Considering what sight you must see in Beijing? Here is a pretty good beginning. Beijing is an exciting capital city with some of the most spectacular sights anywhere. I worked in China on and off for many years. I spent a lot of time in Beijing and came to see it almost as a second home.
Eventually, I started seeing Beijing as two cities: one containing the magnificent highlights you must see in Beijing that you will read about here and another, more off-the-beaten-track city which allows you little glimpses of Beijing’s soul. You can read about that other Beijing here. Meanwhile, enjoy the must-see Beijing highlights below.
HIGHLIGHTS YOU MUST SEE IN BEIJING
The Forbidden City. Built during the Ming Dynasty in the early 1400s, the Forbidden City was the home and central administration point of China’s Emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Spanning 180 acres in the center of the city, it is considered the heart of Beijing. This is one of those places where it is well worth getting an audio guide to tell you the interesting stories behind this most magnificent of Beijing highlights. You could also hire one of the English-speaking guides found outside the main gate. Spend several hours at least to do the City justice as the complex has 980 buildings. The Forbidden City also houses the Palace Museum, not one of the most impressive as much of the art was carted away to Taiwan by the Nationalists after the 1949 Revolution when mainland China and Taiwan parted company.
THE GREAT WALL IS A MUST- SEE IN BEIJING
The Great Wall of China. On my bucket list for many years, I finally got to it. This is truly one of the great Beijing highlights. Construction of the Great Wall as a fortification against northern invaders began as early as the 7th century BCE but most of it was completed during the Ming dynasty. There are two points travelers to Beijing usually go to on the Great Wall; Mutianju and Badaling.
Badaling is the most frequented being less than an hour from Beijing. The most impressive sight in Badaling is the massive guard tower you see as you first drive up to the wall. There is a street leading up to the tower lined with little shops selling the usual souvenirs. Mutianju is about an hour and a half away from Beijing. It was repaired to accommodate the tourist overflow from Badaling. In Badaling you not only see the wall but you can take a cable car on the way to the top and slide on a toboggan on the way down. The toboggan ride is kind of exciting zooming down through the forest. Either location is fine. You will be able to admire this feat of engineering way into the horizon from either one.
For those wanting even greater detail, read this post about Walking the Great Wall of China.
TIANANMEN SQUARE: HISTORY, CULTURE AND ART MAKE IT A MUST-SEE IN BEIJING
Tiananmen Square. The center of it all. With the Forbidden City at its north, the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum to its east and west and the tomb of Mao Zedong on its south side, this is the largest public square in the world. You can’t miss the square as you will have to walk through it to get to many other destinations in Beijing. If you’re up to it, you may want to see the daily flag-raising ceremony at dawn on the square. One of my favorite restaurants for Peking Duck in Beijing is nearby Quanjude. Get off on Qianmen Station on Beijing’s #2 subway station. Yes, it’s on all the tourist brochures and locals consider it touristy but it was one of the first restaurants I discovered in Beijing and I still love it. Plus its been around since 1864 and the food is really good.
Summer Palace. This was the traditional summer residence of the Emperors for centuries. It’s not just one palace. It is a large park with several structures, lakes, a reproduction of a Ming dynasty village, restaurants, boat rides and many other attractions. The gardens, the delicately carved Chinese bridges on the lake and the Ming dynasty structures are breathtaking. A great place to spend the day and have lunch.
The Temple of Heaven. On my very first trip to China, I decided to walk to the Temple of Heaven, one of the great Beijing highlights. I always try to walk to wherever I’m going in a new city so I can get to know it better. This was before I had figured out the Beijing subway system. When I finished seeing the Temple I was exhausted and decided to take a taxi back. Taxis in Beijing can be difficult to get and I couldn’t find one so I resigned myself to walk back. I took a wrong turn and ended up in a series of hutongs, labyrinth-like alleys where even a GPS couldn’t help you navigate. Occasionally I’d flag a taxi but for some reason, none wanted to take me. This happened about four times.
By now it’s getting dark, I’m nowhere near the main street, getting deeper and deeper into the bowels of the city, no phone and nobody speaks English. I saw a taxi with its hood up and a guy tinkering inside. I went up to it, opened the passenger door and sat inside. Of course, the owner objected gesturing with his arms for me to get out and yelling at me in Chinese. I sat in the middle of the cab, folded my arms and refused to budge. This went on for a few minutes. When I saw the guy was getting increasingly incensed I waved money at him and pointed to the name of the hotel on my room key. I knew the amount of money I waved at him was more than the trip was worth. He finally got in and drove me to the hotel. This is what comes to mind whenever I think of the Temple of Heaven. But don’t let that story stop you from visiting this impressive collection of beautiful buildings with fascinating history. Just make sure you know how to get back to your hotel as it’s a little far from central Beijing. Another option is to go with a reliable tour company.
To get a feel for the authentic Beijing, consider staying in a refurbished hutong hotel. To see a wide variety of accommodation options, check here. If you want to try Airbnb during your Beijing stay, here is a $40.00 credit towards your first stay. Then, maximize your Beijing visit with a Beijing city tour.
The best book I ever read about Beijing is “Midnight in Beijing.” The book accurately conveys the feel of old Beijing through the fictionalized true story about the murder of an Englishwoman in Beijing. If you get to Beijing you will enjoy seeing the locations described in the book.
Want to get your bearings before you go to Beijing? Check this out.
Did you ever get lost finding your way around a large foreign city? What do you think are the attractions you must see in Beijing?