mobility of China’s imperial armies, but also to protect China from invading hordes of “barbaric” warlords from Inner Mongolia. It is a jaw-dropping marvel of military technology, and history buffs will be busy researching the epic history of the wall long after their visit. There are several sections that can be reached from Beijing on a day trip (even with Beijing traffic), and you can arrange a ride out there with companies like CITS, which will be cheaper and less hassle than hiring a taxi. Bring hiking boots, water, a jacket, and some energy, as many parts of the wall are steep and involve lots of well-worn, slightly slippery, virtually vertical flights of stairs. It truly is one of the Man Made Wonders of the World.
Speaking of wonders…
5. Food in Beijing
If you read this website regularly, you know that half the reason we travel is to sample the amazing food that this world has to offer. Beijing is a gastro-traveler’s dream, and anyone who loves to try endless varieties of hot, exciting, fresh, really delicious food will absolutely love Beijing, and China in general. Chinese cuisine is so varied, it would be ridiculous for us to suggest that you try just one or two things, and depending on where you are in the country the flavours, ingredients, and techniques are completely different. For example, one could have Hot Pot in Beijing, but personally we’d rather try it in Chongqing where it’s the regional speciality. Varieties of dumplings and noodles are found (and consumed) in massive numbers, so don’t be afraid to try something new at every meal. Since Beijing is often associated with “Peking Duck” (sweet and savoury roasted duck served with scallions in a small crepe) we definitely recommend that you find a local and ask where they would take their family for roast duck, and go from there. Remember, when it comes to looking for good food in unfamiliar places: “If the lines are long, you can’t go wrong.”