As China’s capital for more than 800 years, Beijing is the second most populous city in the country after Shanghai.
Visiting Beijing means discovering the political and cultural center of China. To discover all the sights of Beijing, I recommend you spend at least 3 or 4 days there on your first China tour.
In this article, I will detail the must-do things in Beijing including The Great Wall of China, the forbidden city, Tienanmen square and more.
Landing in Beijing
In the below video, here’s what you can expect to see when you land in Beijing, China.
So what is Beijing famous for? – Let’s discover the top things to do in China’s capital together.
1) Wang Fu Jing Snack Street (Xiao Chi Jie)
The real interest of this district lies behind a beautiful colorful door in a traditional style. Many tourists flock to the evening market.
Small stalls offer grills. Here, you can eat anything that seems strange and unexpected to you. Scorpions, starfish, seahorses, insects and other bizarre things are planted, ready to make the most daring visitors salivate.
2) Yonghe Temple
This temple was built in the 17th century as an imperial residence. It was transformed into a Lama Temple in 1744, and is considered now one of the most famous Tibetan temples outside Tibet.
The temple includes 5 large rooms housing a treasure of Buddhist art, including carved images of gods, demons, and buddhas, as well as Tibetan-style murals.
This temple is still active, where you can see monks devoting themselves to their daily activities, as well as Chinese people burning incense and praying.
3) The forbidden city
I visited the Tien’anmen square and the forbidden city with a French traveller whom I met online. To visit the forbidden city, you can book online or at the gate (no tickets are sold after 12:30pm).
Only 8000 visitors are allowed per day. The place is always crowded in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Duanmen), on which we see the giant portrait of Mao Zedong.
We crossed Duanmen to arrive in front of the Meridian gate (Wumen) that represents the main entrance of the Forbidden city. The admission fee is 60 yuans (to visit all the rooms).
If you want an audio guide, an additional 40 yuans fee is applied. The Forbidden City actually represents the imperial palace built in the 15th century within the Imperial City of Beijing.
It is one of the oldest and best-preserved palaces in mainland China, spanning a phenomenal area of 72 hectares.
It was only opened to the general public in 1924, hence its name which means that no one other than the emperor and his court didn’t have the right to approach it or even stare at it for 500 years.
There are two parts of the Forbidden city:
The outer courtyard represents the southern part, which was used by the Emperor to welcome delegations and lead official ceremonies.
The inner courtyard corresponds to the northern part, which somehow represented the sovereign’s apartments and his offices.
We started with the outside courtyard after crossing the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Taihe-men).
In this courtyard, you can see the Three Great Palaces of the City accessible by marble staircases: The Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian) containing the thrones, the Hall of Perfect Harmony (Zhonghe Dian) and the Hall of preserving Harmony (Baohe Dian).
We liked the architecture of the buildings, and the classic pagoda roof on top of them. The dominant colours are red and yellow, much appreciated by the Chinese people for their noble and warm effect.
We’ve also seen representations of dragons, lions, turtles and other animals. Behind the hall of Preserved Harmony, we found the Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing men) framed by two bronze lions. We then entered the inner courtyard.
In this courtyard you can see 3 new palaces with similar architecture: the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianging Gong), the Palace of Reciprocal Prosperity (Jiaotai Dian) and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kunning Gong).
One thing I have noticed: it is an artificial hill offering a breath-taking view beyond the ramparts. We are already reaching the northern end of the Forbidden City, bounded by the Military Engineering Gate (Shenwu Men).
But the visit does not stop there, since the lateral axes still contain a plethora of private rooms and apartments, now transformed into museums. There are various exhibitions dedicated to jewellery, accessories of the time or furniture, which help to make the place authentic.
In the end, the walk lasted more than 2 hours, knowing that we were probably far from having seen everything. Some guides estimate that the full visit requires half a day, but on our side, we were satisfied.
We ended the visit at the Gate of Devine Prowess, and decided to walk up to Jingshan Park.
4) Jingshan Park
Getting out of Gate of Devine Prowess, I headed towards Jingshan Park. For your information, the hill was built with the moat of the forbidden city.
To access it, it will cost you 10 yuans. It is a really great park, where I discovered a peaceful atmosphere. You can see locals doing their workout, jogging, or dance with ribbons.
Then I climbed to the top of the hill (via endless stairs), but the panoramic view of Beijing and the forbidden city was worth it.
5) Tien’Anmen Square
Sadly famous for the demonstrations of spring 1989 which resulted in the massacre of thousands of civilians, Tiananmen Square is the 3rd largest square in the world and covers more than 40 hectares.
To access this ultra-protected place, you have to go through underground tunnels and pass the various security gates to check the content of your bags.
The square is framed in the West by the Parliament and in the East by the National Museum of China, and shelters in particular the famous Mausoleum of Mao Zedong as well as the Monument to the Heroes of the People.
Also I noticed the presence of the communist symbol, enthroned north of the square and which was not there during my previous visit. Chinese people queue to take a picture nearby, a way to show their attachment to the motherland.
At sunset, we had the chance to witness the lowering of the flag in this highly symbolic place, a ceremony which attracts many Chinese and foreign spectators every day.
6) Temple of Heaven
It is actually a large complex of 267 hectares located in the heart of the city, measuring 1.5 km from north to south and between 1.0 to 1.6 km from east to west.
It is bounded by two walls to the north and only one to the south. Initially called The monument of heaven and earth, it was built between 1406 and 1420 during the reign of the emperor Yongle, under the Ming’s Dynasty, who also built the forbidden city.
It was very convenient for me to get there as it was at a walking distance from my Hotel.
The entry fee to this park is 35 Yuans, including the entries to the three areas (Hall of Prayer for good Harvests, The imperial Vault of heaven, and the circular Mound Altar).
This park has a lot of trees, with coloured tags. The ones with blue tags are up to 300 years old, and the ones with red tags are at least 300 years old.
I entered the Park from the gate located outside Tiantandongmen station, on Tiantan E Road. The first stop was by the seven stars stones, before heading to the hall of prayers for good harvest. You can queue to see the interior of it (very beautiful decoration).
To get to the other monuments of the park, walk south (from the hall of prayers for good harvest), until you reach the imperial vault of Heaven, and further south the Circular mound of altar.
You need roughly 2 to 3 hours to visit this park, allowing you to take pictures, see the inside of the monuments…etc). I personally visited the park in the morning, where I saw activities performed by locals: Playing traditional music, Hoops throw and yoga.
7) The Great Wall of China tour
When I arrived at my hotel in Beijing, I asked the reception what tours are available to the great wall of China. I booked a tour that was priced 850 yuans.
The tour included a visit to the Great wall of China, a stop by a Jade museum, a tea shop for traditional Chinese tea, and a visit of Ming Tombs.
The tour started very early. I was picked up from my hotel by the bus driver at 6AM on a Sunday.
I was very excited to visit one of the 7 world wonders. Inside the bus, I’ve got to know of another traveller from Portugal named Simon. We decided to discover the wall together.
After the driver had picked up the other travellers, we headed north towards Mutian Valley. after a couple of hours drive north, we stopped at the toll gate. We visited the Jade Museum at Caspar King commercial centre.
Jade is considered priceless in China. The stone is used for creating art works or jewellery. In China, a jewel containing jade is synonymous with honour, happiness, energy and helps chase away evil spirits.
We have noticed that the jewels are very pricey, for historical and cultural reasons.
Then we headed to the Great Wall parking lot where the driver dropped us. We had 2 hours to visit one part of the great wall. We took a cable car from the cable station to the platform, and then had access to the great wall. The Platform gave us access to the tour 14.
Historically, The great wall of china refers to a series of walls built as early as the 7th century BC by ancient China. The wall had defensive characteristics. It was built to serve as a protection against the invasion by nomadic groups.
Later, it was used for border controls purposes i.e to impose duties on imported goods, and to control immigration.
We had two options, going right, towards Tower 10, or going left towards tower 20 (locals told us it is the best part of the wall). So, we headed left, and after passing through towers, we reached the tower 18 known as the Steep ladder steps.
You need to be careful when your climb it, as it is very easy to fall. It is worth getting to the top, as the view from there is just awesome.
Walking on the great wall of China is harder than it looks, due to the high altitude, oxygen is less present. Going up and down the stairs, and getting to tower 18 (Steep ladder stairs), we found ourselves a bit out of breath.
When we were done with the Great Wall (took the cable car down back to the main entrance), we joined the rest of the tour group, and sat for Lunch at the Xiǎo yuan restaurant. It was an opportunity for us to take a breath before resuming. We continued our tour and headed west to Ming Tombs (about one hour drive).
8) Ming Tombs
Of the sixteen emperors who ruled during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), thirteen are buried in the Ming Tombs complex outside of Beijing.
Today, three of the tombs are open to the public: the Changling tomb, the Dingling tomb and the Zhaoling tomb. The Dingling and Changling tombs receive the most visitors.
Inside The Ming Tomb Museum, located just outside of Dingling Tomb, you can find a large collection of precious funerary objects that were discovered inside the Dingling Tomb, including two imperial crowns.
Dingling is considered the most interesting of the three accessible tombs.
Before arriving at the tombs, you will first pass by the Way of the Spirits (or Sacred Way). It is a long way, flanked by statues of former government officials and animals, which leads to the imperial tombs.
The Way of the Spirits, also known as the “way to heaven”, symbolises the route by which the emperor would return to heaven after his death.
The giant statues found there are very well preserved. The route begins at a large memorial arch called the Great Red Gate, one of the largest stone arches in China, built in 1540.
I highly recommend that you stop for a quiet stroll along the path of Spirits before heading to the imperial tombs.
We stayed there for about 30 minutes, and at the end, we headed to a tea shop, to experience traditional Chinese tea.
9) Nanluoguxiang Hutong
In Today’s Beijing, the remaining Hutongs are mainly located north of the Forbidden City. One of them is Nanluoguxiang Hutong.
It is one of the oldest streets in Beijing and is a true witness to everyday life in Beijing over the past 800 years.
Nanluoguxiang is now becoming a trendy area for expats and locals looking for a break after a day’s work.
Today, this Hutong area retains traditional Chinese architecture, but there are bars and shops in the heart of an ancient Siheyuan.
10) Wang Fu Jing Pedestrian Street
Considered to be a haven for buyers, Wangfujing is also a bustling shopping street. Here you will find all the major luxury brands for lingerie, watches, jewellery, clothing, accessories and more.
As venues buzz into the night, shopping malls and restaurants stay open, waiting for people to shop and pack their bags.
Wangfujing Street has no shortage of activities. It even turnes into a “hive” with a crowd walking around and most importantly taking pictures.
For Photographers, I recommend taking pictures of : a bronze statue of a man pulling a cart, a bronze statue of a hairdresser at work or a couple of musicians as well as bull statues.
When you book a trip to China, Beijing must definitely be included in your itinerary.
Contrary to what people may think, the city is beautiful and pleasant. Air pollution is a serious and real problem, but it certainly won’t affect your stay.
Thanks for reading this article, and I really hope it has convinced you to add Beijing to your bucket list.