Beijing has served as the capital of China for most of the last millennium. No other city has had such a long-lasting political and cultural impact on an area as massive as China. Nearly every major building in Beijing has some national historical significance.
As one of the world’s great ancient capitals, the city also boasts the greatest collection of the finest remnants of China’s imperial past, such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China and the Temple of Heaven.
However, as befits the capital of the world’s fastest-growing economy, eye-catching modern architecture includes the China Central Television (CCTV) Building with its unique cantilevered design and the new National Stadium, built for the Beijing 2008 Olympics and popularly called the “Bird’s Nest” because its interlocking outer framework makes it look like a nest.
But traditional Beijing is to be found in the siheyuan (courtyard houses) and hutong (alleys) that are scattered across the city. The thousands of narrow lanes that twist through the older sections are a living museum of how the Chinese lived in the past with each alley telling its own story about the local history and culture.
Food & Drink
Dining out is one of Beijing’s most popular activities and greatest attractions. Top quality cuisine from all around the world can be found in the thousands of restaurants across the city.
However, the most famous local dish that has been adopted around the world is Beijing Roast Duck (or Peking Duck). A perfectly roasted duck will have crispy skin and tender meat and will often be sliced by the chef in front of the diners – an artform in itself.
Less internationally famous, but almost a cultural symbol of Beijing, are hot pots. A winter speciality, the foundation of the dish is a steaming soup cooked in a brass pot with a funnel on top in the centre of the table. The pot is surrounded by platters of thinly sliced meats and vegetables which you cook in the soup using chopsticks.
Beijing’s long history has also brought a wide variety of street food to the “hutong” alleyways of the capital. Recipes dating back thousands of years can be found on the tiny stalls, from Hui, Mongolian and Manchurian ethnic flavours as well as foods that date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Strange delicacies abound, such as silk worm cocoons and barbecued seahorse, but classic dishes include Jianbing, a crispy breakfast food a bit like crepes, Shouzhuabing, a savoury pastry, and every type of steamed dumpling imaginable.
The Great Wall is the highlight of any trip to China. Built to protect the northern borders from attack during various dynasties, the sight of the fortifications snaking through the mountains is an awe-inspiring testament to mankind’s most extensive construction ever undertaken.
The most popular site is two hours away from Beijing. Badaling is easier to climb than other Great Wall sections, but it is also the most crowded. Fewer tour groups travel to Mutianyu, which is another hour away, or Simatai, which is four hours away, but it is very steep and has no cable car.
Within Beijing itself, there are many historical sites famous the world over. The Forbidden City was the imperial palace for 24 Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. For more than five centuries ordinary people were forbidden from even approaching the palace wall, on pain of instant execution. Now the Palace is open to the public, but it is so large you can spend days immersed in the cultural richness of the extensive museum.
Other popular highlights in the capital include the tombs of the Ming emperors to the north of the city and the Temple of Heaven in the centre, the largest building for religious worship in China and an outstanding masterpiece of classic imperial architecture.
And when it is time for you to buy some mementos of your trip, you will need to find your way to Panjiayuan Flea Market – the largest market in China selling every type of antiques, crafts and collectables you could ever want to purchase.
China is the third biggest country in the world, almost as large as the whole of Europe. It contains the highest and lowest places on Earth and has the biggest contrast in temperature between its northern and southern borders of any country on the planet.
One in five people in the world are Chinese, making it the most populous country anywhere. Despite this, large parts of the country are wilderness and largely uninhabited.
So, getting around China is not always easy. However, Beijing is the centre of the national rail network with major lines providing good connections to Shenyang, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Baotou and Taiyuan.
There is also a high-speed train to Xian, to see the Terracotta Warriors and Horses. This extraordinary army of 8,000 life-size warriors, horses and chariots was constructed to accompany the tomb of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shihuang, as an afterlife guard more than 2,000 years ago. It is considered one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world, and one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.
The Yangtze is the world’s third longest river stretching nearly 4,000 miles into China’s heartland. Tourists can book a river trip along the 100-mile stretch known as the Three River Gorges that winds its way through spectacular gorges and includes the stunning Twelve Peaks – the most famous being Goddess Peak.
China is one of the oldest civilisations in the world and boasts more than 3,600 years of written history. Beijing has been the centre of traditional Chinese culture and learning since the Ming dynasty.
The city has a symphony orchestra as well as opera and ballet companies, and traditional Beijing operas still reflect the opulence and dramatic storytelling from centuries ago with vivid costumes, stylised action, singing and acrobatic fighting.
Notable art collections are housed in the China Art Gallery and The National Museum of China is located on the eastern side of Tiananmen Square and is one of the largest museums in the world.
Visual arts, in particular calligraphy and Chinese-style painting have seen a comeback in recent years and there are many shops and galleries displaying these works.
If you are up early, you will also see rows of local people along roadsides and in parks practice the ancient art of tai chi chuan (Chinese boxing) as their morning exercise. However, Kung Fu is one of the earliest sports in the country and a traditional Chinese martial art. The Red Theatre in Dongcheng district is famous for its Legend of Kung Fu show. Performed by young martial arts practitioners, the story follows a young boy trying to fulfil his dream of becoming a Kung Fu master and demonstrates spectacular Kung Fu disciplines with dance and acrobatics.
But if its nightlife you want, head towards Houhai, close to Shichahai Lake and the Beijing hutongs. There are many bars and restaurants overlooking the large artificial lake, as well as widescreens showing sports from around the world.