Things to Do in Northern China
The Mutianyu Great Wall was fully restored in the 1980s as an alternative to the increasingly popular Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. The Mutianyu section is farther away from Beijing (about an hour and a half by car) than more popular sections, but it's also significantly less busy and features some fun, modern amusements, such as a cable car, chairlift, and toboggan. The long, flat segment—the longest fully restored section open to travelers—winds along heavily forested hilltops with 23 ancient watchtowers dotting the landscape.
In 1750, the grand Summer Palace was commissioned by Emperor Qianlong as a lavish lakeside retreat from the heat of Beijing. With pavilions, walkways, gardens, and bridges, the UNESCO World Heritage site on Kunming Lake served as the seat of government for Empress Dowager Cixi during the last years of her life.
The Forbidden City, or Palace Museum, is the world’s largest palace complex, with more than 800 buildings and some 8,000 rooms set in the heart of Beijing. Deemed off-limits to visitors for some five centuries, today this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the city’s most popular attractions.
The Beijing National Stadium, more commonly referred to as the Bird’s Nest, was built for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games at a cost of $423 million. Since the Olympics and all its fanfare, the stadium has become a major landmark and tourist attraction, as well as a venue for both international and domestic sporting competitions.
Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public plaza, has always been a symbol of Mao’s epic Communist project—and resistance to it. Despite its bleak history, the site of the 1989 massacre is today a bustling place, often teeming with tourists and local kids flying kites.
Built by the Yongle Emperor, the Ming Dynasty builder of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan or Tian Tan) was a stage for important rituals performed by the emperor, or Son of Heaven. Chief among these were supplication to the heavens for a good harvest and the winter solstice ceremony, meant to ensure a favorable new year.
St. Joseph's Church (sometimes referred to as the East Cathedral is one of four significant Catholic cathedrals in Beijing. Construction finished in 1655, making it the second oldest in the city after the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It’s predominantly Romanesque in style but with some Chinese architectural features.
Overlooking Tiananmen Square, the Meridian Gate (Wumen) is the southernmost and largest of the Palace Museum gates, and one of the most recognizable landmarks of the Forbidden City. Comprised of five towers and five gateways, the Meridian Gate currently provides the only entrance into the Forbidden City.
The best-known and busiest stretch of China’s iconic Great Wall, Badaling was restored and opened to tourists during the 1950s. The scenery is striking, with views of the wall winding its way over the rugged hills. A cable car leads up to the top, and the site offers everything from souvenir stalls to restaurants.
Sitting to the west of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Great Hall of the People is where the National People’s Congress is held, along with other administrative, social, and ceremonial events. The Stalinist structure was built in just 10 months and completed in September 1959. It’s worth stepping inside to see the 10,000-seat auditorium.
More Things to Do in Northern China
Located within the grounds of the Forbidden City, the Imperial Garden of the Palace Museum was built in the Ming Dynasty as a private imperial garden. Covering around 129,000 square feet (12,000 square meters), the garden features numerous pavilions, halls, shrines, ponds, rock gardens, ancient trees, and sculptural objects.
Located in the Xicheng District in central Beijing, Back Lakes (Houhai) is a neighborhood and one of the three lakes that make up Shichahai, along with Front Lake (Qianhai) and West Lake (Xihai). This popular area is known for its lakes, traditional hutongs (alleys) and courtyards, and a lively mix of trendy boutiques, restaurants, and bars.
These ruins are all that remains of several grand palaces that made up a summer retreat for Chinese emperors from the 15th to mid-19th centuries. Occupying a space the size of Central Park in New York, the Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan) is now a collection of marble chunks, crumbling statues, and broken columns.
The Lama Temple (Yonghegong), one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples outside Tibet, began as a palace for Emperor Yongzheng before he became the third emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Today, the resplendent temple, with its halls, courtyards, ponds, and bronze mandala, is a lamasery for some two dozen Tibetan monks.
In the years since Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, the structures at the Beijing Olympic Park have become just as representative of Beijing as the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. While the Olympic Green houses half a dozen different venues, most visitors come to see the Beijing National Stadium and the Water Cube.
Just across the moat from the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park (Jingshan Gongyuan) is one of Beijing’s most popular open spaces. The 57-acre (23-hectare) park is a great place to watch elderly Beijingers take their morning exercise, with beautiful flowers in spring. The central hill offers sweeping views over the city on a clear day.
A series of temple-like structures and burial mounds, the Ming Tombs contain the remains of 13 of the 16 emperors who ruled China during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). Visitors come from all over to see the imperial grandeur of this UNESCO World Heritage site and learn about the cultural importance of ancestor worship.
Nanlouguxiang, an alleyway in Beijing lined with traditional hutong courtyard houses, has a history spanning more than 800 years. One of Beijing’s oldest hutongs, Nanluoguxiang was built during the Yuan Dynasty and today houses a collection of bars, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, and kitschy souvenir shops.
No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Winding along the mountain ridges north of the capital city, the Great Wall of China stands as one of the world's most iconic wonders, largest historical sites, and greatest feats of engineering which showcases the genius of the Ming Dynasty.
To experience both original and restored portions of the Great Wall of China without straying far from Beijing, many visitors choose the stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai, a trek seemingly made for hikers and adventurers. The 4-hour hike ranks among the wall’s most popular and rewards intrepid travelers with some of the most photogenic views.
Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, also known as the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, houses the embalmed body of the revolutionary and dictator who was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. The Soviet-style structure and the sculptures in front of it are one of the dominant features of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Located in the Xicheng District of Beijing, Yandaixie Street is one of the oldest streets in Beijing, and dates back to the Yuan dynasty. Stretching for about 761 feet (232 meters, Yandaixie Street today is a vibrant mix of old and new, full of shops, cafés, restaurants, and bars, in reconstructed Ming and Qing dynasty era buildings.
The Beijing Drum Tower (Gulou) stands just south of its sibling, the Bell Tower (Zhonglou), in the Beijing district that bears its name. First built in the 13th century, the striking red structure has been rebuilt several times. It originally held 25 drums that kept time for the city, and today it hosts regular drumming performances.
Once an imperial residence, the palace of the Forbidden City had an inner and an outer court. While the outer court was for official business, the inner court held the royal family’s personal living quarters and gardens. Visitors can now enter these once-private areas, to see how emperors lived until the 1720s.
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