Beijing is packed with culture, history, and 21 million people, so be prepared for a city full of ancient tradition, beautiful structures, and hustle and bustle.
Aside from the massive crowds nearly anywhere you go, Beijing is definitely a place you have to visit. It is home to 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a rich culture, great food, and plenty of things to do.
There is a very good metro system that is easy to navigate with signs in English. And even though not much English is spoken, just whip out your Google translate and people will go out of their way to help you.
Much of the history has been preserved, and this city really has an incredible amount to offer. Below are my ten favorites.
1.) The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall is without a doubt the top world wonder in my book. Construction began around 200 BC to keep out the invading Mongols, but walls were being built in China as long ago as 700 BC to keep the nomads out of the farmland. The Wall is an astounding 5,500 miles long, roughly runs East to West, and would take over year to walk the entire length! What cannot be fully appreciated without visiting is how difficult it is to climb. Many sections have such steep stairs that when standing at the top, the bottom of the staircase cannot be seen. The Chinese have a saying, “A man is not a man until he comes to the wall.” Don’t miss out on becoming a man, or woMAN, and visit the wall.
2.) The Forbidden City
Just behind Tiananmen Gate lies the Forbidden City, which is the Imperial Palace where emperors from the last two dynasties lived and ruled. Over the course of 500 years (1406 to 1920ish) the palace grew to a massive 180 acres with 980 buildings. During this time, between 3,000 to 10,000 people lived within the city walls, but it was closed to commoners until 1925, a few years after the last emperor fell. Visiting the city can take hours due to the sheer size, but a broad sense of how vast the palace is along with how powerful the emperors were can be attained by going straight through the middle of the complex.
3.) Summer Palace
The Summer Palace is where the Qing Dynasty royalty lived in the summer. It was originally built in 1759, but it was burned down twice, so what we see today was constructed in 1903. The palace isn’t as grand as it once was, but there are still amazing features such as the 14,000 paintings along the corridors and the full size marble ship. Even though the Summer Palace is crowded with tourists, it still feels peaceful because of the scenery. Built along a scenic lake under the protection of many trees and beautiful structures, gazing at the mountains in the distance, and watching the colorful boats glide along the water feels like Chinese paradise.
4.) Temple of Heaven
Even though most Chinese emperors didn’t practice an organized religion, they still worshiped Heaven. The Temple of Heaven was constructed about the same time as the Forbidden City, in the early 1400’s, in order for the emperor to pray for a good harvest. The entire construction is symbolic: it is round to symbolize Heaven, the dome is supported by 28 pillars for the 28 constellations they knew at that time, the three tiers symbolize Heaven, Earth, and humans, and there is also symbolism for the 4 seasons and 12 months. Perhaps the most amazing part of the temple is that it was constructed without nails, steel, or cement and is still in immaculate condition today.
5.) Tian’anmen Square
When Mao Zedong proclaimed the end of Chinese oppression in 1949, the People’s Republic of China was born. Mao’s portrait hangs over the Tiananmen Gate, where he delivered his speech, and he lies in a mausoleum on the square. Also located within the square are the Monument to the People’s Heros, the Great Hall of the People, and the National Museum of China which is the most visited museum in the world. Many Chinese come to the Square to pay their respects and honor Mao Zedong, so it can get very crowded with long entry queues, so arrive early.
6.) Hutong Alleys
This traditional neighborhood built along narrow alleys is a trip to Beijing’s past. Only 2 km from the Forbidden City, this is where the city’s aristocrats lived for about 400 years until 1911 when the Qing dynasty was overthrown. The neighborhood is only 1 square kilometer, but it is one of the last places to see Old Beijing because so much of Beijing’s history was torn down to make room for apartment buildings, which hold more residents. Stroll down these alleyways to peek into the tiny courtyards to see the fresh vegetables growing, catch a glimpse of how daily life is carried out, buy some fruit from a street side cart, and admire the beautiful entryway doors painted in bright colors. You can even hire a bicycle trolley to make a more memorable experience.
7.) Ming Tombs
The only place I found peace in Beijing was the Ming Tombs. These 13 mausoleums from the Ming dynasty are connected via a pristine road lined with unique statues and weeping trees, called the Sacred Way. When this complex was constructed beginning in the early 1400’s, it was only meant to be for the emperors because visiting tombs was not and still is not popular among Chinese culture. It is perfect for a peaceful evening stroll after a day of enduring the chaos of the city and provides a beautiful photo opportunity as well.
8.) Kung Fu Show
The ancient Martial Art of Kung Fu can still be seen in China today as adults practice Tai Chi in parks and small boys drop into Kung Fu stances for photo shoots. Its origins date back to as early as 1600 BC when warriors had to defend their territory against invaders, and it has evolved into many sects that focus on virtue rather than violence. The Red Theater in Beijing performs a Kung Fu show that tells the life story of a young boy who is learning Kung Fu. It’s an interesting show with a good amount of impressive Kung Fu action that provides a glimpse of this lifestyle in ancient Chinese culture.
9.) Snack Streets
There are multiple snack streets in Beijing where you can get literally anything fried on a stick. Have a craving for crickets, scorpions, snake, or an unknown creature on a stick? Your best bet is one of these streets. The interesting thing about these “snacks” is that I saw many locals eating them, so they are not just for tourists. If you’re not adventurous enough to eat deep fried chicken feet or something of that sort, fruit and sticky rice on sticks are also sold. Just not into eating off sticks? You can also order a bowl of noodles and watch others devour their skewered delicacies.
10.) Olympic Village
The Olympic village is left from the 2008 Summer Olympics and even though you won’t get to see Olympians while strolling through the grounds, it’s still nice to see the structures left behind. The entire Olympics cost an astounding 40 billion US Dollars, and buildings like the Cube, where the swimming and diving events were held, and the Bird’s Nest, where the track and field events as well as the infamous opening ceremony occurred, are incredible to see in person.
A couple of days in Beijing will feel like a week because of all of the amazing things you will see and experience in such a short amount of time.
I immensely enjoyed my time in Beijing, and even though I only knew how to say “hello” and “thank you” in Chinese, I found the locals to be extremely helpful and eager to please, making my trip even more enjoyable.
I definitely recommend a trip to Beijing and hope you like it as much as I did!