Beijing is China’s colossal capital, with a rich and fascinating history dating back 3,000 years. It’s a location with architectural marvels from the ancient dynastic palaces to stunningly unique modern skyscrapers. It’s arguably China’s cultural center, offering a glimpse into the old hutong warrens of the past to the hustling mega metropolis of the inner city, to the ultra-bucket list pilgrimage on the Great Wall.
Here are some must-do experiences for visiting this amazing city.
1. Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square is considered by many to be the symbol of Beijing. This massive public 100 acre square in the heart of the city can accommodate one million people. It is the site where Chairman Mao established the People’s Republic of China. In more recent (and troubled) history, it is the site of the student protest for democracy and subsequent massacre of 1989.
2. Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as the world’s largest palace complex, with 980 buildings covering 250 acres, complete with a wall and moat for protection. The Forbidden City hosted the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It’s full of imperial treasures, pavilions, and gardens.
3. Modern Architecture
In contrast to its 3,000 years of history, urban Beijing is awash in modern architectural wonders such as the New CCTV Tower and the National Stadium (Bird’s nest).
The hutongs are the real people’s Beijing, consisting of ancient neighborhoods of the China of days-gone-by. The houses, alleys and gardens look much the same as they did centuries ago.
The best way to get a feel for the layout of the hutongs is on rickshaw. The hooded carts hold two or three passengers, pulled by someone on a bicycle, or sometimes a small motorbike. It’s quite popular with tourists who want to see the more authentic neighborhoods in the city and avoid the noisy, smelly traffic.
Gulou, or Drum Tower of Beijing was built in 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan. It was originally built for music but only one of the 24 drums exists. Now, its strategic location on a small but central square is a gathering place for locals and tourists.
Zhonglou, also known as the Bell Tower, is right behind the Drum Tower. From the top, you have a birds-eye view of the captivating corridors of the hutong.
The Nanluoguxiang hutong is very popular and has a lot of small but interesting shops and cafes.
Passageways connect to courtyards of traditional homes.
In some of the courtyards and alleys you can find artisans working crafts that have been practices for thousands of years, such as hand painting intricate designs on minute glass bottles.
Be on the lookout for highly artistic and unique street art.
5. Old Summer Palace
The Summer Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dates back to the Jin Dynasty in 1153. It is a complex of intricate Chinese gardens, pavilions, palaces, temples, bridges and lakes. It covers 1.1 square miles, roughly the size of New York’s Central Park, and is centered around Longevity Hill and is three-quarters surrounded by water. The grounds are scattered with carved columns, squat lion statues, and crumbling stone blocks. One of the highlights is Huanghuazen (Yellow Flower) – an engraved concrete wall maze, once the site of lantern parties.
6. Street Markets
The street markets of Beijing have become harder to find. Many of the large local food venues have been shut down, claiming “sanitary” and “noise” reasons. While this is a disappointment to tourists, the locals seem to be in support, disavowing the hunt for “scorpions on a stick” as not authentic Chinese. You can still find mom-and-pop stalls, and of course, if you are looking for traditional souvenirs or small shops selling silk and other traditional goods, these are easier to find.
7. Ming Tombs
Just outside of Beijing in the countryside, the Ming Tombs is the burial site of 13 of the 17 emperors of the Ming Dynasty. The grounds are lovely, with a long, paved boulevard called the “Sacred Way.” The tree-lined, manicured path is lined on both sides with traditional Chinese statues of animals, warriors and mythical beasts, in pairs on either side.
8. Tea Service
Attending a traditional tea service can be a lot of fun. You’ll get to try a variety of teas, from savory to sweet and hear about the history and traditions of the drink. Of course, there will be the ubiquitous opportunity to buy tea or tea sets. Note: if you are not with a tour group, such as Viking’s Imperial Jewels of China, make sure to ask the price in advance so as not to be surprised by a huge bill or scam at the end.
9. Temple of Heaven
An example of religious architecture, the temple was once the site for imperial sacrifices. The temple is surrounded by magnificent examples of Ming Dynasty architecture, which began in the early 15th century under Yongle, known as the “architect of Beijing.”
10. Chinese Cuisine
Peking Duck is arguably the most traditional and recognized dish of China. Dating back to imperial China, the meat has a fine, crispy skin with a thin, tasty meat underneath. The dish is served with sweet bean or hoisin sauce.
Hand-pulled noodles are a Chinese tradition that is not only delicious, but fun to watch. The noodles are stretched, pulled, twisted and tossed before getting cut and placed in a pot to boil. A favorite is noodles served in a savory beef broth with scallions, bean sprouts, soy sauce and spicy paste.
Fresh seafood is often seen as an appetizer, entrée, or in a buffet.
11. Kung Fu Performance
Dating back 4,000 years, Kung Fu is Beijing’s most renowned show. Once a tactic used by dynastic armies, the skills are now associated with peaceful self-defense and fitness.
12. Great Wall
The most epic of epics – the imposing Great Wall. In Beijing, you can start your hike at the Badaling entry, the highest point of the Guanagou Gorge. I would recommend taking the more difficult path where there would be fewer people. Take heed – it can be a challenge; some parts are very steep with uneven stone steps. But if you can make it to the high lookout tower, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning and iconic birds-eye view of the serpentine structure. In case you ever wondered why the wall was constructed in such a winding manner, it’s because Chinese mythology claims that demons can only travel in a straight line!
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Viking River Cruises during her stay in China, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.