Beijing is a huge city which can be a little overwhelming on arrival as the throng of people, traffic and the hectic speed of daily life whirls around you. For some it is either the first or last destination on a multi-stop trip around China, and for that reason limited time is spent there both for acclimatization (that in itself takes a couple of days) and to see the vast expanse of what Beijing has to offer.
It’s a city I grew to love as I spent more and more time exploring over the course of 12 days. Outside of the holy trinity of traveller must-do’s (which make up the first three in the list below), Beijing is diverse — full of history, culture, art and magnificent landscape. Here’s my pick of the top 10 sights to see:
The Great Wall
Whether you have to choose your day wisely according to smog levels or deliberately time a visit to Beijing according to the best weather seasons (as I did), you CAN’T miss a walk or hike along the Great Wall of China. Although it’s the closest point to get to, try and steer clear of the ultra-touristy Badaling — instead, hike between the lesser trodden paths of Jinshanglin and Simatai, try an adventurous toboggan slide at Mutianyu, or get to the far reaches of Huánghuā. The fun is in choosing what section you want to visit!
The Forbidden City
I wasn’t overly impressed by the Forbidden City, mainly because much of it is off limits, you are herded through with hundreds of others like cattle, and much of it looks the same. Yet it remains a main historical sight of Beijing, and you would be a fool to miss this former grand imperial palace (and now UNESCO World Heritage Site). The best view for me was climbing the hillside opposite the exit gates and looking out over the complex of ancient structures.
Take what is said to the world’s third largest public square, throw in hundreds of people (mainly locals eagerly snapping away for their family shot in front of the famous Chairman Mao portrait), surround it by Mao’s mausoleum, a monument, a museum and a few other imposing government buildings, and you have Tiananmen Square – a revolutionary space you can get lost in for hours.
Walk Around the Hutongs
Hutongs are the gateway to ancient Beijing – narrow alleys and passageways that team with local life and ancient housing and courtyards. Although many were destroyed in China’s thirst for modernization, some still remain to preserve the city’s history. While slightly modernized and repaved, the fact is they still exist even though many have been destroyed. Set to a grid system, they are fairly easy to navigate, with each hutong bearing its own red name plaque – the main ones can be found in the areas near to Qianmen metro station and near to the Lama Temple.
One of Beijing’s most stunning and photogenic spots, climb up through the beautiful temples and lush green park land to be rewarded with a magnificent view of the city (providing there is no smog!). Clamber down the other side through pretty pavilions and you will arrive at the Kunming Lake, where you can either stroll around or take a dragon boat to the other side. Expect to spend half a day here at least.
Old City Wall
Much of Beijing’s ancient history was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1950′s and 60′s, and to this day is still being bulldozed and rebuilt. The same, sadly, applies to the Old City Wall. Although the majority of it has been completely reconstructed, it does give an interesting insight into the early Ming dynasty days of imperial Beijing before its modern industrial makeover.
There’s a few temples scattered around Beijing, but I found this one to be one of the most impressive – the Temple of Heaven being more of a large park space than a magnificent temple complex. Lama is seen to be the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet, where you will he shrouded in clouds of incense and immersed in magnificent colour and décor. Look out for the huge Maitreya Buddha, supposedly carved from a single sandalwood tree.
A shopping and beauty haven during the day, head to the famous Yashow Market for clothing, electronics and beauty treatments at bargain prices, or splash your cash at the modern high-end shopping malls. At night, the area is buzzing with street food stalls, packed expat bars and street sellers who will try and tempt you to purchase balloons, flowers and other nonsense items while you are more inclined to part with your cash. Sanlitun is a fun break from sightseeing.
The 798 Art District
The 798 Art District is an area entirely dedicated to street art, sculpture, painting and everything in between. To add to the artistic atmosphere of the place, much of the art is housed in a former East German electronics factory. Pose, stare, marvel and be inspired – maps are available for easy navigation of all the galleries.
Although some of the buildings are still in use, there is a slight ghost town feel to the Olympic Park – the famous architecture of the Bird’s Nest (National Stadium) and Water Cube are rusting yet still impressive. The adjacent Olympic Park makes for a beautiful stroll or a boat drive out on the lake. Everything can be reached within three metro stops, but be prepared to barter with the ticket touts who charge silly amounts to enter what have become to be seen as some of Beijing’s best known landmarks.
Local life, history, architecture, shopping, art, temple hopping, seeking out the best city view…the list goes on. What will you choose to do during your time in Beijing?