Visiting Beijing - What to See and Do
(Beijing Capital International Airport PEK, China)
Immersed in China's incredibly ancient history and heritage, in spite of its world position as a thriving Asian city hub, Beijing
in the 21st century is now seeing many millions of arrivals seeking to unlock the secrets of this mysterious land. This massive metropolis is the gateway to perhaps the most complicated, varied and venerable culture anywhere in the world.
Rich in landmarks, heritage sites and cultural institutions, Beijing's teeming streets are a challenge to most visitors, but behind the city's ultra-modern and fast-developing facade is a treasure-house of tradition, just waiting to be discovered. China's 2008 Olympic Games gave a major boost to tourism in Beijing, and in spite of the obvious language difficulties, visitors from all over the world are now found exploring the city's hutongs (connecting alleyways), museums and ancient palaces.
The transport system in Beijing includes a multi-line subway with its stations clearly marked in English, although passengers are generally packed like sardines during rush hours. The comprehensive bus lines are cheap and convenient, but confusing to visitors, since everything is in Mandarin Chinese. Renting a car with a driver is an inexpensive alternative, as are the ubiquitous taxis, with most of the major attractions being found within the city's central districts.
Ten things you must do in Beijing
- Tiananmen Square is a must-see attraction and a trip here should include the obligatory visit to the Chairman Mau Memorial Hall, where the leader's mummified body still lies in state. The Great Hall of the People, the Chinese History Museum, the National Museum and the entrance to the Forbidden City are all here in Tiananmen, the world's largest public square.
- The Forbidden City was the palace of the Emperors of China and the Imperial Court, serving as the home of the nobility with their regiments of eunuchs, servants and administrating mandarins during the Ming and Ching Dynasties. The grandeur, the immense power and the riches of the Chinese elite is displayed in temples, audience halls and the residence of the Imperial rulers.
- Beijing's temples are a glorious surprise in this supposedly strictly secular country. They include the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple - with its giant carved sandalwood image of the Maitreya, and the 15th-century Zhihua Temple - the oldest traditional wooden building in the city. The 14th-century Confucious Temple honours China's greatest thinker and boasts displays of Confucianism, as well as information about the life of its founder.
- The National Museum of China lies in the central Dongchen district on Tiananmen Square, with its magnificent displays of priceless Chinese art and artefacts from all periods of the country's more than 5,000-year history. Here you will find classic paintings and embroidered costumes worn by emperors, superb porcelains, exquisite Imperial jade carvings and scholars' table objects, examples of the Terracotta Army, bronze images and vessels dating from 2000BC to the Ching Dynasty, and many more attractions besides.
- The Summer Palace, shockingly sacked during the mid-19th century Opium Wars by rioting British and European soldiers, was once the summer residence of the Emperor, set in a fabulous garden spread out over Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. It is a masterly example of Chinese traditional garden design and is beautifully maintained.
- Beijing's thousands of traditional hutongs haven't yet succumbed to the demolition and building mania seen in much of the city, and are mostly found around the Forbidden City. Dating from as early as the 13th-century Yuan Dynasty, they are a unique cultural gem not to be missed. Narrow, winding streets with lacquered moon gates leading to traditional wooden dwellings are perfect for wandering and people-watching, as the traditional life of the city still goes on in these unique enclaves.
- An evening at the Peking Opera is an unforgettable cultural experience and totally unlike Western operas, as the art form combines dialogue, music, songs, pantomime, martial arts and acrobatics all into one colourful, fascinating theatrical treat. Its unique charm is beloved by the Chinese people and represents the soul of Chinese culture.
- If you are visiting Beijing and into antiques, pseudo or even genuine, a visit to the Panjiayuan Antiques Market is a must. Thousands of stalls display everything from clever and not-so-clever fakes to the genuine article, along with coins, army surplus gear, cultural revolution memorabilia, Buddhist artefacts and souvenirs. Bargaining is compulsory and the entire experience is mind-blowing.
- Shopping trips in the city of Beijing have to include the Silk Market, with its huge complex spread over ten levels. Notorious for famous-name knock-offs and still selling them in spite of management instructions, the stalls offer incredibly cheap prices, with heavy bargaining making them even cheaper. The Chinese are masters of the art of haggling, so you will need to work hard!.
- Beijing is culinary heaven, being famous for the snack counters found across the entire city. The most famous recipe in the region is Beijing Duck, first eaten in the 13th century and now one of the country's national dishes. Restaurants serving this delicious entrée are found in every district, at all levels and prices.