Best things to do in Beijing
Find out more about those top places in Beijing
Beijing is China at its most dynamic. Founded in the year 700 BC, it is no surprise that the sprawling Chinese capital is packed with historical riches unrivaled in Asia. The heart of the city can be found at the Forbidden City, a vast complex of palaces and Confucian temples where Chinese emperors were crowned for millennia. Similarly, the city center is crisscrossed by magical hútòng, medieval alleyways scarcely changed in the past five hundred years, while the mesmerizing Temple of Heaven dominates the south of the city. While Beijing’s history abounds, today the city is best known as the world’s premier megalopolis undergoing a constant futuristic face lift with skyscrapers and cranes peppering the sky. The city’s real hidden gem remains its unrivaled food scene with gastronomic delights from as far afield as Central Asia and Vietnam attesting to the city’s historically global reach.
Set in the heart of Beijing and encircled by 4 kilometers of imposing walls, the UNESCO listed Forbidden City is the world’s largest complex of palaces. As imperial China’s center of governance and the secluded home of emperors from both the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Forbidden City is fittingly grand with the highlight being the 15th century Hall of Supreme Harmony, which houses the iconic Dragon Throne. Tours of the otherworldly complex are available throughout the day but make sure to leave plenty of time to explore its wealth of attractions.
One of the world’s most instantly recognizable attractions is China’s Great Wall, which snakes from the shores of the East China Sea all the way to the Central Asian deserts of Xinjiang. While much of the wall passes through remote wilderness, it is fortunate that the best-preserved sections are within striking distance of Beijing’s northern suburbs. The best area to explore is Jiànkòu, which snakes along the tops of idyllic mountain ridges and can be reached easily by tours from the Chinese capital.
You will have seen it countless times on TV news reports and from iconic images of the tank man but nothing can prepare first time visitors for the sheer scale of Tiananmen Square. Unsurprisingly, it is the world’s largest public square, measuring upwards of 440000 square meters, and is flanked by imposing Stalinist buildings built to house the government of the People’s Republic of China. For the best experience make sure to arrive for sunrise to catch the daily flag raising ceremony.
To escape the nonstop bustle of one of the world’s greatest megacities head for the tranquil Hòuhai Lakes, which is Beijing’s favorite outdoor retreat. Comprised of three lakes, the area is a popular spot for group exercise classes (which are ubiquitous in China), fishing or picture-perfect boat tours. In the evening, the area comes alive with neon-lit bars, cafes and restaurants providing some of the Chinese capital’s most enthralling and laid back nightlife.
To experience the apogee of Confucian design explore the vast Temple of Heaven Park, which originally served as a private temple complex where the emperor would pray for good harvests, peace and divine interventions. The undoubted highlight of the park is the unforgettable Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests with its gaudy roof and elevated marble terrace.
Northwest of Beijing city center lies the Summer Palace, a favored countryside retreat for both the Ming and Qing dynasties. The complex, which stretches over a vast area and encompasses an endless array of picture-perfect landscaped gardens and tranquil lakes, is simply breathtaking. What is more, watching over this pastoral scene is the gilded palace itself that was destroyed during the Second Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion but has since been meticulously restored.
Step back in time and explore Beijing’s enthralling hútòngs (narrow medieval alleyways) on a mouth-watering food tour of the city. These alleyways are the city’s heart and soul and remain scarcely changed since the days when emperors and not the Communist Party ruled over the city. What is more, they are packed with authentic Chinese food ranging from Sichuan noodles to donkey meat sandwiches and spicy hotpots.
Beijing’s foremost Buddhist place of worship is the Lama Temple, which is also the most important outside of Tibet. Complete with prayer wheels, magnificent tapestries and glittering frescoes, it is also one of the city’s most spectacular attractions. On your visit pay special attention to the Wànfú Pavilion and the Hall of the Wheel of the Law.