Things to Do in Beijing
The Mutianyu Great Wall was fully restored in the 1980s as an alternative to the increasingly popular Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. The Mutianyu section is farther away from Beijing (about an hour and a half by car) than more popular sections, but it's also significantly less busy and features some fun, modern amusements, such as a cable car, chairlift, and toboggan. The long, flat segment—the longest fully restored section open to travelers—winds along heavily forested hilltops with 23 ancient watchtowers dotting the landscape.
The Forbidden City, or Palace Museum, is the world’s largest palace complex, with more than 800 buildings and some 8,000 rooms set in the heart of Beijing. Deemed off-limits to visitors for some five centuries, today this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the city’s most popular attractions.
Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public plaza, has always been a symbol of Mao’s epic Communist project—and resistance to it. Despite its bleak history, the site of the 1989 massacre is today a bustling place, often teeming with tourists and local kids flying kites.
Built by the Yongle Emperor, the Ming Dynasty builder of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan or Tian Tan) was a stage for important rituals performed by the emperor, or Son of Heaven. Chief among these were supplication to the heavens for a good harvest and the winter solstice ceremony, meant to ensure a favorable new year.
In 1750, the grand Summer Palace was commissioned by Emperor Qianlong as a lavish lakeside retreat from the heat of Beijing. With pavilions, walkways, gardens, and bridges, the UNESCO World Heritage site on Kunming Lake served as the seat of government for Empress Dowager Cixi during the last years of her life.
The Legend of Kung Fu Show, which premiered at Beijing’s Red Theatre in 2004, tells the story of a young monk who dreams of one day becoming a kung fu master. The best kung fu practitioners from all across China tell the story through Chinese martial arts, traditional and modern dance, and Chinese acrobatics.
A series of temple-like structures and burial mounds, the Ming Tombs contain the remains of 13 of the 16 emperors who ruled China during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). Visitors come from all over to see the imperial grandeur of this UNESCO World Heritage site and learn about the cultural importance of ancestor worship.
Located in the Xicheng District in central Beijing, Back Lakes (Houhai) is a neighborhood and one of the three lakes that make up Shichahai, along with Front Lake (Qianhai) and West Lake (Xihai). This popular area is known for its lakes, traditional hutongs (alleys) and courtyards, and a lively mix of trendy boutiques, restaurants, and bars.
The best-known and busiest stretch of China’s iconic Great Wall, Badaling was restored and opened to tourists during the 1950s. The scenery is striking, with views of the wall winding its way over the rugged hills. A cable car leads up to the top, and the site offers everything from souvenir stalls to restaurants.
Located within the grounds of the Forbidden City, the Imperial Garden of the Palace Museum was built in the Ming Dynasty as a private imperial garden. Covering around 129,000 square feet (12,000 square meters), the garden features numerous pavilions, halls, shrines, ponds, rock gardens, ancient trees, and sculptural objects.
More Things to Do in Beijing
Overlooking Tiananmen Square, the Meridian Gate (Wumen) is the southernmost and largest of the Palace Museum gates, and one of the most recognizable landmarks of the Forbidden City. Comprised of five towers and five gateways, the Meridian Gate currently provides the only entrance into the Forbidden City.
Sitting to the west of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Great Hall of the People is where the National People’s Congress is held, along with other administrative, social, and ceremonial events. Built in just 10 months and completed in September 1959, the Great Hall is a grand and modern structure with a flat green and yellow roof. It’s divided into three wings, with the central one raised higher than the outer two.
The East Gate is the only visitors' entrance to the hall. Through this bronze door with the emblem of the PRC above it, an expansive lobby reveals itself and leads into the Central Hall. The Great Auditorium is also in this section, which seats almost 10,000 people with audio equipment for simultaneous interpretations of various languages. Elsewhere, the Banquet Hall is situated in the northern section, and the offices of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress are to the south.
The Dingling Tomb (Mausoleum of Emperor Wanli) was the first of the 13 Ming royal tombs to be officially opened to the public. Located on the southern slopes of Tianshou Mountain in Changping County, Beijing, Dingling is the tomb of Emperor Wanli (Zhu Yijun) and his two empresses, Xiaoduan and Xiaojing. The ancient palace is accessed via a 40-meter underground tunnel.
Zhu Yijun was the thirteenth emperor and occupier of the throne for 48 years, the longest of all the Ming Dynasty emperors. Built over six years between 1584 and 1590, the tomb is gigantic and extravagant, with five halls connected by giant marble archways, and floors paved with gilded bricks. The central hall is home to three imperial thrones, while the rear hall is the most important and where the three coffins of the emperor and his empresses can be found. These are surrounded by red-lacquer chests filled with precious items.
There is also a museum at the Dingling Tomb, where 3000 objects excavated from the site are displayed. These artifacts include royal robes, the emperor's crown and the empresses' tiaras, plus a number of other jewels and ceramic items.
Just across the moat from the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park (Jingshan Gongyuan) is one of Beijing’s most popular open spaces. The 57-acre (23-hectare) park is a great place to watch elderly Beijingers take their morning exercise, with beautiful flowers in spring. The central hill offers sweeping views over the city on a clear day.
A popular day-trip destination, the lush, green Longqingxia (aka Longqing Gorge or Dragon’s Rejoice Ravine) has been attracting visitors since the Song dynasty. Rent a boat, or just marvel at Rooster Crown Mountain—which resembles a rooster lying down, surrounded by water on three sides.
To experience both original and restored portions of the Great Wall of China without straying far from Beijing, many visitors choose the stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai, a trek seemingly made for hikers and adventurers. The 4-hour hike ranks among the wall’s most popular and rewards intrepid travelers with some of the most photogenic views.
In the years since Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, the structures at the Beijing Olympic Park have become just as representative of Beijing as the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. While the Olympic Green houses half a dozen different venues, most visitors come to see the Beijing National Stadium and the Water Cube.
The Beijing National Stadium, more commonly referred to as the Bird’s Nest, was built for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games at a cost of $423 million. Since the Olympics and all its fanfare, the stadium has become a major landmark and tourist attraction, as well as a venue for both international and domestic sporting competitions.
The Lama Temple (Yonghegong), one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples outside Tibet, began as a palace for Emperor Yongzheng before he became the third emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Today, the resplendent temple, with its halls, courtyards, ponds, and bronze mandala, is a lamasery for some two dozen Tibetan monks.
The National Museum of China (NAMOC) is the largest museum in the country, and one of the largest in the world. It features rotating exhibits exploring the history of China, from the Opium Wars and founding of the Communist Party, to the Sino-French and Sino-Japanese Wars. It also covers the Chinese Revolution of 1911, as well as the social unrest of 1989.
A history buff’s dream, the museum’s collection is vast, extending to a million items that range from replicas of a Peking man’s bones, to scientific instruments from the 18th and 19th centuries. It also feature many hundreds of decorative artefacts such as porcelain items, bronzes, pottery, lacquerware, textiles, and various artworks.
Located to the east of Tiananmen Square – a popular highlight on Beijing day tours – the National Museum of China is easily reached from most places in the city.
Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, also known as the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, houses the embalmed body of the revolutionary and dictator who was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. The Soviet-style structure and the sculptures in front of it are one of the dominant features of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
There are two reasons to visit Wangfujing Street (Wangfujing Dajie) in Beijing: shopping and eating. The commercial street is home to nearly 300 Chinese and international brand-name stores selling everything from clothes to tea and herbs, while neighboring Wangfujing Snack Street appeals to intrepid tourists and adventurous local eaters.
The Beijing Drum Tower (Gulou) stands just south of its sibling, the Bell Tower (Zhonglou), in the Beijing district that bears its name. First built in the 13th century, the striking red structure has been rebuilt several times. It originally held 25 drums that kept time for the city, and today it hosts regular drumming performances.
Nanlouguxiang, an alleyway in Beijing lined with traditional hutong courtyard houses, has a history spanning more than 800 years. One of Beijing’s oldest hutongs, Nanluoguxiang was built during the Yuan Dynasty and today houses a collection of bars, restaurants, boutiques and galleries.
Located near the Drum and Bell Tower, Nanluoguxiang makes a convenient shopping stop if you’re looking for a way to spend an afternoon. Many of the shops in the area cater to foreign visitors with postcards, Communist-era propaganda posters, T-shirts and kitschy souvenirs to take back home with you. You’ll also find several boutiques selling high-quality Chinese handicrafts. While the neighborhood gets crowded, it’s quieter than the hutong near the Back Lakes.
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