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The capital of China, Beijing is a bustling hive of activity with countless glittering skyscrapers, sprawling suburbs and buzzing markets. Cranes pepper a skyline seemingly in a continuous state of construction and modernisation, accommodating some 20 million residents who call this megacity home.
Beijing boasts an abundance of attractions of cultural and historical interest. Some of the most popular include the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the remains of Peking Man at Zhoukoudian, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Chinese history and culture seem to fascinate Western visitors, and Beijing is a great place to dive in. The city is dotted with palaces, temples, gardens and tombs, many epitomising classical Chinese architecture, and it also has roughly 120 museums and more than 100 public gardens.
The first port of call for most visitors is the Forbidden City, which lies at the heart of Beijing with the rest of the city sprawling out from it in a grid pattern. For five centuries, this massive palace complex, with 9,999 rooms, functioned as the administrative centre of the country and played host to a succession of emperors who lived in luxurious isolation, surrounded by courtiers and retainers. The Palace overlooks the infamous Tiananmen Square, a historical site of considerable political drama and dissent, but also a vibrant social and cultural centre point.
In preparing to host the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing underwent many major renovations. Public transport was improved, environmental issues were addressed and a general clean up of the city was ordered. The games highlighted Beijing's economic rise and emergence as a world power, and the city has just gone from strength to strength since then.
Travellers should go prepared for less than stellar air quality in this booming city though, but luckily breathlessness is just as likely to stem from excitement and awe. A shrine to both modernity and ancient history, Beijing is a traveller's delight.
The majestic Forbidden City is a historical precinct situated in the heart of Beijing. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been declared the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. The Forbidden City, called Gu Gong in Chinese, was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
It is the biggest and best preserved complex of ancient buildings in China, and the largest palace complex in the world. Construction began in 1407, and for 500 years this inner sanctum was off limits to most of the world as the emperors lived in luxury, secluded from the masses and surrounded by their families, servants and members of court.
The Forbidden City has a permanent restoration squad working continuously to keep the more than 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and 8,728 rooms in perfect condition. Now open to all visitors, its museum is home to a priceless collection of ancient artefacts. The complex can get overrun so it is best to go early in the morning to fully appreciate the layout of the place without too many crowds.
The famous and distinct Tiananmen Square is at the heart of Beijing, a place of so many historic events. The largest city square in the world, it was a gathering place and site of government officials during ancient imperial days. Major rallies took place in the Square during the Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao reviewed military parades up to a million strong. But the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre meant it has become a site of great political significance in modern history.
The square is surrounded by several monuments, some ancient and some modern, including the former gates to the Forbidden City, the Gate of Heavenly Peace and Qianmen, as well as the Chinese Revolution Museum and the Mao Mausoleum, where China's former leader lies preserved. There is also an underground walkway connecting Tiananmen Square with the Forbidden City. Like most big tourist attractions in China, it is best to try and go early in the day to avoid the masses, with the square open to visitors as early as 5am.
The magnificent Summer Palace was built in 1750 by the Emperor Qianlong, and continued to be an imperial residence until the Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908. It is the largest and most well-preserved royal park in China, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The palace and stunning gardens are open to visitors, who pass through a grand courtyard into the Hall of Benevolent Longevity, the Hall of Jade Ripples and the Hall of Joyful Longevity. Empress Cixi's private theatre in the Garden of Moral Harmony is a must see, as is the long corridor that skirts Kunming Lake's northern shoreline to reach the marble boat, an elaborate two-storey structure of finely carved stone and stained glass.
All in all, the Summer Palace boasts not only famously beautiful grounds but also 3,000 man-made ancient structures, including mansions, temples, pavilions, bridges and towers. Once a place for weary royals to relax, the Summer Palace is now a sanctuary for travellers and, although it can get crowded, it always seems calmer and cooler than the rest of the city.
Although Chairman Mao Zedong requested to be cremated, his body was instead embalmed. After a supposed mishap during the process, a wax model was made as backup and it's unknown which version of the Great Helmsman is on display today at the Mausoleum. The Mausoleum itself was built in 1977 on the prior site of the Gate of China, the main gate of the Imperial City during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The tomb is on the first floor and on the second is a museum dedicated to other great communist leaders, including Mao himself. Those interested in visiting the Mausoleum can join the long line of visitors outside the building every day. Visitors should remember to dress respectfully and maintain silence in the mausoleum, as the site is a place of worship more than a tourist destination.
A place of tranquillity and grand imperial beauty, the Beihai Park is one of the great attractions of Beijing. It's centrally located and close to the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park, providing a peaceful, natural haven after a long morning of sightseeing. One of the oldest and best preserved imperial gardens in China, Beihai Park's history extends over 1,000 years to the ancient Liao dynasty which ruled between 916 and 1125. Built up through five dynasties, the park is an emblem of old-world China, designed according to the ancient Chinese art of landscaped gardens with artificial hills, colourful pavilions and intricate temples.
Kublai Khan lived in what is now the Circular City of Beihai Park. The Tibetan-style White Dagoba, built in 1651 on Jade Island, is a landmark for both Beihai Park and Beijing, having been constructed on the suggestion of a famous Tibetan Lama priest, NaomuHan. Apart from the famous White Dagoba and the Circular City, landmarks within Beihai Park include Hao Pu Creek Garden, the Quiet Heart Studio, Nine-Dragon Screen and the Five-Dragon Pavilions. The Fangshan Restaurant, started nearly a century ago by royal chefs, is also worth a visit.
Beijing's prominent art district is home to 798 Space, an art gallery housed in a former electronics factory that built components for China's first atomic bomb and early satellites. Exhibiting the latest in contemporary Chinese art in its lofty viewing rooms, 798 Space is a visual delight for any traveller. Besides regular national and international exhibitions, 798 Space also hosts corporate and commercial events such as fashion shows, product launches, conferences and fairs. Also housed in the gallery there is a film and video viewing area and a gallery bookshop, as well as a colourful little restaurant. The art precinct itself is dotted with avant-garde statues, charming coffee shops and noodle bars, and a plethora of other wonderful art galleries to visit.
The Qing Temple is home to the Ancient Bell Museum (Gu Zhong Bowuguan) and is a great stop for travellers en route to the Summer Palace. A 47-ton bell with a height of 22.7 feet (6.9m) was transported to the original temple on ice sleds in 1743. It is inscribed with Buddhist Mantras on both the inside and outside and features over 227,000 characters.
The bell was often chosen by the emperors to pray for rain and blessings for the people of China, and was one of three projects that the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) commanded after reestablishing Beijing as the capital, the others being the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. The bell is considered auspicious in Chinese tradition and is nowadays rung 108 times to begin the celebrations at grand ceremonies. There are a further 31 bells on display in the Ancient Bell Museum, most with tributes to various emperors inscribed on them.
Beijing's Underground City is a forgotten vast bomb shelter eight to 18 meters beneath the ancient capital's downtown area, built in case of nuclear attack. Aside from some rather odd recent additions, it features factories, restaurants, hospitals, schools, theatres and shops. There's even a mushroom farm to provide food easily cultivated in darkness. On Mao Zedong's orders, it was built from 1969 to 1979 by more than 300,000 local citizens including school children, mostly by hand. The tunnels were initially intended to accommodate all of Beijing's six million inhabitants upon completion. Winding for over 18 miles (30km) and covering an area of nearly 53 square miles (85 sq km), the underground City includes more than 1,000 anti-air raid structures.
Located within the Beijing Zoo, the Beijing Aquarium is one of the world's largest inland aquariums. Its interactive exhibits provide an immersive experience that never fails to delight, such as an imaginative Amazon rainforest, complete with piranhas and pandas, as well as an exquisite shark tank, dolphin shows and displays of rare and endangered fish. A boat from the canal south of the aquarium runs to the Summer Palace, giving visitors the opportunity to sightsee while en route to the attraction.
The Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest due to its appearance, was the hub of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, hosting all of the track and field events as well the opening and closing ceremonies. The unique-looking supports make it the largest steel structure in the world, created using a web of steel frames converging in a grid formation. The visual effect is unique and impressive and it was designed to symbolise harmony between technology and nature. The stadium has reopened as a tourist attraction, and the public can tour the facilities, or visit the ski resort now housed inside during the Happy Snow season.
Happy Valley is a fantastic place to spend the day with or without the little ones. It features about 40 rides, an IMAX Theatre and even a shopping centre. It is similar in style and layout to Disneyland, featuring six theme parks: Fjord Forest, Atlantis, Happy Hour, the Aegean Sea, Lost Maya and Shangri-La. Atlantis is probably the favourite of these, with a massive palace built in its centre. But Happy Valley gets equally crowded on the weekends, with queues lasting up to three hours for rides. To avoid disappointment, visitors are advised to find out ahead of time whether the state-of-the-art roller coasters will be running as some rides close during quiet periods.
The fascinating Sony ExploraScience museum is an interactive educational centre that encourages children to take an interest in science. It features live science shows and interactive exhibits combined with Sony's latest digital technology. There are four themed sections, covering illusion, refraction, light and sounds. Attractions include robotic dogs that play soccer, musical sculptures, soap bubble rings and much more. All young enquiring minds will love a trip to the Sony ExploraScience, but it's probably an experience best suited to kids aged five to 12. The museum is located in Chaoyang Park, the largest in Beijing, boasting lakes, swimming pools, a bungee jumping tower, a wetland, fountains and a funfair. It is a beautiful area and a fun place to spend the day, especially for those travelling with children in Beijing.
The Beijing World Park is must see on the itinerary of those travelling with children in Beijing. It features about 100 miniature models of some of the world's most famous tourist attractions from over 50 countries across the globe, and is designed to let visitors experience a trip around the world without ever having to leave Beijing. The sights include Egypt's Great Pyramids, France's Eiffel Tower, India's Taj Mahal, England's Stonehenge and New York City's Manhattan Island. The park is a great place for kids to learn and enjoy naming the attractions as they stroll through the replicas. Summer is the best time to visit Beijing World Park, as it's a venue designed for sunny weather.
Steeped in a mystical and fascinating ancient history, Beijing may not, at first glance, seem ideal for travel with children. But those who look past the old buildings and temples will find more than enough fun activities and attractions while on holiday with kids in Beijing.
The Summer Palace is a good place to start sightseeing with the kids. With magnificent gardens open to visitors, children will have plenty of space to run around. The Happy Valley Amusement Park never fails to entertain and thrill the whole family as moms can wander around the shopping centre while the kids are at play. Milu Park ranks as one of the best places to enjoy a picnic outdoors and do some milu deer spotting, while spectacular sealife waits at Beijing Aquarium. Another highly entertaining park is Chaoyang, which is the biggest in Beijing.
On rainy or particularly hot and humid days, visitors can take the kids to Le Cool, an indoor ice skating rink, or to one of the many indoor playgrounds around the city, such as Fundazzle. It's a great way to ensure happiness and tiredness.
The humid continental climate of Beijing is rather extreme. There are four very distinct seasons, with a wide temperature variation between winter (December to February), which is well below freezing, and summer's hot humidity and 79°F (26°C) average daily temperatures. Most of the rain falls in the summer (June to August); the sudden downpours make an umbrella a necessary travel accessory. Spring and autumn are relatively short seasons. Spring (March to May) has warm and windy conditions. Autumn (September to November) brings blue skies, pleasantly mild temperatures, and slight humidity. Spring and autumn are the best seasons to travel to Beijing.
The multitude of local dishes in Beijing has made for some of the longest menus in the world. Whether diners choose traditionally cooked meals or new takes on old favourites, eating out in Beijing will be like nowhere else in the world. From ingredients meant for royalty in Imperial Cuisine to the more 'mysterious' ingredients of a street-side Jianbing (savoury pancake), food preparation in Beijing adheres to old traditions that reflect culinary styles from all over China.
Chinese food in Beijing differs dramatically from the fare in Chinese restaurants worldwide. Beijing's famous Peking roast duck is the star attraction, with several restaurants devoted entirely to the one dish. For a chance to sample many different kinds of local food, visit one of the 'snack streets', like Guanganmen Snack Street, or Gui Street, all with dozens of vendors plying their specialties. The more adventurous visitors can peruse the Donghuamen Snack Night Market in Wangfujing, which is famous for Chinese delicacies such as centipedes, grasshoppers, sheep privates and offal soup.
Migrants have infused the city's cuisine with new cultures and tastes, reflected in the blossoming choices in Beijing restaurants. International-style restaurants are popping up all over the city, with top international chefs enjoying great success.
More expensive restaurants in Beijing will generally accept credit cards, but street vendors and takeaway joints will expect cash. While hotel restaurants will sometimes include a 10 to 15 percent service charge, tipping is not generally expected in Beijing.
This modest little courtyard restaurant has an impeccable menu and flawless delivery. Everything from their kangkung belacan (water spinach) to the spicy signature dish, the Kapitan chicken, is exquisite as their Malaysian chef takes great pride in his work.
Chinese royalty were famously picky eaters and ate only speciality dishes with carefully selected ingredients and even more carefully selected names. Such dining gave way to its own culinary tradition, which can be enjoyed at Fangshan's enormous banquet-style dining hall with such imperial classics as 'Jade Phoenix Returning to the Royal'. Choosing from a huge selection of dishes is a perfect way to go back in time and truly eat like an emperor.
Providing top-notch international cuisine in a uniquely Chinese setting, TRB is set in a 600-year-old temple which has been tastefully renovated to create a modern fine-dining haven. The food is mostly European but with a bit of local flavour mixed in. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner on weekdays and brunch, lunch and supper on weekends. Reservations are recommended.
Dining 66 floors above the sparkling city makes any dish seem dazzling, but the views aren't the only reason to eat at China Grill. The international menu is a simple selection of fine dining with both Chinese dishes and grilled western classics. The romantic ambiance is set by a surprisingly cosy interior surrounded by floor to ceiling windows for a 360-degree view of the city.
Those in Beijing between January and March should make a point of it to visit the magical Longqing Gorge Ice and Snow Festival. Marvel at a winter wonderland of intricately carved ice sculptures and ice lanterns, while fireworks turn the gorge into a colourful light show.
Visitors can try their hand at ice-fishing, tobogganing, ice-skating or various other snow sports. There is also an ice maze to get lost in. Looming spectacularly above all the attractions and activities is a 230 feet (70m) high frozen waterfall. There is something on offer for all age groups, making it a thrilling excursion for the whole family just under two hours' drive from central Beijing.
The longest man-made structure in the world lends just a small portion of itself for one of the most beautiful and challenging races in the world. Apart from the full marathon, which is approximately 26.2 miles (42km), and a half marathon which is about 13.1 miles (21km), there is a Fun Run in which anybody over the age of 12 can participate. The race has two basic sections, one on the wall and another which sees contestants running on reasonably flat terrain through picturesque villages and rice fields. Although much of the Great Wall is uneven, steep and even treacherous in parts, the marathon route is even and well-maintained.
In Beijing, the Chinese New Year is a raucous, colourful and riotous occasion, with boys and girls on stilts, life-sized puppets and costumed carousers singing and dancing in the streets. The Eastern Mountain Taoist Temple hosts the New Year Temple Fair, where one can find some respite from the revelling in the main hall, which features a Taoist orchestra playing traditional flutes and pipes.
New Year also starts with a bang in Shanghai, where spectacular and loud fireworks displays resound across the city all night. Traditionally, the noise is necessary to frighten off evil spirits for the coming year.
During the national holiday, the Bund and clubs throughout the city are packed with revellers, making for a city-wide party. All over China there are raucous celebrations over this period, making it a truly thrilling time to visit any of the big cities.
Neon lights are a staple of Beijing nightlife, with a predictable swarm of DJ dance clubs and karaoke bars lighting up most corners of the downtown districts. This is encouraging, as not too long ago there wasn't much nightlife in Beijing at all. The city is just beginning to create the modern discos and chic bars favoured by foreigners. Beijing's nightlife still doesn't quite compare to that found in cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai for pure hedonism, but its cultural offerings and diversity of entertainment are unrivalled.
Those wanting an authentic Beijing experience should probably avoid the hotel venues and their cookie cutter disco offerings. Some unique areas popular with locals include Hou Hai Bar Area, a picturesque lakeside nightlife hub, and Sanlitun Pub Street in the Embassy Area of Chaoyang District, a favourite for westerners keen on cheap drinks and a vibrant atmosphere.
There still isn't too much crossover between western and Chinese clientèle, but it can be interesting to soak in some Chinese karaoke and liquor at local haunts. Many venues stay open until the early morning, although most people in Beijing go to sleep before some of them even open!
For the more artistically inclined, there are a host of Chinese art shows to enjoy. These include top-quality Chinese opera, dancing, and theatre most nights of the week. Many visitors enjoy seeing kung-fu demonstrations and acrobatic shows. The Laoshe Tea House and the Tianqiao (Overbridge) Area are great places to explore traditional Chinese performances.
A note of caution: it is advisable to research and plan your night out rather than leave matters to spontaneous choice as one might do in other cities. Be very cautious of allowing taxi drivers or helpful locals guiding you to an off-the-beaten track bar or club - these arrangements are often designed to fleece visitors of money.
Grab a copy of Timeout Beijing or That's Beijing for updated event listings and gig guides.
Shopping is a delight in Beijing, and the haggling and bargain-hunting is a cultural experience.
Walking and bargaining in the countless markets in Xiu Shui Jie Shopping Mall or the Xiu Shui Market will no doubt build up an appetite but luckily there are plenty of food stalls where shoppers can refuel. Popular buys include fake designer labels, clothing and bags. Bargaining is an essential skill and an expected part of the transaction but remember to keep smiling.
The main shopping area is around Wangfujing Dajie, where a number of department stores can be found, including the Beijing Department Store. The Xidan area offers wonderful big department stores selling fixed-price goods including electronic equipment. The Hong Qiao Market is a popular indoor market in the south central area of Beijing, where bargaining is expected. Here buyers can haggle for goods such as cheap no-name or fake brand electronics, sunglasses, batteries, watches and jewellery.
Panjiayuan Collectors Market is an outdoor market with a good array of arts and crafts from all over China, including popular Beijing souvenirs like jade bracelets, cloisonné and lacquerware, silk, calligraphy, porcelain and vintage Cultural Revolution books and posters. The Maliandao Tea Street is the best place to find anything associated with tea, including tables, tea sets and a wide variety of teas; it can be found in the southwestern Xuanwu District, near the Beijing West Railway Station.
Liulichang, in south Beijing, is a great place for Chinese antiques. Buyers should be aware that authentic antiques over 100 years old display a red wax seal. An export licence must be issued before these can be taken out of the country.
Travellers are advised to avoid shopping sprees on evenings and weekends when possible, as the crowds can be overwhelming. Shops in Beijing are generally open daily from 9am to 8pm.
The subway is a great way to get around in Beijing, though it can be very crowded at peak hours. The subway shuts down at midnight and starts again at 5am. Travellers can buy a prepaid card (Smart Card) for travel on subways and buses. The fare is the same for the subway, but reduced for buses. Most buses operate from 5am to 11pm, but buses can be slow.
Driving in Beijing is a complicated and sometimes frightening process, with few English signs and non-stop traffic jams. Taxis are plentiful, but be sure to have your destination written in Mandarin as few taxi drivers speak English.
Cycling is a good alternative with numerous bicycle rentals around the city, and well-defined bike lanes, bike parks and the company of millions of other cyclists, especially at rush hour. It may look intimidating, but can be the best way to get around for the more adventurous traveller. Over 40,000 bicycles are available to be rented at outlets close to subway stations, commercial districts, hotels, and office buildings.
Beijing's most interesting attractions previously only related to the spectacular history of China's capital city: these wonderful examples of ancient innovations and well-preserved glimpses into millennia of Chinese history are still here, but the city is no longer only viewed as a large-scale museum. Currently, eye-catching structures and modern architectural wonders are among the city's most visited attractions. These include the National Stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest, and the National Grand Theatre, known as the Eggshell. It is no surprise that some traditionalists believe the modern attractions detract from the city's ancient treasures, but many more enjoy the stark contrast.
Still, the iconic historic Beijing sites remain the most popular. The Great Wall of China and the mysterious Forbidden City at the heart of Beijing compete for the title of the city's most visited attraction. Beihai Park and the Summer Palace are also immensely popular. For truly ancient history, visit the Zhoukoudian Cave, which boasts the largest collection of Homo Erectus fossils in the world. More recent history can be explored at the infamous Tiananmen Square or the Chairman Mao Mausoleum.
Being able to walk through some of the world's most ancient and modern attractions in a single day makes Beijing eternally captivating.
The Great Wall of China is a perennial favourite among tourists. Stretching some 4,000 miles (6,350km) and built in stages from the 7th century BC onwards, it snakes across the mountains and valleys of five provinces in northern China and originally served as a mammoth defensive bulwark against neighbouring Manchurian and Mongolian peoples.
Several sections of the wall, which has become the most prominent symbol of Chinese civilisation, can be viewed in the greater Beijing area. In Yanqing county, in northwest Beijing, is the 600-year-old Badaling Fortification, representative of the Ming dynasty sections of the Great Wall. Other sections can be seen at Jinshanling, Mutianyu and Simatai.
The more popular sections can be very crowded but, generally, if travellers walk a little way they can escape the worst of it. There are some wonderful stretches of the wall to hike, such as the roughly six-mile (10km) section between Jinshanling and Simatai, but visitors should be careful about setting off alone as parts of the wall are unstable and unsafe.
We recommend that tourists take their own water and snacks and pack warm clothes if planning to go during winter, as temperatures at the wall can be freezing. There are countless vendors, but their goods are usually overpriced and of questionable quality. It is illegal to remove stone from the wall and Chinese authorities are clamping down on the practice.
About 25 miles (40km) south of Beijing, in the Fangshan District, is the Zhoukoudian Cave, the source of the largest collection of Homo erectus fossils from any single site in the world. The fossils recovered from the cave represent about 40 individuals, most famous of which is a cranium element commonly known as the 'Peking Man', the world's earliest fire-using primitive man who lived between 200,000 and 700,000 years ago.
The Zhoukoudian site on Dragon Bone Hill has a comprehensive seven-room exhibition of fossils and artefacts depicting human evolution and the lifestyle of primitive humans. It showcases fossils from all over China, allowing visitors to compare the different lifestyles of the ancient communities that were discovered here.
Built by the emperors of the Ming Dynasty of China, the majority of surviving Ming tombs are clustered near Beijing and easily reached on short excursions out of the capital. Thirteen emperors' mausoleums, dating from between 1368 and 1644 and collectively UNESCO-listed, can be seen in the Ming Tombs Scenic Area at the foot of Tianshou Mountain.
Currently only three of the tombs are open to the public (Chanling, Dingling and Zhaoling) but this is more than sufficient as all the tombs are similar in design and the three that can be explored are arguably the most interesting. The Changling Tomb is the largest, oldest and best preserved, looming majestically at the end of the Sacred Way. The Dingling Tomb is the only one which has been properly excavated but tragically many of the artefacts and the remains of the emperor and empresses entombed in the mausoleum were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Even so, the excavated Underground Palace in Dingling is fascinating and some magnificent artefacts can still be viewed.
Many operators in Beijing offer tours to the Ming Tombs, often combined with trips to the Great Wall and other nearby attractions. Visitors travelling independently will need to pay entry to each tomb separately.
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