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Beijing, China

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Did You Know … ?

  • It would cost about $155 billion to restore and reconstruct the Great Wall.
  • The Forbidden City, on 183 acres, is the world’s largest palace complex.
  • Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest square (122 acres).
  • The tiniest hutong — Qianshi — is 15.6 inches across at its narrowest (to trap thieves).
  • Building the Forbidden City, including 32-foot walls, required 32 million bricks.

Heart of an empire

Beijing can claim Kublai Khan as its founder — after a fashion and after forgetting that Grandpa Genghis was responsible in 1215 for a looting rampage and massacre at the previous capital that sat on roughly the same site. Therefore, if Kublai, the first emperor in China’s Mongol (Yuan) dynasty, wanted a capital, he had to build it. Work started in 1267.

Except for a couple of short breaks, Beijing has been China’s capital ever since, which is why it contains so much of touristic interest. Besides, Beijing’s north China location puts it within driving distance of the Great Wall. The wall was the world’s largest building project (but it’s not visible from outer space).

The visitor’s logical starting point is the Forbidden City, the heart of an empire for roughly 500 years. It sits on a north-south axis with its main halls and palaces lined up and centered on that line. Olympic Park, to the north, is on the north-south axis, as well.

Literally a forbidden city when built, the palace complex is surrounded by 32-foot walls and a 170-foot-wide moat. It was originally surrounded by a walled Imperial City, and beyond that, the so-called Inner City. As a result, a number of gates, temples, parks, gardens and lakes are found relatively close to the palace. This area’s attractions include Tiananmen Square and the Bell and Drum towers. Also, old market streets, hutongs, museums — and Communist party headquarters — are within the historic Imperial and Inner cities.

Abutting this is the Outer City, site of the Temple of Heaven and the Muslim Quarter. The Summer Palace is beyond the center on the city’s Kunming Lake. Beijing is rich with other points of interest, but most visitors — with good reason — add journeys to the Ming Tombs, plus the Great Wall.

There is a huge modern city to experience, as well, and that includes the de rigueur tall buildings, some attention-grabbing new construction (including features in Olympic Park) and a full slate of facilities for nightly entertainment, appropriate to a world class city, in both low- and high-brow categories. Beijing also faces urban challenges: overcrowding, pollution and traffic.

Things to do for Venturers

  • See Beijing’s hutongs (narrow byways in old neighborhoods) by bicycle. Besides, if cycling is a special interest, take a few turns on the Laoshan Mountain Bike Course, which was used for competitions at the 2008 Olympics.
  • Come to Beijing by train aboard the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian Railway.
  • Hike along some of the lesser-known sections of the Great Wall, well away from the throngs of tourists.
  • Commission a pair (or more) of cloth shoes at Neiliansheng store, the largest producer of handmade cloth shoes in China.
  • Weather permitting, camp overnight on the Great Wall at Jinshanling. (This option is not always available out of concern for the integrity of the wall.)
  • Make the rounds of clubs and bars on Sanlitun Bar Street in Chaoyang District, or look for the same in the area around Houhai Lake north of the Forbidden City. Karaoke is popular, too, but can be expensive.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Time a visit to coincide with the Spring Festival, meaning Chinese Lunar New Year. Search out the event’s temple fairs, which feature games, performances and booths where artisans demonstrate and sell traditional arts and crafts.
  • Give yourself a walking tour, with or without a guide, for a close-up look at Beijing’s hutongs and siheyuan, traditional courtyard houses, remembering the houses are occupied and the courtyards are private. Or, journey along hutongs in a pedicab.
  • See Beijing opera while in the city that gives this version of Chinese musical theater its name. The Changan Grand Theater presents a form of opera customized for foreigners with subtitles and other devices to facilitate understanding.
  • Rent an audio guide to introduce you to the history and highlights of the Forbidden City as you explore the huge complex.
  • Also, walk north out of the complex and directly into Jingshan Park. The park, at a higher elevation, gives a great view of the Forbidden City.
  • There is no missing other typical attractions. Bring your cameras and tour the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and the Ming Tombs. Also, visit the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, and walk through — and loiter some — in the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Make your must-do trip to the Great Wall. There are several good viewing spots: Jinshanling, Mutianyu and Simatai, but Badaling comes most highly recommended.
  • See pandas in the Beijing Zoo, a good idea if you will not see them anywhere else on your itinerary.
  • Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, and now you can tour some of the most notable structures — including the main stadium, called the Nest — created for the event. Other ultra modern construction is of interest, too, such as the dome-shaped National Grand Theatre.
  • Take a boat ride on Kunming Lake.
  • Shop for antiques and crafts on Liulichang Street, an old market district that preserves the look of a market street from the era of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Have a merchant create a Chinese name for you and then carve a seal for you. Some shops also have folk artists on hand to demonstrate craft traditions.
  • Have a meal at Quanjude restaurant, which specializes in roast duck, in the Qianmen area. It opened for business in 1864.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Beijing Municipal Commission of Tourism Development at or select a different language.