If you’re interested at all in China’s traditional culture, Beijing is the perfect place to start. The booming capital of China holds many of the country’s most prominent historic structures and landmarks. There are certainly plenty of new things to see as the capital expands and reinvents (while preparing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, no less), but to really get a sense of what sets Beijing apart, you’ll have to visit its most historic attractions.
Temple of Heaven
This complex of buildings held incredible importance for the emperors of yore, who would come to fast and pray for good harvests. As the emperor was considered the “Son of Heaven,” these ceremonies had to be performed perfectly, or it would spell bad luck for the whole nation for the coming year. Like many of the other places on this list, the Temple of Heaven was only accessible by a vaunted few for the first 400 years after it was built. Now, anybody is welcome to tour the surrounding park and check out the beautiful buildings.
The vast Tiananmen Square sits under the watchful gaze of Mao Zedong’s portrait. Most known in recent history for the pro-democracy protests of 1989, Tiananmen was where Chairman Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China forty years earlier in 1949.
Nowadays, the square holds a number of tributes honoring the Chinese Communist Revolution. At the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, visitors can peek at (but not photograph) Mao’s embalmed remains. To the east of Tiananmen Square lies the National Museum of China, where you’ll find Chinese art, historic artifacts, plenty of propaganda, plus exhibitions from other museums around the world. On the far south side of the square is the Zhengyang Men, a Ming Dynasty gate built in the 1400s to guard entry into the imperial city.
Be sure to wear your comfy shoes to the Forbidden City, because it really is the size of a city! Called “Gugong” in Chinese, this UNESCO World Heritage Site covers 180 acres and comprises 980 buildings. Located just north of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City was built in the early 1400s and served as the home of 24 emperors. The whole area is surrounded by a moat with watch towers at the corners for defense against intruders.
The Forbidden City’s red and gold wooden structures are iconic of Chinese architecture and have been fantastically preserved and restored. Animal sculptures decorate the roofs, bronze lion pairs guard the entrances, and buildings’ exterior walls shine with vibrant colors. Don’t forget to stroll through the Imperial Garden, which was the royal family’s private retreat!
Continuing north from the Forbidden City, you’ll find yourself in Jingshan Park, one of few hills to be found in the relatively flat city of Beijing. It is in fact a mound formed from the earth excavated to create the Imperial Palace’s moat. There are more than 250 steps to get to the top of the hill, but on a clear day, the views of the Forbidden City are spectacular; only from above do you really get a sense of how vast its area is. Just imagine how the emperor must have felt surveying his kingdom from the Wanchun Pavilion atop the hill!
Not to be confused with the Old Summer Palace, which was ransacked and destroyed by French and British troops in 1860, the Summer Palace is widely considered to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world. Located at the edge of Kunming Lake, on which visitors can go boating during warmer seasons, the Summer Palace offers gorgeous vistas and calm respite from the rest of the bustling city.
Not technically in Beijing, the Great Wall is a two-hour trip from the city, and you’ll find lots of buses to take you there and back. China’s most famous landmark dates back as early as 200 B.C., though much of that construction has been eroded away. The Great Wall was a series of fortifications made through China’s history to defend the nation against invaders, and most of what we see now was built during the Ming dynasty in the 14th century.
What’s on your Beijing itinerary? Let us know in the comments!